SCOTLAND'S oldest living language has suffered a serious blow in its last remaining heartland.
The Gaelic-speaking Wee Frees have plans to scrap communion services in the language in the Western Isles.
A committee of Free Kirk leaders wants to ditch the local language services, which are the focal point of island church life, and replace them with English, so that congregations will not be split during the Sacrament.
They have blamed the lack of preachers fluent in the language, as well as the changing face of Hebridean society, which has seen a decline in the number of Gaelic speakers.
But the move has been attacked by language supporters, who have accused the church of ignoring loyal Gaelic churchgoers to cater for a minority of English-speaking "incomers".
Prior to the rise of Gaelic education and broadcasting in the 1980s and 1990s, the churches, especially the Free Church, were the only public forum where the language was used.
The move has been drawn up by a special committee of the Free Church of Scotland's Western Isles Presbytery. The team of ministers and elders have drawn up plans to streamline the "marathon" of services around communion times.
Free Kirk leaders say that attendances on Thursday and Friday are dwindling because of modern working patterns, and that the rising number of non-Gaelic speakers mean that they are struggling to cope with demand for services in both Gaelic and English.
The plans are being distributed to Kirk Sessions around the Western Isles.
However, they have been attacked by campaigners for the language.
Finlay MacLeod, who set up a network of nursery schools and fast-track courses in the language, said: "This is a very serious blow. Stopping communion services is just a step towards stopping more Gaelic services. And I don't think that this move will benefit the church in the long run. In areas of the mainland where the church abandoned the language, the church still declined in a couple of generations.
Matthew MacIver CBE, the chairman of B"rd na Gidhlig, the Government's official Gaelic quango, said: "Although this is a decision for the Church and its members, we would hope that they recognise the importance of regular services in Gaelic to normalising use of the language."
The Free Kirk defended the move. Malcolm MacLeod, the clerk of the Free Church's Western Isles Presbytery, said: "The plan has not been fully agreed yet, but it is under discussion. I am a big supporter of the Gaelic language, many of our ministers are, and I'm sorry to see its decline. But we see a situation where there is more demand for English services and less for Gaelic. We have to meet that demand."