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In a special article for the Lochaber Times, Highlands and Islands MSP Donald Cameron, heir to the chieftainship of Clan Cameron at Achnacarry, writes about the crisis facing the Gaelic language.
Earlier this year, the University of the Highlands and Islands published its long-awaited report on Gaelic: The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community.
Its findings are sobering. They show that the language is facing a crisis, and that the social use and transmission of Gaelic is at the point of collapse in Gaelic’s traditional heartlands. There are only 11,000 habitual speakers of Gaelic left.
Even more chilling than this statistic is the finding that there is ‘general indifference among the young regarding the place of Gaelic in their lives’.
There is a fear that we may be reaching a point of no return when it comes to the survival of Gaelic as a living, breathing, community language.
All this was foretold. In the introduction to An Tuil, the magisterial collection of 20th century Gaelic poetry, editor Ronald Black wrote: ‘For Gaelic in general, the final quarter of the 20th century was one of revival, but that revival took place in education, the mass media, and various forms of prose – not in its use as a community language…’
An Tuil was published in 1999, the same year that the Scottish Parliament was re-established and, no doubt, hopes were high that under devolution the revival of the language as a living, spoken language would gather pace.
But regrettably, that has not taken place in the Gaelic heartlands and is not sufficiently rooted among our young people.
And so the challenge remains and is even more daunting than it was 20 years ago.
At this point, let’s recognise that there is general agreement across civic Scotland that we must secure the future for Gaelic.
Many public sector organisations have implemented Gaelic language plans and Gaelic has a visible presence across the country from police cars and ambulances carrying the word ‘poileas’ and ‘ambaileans’ respectively. Bilingual road-signs are ubiquitous, and rightly so.
And politically, there has always been widespread, consensual support – which continues to this day: a rarity in the polarised world of current Scottish political debate. Kate Forbes and I may cross swords regularly on all manner of issues – but we are completely united when it comes to fighting for the survival of Gaelic.
In principle, funding and support for Gaelic is a given.
Also, let’s not forget, there have been some notable successes at a local level. The Gaelic-medium primary school in Caol, which opened in 2015, is an example of an initiative that is making a difference.
Just last year, the school won a top prize at the Scottish Education Awards in Glasgow; a prize which recognises schools that have developed a vibrant and progressive culture in relation to Gaelic medium and learner education.
And that school is not an exception, there are other educational initiatives to be found across Lochaber, and the wider Gàidhealtachd – and indeed beyond it – led by people with a passion for the language.
So, I don’t believe that the language is necessarily at risk through a lack of educational opportunities, although we could certainly do with more teachers who are fluent in the language.
For me, the fundamental problem concerns population trends given worrying forecasts for the Gaelic heartlands with, for instance, projections of significant falls in the population of the Western Isles and Argyll.
Depopulation is, of course, driven by lots of factors, notably lack of housing but also lack of economic regeneration and job opportunities. These are all conditions which any community needs in order to prosper.
Gaelic survival goes hand in hand with everyday survival. That’s why we need a fresh drive at putting in place the necessary infrastructure – whether superfast broadband, transport links, mentoring young people, affordable housing, or adequate business support.
We have to persuade more people to live, work and commit to the Gàidhealtachd, and raise their families here if we are to permanently reinvigorate the language.
If there aren’t better opportunities, and a serious attempt to address the population imbalance, the future of our Gaelic-speaking communities will remain imperilled.
The other issue which the UHI report identifies is to increase the use of the language amongst those who already speak it. Many are fluent and capable of speaking Gaelic, but a smaller proportion of those end up using it day to day. That has to change.
There are many challenges here which need to be tackled head on and if we don’t, then we may well end up presiding over the further decline and eventual extinction of one of our most precious inheritances.
There is not much time left.
Donald Cameron MSP