A court has ordered that a girl should be sent to a mainstream school rather than a Gaelic medium one, after ruling that her welfare trumped her right to learn in her mother's native language.

The five year-old's mother, originally from North Uist, had sought an order that she should have her primary education at Edinburgh's Gaelic school. However this was disputed by her father, who argued she should attend an English medium school in the city closer to his home.

The parents separated in 2016 and have shared the care of their daughter since. After Sheriff Peter Braid ruled against the mother at the end of a lengthy legal case, language campaigners have called for greater understanding of the benefits of Gaelic education.

The girl, who stayed with both her mother and her father for a week at a time, had been attending nursery at Bun-sgoil Taobh na Pairce while with her mother, with the agreement of her father. But he did not wish her to continue there, or to attend the school for her primary education.

Ruling that the child's best interests would be served by attending the English medium primary, Sheriff Braid said that while he recognised the benefits of bilingualism in general, as the English medium school is closer to her father’s home, it would involve less commuting and her welfare would be best served by attending there.

He stressed that the girl, who is bilingual, is “already, for her age, a fluent Gaelic speaker” and there was “no way of telling” if the child would achieve greater academic attainment through Gaelic education. He accepted that her father's ability to help with her homework and other learning would be restricted if she attended the Gaelic school and that this might even undermine the shared care relationship.

The girl, described in the ruling as "a confident, mature, outgoing, sociable and by all accounts intelligent and delightful five year old" was not seen as mature enough to express a view. She had told nursery staff she did not know which school she would go to, adding: "mummy and daddy need to decide".

But campaigners said not enough weight had been given by the court to evidence of the importance of learning in the medium of Gaelic.

The Gaelic Language Act 2005 gave the language official recognition for the first time, while academic studies have shown that children being taught through the language out-perform their English counterparts.

The mother, who now faces legal costs of up to £60,000, said the case demonstrated there is still “a lack of understanding” on Gaelic education and greater protection is required to protect parental rights. “I think it’s pretty appalling that in this day and age Gaelic parents don’t have the right to educate their child in Gaelic when Gaelic is recognised as the indigenous language of Scotland,” she said.

“We quoted the Gaelic Language Act in our submission but the sheriff deemed that my child did not need to go to Gaelic education and he thought I would be able to teach her to write and read in Gaelic at home and that I could be tasked with her Gaelic education. I don’t think they would ask someone who wasn’t a qualified teacher to teach her to write and read in English.”

Sheriff Baird acknowledged this view, but did not accept it. In his ruling he said the mother, a former English/Gaelic translator who has narrated BBC documentaries in Gaelic and worked extensively for Gaelic language organisations, might be underestimating her own ability. "If any parent who is not a teacher would be able to teach her child to read and write Gaelic, then it is the pursuer," he said.

The child’s father insisted that had the Gaelic school been closer to his home in the city, and he had been able to accommodate its logistics easier, he would have been quite happy for her to attend.

Following the ruling by Sheriff Braid, the mother appealed the case to the Sheriff

Appeal Court, which, in July 2019, upheld his decision. 

However Professor Rob Dunbar of Edinburgh University, chair of Celtic Studies and an expert in international law, claimed the sheriff’s ruling was nevertheless “cause for a little concern”.

He said that while the decision was rightly based on the Scottish Children’s Act, as opposed to the Gaelic Language Act, there was “not enough emphasis placed on the positive benefits of Gaelic education”.

“I don’t think the sheriff fully understood the difficulty that Gaelic speaking parents have in ensuring their children have a really high level of Gaelic education, which is particularly true in an area like Edinburgh,” he said.

“The sheriff also placed a lot of emphasis on the child attending a school closer to home as being in the best interests. That’s also problematic because for a large majority of parents the Gaelic school will not be the closest to home.”

Professor Dunbar called for “training and awareness for people involved in the justice system, just as there is for other minorities”.

Ian Maxwell, from Shared Parenting Scotland, said: "We often hear from foreign parents who want their child to understand their own heritage alongside a Scottish upbringing. We know decisions can be very hard after parents have separated, as this case shows.

"If parents cannot agree on an important issue such as choice of school then a sheriff has to decide for them, and the current law is only concerned with what is best for the child overall.

"The Children (Scotland) Bill which is currently going through parliament may add emphasis to the views of children of all ages, but the law will still focus on best interests over all other considerations.

"Hopefully this child can continue to understand the heritage of both parents while also benefitting from the full involvement of the father and the mother."