THE long-term future of the Gaelic language in the Outer Hebrides is under threat, according to a leading academic.

The warning came after new figures showed a decline in pupils studying Gaelic in parts of the Western Isles.

Once regarded as the traditional stronghold of the language, numbers sitting Gaelic exams in the third and fourth year of secondary school have fallen from 78 to just 24 in the past decade.

Loading article content

The decline mirrors a drop across Scotland with a nine per cent fall in entries for all Gaelic exams in 2017 including National 5 and Higher.

Professor Rob Dunbar, chair of Celtic languages at Edinburgh University, said he was concerned for the future of the language.

He said: “The number of children from Gaelic speaking homes seem to be declining and we are now at a point where just a bare majority of the population are Gaelic speaking.

“Based on the numbers of young people learning the language it won’t be too long until Gaelic speakers are in a minority in the Western Isles.

“It raises questions about whether parents are passing on the language and, in these circumstances, the long-term viability of the language on the islands is in serious trouble.”

Mr Dunbar called on Western Isles Council, which is responsible for four secondary schools on the islands, to do more to promote Gaelic.

He said: “It raises big questions about education policy in the Western Isles and the development of Gaelic medium education needs to be looked at.”

A council spokesman said they recognised the numbers studying Gaelic had declined in recent years and partly blamed the “outdated” content of courses run by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

He also said schools were now offering a wider selection of subjects, which meant Gaelic was getting squeezed.

“Our teachers work very hard, and the authority is very pro-active in promoting Gaelic, but some of the elements in SQA courses are very dated and do not appeal to young people or relate to their lives,” he said.

“We run a personalisation and choice exercise each year where young people choose from a menu of courses based on needs, training and aspirations.

“This provides young people with a much wider range of courses that was previously available to them and as a consequence numbers for Higher has dropped considerably in almost all subjects in comparison with the number opting for Higher in previous years.

“We would contend that young people are studying courses that are of more relevance to their career than was the case in 2007.”

However, the spokesman said there had been an increase in the number of primary children in Gaelic medium education in the islands as well as more subjects being offered at secondary through the language.

He added: “We recognise that there is much to be done, but there is also a lot to be positive about in terms of Gaelic development in the islands.”

A spokesman for the SQA said: “Our sets of qualifications for both Gaelic learners and Gaelic fluent speakers were recently updated to ensure that they reflect the modern needs of candidates.

“Both qualifications are skills-based and enable personalisation and choice. Choice of texts is open for candidates and centres.”