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The Western Isles has fewer native speakers of Gaelic than it did in 2011 – even though more people now say they can speak or understand some of the language.

That’s according to a report released today (Tuesday 21 May) by Scotland’s Census – the first in what is to be a series of reports digesting the information gathered by the delayed census in 2022.

The islands are still the Gaelic heartland, with 57.2% of the population saying they have ‘some’ Gaelic skills. That’s way beyond the 8.1% in Highland and 6.2% quoted in Argyll and Bute.

But with only 45% of the population saying that they speak Gaelic, this is the first time in many centuries that the language of the Gaels is a minority language in every local authority area in Scotland.

Na h-Eileanan an Iar MSP Alasdair Allan has acknowledged that the 2022 census paints a ‘mixed picture’ for the Gaelic language, with what he described as ‘the continued erosion of the language’ in traditional communities throughout the islands.

He said: “Nationally, the 2022 census data gives a positive picture for Gaelic, with 2.5% of the Scottish population now possessing some skills in Gaelic.

“There is cause for concern for the vernacular language in our rural and island communities, however. The percentages within the strongest Gaelic communities, such as Barvas and South Uist, have fallen from 64% to 55%. 

“This is not solely a language issue, and clearly reflects the islands’ challenging demographic situation, along with housing, transport, and the economy. The overall situation is a mixed picture.

“Today’s census release will focus the ongoing discussions surrounding the Scottish Languages Bill, introduced by the Scottish Government, to ensure that it supports the maintenance of the languages in communities like Na h-Eileanan an Iar.”

Deputy First Minister and minister for Gaelic Kate Forbes MSP – herself a Gaelic speaker – reportedly told BBC Scotland this morning that she was “extremely optimistic” about the future of the language. 

Overall, today’s report on ethnic group, national identity, language and religion paints a picture of a cultural change in the Western Isles.

As well as a shift in language, the 2022 census identified a change of religious identity, with the percentage of people with ‘no religion’ increasing from 11.4% in 2001 to 29.9% in 2022.

Na h-Eileanan Siar was one of only two council areas (with Inverclyde) where ‘no religion’ was not the dominant answer.

In the islands, 35.3% of people said they were Church of Scotland.

Later summaries from Scotland’s Census will include focus reports on demography and migration, housing, education, health, disability and unpaid care.