Some civic leaders in Caithness have made quite a name for themselves over the years, trying to prevent the spread of the Gaelic language through the medium of bilingual road signs.

They argued that it was on the grounds of cost, although the money involved was always pretty minimal given that the language of the Garden of Eden would only ever appear when the English-only sign had to be replaced.

But a cultural argument was also deployed that Gaelic had never been the language of Caithness; the county’s heritage being Norse rather than Celtic.

There may have been a few murmurings along these lines this week with the confirmation that the first Gaelic Medium Primary School unit in Caithness would open at the start of the new school session

It will be based at Mount Pleasant Primary School in Thurso, which is already home to an active Gaelic Medium nursery, with 19 children.

Seven pupils from the nursery have enrolled in primary one and they will be the first to be taught via the medium of Gaelic.

The intention is to expand the numbers, year on year and in seven years’ time to enable pupils to continue learning via the medium of Gaelic at Thurso High School.

Council Leader Drew Hendry said the opening of the primary school unit demonstrated the Council’s commitment to promoting Gaelic through education.

The staging of the National Mod in the north coast town in 2010 definitely helped dilute anti-Gaelic sentiment, and the Gaelic medium unit is one legacy of that.

But the history of it all is worth revisiting, particularly the work by a respected authority on Gaelic Scotland, Dr Domhnall Uillean Stiùbhart, who lectures on the subject at Edinburgh University and Sabhal Mor Ostaig (Skye's Gaelic College).

A few years back he decided to delve into the apparent Caithnessian antipathy to Gaelic.

Other areas in the likes of Argyll and Perthshire had lost Gaelic but remained proud of their linguistic tradition. However the legacy in Caithness was one of hostility. 

Stiùbhart  found that Gaelic had indeed been the language of much of Caithness: “The earliest description we have of the relative extent of Gaelic and English-speaking areas of Caithness dates from 1706, an era when a whole series of local descriptive accounts were being compiled across Scotland. Many of these were written by local ministers, with the focus firmly upon their own parish.

One particular account lists where Gaelic was preached within the bounds of the Presbytery of Caithness. It reported seven in all : Thurso, Halkirk, Reay, Latheron, Farr, Durness and Wick, but underlines the people of Wick understood English also. We should note the implication that, unlike bilingual Wick, the county town, Thurso parish was populated mainly by monoglot Gaels.”

He said that another rather interesting source from the same time suggested just where the linguistic boundary lay. It had said : “If ye suppose a Parallel to the hypotenuse drawn from Week (Wick) to Thurso, these on the Eastside of it speak most part English, and those on the Westside Irish (Gaelic); and the last have Ministers to preach to them in both languages.”

Stiùbhart said: “In other words the frontier may well have roughly followed the present-day railway line between the two towns.”

By the beginning of the 19th century Caithness was still a mainly Gaelic-speaking county, amongst  50.1% of its 22,609 inhabitants spoke the language. “But by the end of the century Gaelic was in terminal decline. By 1891 the population of Caithness had grown to 37,177, but the number of Gaelic speakers there had decreased to just 4,068."

The decline continued: “In 1931 only 633 speakers were recorded, while census results between 1951 and 2001 reported almost negligible numbers. No locality had any number of speakers worth mentioning.”

He said it should also be underlined that throughout most of this tale many, if not most, of those who were deemed to be speaking English had in fact been speaking Caithness Scots.

“But that's another debate. Having ascertained that there was indeed such a people as native Caithness Gaels, and indeed that Gaelic was rather more widespread in the county than many believe, we must ask why there is still so much hostility towards Gaelic felt by some individuals in Caithness, and what might be done to overcome it?”

He said the answer to the first was surely to do with the fact that Caithness was a rather unusual part of the country in that much of its history was shaped by a centuries-long bitter feud between families on either side of the linguistic border, namely the Sinclair Earls of Caithness and the Gaelic Mackays of Strathnaver.

“It was about land and power and was particularly bitter. Nothing unusual about that particularly in 16th and 17th century Scotland. But perhaps to a greater extent than almost any other locality in Scotland, language and culture were caught up in political affairs.”

Stiùbhart concluded in a characteristically enlightened flourish: “Perhaps it might be time to lay this ancient enmity to rest. Caithness is one of those privileged areas of Scotland where the inhabitants can boast of a share in both of Scotland's languages and cultures: the marvellous riches both of English or Scots on the one hand, and of Scottish Gaelic on the other..”

So perhaps the road signs should be trilingual in Caithness.