SCOTLAND is setting the agenda for sign language provision internationally thanks to new graduates from the country's first degree course on the subject.

More than a dozen new sign language interpreters have become the first to qualify after completing an MA in British Sign Language (BSL) at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.

The 14 graduates will go towards stemming the extreme shortage of BSL interpreters across Scotland, which currently has only 70 interpreters for a community of 6000 people.

A Masters degree in European sign language and a PhD on the subject have attracted both deaf and hearing students from across Europe, America and South Africa.

Graham Turner, chairman of Interpreting and Translation Studies, said: "We are very proud of our MA course, which attracted a full quota of 14 students in 2013, its first year.

"These graduates will now work across Scotland with deaf people who need translation services for everything from the most mundane to the most serious.

"However, we also now have students working towards an MSc in European sign language who are already qualified in their own countries but we are giving them the tools for research and how to improve the status of sign language where they live.

"This is a globally unique course and has attracted students from the EU, South Africa and the US, a cohort that will be taking what they have learned in Scotland back to their home countries and designing new policies and training.

"We are influencing sign language policy around the world."

BSL has been recognised as a minority language since March 2003 and was protected under equalities legislation by the Westminster parliament.

However, it was not until the passing of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill in September last year that BSL and deafblind tactile BSL were given the status of languages in their own right, on a par with Gaelic in Scotland.

In 2003, then First Minister Jack McConnell set the target of doubling the number of sign language interpreters, a target never achieved.

Mr Turner plans for Heriot Watt, which places its sign language courses in the Department of Languages & Intercultural Studies, making it no different from any other modern language, to achieve this aim.

The British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill was viewed as a bold, progressive step by the Scottish Government when it was passed last year and Mr Turner believes it will make a tangible difference to the language.

He said: "Nothing like this is being done in other parts of the UK and organisations in Scotland are taking notice.

"Police Scotland is, in many respects, a model for the kind of approach we need to take.

"In the case of the recent missing woman, Kirsty Aitchison, who was deaf, Police Scotland officer Stephanie Rose was able to make appeals in BSL having been trained in sign language interpreting.

"They have sign language users on the force."

He added: "There is a worry that organisations will look to the cheapest option - that of using technology [such as using an interpreter remotely via Skype].

"But that is not appropriate in a lot of circumstances. If we are to use the example of bereavement counselling, that human touch is vital. It's not the same having someone who's really 300 miles away signing from a box in the corner.

"The difference is in quality. Most of the Deaf community know that having someone who is not well trained and fluent is potentially more damaging than having no one there at all."

Carly Brownlie, Scottish Association of Sign Language Interpreters (SASLI), Development Manager said: "It can't be underestimated how important this degree is to the improvement of sign language provision in Scotland.

"Scotland has a comparable population size to Finland but it has more than 500 sign language interpreters and they count themselves short of interpreters. The deaf community in Finland is pushing for more while we have roughly 70.