The economic fate of the north-west seaboard may hinge more strongly on strengthening Gaelic education than has been previously imagined. Ground-breaking research, which explored for the first time links between the Gaelic arts, economic development and education, found that people who do not speak the language are far less likely to be supportive of its role or optimistic about its future.
The study, by Alan Sproull and Douglas Chalmers of Glasgow Caledonian University, was based on a survey of 2,028 over-18s in the Outer Isles and Skye and Lochalsh. This represents a quarter of the homes contacted in the area and covered 7 per cent of the adult population.
Malcolm MacLean, director of Proiseact nan Ealan (the National Gaelic Arts Agency), which commissioned the research unveiled at a two-day conference in Inverness last week, said it was "the largest data set of its kind ever assembled about any European minority culture". One conclusion, however, is less heartening: an influential 10 per cent of the west Highland population place no social or economic value on Gaelic. "These individuals appear to be heavily represented in the upper reaches of the professional, business and public sector hierarchies," Dr Sproull and Mr Chalmers state.
In his address to the conference Brian Wilson, the Education and Gaelic Minister, acknowledged pockets of hostility which were "significant and disproportionately influential". In one of his strongest statements since becoming minister, Mr Wilson said: "The overwhelming priority is to ensure, through the education system, that the pool of Gaelic speakers is replenished, widened and deepened. That is the overriding priority to which every other activity is subordinate."
Later, he gave a strong indication that he expected education authorities to provide Gaelic-medium schooling where there is "reasonable" parental demand - pressure that Lowland councils have resisted, at least until they see the colour of the Scottish Office's money.
Even in the Western Isles, the conference heard, only 26 per cent of primary pupils are educated through Gaelic (although 32 per cent started out in primary 1 Gaelic-medium classes last year compared with 30 per cent the year before).
But the Gaelic Arts Agency is heartened by findings that show, for example, a remarkable 60 per cent who believe Gaelic arts and culture are "essential" to the economic development of the west Highlands and islands. Sixty-four per cent said they were optimistic about the future of the language.
Around 35 per cent of respondents reported that cultural activities in the language - through live events, arts products, television and radio - had increased their willingness to educate their children through Gaelic. But support waned among monoglot English speakers, graduates, the highly skilled and the affluent.
Mr MacLean said: "Arts and education were the driving forces of economic and business development, rather than the reverse as has been commonly assumed. A window of opportunity has now opened up, particularly in pressing this case on the Scottish parliament."
The Sproull report prompted calls for the arts to be given a central place in the curriculum. Fears will have been fuelled by the Scottish Arts Council survey, reported exclusively in The TES Scotland last week, which confirmed that music, drama and art were falling victim to cutbacks.
Anne Lorne Gillies, the leading Gaelic singer and educationist, said: "If you are good at languages or maths or science, there are many opportunities to do better. If you are not good at these subjects, you get more work to do until you get better. But if you are not good in any of the arts, you are told not to bother." It was a "poisonous" attitude.
But Mr MacLean commented: "The research shows that communities place a far higher value on the arts than anyone previously assumed. The education authorities and the Scottish Office have a responsibility to respond to that."
The Education Minister announced two small grants of at least pound;10,000 to promote Gaelic music in pubs and clubs and a pound;10,000 grant for children's story tapes. Money is also in prospect for Gaelic school books.