John Macleod, president of Mòd organisers An Comunn Gàidhealach, urged Scotland’s political leaders to seek Unesco status for the islands’ “living cultural heritage”.
Competitors from Scotland and across the world converge on Lewis this week for the first time since 2011 as 200 competitions take place in Gaelic music and song, along with highland dancing, sport, literature and drama.
This year’s event, which began with a traditional torchlight procession last night, marks the 125th anniversary of An Comunn Gàidhealach, the Gaelic national organisation. An Comunn was founded out of concern for the Gaelic language at a time when the number of speakers in Scotland was 254,000. At the last census in 2011, that figure was down to 57,000.
“Time is short,” said Mr Macleod in his opening address. “We have recently heard that in these islands nearly twice as many people are dying every year than are being born. The consequence for the future of the language is clear.
“The Western Isles should be specifically supported as a language preservation and development area. That does not mean this is the only area where Gaelic will survive. Gaelic will survive elsewhere in Scotland where the number of speakers continues to increase, but if the special environment that still exists in the Western Isles is lost, the very heart of the language will be lost.”
Mr Macleod pointed out that since 2008, nearly 400 cultural traditions worldwide have been listed by Unesco as meriting support to maintain their unique “intangible cultural heritage”, ranging from oral traditions to performing arts, traditional dances and craftsmanship, but none of these is in the United Kingdom.
“I believe that the distinctive “seann nòs” of our Gaelic heritage in Scotland, and in particular the Western Isles, deserves to be recognised alongside these other cultural traditions.
“Unesco listing of our ‘seann nòs’ tradition would provide a further strengthening of the Gaelic tradition of the Western Isles, and I appeal to our political leaders in Scotland to take the necessary steps to achieve this.
“The effect of a UNESCO designation would mean a commitment to protect and promote such activity that would be officially identified as a ‘living cultural heritage’.”
But he urged those attending this year’s Mòd to be optimistic about Gaelic, and to use the language with confidence and pride.
“If the 2016 Royal National Mòd leads to strengthened Gaelic communites in the Western Isles that will be a major legacy to leave behind,” he concluded.