COMHAIRLE nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) recently attracted a flurry of media attention by announcing that Gaelic-medium education (GME) will become the default model in the islands’ schools, so that parents preferring English-medium education will have to opt out. GME has been offered in the islands’ schools since 1987, but English has been the default option up to now.

The new policy is welcome but hardly radical. GME is a long-established and successful model, not only in the Western Isles but across Scotland. Parents will still have the option of English-medium education, unlike in northwest Wales where only Welsh-medium education is available.

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There is a consensus in Gaelic circles that more must be done to secure the position of the language in the Western Isles, the only part of Scotland where the language remains widely spoken in the community. There is much less agreement on what steps ought to be taken – indeed there has been relatively little serious, focused discussion.

The National: Professor Wilson McLeod is a member of the Celtic and Scottish Studies school at Edinburgh universityProfessor Wilson McLeod is a member of the Celtic and Scottish Studies school at Edinburgh university

A key difficulty is that the language is now greatly weakened even in the rural Western Isles. The 2011 census showed that only 52% of the islands’ population could speak Gaelic; this will probably fall below 50% in 2021. Research demonstrates that the actual use of the language has declined substantially in recent decades. Any policies that seek to secure Gaelic in the Western Isles must be based on these realities.

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The fundamental problems are economic and social in nature. The Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland have suffered significant population loss for almost two hundred years, as people have migrated to the cities or overseas in search of better life opportunities. The population of the Western Isles fell by 41% between 1911 and 2011 and is projected to fall a further 14% by 2041.

The islands are highly peripheral within Scotland, far away from the main centres of economic activity. The local economy is fragile, with a limited range of jobs, relatively few of them paying well.

Economic development in the islands has been an ongoing challenge. There is clearly little prospect of major investment by multinational corporations. A large-scale injection of public funding targeted specifically at Gaelic areas is theoretically possible, but unlikely in the extreme. Limited measures of this kind have been adopted in the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland, but political support for the language is much greater there than for Gaelic in Scotland.

The National: Gaelic is rarely used on mainland Scotland, outside of roadsignsGaelic is rarely used on mainland Scotland, outside of roadsigns

Another difficulty is that economic development does not necessarily strengthen the position of a declining minority language. In theory, any new jobs in the Western Isles could be restricted to Gaelic speakers, but most residents of working age do not speak Gaelic. Such a policy would probably be hugely unpopular – bearing in mind that local Gaelic speakers usually have many non-Gaelic speaking relatives – and recruitment might prove difficult. Conversely, investment which leads to the development of new English-medium workplaces might tend to accelerate the spread of English in the community.

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A RELATED challenge is the shortage of affordable housing, driven by the combination of a generally low-wage local economy, a growing tourism sector and long-standing underinvestment in social housing.

These problems are found in many parts of Scotland, rural and urban. Here too a policy intervention specifically targeted at Gaelic-speaking areas is theoretically possible but highly unlikely.

Again, there would also be questions concerning the linguistic impact. In theory, new housing units could be restricted to Gaelic speakers, but many Gaelic speakers live with non-speakers, rendering such a policy difficult to implement. More importantly, many people would consider a linguistic restriction invidious and objectionable. In Sleat in Skye, where Gaelic is being regenerated by the Gaelic college Sabhal Mor Ostaig, proposals along these lines have been blocked in the wake of sharp controversy.

Given these obstacles, serious, programmatic thinking is needed to develop viable strategies to secure the language in the Western Isles. This is the most difficult strategic challenge facing Bord na Gaidhlig, the public body that co-ordinates Gaelic development in Scotland.

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But the board is currently trying to cope with a more immediate crisis, as a highly critical report for Audit Scotland found profound failings in the governance and management of the organisation.

Crises can bring opportunities, however, and there is scope for a wide-ranging re-evaluation of Gaelic development strategy in Scotland, including strategy for the core Gaelic communities.

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The board was established under the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, and after 15 years it may be time to re-examine the structure of this act and the key policy mechanisms it created. Careful, inclusive discussion is needed to take this evaluation forward. At the same time, unfortunately, Gaelic development is hindered by ignorance and negativity, not least in some elements of the media. The challenges are complex and saothair dha-riribh (serious work) is required.