When it comes to the Gaelic language, many people are unaware of its origin. How Gaelic was once the language that dominated the majority of Scotland . Many wonder how it managed to go into decline over the years, but I hope that by writing about this subject it will enlighten, educate, and even encourage folk to learn more about this ancient Scottish language.

How did Gaelic become so dominant, how did it lose it's way; how did it become associated so closely with the highlands, and now with the Western Isles? When did it first reach here, and how did it change once it was here? When did various regions last have native speakers of Gaelic? This introduction tries to answer these questions and more.

Celtic Roots

It begins, according to tradition with that of the Gaels and the descent from Adam, and how Gaelic was spoken in the Garden of Eden. Jacob and his tribe emigrated to Thrace and eventually to Egypt , where they met a princess called Scota. Over many generations, the community moved to Carthage and eventually to Galicia in Spain , until they were dislodged after long and fierce campaigns with the Romans. They moved to Ireland , and through marriage became the high kings.

Gaelic History

Scottish Gaelic is a language of the Celtic family - it is a close relative of Welsh, Cornish and Breton, but shares a more intimate relationship with Irish and Manx Gaelic. These three Gaelic or Goidelic languages descend from a common ancestor, spoken in Ireland in the late first millennium BC and early first millennium AD. Writers in Latin referred to the inhabitants of Ireland , and thus the speakers of this ancestoral language, as Scoti, and to Ireland as Scotia , but early in the middle ages, they adopted a name for themselves from their British cousins - Goídil, Gaels. From about the first century AD the Gaels started to come to Scotland from Ireland . The first Irish Gaels, the Scots, arrived in Scotland around 450 AD from Scoti across the Sea of Moyle settling in Argyll ( Earra Ghàidheal ), which they called Dal Riata .

Celtic Cross

In 523 AD, St Columba came from Ulster and settled in the Isle of Iona bringing Christianity to Scotland , England and parts of Europe . The consolidation of the kingdom of Dál Riata and the ancient province of Ulster around the 4th century, linked the north of Ireland and western Scotland together, this of course accelerated the expansion of Gaelic, as did the success of the Gaelic-speaking church establishment . This is an argument which has been hotly debated in recent years, with suggestions of the possibility that Gaelic evolved as a language simultaneously in Argyll and in Ireland has been advanced. Whatever the truth of the matter, by the sixth century it was the language of the rulers of Argyll, and of their kingdom of Dál Riada, which still included parts of County Antrim in the north of Ireland. It was the language also of its churchmen, who still had close kinship and political ties to Ireland .

Iona Abbey

Gaelic settlements were limited at this time. North of Ardnamurchan, east of the mountains, south of the Clyde, lay speakers of other Celtic languages, Pictish and British and beyond them to the south, speakers of the ancestor of lowland Scots, northern Old English. In the subsequent centuries, although their numbers and territory continued to expand, Gaels were one people among many in northern Britain , and far from the most powerful in political terms. In the church though, they were highly influential, Gaelic churchmen played a large part in converting many parts of Scotland to Christianity, and right through the 9th century (and beyond) men from eastern Scotland would travel to Ireland for their church education.

Iona and Dalriata flourished as a centre of civilisation, keeping the lamp of learning alive after the fall of the Roman Empire and the dark ages descending on England and the rest of Europe . The Celts in both Scotland and Ireland remained out with Roman influence and it was from Ireland that the Gaels would come to Scotland . In the 9th century, during a time of great upheaval caused by Viking invaders all around Britain 's shores, The Gaels wanted power in eastern, as well as western Scotland . By 900 the old name of Pictland was no more, and a new Gaelic name for that kingdom Alba was adopted, and with it a new identity as Fir Alban (‘the Men of Alba') was being promoted. While establishing themselves in the new land, they were fiercely resisted by the established Pictish people, particularly in the northeast of Scotland . The Gaels did eventually take over the kingdom of the Picts in the north east of Scotland and then the other kingdoms in southern Scotland as well. It was not until 843 that the Gaelic leader, Kenneth MacAlpin united the Picts and the Gaels and became the first ruler of Alba , the Gaelic name for Scotland , which comprised mostly of Scotland north of Forth and Clyde . This was to proceed to create Scotland as a single kingdom within its present boundaries by 1013 AD, Scotland is therefore older than England, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Belgium and other European countries, Alba has since remained the Gaelic name for Scotland. The Scoti thus became the major players in the kingdom which would bear their name in English as Scotland . The kings of Alba boasted Gaelic names like Domhnall, Maolcholaim, Aodh, and Donnchadh, and one dynasty ruled that kingdom right through to the 12th century and beyond.

