The row about whether learning Gaelic damages young pupils has provoked a dramatic upsurge in people using the new Duolingo Gaelic app where the number of users has soared past the 200,000 mark after being at 130,000 only three weeks ago, it was reported on Saturday 25 January.  

And the row has split the Scottish Conservative party with the claim that their education spokesman Liz Smith was only expressing a personal opinion. 

Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP Donald Cameron said: ”Personally, I support the decision of the Comhairle to change the default position to Gaelic at P1, not least because parents can still opt out and choose English medium education for their children if they so wish.

“Ultimately, this is a matter for the local authority taking into account the specific, indeed unique, circumstances in the Western Isles.

“Bilingualism is plainly beneficial. We are all aware of the mistakes of the last century, where one language was promoted at the total exclusion of the other. In terms of this policy, I am very confident that council officials will ensure that parents who do “opt out” are not marginalised in any way. 

“It’s also important the policy is deliverable across the Western Isles in light of the challenges we face in recruiting GME teachers on a national level.

“The Scottish Conservatives have supported Gaelic for over 40 years both in government at UK level, and latterly in the Scottish Parliament, where MSPs such as Liz Smith, myself and others regularly promote the language.

“As the Vice-Convenor of the Cross-Party Group on Gaelic, I’ve frequently argued for the need to depoliticise the language, given the ongoing threat to the very existence of Gaelic itself.” 

Liz Smith stated on Twitter: “May l apologise to those members of the Gaelic community who have been offended. My concerns did not relate to the quality of GME teaching and learning, both of which have such a strong record.”

The Comhairle said in response that it “appreciates the apology from Liz Smith and recognises that the initial statement she made contained her own personal views and not the official position of the Conservative party. It is clear that she remains concerned about the Comhairle’s position and, as previously stated, she is welcome to come and meet with us to address these issues. We can then all look forward to working together to develop and promote the Gaelic language.”

There was continued support for the position of CnES on Twitter: “My great grandparents were native speakers but it was lost in two generations as children were punished for using Gaelic and English was imposed. Shameful,” said one.

And Paul Wheelhouse MSP said that “Ironically, Liz’s original comments may have boosted Duolingo’s Gàidhlig student numbers.”

What Liz Smith, MSP, Scottish Conservative shadow education spokeswoman, said was that the move towards "default" Gaelic Medium education was "A deeply troubling step and one that could put children in the Western Isles at a distinct disadvantage to their peers."

She was also reported in the Scotsman newspaper as saying: “This worrying move will inevitably put pressure on primary children in the Western Isles to speak Gaelic for those first crucial years of school. That could have all sorts of consequences that have clearly not been considered fully.”

Responding Brian Wilson, former newspaper editor and former Government minister, wrote in the Scotsman: "There is no danger of any child growing up without competence in English because they are taught through the medium of Gaelic. And, of course, parents can opt out if they don’t fancy it for their child.

"I challenge anyone to produce evidence that children with Gaelic competence are disadvantaged in education or life. That exists only as a prejudice. There is, however, abundant evidence of enhanced performance through bilingualism.

"Some say “why not offer Italian or Mandarin”? I agree. Scotland has an abysmal record on language teaching. Immersing children in a second language during early primary years need not be restricted to Gaelic. Responding to that demand, where it exists, would be a positive, creative approach – rather than nasty, negative sniping.

"But this is at the other end of that spectrum – a practical attempt to maintain continuity in places where Gaelic is a living language, but still an imperiled one. As for the Tory education lady who said silly things, she should check her own party’s record over recent decades on pro-Gaelic initiatives. From the days of George Younger, they have been positive and respected. She should not break the consensus in pursuit of cheap applause."