GAELIC is in crisis. As a community language, it could die out within a decade.

That was the stark conclusion of a book-length study published in the summer.

But momentum is building to reverse this decline, and those at the top are open to radical proposals.

Scotland’s Finance Secretary Kate Forbes told The Herald she would support the idea of housing developments reserved for Gaelic speakers.

She fears parts of the Highlands and islands could become retirement villages or ghost towns amid a rise in second homes.

Ms Forbes, a fluent Gaelic speaker, emphasised the importance of communities driving change, but said there’s certainly an appetite in the Scottish Government to “do whatever it takes”.

Her fellow SNP MSP Alasdair Allan recently instigated a series of “community conversations” on the future of Gaelic, working with a cross-party group of politicians.

Ms Forbes led an online discussion for residents in Skye and Raasay.

She said there was a sense of “grief and anguish” but also a “strong will and desire not to let it die on their watch”.

The MSP, who represents Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, said the “frontier of Gaelic-speaking communities is constantly receding”. 

She said: “Not to talk about forebears, but my forebears would have grown up in a community in Applecross where it was just naturally spoken. Now it won’t be.”

Professor Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, whose research into the Gaelic crisis kickstarted debate over the summer, said the status quo is not an option.

He co-authored a book called The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community, which argued Gaelic-speaking communities are unlikely to survive anywhere in Scotland beyond this decade unless urgent action is taken.

Its findings have acted as something of a wake-up call.

Mr Ó Giollagáin warned Bòrd na Gàidhlig and other public agencies “will lose credibility” if concrete action to reverse the decline of the language is not taken in 2021.

His book suggests power and resources could be handed to communities through the creation of a new Gaelic Community Trust (Urras na Gàidhlig).

But Mr Ó Giollagáin said that six months on, Bòrd na Gàidhlig has yet to provide a substantial reply to the study and its recommendations.

He said a starting point would be a “clear admission that we’re in crisis”.

“If they’re not going to implement what has been recommended, well then the onus is on them to recommend something else,” he said. “Because there is general agreement that the status quo is not working.”

He continued: “If there’s no positive, dynamic action, as I’m saying, next year, I think the community would become very disheartened, and Bòrd na Gàidhlig and other Gaelic bodies will lose credibility among the communities, if there isn’t concrete, feasible action to deal with the social challenges.”

A report compiled by Mr Allan’s office following the recent community events has now been handed to Deputy First Minister John Swinney.

It recommends that the concept of a Gaelic Community Trust be explored further.

It also puts forward a number of suggestions raised by participants in the discussions, including consideration of a Gaelic-medium secondary school in the islands.

Other ideas include an islands-led PR campaign to raise awareness of the importance of the language to the Hebrides, a network of development staff, a new Gaelic strategy for island communities, public sector jobs and housing programmes, additional support for families to bring Gaelic back into the home and more Gaelic-medium events.

The report said residents expressed disillusionment with public policy, a “considerable feeling of apathy” and concern over jobs and centralisation. 

Young people leaving for the mainland was seen as a driver of decline.

Mr Allan said house prices are “out of control” in some areas.

He said: “At the moment the Government has given, or is in the process of giving, local authorities the power to regulate the number of short-term holiday lets that there can be in any one community. 

“I would personally say there needs to be a similar power to regulate the number of second homes that there can be in any one community. 

“There are some communities in the Western Isles now where 40 per cent of the houses are either holiday lets or second homes.”

Ms Forbes said she would also like to see tougher action in this area.

She said: “This is an issue that needs to be so sensitively managed, because on the one hand I’m very keen that we repopulate the Highlands, but on the other hand I fear parts of the Highlands and islands becoming a retirement home or becoming a ghost town, in that you have - particularly during the pandemic, people have wanted to flee the cities and have bought up second homes in the Highlands and islands without even having come to visit.

“That is a perfect example of how socioeconomic policy that has nothing to do with Gaelic will either make or break Gaelic-speaking communities.”

Some Gaelic campaigners, such as the group Misneachd, have called for consideration of Gaelic-speaking housing developments, pointing to similar schemes in Ireland.

Asked what she thought of proposals for housing developments or estates where residents must speak Gaelic or commit to learning it, Ms Forbes said: “This is probably the most controversial thing I’ll say to you - I would be very supportive of that.”

She said Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college, previously tried to introduce such a scheme for its Kilbeg housing development in Skye. 

“There are big issues in terms of conflict with equalities legislation, because of perceived discrimination,” Ms Forbes said. 

“But I think we need to take increasingly positive action and intervene in trying to support Gaelic-speaking communities.

“The one caveat I’d make to that is that you cannot artificially create communities. 

“So right now I would far rather focus on saving what we have.”

She said areas such as Staffin and Kilmuir in the north of Skye have thriving Gaelic communities.

She added: “That will no longer be the case in ten years’ time unless we focus on preserving the communities that we have. 

“We can, at the same time, artificially create new communities elsewhere - I’m not averse to that - but it doesn’t have the richness, it doesn’t have the distinctive accents, it doesn’t have the distinctive idioms, it doesn’t have the whole culture and language hanging together like you would have somewhere like Staffin, where it’s evolved naturally over time.”

Ms Forbes said any Gaelic-speaking housing initiatives would have to include those willing to learn the language. 

Elsewhere, she said action needs to be taken on a bottom-up basis, rather than being imposed on communities from above.

She added: “If it requires a public body like Bòrd na Gàidhlig or the Scottish Government to better facilitate that empowerment, then I’m more than happy to do that - whether that’s using regeneration funding, whether it’s ensuring that housing trusts are thinking about Gaelic, whether it’s any other action that’s required, I’m willing to take it.”

Scottish Conservative MSP Donald Cameron, who represents the Highlands and Islands, said there is “anguish” about the state of the language but a “determination” to do something about it. 

He said a Gaelic revival needs to be underpinned by an economic revival. 

Mr Cameron said there is “really rare political agreement” about the need to act to save the language.

He added: “But it can’t be a sort of exercise in hand-wringing, and then nothing happens.

“And to be fair to the Government, I think they’ve got that. They do understand the immediacy of it.”

A Bòrd na Gàidhlig spokeswoman said: “When the research was published in the summer Bòrd na Gàidhlig responded by saying that we welcomed the research and that we recognise many of the issues highlighted in it. 

“These issues, along with suggestions as to how to overcome them are already captured in the National Gaelic Language Plan 2018-23 and we very much support the aim of the National Plan ‘that Gaelic is used more often, by more people and in a wider range of situations’.”  

She added: “The publication of the report has stimulated many useful conversations and it continues to do so.  

“Many of the current Gaelic development initiatives are working well and we always welcome views as to how best we and our partners can support the growth of Gaelic usage across Scotland, including and very importantly in Gaelic-speaking island and rural communities.”