North of the Forth , Gaelic speech supplanted Pictish entirely. South of it, the kings of Alba made conquest as far as the Tweed by 1018, and in their wake came nobles from the north and their retainers, bringing Gaelic speech into south-east Scotland .

This was not the only way in which Gaelic was expanding in Scotland at this time. The Vikings who had destabilised Britain so greatly in the 9th century settled in great numbers along the northern and western seaboard. In many places they, and their Scandinavian language, were in the minority. Self-consciously hybrid communities sprang up, such as the Gall-Ghàidhil, ‘Scandinavian Gaelic-speakers', who went on to colonise the south-west of Scotland , giving it its name, Galloway (later confined to one portion of the south-west), and peppering the landscape with Gaelic place-names. By the 12th century, too, Scandinavian noblemen in the west had Gaelic nicknames, and could speak Gaelic, from Dublin to the Outer Hebrides . These men, with their Viking names like Oláfr, Ljodr, Ívarr, Thorketill were the new Gaels of the central middle ages. Their descendants, as MacAmhlaibh, MacLeòid, MacÌomhair, MacCorcadail, and many others, would be the lordly families of the later middle ages and early modern period. During the course of the 12th and 13th centuries, the western isles that had been most thoroughly settled by Scandinavians - Skye, Barra, the Uists, Harris and Lewis - began to become Gaelic-speaking communities, both through the increasing use of Gaelic by the ruling elite, and through less perceptible changes further down the social scale as well.

This period - the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries - was one in which the great Gaelic families were founded and began to make their fortunes. Families like Clann Dòmhnaill, descendants of Scandinavian Gaels, who ruled as lords of the Isles for 200 years; but also like the Frasers (na Frisealaich), who drew their descent from Anglo-Norman settlers from south of the Forth; or the earls of the Lennox, whose ancestor bore the Old English name Ælwine. The Campbells saw themselves as descendants of northern Britons (indeed, of Arthur!) and of Normans , as well as of Gaels. To be a Gael, in the middle ages, then, was to be a speaker of Gaelic, it was not a racial or an ethnic tag. Gaelic clans looked to multiple lands for their ancestry, not just the Highlands . During the 12th century a leader arose, Somerled was his name. Somerled was of mixed Norse and Gaelic origin himself. When he married the Norse King's daughter, this gave him a right to more of the Norse land. Unfortunately, for the Norse King, Somerled ended up fighting him, and the land was again divided up in favour of the Gaels.

In 1164, Somerled went to fight the King of Scotland, Malcolm IV, but he was murdered by his own page in the town of Renfrew . Some people look upon this as a great tragedy for the Gaels, because if Somerled had won the battle against Malcolm IV, Gaelic, rather than English or Scots, would have become and possibly remained the dominant language in Scotland . The land that Somerled had gained for himself, the land of Argyll and the Southern half of the Hebrides , was divided up between his sons. From them we have the clans McDougal and McDonald. These were the most powerful clans for the next three to four hundred years. They continued to add to the lands ruled over by the Lords of the Isles by marriage alliances, and by making bonds with the Scottish Kings.
In 1462, they had incurred the wrath of the Scottish King, by making a treaty between the English King and themselves, against the Scots. This was seen as too much, and the lands of the Lordship of the Isles were forfeited.

For at this time, prior to the 14th century, the Highlands did not exist as a concept , although the Gaelic language had displaced Pictish north of the Forth, until the late 15th century it was known in Inglis as Scottis Gaelic, a descendant of the Goidelic branch of Celtic and closely related to Irish, which is the traditional language of the Scotti or Gaels. The language became the historical language of the majority of Scotland after it replaced Cumbric, Pictish and Norse. It is not acurate just how long Gaelic had been spoken in what by now was known as Scotland, but It is believed that Gaelic was spoken in areas before Roman times, place name evidence shows that Gaelic was spoken in the Rhinns of Galloway by the 5th or 6th century. The culture of the Gaels spread throughout the country, and their language became the language of the king, court and most of the common people. James IV (1473-1513) was the last Scottish monarch to speak Gaelic.

