ALL schools across the Highlands should follow the Western Isles and go Gaelic-first, language campaigners claim.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar plans to make Gaelic-medium education (GME) the default choice for all new primary one pupils, allowing families the choice to opt-out and choose English instead.

The move is a Scottish first and is in response to growing demand for Gaelic language schooling in a region where this is still widely spoken.

Lessons will be given in Gaelic for the first four years of schooling, when English will also be introduced to provide a bilingual education.

Education director Bernard Chisholm said: “The majority of our children in nursery and those enrolling in primary, want to speak our language.

READ MORE: Gaelic becomes default language for pupils starting school in Western Isles

“A significant number of families, who move to the area without Gaelic, enrol their children in GME for the additional benefits of bilingual education.”

But Tory education spokesperson Liz Smith condemned the move was “deeply troubling”, saying it could put youngsters “at a distinct disadvantage to their peers”.

The National: Kate Forbes, MSP, said Liz Smith's remarks were ignorant and damagingKate Forbes, MSP, said Liz Smith's remarks were ignorant and damaging

However, the group behind the hugely successful Gaelic Duolingo learning app, which has around 130,000 users, says other local authorities must take the same step to “preserve what we still have”.

The Misneachd group, whose name means confidence, is pressing for urgent action to promote and protect the language.

Its Martainn Mac a’Bhaillidh told The National that Gaelic-medium schooling should also be the default in the Highlands and on Skye.

He said: “It’s something that should have been done in the 1960s and 70s, as was the case in Wales.

READ MORE: The Gaelic Rabbie Burns: A great Scot, too aft forgot: Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair

“Nobody is proposing that there will be less competency in English, but everybody should be given the opportunity to speak the language which is indigenous to where they live.”

While a shortage of qualified teachers with sufficient Gaelic to teach subjects like maths has been cited as a barrier to further provision, Mac a’Bhaillidh says this can be overcome.

“You can’t expect people to train in Gaelic teaching in the current set up because there are only so many schools. If the demand is strong enough and people know they’re going to get a job, we will attract them.”

Responding to Smith’s comments, Highlands and Islands MSP John Finnie called them “as offensive as they are inaccurate” and the SNP’s Kate Forbes, who represents Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, said: “These remarks aren’t just ignorant, they are damaging. I’d like to see the Tories distance themselves from these remarks and apologise.”