By Professor Conchúr Ó Giollagáin

A year of political and official public consultation on the Gaelic Crisis publication has yielded little of consequence for the remaining communities of vernacular Gaels. 

The report concluded that the decline of Gaelic as a community language in the islands has reached the point of societal collapse and that, under current circumstances, no native-speaking Gaelic community, in any meaningful socio-geographic density, will survive beyond this decade anywhere in Scotland.

Official bodies with responsibility for Gaelic promotion remain in denial about the severity of the challenges facing these communities.

Despite the issues highlighted in the report, and the calls for action among the community, there has been no clear official statement recognising the level of crisis, nor any admission of the need for significant strategic reform to halt the loss of remaining Gaelic social geographies in the islands.

There is an alternative to the bureaucratic ineffectiveness of the National Gaelic Language Plan approach.

Feasible language protection first requires extending strategic resources to the Gaelic speaker group to undertake community development initiatives, including measures to bolster the socio-economic situation of the Gaelic community.

The Gaelic Crisis study has suggested the establishment of a Gaelic Community Trust model. This trust model, using a language-in-society approach, would help remedy the limitations of current governmental efforts at Gaelic civic promotion without sufficient language protection for existing Gaelic communities.

Changing existing approaches is fraught with political and organisational anxieties. Inaction at this time of crisis is exacerbating language decline, however.

After consulting Gaelic communities back to the status quo, there is now an impasse between Gaelic speakers seeking strategic reform and Gaelic bodies sticking to the limited forms of language promotion with which they are comfortable. 

Many Gaels in the islands have perceived such consultation without substantial progress as a containment exercise, whereby existing sectoral priorities for Gaelic in education, arts, media and civic visibility are emphasised, and attention is diverted from the Gaelic social crisis.

The recent parliamentary debate on Gaelic affairs was instructive. Despite references to the Gaelic Crisis, the only concrete suggestion to be discussed extensively was the proposal to establish a Gaelic high school in Edinburgh.

While eminently laudable in its own context, the proposal is clearly not central to addressing the issues of the Gaelic communities in crisis which presumably were intended to be a core focus of that debate.

Bòrd na Gàidhlig has yet to engage in any direct consultation with the authors of the Gaelic Crisis study – indicating a defensiveness about the study’s findings and recommendations.

The Bòrd’s response to date to the crisis has been financial rather than strategic. By distributing relatively small sums of additional financial support, largely through their existing clients, they may be seeking to kill reform with kindness and obscure the focus on societal challenges.

Spending public money without clearly identifying strategic priorities for the social continuity of the Gaelic group may be seen as minimalising the challenges of an endangered community.

A client-based dispersal of funding is not an ideal basis to encourage an inclusive and open debate on Gaelic affairs as it may privilege viewpoints more closely aligned with existing structures, reinforce existing power relations and exacerbate the feeling of being discounted among sections of the vernacular community.

Political leadership is required to break the current impasse and to encourage a free exchange of ideas on new strategic approaches.

This entails initiating a sincere process of open dialogue with communities. To overcome current obstacles, two initiatives would be beneficial: a civic forum in the islands to consult on Gaelic strategy, and an official working group of community representatives, politicians, public servants and academics to explore ways ahead. 

The aim would be to seek an acceptable accommodation between different Gaelic constituencies: the vernacular community in crisis in the islands, the vestigial Gaelic vernacular networks elsewhere in the Highlands and Islands, Gaelic (urban) networks, and Gaelic learners.

In the absence of a strategically relevant accommodation, Scotland will be left to contend, from a societal perspective, with a post-Gaelic future.

An agreed accommodation, brokered by effective community, political and official leadership, is clearly preferable to the current evasiveness and complacency.

Conchúr Ó Giollagáin is the Gaelic research professor at the University of the Highlands and Islands