Donald Cameron, Conservative MSP, Highlands and Islands region, and 2021 Policy Co-ordinator 

THIS week in the Scottish Parliament, we debated the new National Gaelic Language Plan. In a chamber which often reverberates with dissent and division, this was a refreshing, consensual discussion.

Indeed, all the major political parties have a positive tale to tell when it comes to the promotion of Gaelic. My own party, the Scottish Conservatives, can point to support for Gaelic education and broadcasting in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Labour-Liberal coalition enacted the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act in 2005. In more recent years, the SNP should be credited for developing Gaelic-medium schools in the Highlands and Islands, and the central belt.

As I said in the debate, I never had the benefit of Gaelic education although I tried to learn it as an adult, attending night classes in London and in Edinburgh, and doing a summer course at Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye. I’ve never progressed to fluency, though will keep trying. But I am deeply envious of those who have had those educational opportunities and I certainly believe these initiatives should be supported.

However, as was pointed out so powerfully on this page on Wednesday by Christopher Lewin, we should be wary of becoming complacent. Fine, warm words can often disguise more worrying trends. For it’s true: Gaelic is fighting for its life. It’s in the precarious position of being classified as an endangered language, with an estimated 58,000 speakers according to the last census. Figures published recently show that in secondary schools, pupil numbers taking Highers in Gaelic are in decline. Radical and urgent action is indeed required to stem the tide, notwithstanding the progress driven by excellent organisations like the Bòrd na Gàidhlig, An Comunn Gàidhealach; and the Fèisean nan Gaidheal, among others.

And it’s that context of endangerment, which makes me lament the fact that in recent years Gaelic has become so highly politicised. Blame for this is shared across the political spectrum, and I certainly don’t exempt my own party from that charge. But far too often, debates about Gaelic descend into proxy battles over completely unrelated issues. The constitution is a particular culprit, especially on social media. Gaelic is frequently appropriated as a quasi-nationalist cause on the one hand or attacked by Unionist ultras on the other.

Alternatively, the language becomes a scapegoat for local or national politicians seeking a quick pot-shot at what they characterise as unnecessary expenditure. Of course public spending of any sort should be scrutinised, and in fact, by having to argue its case and fight its corner, the cause of Gaelic has probably emerged stronger. Nevertheless, spending on Gaelic remains an easy target for the naysayers.

My friend Kate Forbes, an SNP MSP, agreed with me in the Holyrood debate that Gaelic had become too politicised and quite fairly asked how do we combat that? Well, all of us bear responsibility for toning down the rhetoric, and that applies equally to private citizens as it does to those in the public sphere. It’s a language, not a political football, and one with enough of a struggle on its hands without being the subject of internal, internecine battles within the Scottish body politic.

That may be a forlorn hope given the lingering, tribal bitterness that continues to beset our politics. But when the very survival of Gaelic is at stake, then those of us who love it, and the lucky ones of us who live deep within its culture, quite simply must join forces, quietly and calmly, to ensure that it endures.