By Christopher Lewin, Member of Gaelic campaign group Misneachd and PhD Student at the University of Edinburgh

YESTERDAY saw Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s new National Gaelic Language Plan 2018–2023 debated in the Scottish parliament. As on similar occasions, there were many warm words from politicians from all parties. However, there has been little or no recognition of the urgent crisis facing the Gaelic language in its Hebridean heartlands, where we are facing the end of Gaelic as a community language within a generation or so.

Quite simply, we are facing the disappearance of the Gaelic-speaking people as a distinct ethnolinguistic group within Scotland’s rich diversity of cultures. For the first time ever in Scotland’s history, we face a future where there will be no places where Gaelic is a default community language.

A report commissioned by Bòrd na Gàidhlig and published in 2011 on the state of the language in Shawbost, Lewis, showed that “the passing of Gaelic from one generation to the next – intergenerational transmission – has all but ended”. Shawbost has one of the highest proportions of Gaelic-speakers anywhere and indications are that the situation is similar throughout the Western Isles.

The new plan does not refer to the Shawbost report at all. Instead, it cites only a report on the 2011 census which showed a modest slowing in the overall decline of the language. Given that of the 50,000-plus speakers of Gaelic in Scotland most are of the older generations and the children being raised in Gaelic number only a few hundred, it is clear that as older speakers pass away we are facing a cliff-edge and can expect numbers to plummet in future censuses.

The chair of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, Allan MacDonald, writes in the foreword of the plan: “My hope is that … by 2023 more people of all ages will be using Gaelic more often.” Of course this is utterly unrealistic on current trends, and is just setting up the Gaelic community for disappointment and disillusionment. Surely it would be better to start by facing the reality and urgency of the situation, and then maybe steps could be taken which would have real impact.

There are some positives in the plan nonetheless, especially the recognition of the link between Gaelic and wider economic forces, and certain specific aims such as increasing provision of Gaelic-medium education. The reality is, however, that the aim of revitalising Gaelic, including most of the aims set out in the national plan, can only be achieved through substantially increased state funding and strengthened legislation.

Steps could include employing a Gaelic community development worker in every Gaelic-speaking area; establishing more Gaelic-language centres, following the example of South Uist; giving all those who move to Gaelic-speaking areas a right to a period of paid full-time Gaelic immersion; funding simultaneous interpretation equipment and interpreters so that local meetings can once again be conducted in Gaelic; and funding a “master and apprentice” scheme where learners are paired with older Gaelic speakers, which has proven effective for Gaelic in Nova Scotia.

As the plan recognises, wider economic development policies are needed to keep young people in the islands, and here we should look to the example of Uist which has recently bucked the trend with a growing population and new economic dynamism. Ultimately though, this means ending Tory austerity from Westminster, and rousing the Scottish Government and Parliament from complacency. History will not forgive us if we bury our heads at this crucial moment.