GAELIC. It is much debated, much researched and often controversial. It is, by turn, a political football, a national pride, and a confuser of the inattentive driver. To some, a waste of money, to others, starved of cash.

Whatever your opinion of Gaelic, the number of fluent speakers is going down and the decades-long effort to reverse the trend has yet to bear fruit. The same ­conversations happen year in and year out as we wrestle with the same issues. It’s like Gaelic Groundhog Day.

If Gaelic is to be “saved” in any ­meaningful way, we need a radical change in how we approach it, and that change has to start in the Gaidhealtachd itself – not by creating new speakers – but by inspiring those of us who already speak it.

Tiree is considered among the last ­remaining native-speaking communities, but research published in 2020 – The ­Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community – showed a dramatic decline in ­vernacular (native) speakers. Fewer than 30% of the Tiree population were Gaelic-speaking at the time of publication. In the years since, that has reduced still further. I know ­because I have been at the funerals.

Even as a reasonably confident Gaelic speaker, my opportunities to use Gaelic in Tiree are limited. I use it with some of the more willing older speakers – particularly in the context of crofting and fishing, or at funerals and animal sales. Over the last few years, a few of us “younger” ones have ­taken to proactively speaking to each other in public, or in the shop or pub, starting ­conversations in Gaelic and carrying on – trying to break the discomfort we feel.

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We’re ignoring the desire to be polite in the company of English speakers, and ­finishing our conversations in Gaelic ­before switching language.

Tiree is not alone in this challenge. ­Historically, the primary means of trying to solve the problem throughout the country has been to create new speakers, by means of Gaelic Medium Education (GME), and adult language classes.

In 2014 Dr Stuart Dunmore noted that the ­number of former GME pupils who were fluent and regularly using the language was ­disappointingly low. As Gaelic usage ­continues to ­decline, the ­evidence suggests that this ­education-focused approach has failed our ­native-speaking communities. With so much invested in it over the last 30 years, few have the courage to stand up and say that out loud.

The truth is that in a desire to do the right thing, we have “educationalised” Gaelic to the point that everyone is ­suffering.

Older, native speakers, with ­beautiful, lyrical, spoken Gaelic, steeped in their ­dialects and with idiomatic turns of phrase I would die for, often think that their Gaelic isn’t good enough because it isn’t “school Gaelic”. They might use it among themselves, but rarely with my generation.

The majority of school-age kids don’t regularly hear Gaelic at home or in the community. So how can they possibly ­become confidently fluent?

The National: It's going to take more than street signs to keep Gaelic culture aliveIt's going to take more than street signs to keep Gaelic culture alive

Learners are often taught a ­formalised Gaelic which can be ­incomprehensible to the older vernacular speaker. In ­conversation, the vernacular speaker ­defaults to English because they feel ­inferior, and the learner assumes that they are being snubbed, resulting in a ­misconception of snobbery on both sides.

Because Gaelic has needed to ­develop vocabulary for a new world, a ­multitude of words has been created. Gaelic ­orthography has been ­standardised, as has phrasing. That increasing ­standardisation has created a homogeneous dialect all of its own, beloved of the Gaelic ­college in Skye, rampant in the media, and ­baffling for many without “formal” Gaelic ­education.

If you take the combination of all of the above, the systematic oppression of ­Gaelic in the education system in my ­father’s era, the idea that “Gaelic will ­never get you anywhere”, which pervaded island communities until very recently, and a mainland-based Gaelic ­development agency focused on Gaelic education and teaching learners from scratch, you get to where you are today.

A language on its knees in much of its heartland – speakers disheartened, activists exhausted, and an overwhelming sense of the inevitable.

Since the research into vernacular ­usage was published, there has ensued a lively debate, kicked off by the ­suggestion that a formal Gaidhealtachd should be created – a way of recognising the ­remaining vernacular communities and committing to supporting Gaelic there as robustly as possible.

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The concept created an outcry among the urban speakers. There really is no ­winning.

Tragically, we won’t know how many native speakers we have left, or have lost because the census in 2022 didn’t ask about the extent of an individual’s Gaelic understanding, speech, writing or ­reading. In data terms, a few rounds of Duolingo will have equal weight in ­comparison to a lifetime’s usage. That will muddy the waters enough to ­annoy everyone and provide very little useful ­information.

There’s nothing to be done about that now. We need to move forward. The ­answer is not to fight over who constitutes a native speaker, or where the boundaries of a Gaidhealtachd lie. The answer is not in throwing yet more resources at GME, and the answer is not in the mountains of Gaelic plans that public bodies and ­institutions churn out on annual rotation – sucking up immense amounts of time and energy.

The answer is not in learners’ Gaelic classes either. It is important people learn but right now it is more important that the people we still have speak.

Because I think that the answer lies in inspiring our existing speakers to use their language with confidence and pride. ­Everything else should flow from that. Hearing Gaelic in the community lets others know that it is valid and ­normal. It shows youngsters in GME that it has value and purpose. It provides the ­fertile ground we need to grow ­language usage. There are already inspiring ­examples of that work in Lewis and Uist, among others.

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In Tiree last week, I gave a wee speech at the school awards ceremony. Not a word of Gaelic was uttered apart from the introduction I gave, and to translate the names of the prize winners for Gaelic. Not even in a school in a Gaelic heartland is the language natural in a setting like a prize-giving.

That is not to criticise the teachers – whose Gaelic is beautiful and whose commitment is incredible. It’s a criticism of a system, and institutional attitudes. It’s a criticism of us all. I am also guilty. There are many people – including ­current school pupils – with whom I should speak Gaelic, but this strange block occurs, where it feels odd to do it because it is so unfamiliar, and so I take the easy way out, and I don’t.

I need to change that. But for it to work, others need to change it too. We ­cannot keep burying our heads in the sand, and hoping that Gaelic will be saved by some form of magical thinking and yet ­another round of research. We have to do the hard work – in our Gaelic-speaking ­communities – and it has to be all of us. It can’t just be the long-suffering Gaelic Development Officers ploughing a lonely furrow. It has to be a team effort.

In this same week, we started a new ­initiative in Tiree, creating two roles at Urras Thiriodh, the development trust. The goal is to unlock the store of Gaelic we already have, and to encourage our ­existing and latent speakers to use it with pride – in an effort to galvanise and ­inspire our next generation. We can’t do it without them.

Saving Gaelic as a language – that’s easy. It can be taught and spoken ­anywhere. New communities have and will appear. Saving its soul – the deep-rooted, culturally precious tongue which should be the lifeblood of its remaining native-speaking communities? That would be priceless.