By about the tenth century Gaelic was the official language of all of Scotland and Ireland , the traditional language of the Scotti or Gaels. The kings of Northumberland sent their sons to Iona to be educated, and the influence and reputation of the Gaels spread throughout Europe . They settled in the Faroes and Iceland , travelled to North America before the Vikings, and traded with the Mediterranean over a thousand years ago. They invented tartan and whisky, brought the bagpipes and introduced most of the characteristics by which Scotland is internationally known today

The Slow Road to Decline

In thinking about Gaelic in Scotland , we often think of it as in terminal decline from the time of Queen Margaret and her sons. Yet studies indicate that the 12th century was the time when the most ubiquitous Gaelic place-names, those employing the words baile ‘farm, settlement', and achadh ‘field', were coined. By the beginning of the 15th century, there was a highland-lowland line beginning to emerge, various circumstances would bring in the Highland-Lowland divide, now so familiar to us. This would further reduce the sway of Gaelic speech, which was already in decline in Scotland by the beginning of the 13th century .The status of Gaelic as the national language also went into decline as a result. Scottish Gaelic became more correctly known as Highland Gaelic to distinguish it from the now defunct Lowland Gaelic . Lowland Gaelic was spoken in the southern regions of Scotland prior to the introduction of Lowland Scots. There is, however, no evidence of a linguistic border following the topographical north-south differences. Similarly, there is no evidence from place names of significant linguistic differences between, for example, Argyll and Galloway . Dialects on both sides of the Straits of Moyle linking Scottish Gaelic with Irish are now extinct. For although the kings of Alba, the kings of the Scots, still boasted of their Gaelic and Irish ancestry, they were progressive Europeans as well, bringing in new religious structures and monastic orders from England and the Continent; opening up the central belt and east coast to trade through the establishment of urban enterprise zones - the burghs - and changing fundamentally the way land and lordship operated. The personnel who effected these changes in many areas - Clydesdale, for instance, or Fife - were largely drawn from furth of Scotland . In burghs and in the church, the majority language came to be, over the course of the 13th and 14th centuries, the language we now know as lowland Scots, but which was then simply Inglis, English. Though burghs like Perth or Elgin must have had many Gaels working and living in them, most burghs did not. So too the great monasteries like Lindores or Arbroath were staffed largely by people who spoke the language which gave rise to Scots.

A map of burghs and new monasteries founded during this period is a telling one: the borders, the central belt, the east coast are dotted with new foundations, the western seaboard and the highlands on the whole are bare. Divergent cultures, as well as divergent speech zones, were emerging. From the 14th and 15th century, too, Inglis - Scots - was becoming an increasingly official language, and especially a language of law. By the 16th century, even those great Gaelic magnates who patronised, and indeed composed, Gaelic poetry used Scots for their correspondence, and for their tombstones.

The penultimate nail in the coffin for the Gaelic culture was when the Act called the” Statutes of Iona” was passed in 1609, the high point of Gaelic society and culture was coming to an end. This act prohibited many things normal to Gaelic culture. In particular the travelling of vagabonds. This was the name given by the Government to the Bards and Musicians who travelled freely between Ireland and Scotland , from one great house to another, praising the Chiefs who were the very substance of Gaelic society. The act also prohibited the bearing of arms, and drunken revelry. The Statutes also stated that the chief's oldest son should be educated in the Lowlands . This was most insidious, as it meant that the future Chiefs would be alien to their own culture, they would learn a different language, different ways, and different values.
Before this act was passed, Gaelic society and culture had been at its highest point for the last four hundred years.

With the growth of urban centres and the emergence of Scots as the language of the royal court in the 15th and 16th centuries, Gaelic began to lose its dominance. This was accelerated by the adoption in turn of English as the official language of the country following the 1707 Act of Union, which confirmed what had been the de facto position in the more populous Lowlands for several generations. Gaelic also suffered severely in the 18th and 19th centuries as a result of the Government attack on all aspects of Highland culture following the defeat of the Jacobites in 1746, and from the effects of the Clearances, which destroyed many Gaelic-speaking communities throughout the Highlands . The kings of Scotland, based in Edinburgh, who by then spoke English rather than Gaelic, set about taming the Gaels through persecution of the language, then by massacre in 1746 and finally by dispersion in the 19th century.

