A SEX scandal and the indifference of the young to their native tongue have created a chronic shortage of Gaelic-speaking Wee Free ministers in the island heartland of the faith and language.
Six Free Church of Scotland churches in Lewis and Harris, where up to 5,000 of Scotland’s 12,000 Wee Frees live, are without a pastor and practically every local clergyman is now "doubling up" to maintain Sunday worship.
Stornoway, regarded as the world centre of the Church, is affected, along with Barvas, Lochs, Scalpay, Park and Carloway, and Church sources fear it may never fully recover.
Barvas and Lochs have been without a minister for two years since the Free Church was split over its handling of allegations of sexual misconduct against the Rev Donald MacLeod, one of the Church’s leading modernisers and theologians.
Mr MacLeod was cleared by a court of assaulting several women and the sheriff ruled he had been the victim of a "vicious and orchestrated" conspiracy.
Before the court case, in 1996, a church investigation had cleared Mr MacLeod of a charge of adultery brought against him by other ministers.
However, some hardliners wanted to pursue the matter, and when they were prevented from doing so they left to form the "Free Church Continuing". The "new" Church attracted 32 ministers, and it is now in a legal battle with the mainstream church over ownership of assets.
Seven of the dissidents were Gaelic preachers. Their loss, allied to fewer vocations and the apparent indifference of young islanders to Gaelic, has left the Free Church with a "seriously worrying problem".
A higher skill in Gaelic is required to preach the Gospel, and the church college has started classes to assist trainees to bridge the gap, but it will take time. "It’s time we may not have; it’s a desperately serious situation," said one church source.
At the height of the MacLeod controversy, no students applied to go to college. In the last year, a number have begun their studies, but fewer of them speak Gaelic.
The Rev James MacIver, of Garrabost, Lewis, the principal clerk to the Assembly, said: "There is definitely a shortage of men able to preach in Gaelic. Students in college have been less able to speak the language. Preaching skills are different from the conversational, and many are not confident enough."
"We are trying to encourage them. Ironically, there are more people learning Gaelic, but, conversely, in the church’s setting, fewer of the younger generation are able to follow services in Gaelic," he said.
"If there was a choice between Gaelic and English, most would choose English. It is a concern for the future. The church has maintained the language and wants to continue to do that.
"The important thing is the Gospel, and if people in any generation say that should be in English you can see the dilemma for the church."
Mr MacIver said the church badly needs more Gaelic-speaking clergymen and said it was impossible to separate the MacLeod "factor" from the equation.
He said: "The split took 32 ministers; a number were nearing retirement and others were in English-speaking churches, but I reckon we lost seven Gaelic preachers. That had an immediate affect. When you add it to other factors, the problem becomes acute.
"Those who split from the church wanted to be tougher on the Rev MacLeod, even though he was cleared in law and by the church. It’s a sadness, and I can see no light in terms of coming together again.
The Rev Alex MacDonald, editor of the Record, the church’s periodical, added: "The situation was that there were a couple of years when we didn’t have students going to college - around the time we were having problems over Mr MacLeod and the split. Stornoway is one of those in difficulty, the last place you would have thought would have problems."