THIS column often takes up dying causes in a benevolent frame of mind, but today’s is about one dying cause that I don’t think anybody can do much for.

We learned last week that the Gaelic language is heading yet faster downhill, at a speed that will before long bring it face to face with extinction, at least as a living vernacular or spoken tongue.

The culture has been a great one, but is now mainly a matter of historical associations. Its extensions into the modern world, the world of the 21st-century, constantly falter. We are beyond the point of being able to pretend that Gaelic radio and television or Gaelic-medium education can reverse the linguistic decline.

At least that decline is now being admitted within the culture – a rare thing indeed – with the results of research carried out at the University of the Highlands and Islands, and being published under the title of Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community.

In recent times, the principle behind public support for the language had been a claim that it might be revived if we created favourable enough conditions for this to happen – if schools could teach the traditional poetry and song, if football fans could get acquainted with the technical terms for showmanship on the park.

So far as there was a crisis, then, it would be a learners’ crisis, meaning not enough non-Gaels were being inspired to take an interest in this unique part of the Scottish heritage.

The UHI study marks a big shift. Here, the crisis lies not outside the vernacular community, in people who could learn Gaelic but don’t. Rather, it lies inside the vernacular community. Most speakers of the language acquired it at home, from their parents during their childhood. Although it was their first language, and despite their high degree of proficiency in it, as they grew older they have gradually stopped using it in one sphere after another.

A visitor to the Highlands and islands can see this at first hand. When I first started going to the village of Elgol on Skye in the 1980s it was pretty well 100% Gaelic-speaking. If you entered the buildings used for communal purposes, the Kirk or the shop, no English would be heard.

But over the following decades some natives moved away and redundant crofts became available, so that room was created for white settlers – people with no previous connection to the Highlands, some of them not even Scots.

Gaels are people blessed with a natural courtesy, however, so that now the usual language of the shop is English, just so the white settlers will not feel left out of the community. If we are going to be exact, we must say Elgol has gone from being a monolingual to being a bilingual village.

The pattern is being repeated everywhere, and more intensively nowadays in lifestyle when so many forsake the rat race for the far blue yonder. Even on Lewis, probably destined to be the last bastion of Gaelic, you will be lucky to hear it being publicly spoken in the main town of Stornoway.

Go out to the west coast of the island and you will not hear much else, but the west coast is also the area of the island where the population is falling most rapidly. And why should any red-blooded youngster stay out there, mucking his byre, when beckoned by the bright lights of the big cities?

These are examples of how the long-term crisis for Gaelic is no longer confined to the tension between the Lowland and the Highland, or the urban and the rustic, as in the old days. It has spread its tentacles right into the vernacular community itself, into the last of the places where this language is the voice of the people. Not only learners need to be persuaded of its merits, but also many of those who have it or had it as their native tongue.

READ MORE: Highlanders and Exiles: Scottish Gaelic poetry in the 19th century

MORE than 58,000 individuals reported themselves as Gaelic speakers in the Scottish census of 2011. It is possible that in the census of 2021 the total will be higher, since the official encouragements of the language have intensified during the decade.

That is why, for example, we invent Gaelic names for places that have never had them before – Inbhir Pheofharain for Dingwall or Margadh an Fheoir for Haymarket.

But this figure will be deceptive. There are people who put themselves down as Gaels on the census form just because they are learning the language, or at least would like to.

I know this because I have been one of them myself in the past. I got far enough to be able to glimpse the glories of Gaelic poetry, and at my keenest even tried to ask a likely looking crofter a question in Gaelic – only to have him, of course, reply in English. What would indeed have been the point of anything else, with him bilingual in my language and me able only to stumble through his?

This becomes a bigger problem as vernacular Gaelic grows more limited in its practical usage.

The best way to learn any language is not to look it up in books but to go where it is spoken and hold conversations with the

native speakers.

But in Gaeldom this is becoming scarcely possible. I remember an early Highland trip when I strolled on a Sunday evening along the main street of Aultbea in Wester Ross, and came across worshippers just out of the kirk speaking Gaelic among themselves – the first time I had heard it in real life.

Nowadays, they would be much harder to find. Religion was one of the strongholds of the language, and not only because of the sheer number of Highland congregations, the result of Presbyterian schisms in the past. The language was in frequent use from humble parishioners right up into the sphere of higher education where, for example, at the Free Kirk College in Edinburgh, the eloquent presence of Professor Donald Macleod gave his native language a national prominence too. Of the 50,000 Gaels registered in the census of 2011, only something over 10,000 are reckoned to be speakers who actually use Gaelic in the normal course of their everyday transactions. Mostly they are old, and by the time of the census of 2031 are quite likely to be dead.

Its younger speakers tend to think of it as something you might use if you want to be nice to your granny, but not in going to a disco or down the pub with your mates.

Unless that changes, then the future of vernacular Gaelic is dim. Even if we dislike the thought of a decline, it will be impossible to do much about it. The language is today being lost in particular private places that government can scarcely penetrate or influence. Already, it is hardly used outside the domestic sphere, spoken by members of a family among themselves but not to anybody else.

None of this makes a case against Gaelic, or Scotland’s acceptance of it as a part of national history and heritage. Yet it will need to be remembered as an essentially dead language. Policy that accepts this will be better than policy that insists on the unrealistic opposite.