ONE of Scotland's leading churchmen has accused council officials of letting Gaelic education "wither on the vine".

Rt Rev Dr Angus Morrison, moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, said controversial plans by Edinburgh Council to alter secondary education could have "disastrous consequences" for the language.

He hit out after the council drew up controversial proposals to turn some pupils away from James Gillespie’s School because of overcrowding even if they live in the catchment area.

Those most likely to lose out attend the city’s Gaelic-medium primary school - where pupils learn in Gaelic with English as a second language - because they come from across Edinburgh.

Alternative places would be offered to pupils who wanted to continue studying Gaelic at Tynecastle High School or they could choose a mainstream school in their own local catchment area.

However, Rev Morrison, the Kirk's first Gaelic-speaking moderator for decades, said he was "deeply concerned" about the impact of the proposal on the future of the language.

He said "I have been surprised and saddened to learn of an apparent crisis in Gaelic medium education in Edinburgh. I am deeply concerned about the potentially disastrous consequence of this development for the long term provision of Gaelic education at secondary level in Edinburgh.

"I am particularly concerned about the effect of this decision on the P7 children involved who have always known they would go to this secondary and have, over the last year, made preparatory visits to their new school. I know they are upset to see their future studies under threat."

Rev Morrison said the uncertainty faced by parents would have a detrimental impact on decisions to send pupils to the Gaelic primary in future.

He added: "If parents are not confident about the secondary education this could have an impact on the number of families committed to making their children part of a drive to revitalise this fragile language which is an important part of Scotland’s heritage.

"I fear that if Gaelic is allowed to wither in Scotland’s capital, it becomes very fragile indeed. What message does the council send out to the world if it is proposing to make the language more vulnerable than it already is?"

However, Paul Godzik, the council's education convener, said the decisions regarding overcrowding at James Gillespie's would have no bearing on wider provision of Gaelic in the city.

He said: "We are aware of concerns raised by some parents regarding potential S1 pupil numbers at James Gillespie’s High School and Gaelic provision. These are currently being considered ahead of a meeting of the education committee where the report will be discussed by councillors.

"The council continues to provide a significant commitment to Gaelic education in the city as shown by the opening of the dedicated primary school in 2013 and increased provision at Tynecastle and its cluster primaries.

"Gaelic is embedded very successfully into the life and ethos of many of the schools which use the language for their pupils’ learning."

James Gillespie’s is one of Edinburgh’s top-performing schools and is best known for being the inspiration for Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Families pay a premium for properties in its catchment area as an alternative to sending their children to private school.