Bòrd na Gàidhlig said that the travel subsidy would address the exorbitant costs faced by young Gaelic-speaking people, and “ensure parity” with their peers in the rest of Scotland
The public body said the need for regular ferry travel was essential for employment as well as sporting and cultural events, but it warned that a failure to take into account the financial repercussions meant that the islands would become a “less attractive” proposition for younger generations.
The Scottish Government announced plans in March to extend free bus travel to include 19 to 21 year-olds, and Transport Scotland is seeking views on the proposal as part of an Islands Community Impact Assessment (ICIA).
Bòrd na Gàidhlig said that unless the issue was addressed at a local level, it would affect “the future viability of Gaelic-speaking island communities,” and undermine the use of Gaelic nationwide.
In its submission to the assessment, the agency pointed out that between 2011 and 2018, the number of residents aged 16 to 24 have fallen by 10 per cent in Lewis and eight per cent in Uist.
There is also a projected fall of 6.1 per cent in the population of the Outer Hebrides between 2018 to 2028, considerably higher than forecast decreases in the Highlands and Islands (1.2 per cent) and Scotland as a whole (1.8 per cent).
Citing research for Highlands and Islands Enterprise among 15 to 30 year-olds, which shows that 64 per cent regard affordable and reliable transport as essential to making the region a more attractive place to live, it said: “The failure to address ferry fare costs for young people will have a significantly different impact on some island communities compared to non-Gaelic speaking islands and mainland Scotland.”
It said the free ferry travel should apply to all services, including internal links, such as the Berneray to Leverburgh, and Eriskay to Barra crossings.
Daibhidh Boag, director of language planning and community developments at Bòrd na Gàidhlig, said: “The population profile of islands and the rural Highlands is probably the biggest challenge the area faces. Gaelic sits within that debate and anything we can do to retain and attract young people is a good thing.
“For Gaelic to flourish it has to be in the context of housing, transport, employment and connectivity.”
A spokeswoman for Transport Scotland said: “We are carrying out an island communities impact assessment on the free bus travel for under 22s scheme that we will publish later in the summer.
“Our existing Young Persons Concessionary Travel Scheme provides 16-18 year old islanders four free ferry journeys to or from the mainland every year.
“We have invested significantly in reducing ferry fares for all passengers through the roll out of road equivalent tariff in recent years, and under 16s travel for half fare and under fives for free on CalMac and NorthLink services.”
She added: “We are looking at ferry fares through our review of concessionary travel across modes for under 26-year-olds and the islands connectivity plan.”