A GAELIC tsar would ensure Scotland’s mother tongue flourishes in the classroom in the wake of a controversial failed bid to create a new Gaelic primary school, an academic has claimed.

Professor Rob Dunbar, chair of Celtic languages at Edinburgh University, said the current mechanism to force councils and other bodies to promote the language was too weak.

It comes after a bid by parents for Gaelic primary school education was rejected by East Renfrewshire Council despite new laws designed to encourage the spread of the language.

Under the 2016 Education (Scotland) Act an obligation has been placed on councils to investigate the case for a Gaelic school or unit whenever parents ask for one, as long as there is sufficient support. All public bodies also have to produce a Gaelic language plan.

Currently national quango Bòrd na Gàidhlig is responsible for developing policy and has the power to require public bodies to report on the implementation of language plans, but there is no formal mechanism to investigate complaints.

Professor Rob Dunbar said: “The whole enforcement mechanism is very poorly developed and what recourse members of the public have is very unclear.

“I have a concern that for many the Gaelic language plans that have been created are not being implemented very vigorously and I suspect in many cases the plans get put on a shelf and the public never find out about them.

“The plans have not had a very dramatic effect in terms of increasing the use of Gaelic because they are not being implemented and they are not being enforced and it is time to look at the creation of an office that can look at what is going on and holding public bodies to account.”

Mr Dunbar said the East Renfrewshire controversy was the “perfect example” of why a new body or individual was required.

He added: “The parents have had to do a lot of legwork and it is not clear what recourse they have.

“I have some sympathy with Bòrd na Gàidhlig because on the one hand they are working with public bodies to prepare a language plan, but they are also expected to follow up and push public bodies that are not implementing so that is a difficult position.

“A commissioner would provide a sense that there was an ombudsman for the public and also a watchdog to ensure Gaelic language plans don’t sit on the shelf for five years gathering dust.”

Earlier this month a group of 49 families from East Renfrewshire contacted the council asking them to explore the possibility of a Gaelic primary unit or school in the area.

However, East Renfrewshire Council sent letters to all those involved warning families children would no longer be able to attend their local catchment area school if a Gaelic facility was set up.

“Instead, your child would attend another establishment in a location yet to be decided,” the letter said.

The council also highlighted the importance of parents learning Gaelic stating: “It is considered that it is crucial prospective parents... who are not already Gaelic speakers are committed to learning Gaelic.”

The council said subsequent responses showed only families of eight children had remained interested – spread across a number of school years – and rejected the request. A subsequent appeal was also dismissed.

However, parents say the tone of the letter was designed to be off-putting and argue the council has not operated within the spirit of the legislation.

Under the 2016 Education (Scotland) Act an obligation has been placed on councils to investigate the case for a Gaelic unit whenever parents ask for one, but there have to be at least two pupils in order for it to be considered and five in the same year group to trigger an automatic consultation.


In the 1990s Comunn na Gàidhlig put together proposals for the 2005 Gaelic Act to enshrine secure status for the language in the law.

This introduced a right to Gaelic medium education, but also suggested a body like Bord Na Gaidhlig with the power to require public bodies to prepare Gaelic language plans. That was based on the model which existed in Wales at the time.

Comunn na Gàidhlig also proposed a separate body which would have the power to oversee the implementation of the statutory framework to make sure public bodies were implementing the policies and investigate any failures. It was considered that this body would also have the power to compel public authorities to implement their obligations.

However, when the 2005 legislation was passed there was no inclusion of a commissioner role with the view that it could be seen as overburdensome while also adding to costs.

In Ireland in 2003 legislation was used to adopt the language plan concept pioneered in Wales, but they also introduced a new role of a commissioner with a public oversight role and certain powers to compel public bodies to implement their policies.

In 2011 this was followed by legislation in Wales to create a language commissioner with enforcement powers.