‘LANGUAGES are seldom admired to death but are frequently despised to death,” observed the American linguist Nancy Dorian.

Scots and Gaelic language activists, past and present, know exactly what she meant, despite the poem by the bilingual Lewisman Iain Crichton Smith, read at the opening of the Scottish Parliament on July 1, 1999, in which he calls Scotland a “three-voiced country” and urges us to “sing in a new world”.

The optimism of that day faded, alas, as the bitter entrenched politics of the Union reasserted itself. Even the absolutely factual description of our country as one which speaks – and sings – in more than one language has become once more a bone of contention, with outrage from Unionists of all hues when attempts are made to normalise the status and usage of Scots, now the most neglected part of the triumvirate.

Very few have mastered all these languages. I was lucky to know the Gallavidian poet Willie Neill, who created brilliantly in each of them – but there aren’t many people like my good friend and former close colleague Alasdair Allan, who wrote his post-graduate thesis in Scots, learnt Gaelic to fluency in order to properly serve his Western Isles constituents, produced an excellent and witty book in English about his walk along the Border and is now adding Norwegian to his many means of communication.

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It was therefore good to read his well-informed thoughts in this paper earlier in the week, as a curtain-raiser to a series of articles on the languages of Scotland. The current Scottish Government consultation on the Scottish Languages Bill makes it very much a live issue, with something of an activist renaissance taking place in Scots. Yesterday, as it happens, I was myself involved in a stimulating University of Glasgow-supported workshop on future Scots language policy.

There is no doubt that moves on these matters are overdue. Back in 2009, when I was culture minister, I set up a working group on the Scots language that delivered a strong and clear report recommending a Languages Act for Scotland that would protect and encourage the three tongues for which we are primarily responsible as a nation.

While a number of other proposals from the group were accepted, that one remained to be achieved, and now the Scottish Government is again seeking views on it and on how to support our own linguistic inheritance while not neglecting the rich tapestry of other languages whose speakers have found their home here.

For a long time, most of the linguistic attention in Scotland was focused on Gaelic. As it came perilously close to extinction, that is understandable as languages continue to die across the globe.

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Some of the actions taken by governments, local authorities and – most importantly – Gaelic speakers themselves have, if not reversed the situation, at least stabilised it, and it is notable that such work has attracted support across the political spectrum, with only a small insular hardline element opposing any expenditure or activity.

A language is a way of seeing the world, unique to its speakers. Society is prepared to spend resources to preserve nature, and rightly so. We protect the built environmental heritage as well and therefore ensure that what underpins and expresses our very selves should surely be treated with at least the same priority.

If that is the case, and if a political consensus on it can be achieved for Gaelic, why not for Scots too?

Until now, though, both the Scottish cringe and the Unionist fear of Scottish culture as an expression of Scottish citizenry and statehood have unfortunately got in the way. Some, of course, refuse to accept that Scots is a language, despite all official and academic opinions to the contrary.

That position is the linguistic equivalent of climate change denial (and often held by the same people) and needs the same firm response. It would, if it succeeded, despise the language to death.

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Others are paranoid about anything that would encourage what they inevitably call “separatism”. From the inclusion of Scottish texts in the SQA English Higher to the introduction of Scottish Studies, their reaction has become tediously familiar and always features accusations of “brainwashing” and “indoctrination” as well as “money-wasting”.

It didn’t and doesn’t matter that in the 1990s, Michael Forsyth proposed something very similar to what is now Scottish Studies, nor that Scotland was virtually unique in not requiring school students to familiarise themselves with the literature and history of their nation. Any such innovation must be resisted, lest cultural awakening has political consequences.

Of course, languages can be signifiers of politics and weapons in the political battle. The fact that Westminster had to legislate last month on the Irish language in Northern Ireland because the DUP had refused to allow such a bill to go through Stormont is an indication of that problem very close to home.

But opposing the very use of those languages and willing them to die neglected and despised will not defeat their political backers – it will only add fuel to the fire of resentment. The positive backlash that greeted vitriolic social media attacks on Billy Kay after he led the Scottish Parliament’s Time for Reflection in Scots in April proves the point.

Recognising the reality of our three voices, treating them as equals, giving parity of esteem to them and building on that to ensure that action follows which strengthens their usage and their speakers is not only the right approach – it would be the best one. That is why a Scottish Languages Act is now essential.

A unified Parliament passing such a law would build the confidence of the entire nation. It would be a rare shaft of sunlight at a gloomy time.

Having a confident Scotland, speaking on its own terms as it wishes, is something no independence supporter could oppose. What that confidence leads to is another matter, on which each of us will have a view.