Lockdown has had a significant impact on Scotland’s Gaelic communities as soaring numbers of English speakers have settled in the language’s heartland since the pandemic ended, experts have warned.

Last month the Scottish Government set out the third iteration of its Gaelic Language Plan, setting out plans to “ensure the sustainable future” of the language.

However, campaigners have warned that the rise of Airbnb and an uptick in English-speakers moving to the Highlands and Islands have increased the pressure on Gàidhlig communities.

Iain MacMillan, director of development at Bòrd na Gàidhlig, tells The Herald: “The biggest challenge we have is that communities, to be alive and vibrant in any way, need people.

“There are a growing number of places in the Highlands and Islands, the traditional Gaelic areas, where second homes and Airbnb have taken off to an extent that a significant number of properties aren’t lived in by people who are part of the community.

“I think during lockdown it became a popular thing with people trying to move out of the cities because they realised they could do their work from wherever they were as long as they had a broadband link.”

Data collected by the Herald bears out those claims. Na h-Eileanan an Iar, formerly the Western Isles, has by far the highest proportion of Gaelic speakers in the country at 61.2 per cent, according to the 2011 census.

Figures for 2016-17 through 2019-20 show an average of 543 people moving to the Hebrides from inside Scotland, but that jumped to 723 for the 2020-21 dataset – an increase of 33%.

It’s a similar story for the Highland (44%), Orkney (15%), Shetland (41%) and Argyll & Bute (44%) council areas. While the data doesn’t record whether those moving are Gaelic speakers, the areas from which they come may offer an indication.

Even including more rural council areas Angus, Aberdeenshire, Moray and Perth & Kinross, as well as those moving between the Highland and Island regions, close to 70% of those arriving in Na h-Eileanan an Iar came from what could loosely be termed the Central Belt and Lowlands, with similar numbers replicated in the other areas.

Wilson McLeod, professor of Celtic and Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh says: “There are a lot of factors coming together and the situation in the last few years, partly to do with Covid and partly to do with the rise in Airbnb and so on, has got worse.

“There’s no question, there’s a clear demonstration that the situation has deteriorated considerably. It’s a huge problem.

"Even so, these are very deep-rooted problems. The kind of debates that we’re having, I just read an article 1928, making very similar kinds of arguments.

“These are deep-rooted problems in terms of regional economy and so on, and the only thing that’s changed is that Gaelic speaking is much less intense than it used to be.”

Loss of population has always been a problem for the Islands, with young people of working age seeking education and opportunity elsewhere.

Population estimates by the Scottish Government show that in 2020 there were 2,800 more people living on Scotland’s islands than in 2001, a 2.6% increase over the period. However, at the same time, Scotland’s population as a whole grew at the significantly faster rate of 7.9%.

In addition, the proportion of people aged 65 and over rose from 18% in 2001 to 26% in 2020, whilst the proportion of the island population under the age of 25 fell from 28% to 24%.

Those are part of long-term trends, but the rise in the cost of living, and particularly housing, has accelerated things.

Mr MacMillan says: “People have always traditionally left these communities, a lot of the time for educational purposes. Young people tend to go to the cities for college or university.

“In the past there’s always been the opportunity for them to come back because property’s been at a fairly reasonable cost level. But today I think what they find is that there aren’t that many properties available because of the significant number of holidays lets and second homes.

“The prices are also increasing quite dramatically.”

From March to December 2020, house prices in Na h-Eileanan an Iar consistently saw a smaller increase year-on-year compared to Scotland as a whole, and actually fell in four of those months.

Since December 2021 though yearly price increases have been higher compared to the country as a whole in all but one month, often dramatically so. In September 2022 house prices rose 30 per cent in the Hebrides, compared to just 7.3% in Scotland as a whole.

Given there are fewer houses in the Highlands and Islands, big jumps or falls are to be expected given the impact one sale can make, but the trends are clear.

For the first nine months of 2022, house prices increased by an average of 10.4 per cent in Scotland. That number was 20.4% in Na h-Eileanan an Iar, 24% in Orkney, 11.7% in Highland and 18.5% in Argyll & Bute, with Shetland at 9.3%.

Professor McLeod explains: “The more difficult it is for people to find an affordable place to live in the area they grew up in, that makes it more difficult for them to stay in the area, be part of the language community and use the language and so on.

“Where it gets complicated in relation to areas in Scotland where Gaelic is quite widely spoken is that Gaelic speakers are a minority in most areas.

“Skye is only about 30% Gaelic speaking. Most on Skye are not Gaelic speakers and even in areas like the Western Isles you still have a third or more of the population who aren’t.

