GAELIC-SPEAKING communities are unlikely to survive anywhere in Scotland beyond this decade unless urgent action is taken, a comprehensive new study has warned.

Researchers found the social use and transmission of Gaelic is at the point of collapse in the remaining “vernacular” communities where it is still in regular, day-to-day use.

They said that under current conditions, Gaelic speakers “do not have the demographic or societal resources to sustain a communal presence in the islands beyond the next 10 years”, except for isolated networks of elderly speakers.

The study, the most comprehensive of its kind, found low levels of Gaelic ability in those under 50, as well as indifference among the young to the place of Gaelic in their lives.

The findings are contained in a new book, the Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community: A Comprehensive Sociolinguistic Survey of Scottish Gaelic.

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Professor Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, director of the University of the Highlands and Islands’ (UHI) Language Sciences Institute and one of the book's authors, said: “Unless the language is used in the community, it can’t survive, and that’s where the danger is. If we continue on the current trajectory, it will only be the elderly that have any appreciable experience of speaking Gaelic in the community.”

He added: “If the public bodies wish to continue with existing policies, we will have no vernacular, native-speaking community anywhere in Scotland.”

Mr Ó Giollagáin is the director of Soillse, a research collaboration between the UHI and several other universities aimed at informing public policy towards the maintenance and revitalisation of Gaelic.

The new book emerges from the work of Soillse’s Islands Gaelic Research Project, conducted between 2015 and 2017, and focuses on the use and transmission of Gaelic in the Western Isles, in Staffin on the Isle of Skye and on Tiree in Argyll and Bute.

Detailed analysis of census data from 1951 to 2011 shows the rapid decline of Gaelic from 1981 onwards.

In the areas examined, 52 per cent of people reported an ability to speak Gaelic in 2011 compared to 80% in 1981.

The study found that for every 10-year period since 1981, there has been a 13% proportional average loss in Gaelic speakers.

This represents an average loss of 3,220 each decade from 1981 to 2011.

It estimated there are currently around 11,000 Gaelic vernacular speakers.

Researchers found the projected Gaelic-speaking population in the Western Isles will be at the threshold of the “moribund” category by next year, where the language is largely restricted to marginal aspects of community life, institutional practice and the elderly.

A survey of Gaelic language ability and practice among preschool children throughout the research areas found fewer than 4% of responses indicated either fluent, native levels of spoken Gaelic or understanding of Gaelic on enrolment.

Elsewhere, a questionnaire completed by 16 to 18-year-olds in four secondary schools in the Western Isles found that while around 20% of teenagers reported fluency in Gaelic, only 1.3% said they always or mainly speak Gaelic to their friends.

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The researchers argue that current policy provision displays a "general bias in favour of Gaelic learners and potential future secondary bilingual speakers at the expense of existing vernacular speakers and their communities".

The ongoing economic and demographic challenges in the Western Isles and other island groups also exacerbates the issue.

The book suggests creating a new Gaelic Community Trust (Urras na Gàidhlig), based in the islands and under the direct control of a representative group of community members.

It argues there should be "an admission by the community and public bodies that the situation is critical; an acceptance among public bodies that the current policy interventions for the Gaelic vernacular speaker group are not fit for purpose; and an acknowledgement that an alternative approach is required if the complete loss of vernacular Gaelic is to be averted".

Mr Ó Giollagáin said the remaining native-speaking Gaelic communities in the islands are on the point of societal collapse.

He said: "If we continue as we are, we will have Gaelic policy, Gaelic bodies but no Gaelic group."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Gaelic language is a vital part of Scotland’s cultural identity and ministers support efforts to improve access for speakers to learn and use the language.

“We are interested in the proposals in the book and look forward to discussing the value of current initiatives and the new structures suggested to strengthen Gaelic in the islands.

“Although the Gaelic language is in a fragile condition there are a range of policies and interventions in place to promote the learning, speaking and use of Gaelic in the islands and these are constantly kept under review.”

Mairi MacInnes, chair of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, said it welcomes any research that contributes to an understanding of Gaelic.

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She said: "Our understanding is that one of the key messages from the research is that for the older generation of Gaelic speakers in the islands, Gaelic was and remains the default language of the community. For most younger people, the default language is now English.  
"This finding will come as no surprise to anyone who lives in the islands or anywhere else and is a pattern that you will find in minoritised language communities across the globe.

"Education policy in the Western Isles recognises the challenges for an indigenous minority language from a similar previous study and now all children enter Gaelic medium education unless they choose to opt out.

"It has also been the success of Gaelic medium education that has led to the growth in numbers of speakers outwith the Western Isles, with, for example, the Glasgow Gaelic school is regularly one of the top performing schools in Scotland."