THE electoral race gets tighter all the time, and one way we can tell that is from the number of often dubious promises whistling through the ether.

The tighter the race gets, the more obscure and specialised the political pledges become. My favourite one so far is from Alasdair Allan (below), MSP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, a job which for a son of Selkirk might need some explanation. At university he started studying Scots language and literature, but that did not apparently exhaust his patriotic appetites, so he added Gaelic too. The politics of the language has engaged him since he got elected to Holyrood in 2007.

The National: Europe Minister Alasdair Allan

Allan may belong to a tiny academic minority, but is generous enough of spirit to want every student in Scotland to be able to follow the same path as he did. So far from being elitist, he is always listening out for the voice of the people, and eagerly encourages voters to send in some of the hardest questions about the sort of Scotland he wants after independence. For example, “Will I still be able to visit relatives in England?” or “Will we still get EastEnders?”

For this coming election he ventures further still. He calls for Gaelic primary and secondary schools to be built right across the country. But schools are more than mere buildings, and he also calls for corresponding investment in the number of Gaelic teachers to staff them. This is not the mere extravagance that affects all candidates as the polls approach. Allan has an ultimate vision of a Scotland that has been turned into a “gaidhealtachd”, a territory that designates Gaelic as its language. In a country where the main spoken vernacular is actually English, Gaelic would all the same move to “the forefront of the nation’s culture”.

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Perhaps this is indeed all the talk in Na h-Eileanan an Iar, though we hardly hear of it here in the Lowlands. To ensure a sustainable, long-term future for Gaelic we may, at Alasdair’s prompting, see a Scottish Languages Bill introduced in the next parliament. It would define the whole national territory, from Dunnet Head to the Mull of Galloway, as a “gaidhealtachd” – not because that is what it actually is, but to express an “ambition … for the entirety of Scotland to be a Gaelic speaking country”.

I do not want to discourage Alasdair, but it sounds as if he may be underestimating the scale of the job. Linguistic politics is always fraught because it is a matter that goes to the heart of our feelings as citizens of our country. There are, after all, Scots who think the Gaelic lobby has already had its way too often and needs taken down a peg or two. There are not many good citizens of Dingwall, for example, who accept their charming burgh has ever been anything except Germanic in language and character, Norse at its foundation before 1226 down to Lowland Scots today. At any rate it has never been called Inverpeffery, as some Gaels would like to rename it. To assert otherwise is merely a kitsch attempt to create the sort of fake heritage that puts most of us right off.

There is also the more important point that the Scots, for all the riches of our linguistic heritage, are not all that good at passing it on from one generation to the next. The study of languages in the educational system is not flourishing, but in decline. Few enough schoolchildren can be persuaded to master French. It was always the most popular in the past, and it is not hard to see why. It has a fair amount of vocabulary in common with standard English and beyond that has loaned a good deal more of it to Scots.

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But instruction in German, which has neither of those advantages, has gone into free fall. Quite possibly, it will before long not be taught any more as a reasonably normal part of the curriculum in Scottish schools. Of the other European languages, Spanish is probably safer because it is so strong in the Americas (including even the US). But if we are going to boost one language or another because of its utility, then probably Chinese would be the best, rooted as it is in a nation prospering rather than declining in economic and political power.

If utility is the criterion, this may mean Gaelic has little future because it has been making a good job of dying out all by itself. To take a salient example, till the 1920s it

was still the language of the majority in the county of Argyll, but nowadays we would need to look very hard to find a single community, certainly on the mainland, where Gaelic is the norm.

And it is not a matter of Lowland imperialism. If an English-speaking customer goes into a Highland village shop, the local customers will switch to speaking English too. Gaels are courteous people, and they would not want visitors to get a sense of being aliens in this corner of the country.

I know a couple far out in the west, who are not themselves native Gaels but who are having their sons educated in a Gaelic-medium school. The lads tell me it is useful if they are playing football against a rival team that is all English-speaking, because then they can shout out to one another without letting their opponents know what they are up to. But outside school they switch immediately to English, and never otherwise use Gaelic. This destroys the whole point of trying to educate pupils in a Gaelic-speaking environment in the hope this will somehow spill over into the English-speaking part of their lives, creating a bilingual zone that could tip one way or the other. In the real world this is not how a language is transmitted.

A modern community may just about remain Gaelic-speaking if it carries on all its everyday life in the language, and otherwise keeps the rising tide of English at bay. The fact of the present situation, however, is that more and more of everyday life is being lost to Gaelic.

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Till recently, Highland religion was still a stronghold of Gaelic. The very first time I witnessed it being spoken in the street without self-consciousness came as I heard a congregation skailing from a free kirk at Aultbea in Wester Ross. But on another holiday I was told about visitors curious to hear the ancient tongue in use who had been warned against just dropping frivolously by into a pulpit. They were asked: “Have you come for God or have you come for the Gaelic?” It should remind us that, for all its now fragmentary nature, the culture of the Highlands still treasures the sacred over the secular. And it has been preserved by the efforts of the people themselves, not by official patronage or political action.

Even the remnant is now under threat too. The Free Church College in Edinburgh has been training candidates for the ministry for nearly 100 years, and many of the men now serving congregations in the north went through it. In them Presbyterianism maintained its local credentials right up till, a few years ago, not a single Gaelic speaker with strong enough qualifications otherwise could be found to embark on the course of studies.

This means that in the foreseeable future there will be no more Gaelic-speaking ministers or congregations, and the Gospel will be spread only in English. It will be another blow, perhaps fatal, to the old culture. It does not sound to me as if political gestures are a plausible solution.