“Local Gaelic use is already fairly low and has been shown to be declining, unfortunately. We don’t have a situation where the overwhelming majority of people living in traditionally Gaelic areas are Gaelic speakers, and it’s also very common that within families there’s inter-generational language loss.

“It’s the most important question in relation to Gaelic: how sustainable is it to have development elsewhere when it’s a very difficult thing to turn around the declining language situation in the islands?

“The problem with the issue of housing is that it’s presented sometimes in very simplistic terms. When you have a situation on a place like Skye where only 30 per cent of the population are Gaelic speaking, interventions relating to housing, policy interventions, economic interventions, they’re not necessarily going to benefit Gaelic speakers or raise the profile of Gaelic in the area.

“It’ll bring some marginal benefit for Gaelic-speaking people to make it easier to stay there but there are far more structural problems involved such as a lack of high-paying jobs at the graduate level in a place like Skye or the Western Isles.

“A lot of aspirational young people, even if they could find cheaper or more suitable housing, would probably be constrained by the lack of job opportunities. They tend to be precarious, low-wage local economies.”

The situation means that for all use of Gaelic is increasing in major population centres – Aberdeen city has gone from 0.6% of the population speaking Gaelic in 1991 to 1.5% in 2011, Glasgow rose from 1% to 1.5% over the same period – the language could struggle to survive if it declines in traditional communities.

Mr MacMillan says: “The first thing, the big thing to start with, is to recognise that we have a problem.

“I think what’s happening now is more agencies are starting to work more collaboratively to look at the solutions to these things.

“Everyone has different priorities. In our case our priority is the language, but we know that without the people living and working in these communities… if people aren’t there the language really becomes an irrelevance.”

Professor McLean agrees on the need for a focused approach – but warns against looking for simple solutions.

He says: “You need much more focused intervention if you’re going to be successful but it’s something that can become controversial.

HeraldScotland:

“It’s sometimes proposed that you can have language restrictions as is the case in parts of Ireland: you have to be an Irish speaker to be eligible for this kind of housing.

“That would be very controversial: to say that this social housing unit in the village that’s badly needed is going to be restricted to the 20-30% of the local population who can speak Gaelic.

“I think the majority population in that area would find that problematic.

“I think sometimes people present this in simplistic terms – it’s a rather complex area to get into.

"You also have the issues in terms of equity. We say there should be investment in terms of economic development, housing programmes and so on in Gaelic areas – well, there are other areas in the Highlands and Islands suffering comparable levels of deprivation and difficulties in infrastructure and so on and they’re not eligible for it, they’re excluded from these kind of programmes for linguistic reasons.

“Once you get into it and start looking at the details of it, it becomes quite a complex policy problem and not an easy one to solve.”

Even the language itself can attract controversy, with many associating Gaelic with the movement for Scottish independence or simply considering it an irrelevance.

Mr MacMillan counters: “I think when you’re talking about a language, and a culture, and a people that have been marginalised for a long period of time – I remember when I was growing up being told ‘don’t bother with the language you have to go and learn English, you have to go away to be successful’.

“It’s only after you’ve tried all these things that you realise it’s a piece of nonsense, total rubbish.

“You do actually start to take a bit of pride and a bit of interest in the language.

“Language isn’t just something you communicate in. Gaelic is my first language, I had to learn English when I went to school. It’s a natural part of who I am. I belong here, people like me belong here. Why shouldn’t it be supported?

“It adds significant value to what we are as a nation – the unfortunate thing is that when you say things like that everybody thinks you’re being political.

“I’ve in the public sector long enough to realise that you stay away from politics and you stay away from taking a line that can be construed as being political.

“It’s a part of who we are as people, and my answer to anybody who says ‘well you’re not important enough, we’ve got more people who speak languages from other nations so we should give them priority’ is to say ‘so, you just want to get rid of us?’.

“It’s part of who we are, it’s part of what we do, and there are economic benefits. What I would actually say is ask the people who leave the cities, leave mainland places and come to live in the islands. What is it that attracts them to the islands?

“There is something about the highlands and islands that attracts people, that gets hold of people.

“Part of that is wrapped up in the language and the culture, the attitudes to life and to the world. I happen to think it’s a good thing, I think the people come here happen to think it’s a good thing.

“Unfortunately some of them come and then immediately try to change it and make it more like the rest of the world. The rest of the world is in too much of a hurry to get somewhere.

“In the highlands and islands and the Gaelic speaking areas you can actually find something that isn’t available anywhere else – and the language is part of it.”