A GOOGLE office in South Uist, or hundreds of homes built exclusively for Gaelic speakers, could be the measures needed to revive the language in Scotland, according to a top academic.

Such drastic measures, according to Professor Wilson McLeod of the University of Edinburgh, could encourage more Gaelic speakers to remain in the language’s heartlands and protect it from “ebbing away”, although he does not believe they would be economically or politically viable.

It comes following the announcement by Western Isles Council (Comhairle nan Eilean Siar) of plans to provide only Gaelic medium education (GME) in Primary 1, with parents forced to opt out if they would prefer their children to be taught in English.

The controversial decision caused debate in Holyrood on Thursday when Tory MSP Liz Smith said it was “deeply troubling” and suggested the move would put pupils in the Western Isles at a “distinct disadvantage” compared with other children who are taught in English.

Her remarks sparked fury from Green MSP John Finnie, who said they were “as offensive as they are inaccurate” and ordered Smith to “apologise to my constituents, the Comhairle [council], and everyone who has worked so hard to increase the profile of Gaelic”.

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McLeod, who is a professor of Gaelic at the university’s Celtic and Scottish Studies department, said that in order to revive Gaelic, a whole variety of factors had to be taken into consideration, not just the language that people are taught in at school.

He explained: “There’s linkage between sectors which are not just about language – economy and opportunity, and making it viable for young people to stay in these areas.

“One of the reasons Gaelic is declining in places like the Western Isles is they are moving away. There are no jobs for them, there is a shortage of housing, and so on.

“Therefore, they move somewhere else where Gaelic is not spoken, the language ebbs away. Are we going to build 1,000 social housing units in South Uist, and say the only people who can have them are fluent Gaelic speakers? Will that be a democratically acceptable policy? Is that something that is going to be thought of a good use of resource?

“What about developing the local economy – okay, let’s open a new Google office, there will be 250 jobs there in South Uist working for Google. If that was going to happen, Google would do it, but that’s not how the economy is structured. There are not many obvious solutions.”

The academic suggested there should be a total review of the Bòrd na Gàidhlig, which last year came under fire by the auditor general for Scotland for a lack of openness and transparency, and was ordered to make “significant improvements”.

At Holyrood, MSPs heard that the organisation, which receives around £5 million every year, had ineffective leadership and the two most senior employees were actively working against one another.

SNP MSP Alex Neil said it “seems to be failing in some of the basics of any modern organisation”, adding: “An organisation like this, a second-tier manager, could run this on their tea break. It’s a small organisation and yet it seems to be a total disaster.”

McLeod said: “This business with the auditor report, it’s quite unfortunate in a lot of respects but maybe it provides an opportunity for a real review and look at the best way forward.”

He said the auditor’s findings were not a “bombshell” as “there has been a lot of concern for some time about the board”, and suggested Scotland may benefit from a “language commissioner” similar to that in Ireland and Wales, who is responsible for enforcement of language plans.

He said: “In Wales and Ireland there is an executive officer called the language commissioner, who’s in charge of enforcing things. Do we need something like that here? At the moment we have this system where the board helps organisations develop Gaelic language plans and approve them, then they have to monitor and influence them, and enforce them as well.

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“Is that a comfortable role or should they have a division of responsibilities?”

Critics argue that the money spent on implementing GME could be put to better use by teaching children a different language, such as Mandarin, French or Spanish, which could be used elsewhere.

However, McLeod said that attempts have been made in the past to introduce such bilingual education opportunities, with little success.

He explained: “We have Gaelic medium education because parents fought like hell to get it. They organised, they mobilised, they petitioned, and lobbied councillors and they just wouldn’t let it go.

“They fought for it, they are still fighting for it in places like Edinburgh.

“There have been other programmes – there was one in Italian in Glasgow, one in French in Aberdeen. They have never really gone anywhere, there has never been a drive for it. If I were in charge I would love to see a mix of programmes – we could have a French medium school, a Spanish medium school, and a Mandarin medium school – the more the merrier. I’d be very supportive of that, but there is not a serious organised push for it.”

The debate around Gaelic and the amount of money provided to fund the language – around £22.3m a year in Scotland – has also led to other areas calling for cash to be invested in their local dialectics.

Tory MSP Peter Chapman said that Doric should receive funding equal to Gaelic, and added: “The Doric tongue is the prominent dialect spoken in the northeast of Scotland and is an important feature of many communities. The Doric is heard daily in work and learning environments across the northeast and I believe it should be thought of as just as important as English and Gaelic.

“The Scottish Government has spent a lot on Gaelic, and has seen great success in keeping the language alive and relevant. Will it commit to the same levels of funding for Doric to prevent it from dying and to preserve an important part of the culture and heritage of the northeast?”

The number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland has steadily declined, with an estimated 57,000 people claiming they can speak Gaelic in the 2011 census – around 1.1% of the population. In 1991, more than 65,000 people said they could speak the language, and in 2001 there were more than 58,000 speakers, according to the census.

Along with the decline in the number of speakers, the geographic spread has also changed dramatically. In 1881, 88% of Gaelic speakers were based in the Highlands, with around 12% in the rest of Scotland. According to the 2011 data, around 60% of speakers were in the Western Isles, with the rest spread out elsewhere.

Talking figures: how Gaelic funding compares

The Scottish Government spends more per speaker on Gaelic than other countries trying to keep their native tongues alive.

According to official figures, the Gaelic language budget is around £23.5m in Scotland, with 57,000 speakers. That equates to more than £400 per Gaelic speaker.

In Wales, the budget is around £20.9m, with 874,700 speakers in 2018 (less than £24 per head).

In New Zealand, the Maori language is undergoing a revival and huge waiting lists have been reported for classes.

The government invested around $12.2m NZD, around £6.1m, in te reo Maori last year, with a speaking population of around 125,000 speakers (less than £50 per head).

Irish language receives a substantial investment from the Irish government, with a reported €67.5m being spent last year.

According to official figures, around 73,800 people in the republic of Ireland said they can speak Irish outwith the education system. That equates to more than €900 per speaker.

Editor's Note: The original version of this article reported that Professor McLeod had suggested building homes exclusively for Gaelic speakers and Google opening an office in South Uist, without making sufficiently clear that he saw these steps as unviable. We apologise for the error.