WHEN I was eighteen, I decided to learn Gaelic. It was a choice which, in those days, drew a puzzled look from many around me. It later stood me in good stead, however, when in 2006 I moved to live in the Isle of Lewis.

I was once asked what gave me the most pleasure as a Gaelic learner. Was it reading the poems of Sorley MacLean? Hearing the songs of Màiri Mhòr nan Òran? The Mòd? Magnificent as these and countless other examples of Gaelic culture are, for me they all pale in comparison to my joy one day when, while mixing cement in my front garden, a four-year-old boy walking past the gate stopped to lecture me – in Gaelic – about how I was mixing it all wrong.

My point is this: Gaelic must be used in literature and in schools, but that is not enough. The language will only be sure of its survival when more children use it – and use it outside school.

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When talking about the state of Gaelic, a course needs always to be steered between two rocks. On one side is a gloom that risks dispiriting the 70% of Scots who now support the huge achievements made for Gaelic in recent years. On the other is a relentless cheeriness about a “Gaelic renaissance” which any Gaelic speaker knows, has yet to happen, in numeric terms at least.

An academic report published this week, The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community, does not pull its punches. It identifies some of the language’s last community strongholds in the islands as the very places where the use of the language has lost the most ground in recent decades. The report finds that many children whose great-grandparents had little occasion in their lives ever to use English, are either unable to use Gaelic or know few people who will speak it back to them. As someone who loves Gaelic, and who must take his own share of responsibility for Gaelic policy in the past, I find all this painfully difficult reading.

Many in the cities who – I am delighted to say – have embraced Gaelic medium education for their children will find this situation in the islands difficult to understand. It is impossible to explain without conveying some idea of the pressures that have been put on people in the Highlands and islands not to speak Gaelic.

I know of people (not all that much older than me) who literally had Gaelic beaten out of them physically by teachers, on a near-daily basis, over the course of primaries one and two.

And, less than thirty years ago, I recall hearing a prominent Scottish educationalist explain on radio how grateful he was that his (Gaelic-speaking) parents had been considerate enough not to “damage” his own – presumably priceless – intellectual development by speaking that language within his earshot.

Perhaps these examples explain why I react so badly when I hear someone tell me that a Gaelic road sign or a school textbook is “forcing” a language down someone’s throat. Perhaps they also explain why turning around the linguistic oil tanker in the islands will not be simple procedure.

Difficult reading as it is, the report gives all of us involved in promoting Gaelic (and also, it must be said, all Gaelic communities themselves) some things to think about. We need to ensure that Gaelic is used in more community settings in the islands and indeed empower those communities to take the future of the language into their own hands.

The most important lesson of all, and one which I address as much to myself as to anyone else, is Cleachd no caill i – use it or lose it.