Port Nis by the Butt of Lewis During the time of the high culture, the Lordship of the Isles, a principality in the Western Highlands and Islands , provided a secure Gaelic principality for the flourishing of that culture, this no longer existed. This principality covered and area from the Isle of Man , to the Butt of Lewis. From about the 10th century, it had been squabbled over by the Kings of Norway and Scotland , also the Kings of Dublin, and the Earls of Orkney were interested in it.

In that period of a few hundred years, there was a stable system of rule. This was a time when the arts could flourish. The native education system provided training for poets, judges, historians, clerics, doctors and musicians. Although the lower echelons of Gaelic society had no formal education, and probably found the literary language of the professionals unintelligible, they had their own culture based on the vernacular form of the language. Traces of this 'low culture' survive, in Fenian ballads, and walking songs.

Since the first millennium BC, Scotland has been a place for visitors and raiders who have brought a multiple of languages and dialects and this tradition continues today. First, it was Pictish and British; then Gaelic, Norse and Scots came and today it's English, Scots and Gaelic. To think that nearly all of Scotland was once Gaelic speaking except Orkney, Shetland and Caithness, which had a variety of Norse until recent times and East Lothian that was settled by the Angles. Galloway had a Gaelic community which became separated from the Gaelic speaking Highlands and Gaelic was still in use until about the 17th century in Galloway . "Poets, scholars and writers in Lowland Scotland up until the 16th century readily acknowledged Gaelic to be the true and original Scottish language. For Walter Kennedy 'it suld be al trew Scottis mennis lede': ('Flyting with Dunbar ' c.1500)” section quoted from "Gaelic: a past and future prospect", Kenneth Mackinnon. Gaelic is a Celtic language, like Irish.

Gaelic is one of Scotland 's national languages. This status is marked on the map as much as on the mind. There are very few regions of Scotland that do not boast at least a smattering of places originally named by Gaelic speakers, from Balerno (baile airneach ‘hawthorn farm') in Midlothian to Baile Màrtainn in South Uist, from Craigentinny (creag an t-sionnaich ‘fox craig') in Edinburgh to Aultivullin (allt a' mhuilinn ‘mill burn') in the far north of Sutherland; from Drummore (druim mòr ‘big ridge') on the Mull of Galloway to Cairnbulg (càrn builg ‘gap cairn') near Fraserburgh. In many places where Gaelic is no longer spoken as a native tongue, such as Galloway, Fife , or Aberdeenshire, the landscape is still predominantly one named by Gaelic speakers.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the high point of the expansion of Gaelic as a language in Scotland, one could traverse the whole mainland of Scotland and find speakers of Gaelic in most corners, whether it be the Gaelic landowners of the Lothians like Colmán and Gille Mhuire who gave their names to Comiston and Gilmerton, or the Clydesdale serf belonging to Glasgow Cathedral, named Gille Mochaoi; or the serfs of the upper Tweed valley called Mac Cormaig and Maol Mhuire; or the men of Norse lineage but Gaelic speech who were becoming the political hard-men of the western coast and the Hebrides, men with names like Raghnall and Somhairle.
Glasgow Cathedral

As the 16 th and 17 th centuries approached, not only in regional and in economic terms, but now in terms of domain of use, Gaelic was receding. As a token of this, take the printing press - the maker of early modernity. A few religious books were printed in Gaelic in the 16th and 17th centuries, but it would not be until the end of the 18th century before Gaelic culture as a whole embraced the Gaelic printed word.
Gaelic society and culture in Scotland during its high point , was a period of learning new skills, whether it was learning to be a poet, doctor, musician, judge, or historian. This was a time when changes were inevitable if Clans were to survive. Fortunately, their society and culture are recorded through the medium of poetry, so that present day Gaels can understand what life really was like for the 'Mediaeval Gael. A good reputation meant that the ruler could stay in his position of power, and a bad reputation could inevitably create his downfall. The telling of a bad reputation was known as 'Satire', there was a very real fear of 'satire' during this time, because the Gaelic word for satire means 'cutting'. The Gaels believed that satire could bring you out in blisters, and could even cause you to die. The poet was the most important of the professions; an established poet would normally train a poet for seven years. This would consist of training in 'Classical Gaelic', and also the use of a variety of very strict meters. There were to be a specific number of syllables in every line of a poem. A third element of their training was in the various apologues that they accord. The various stories could be incorporated into a poem from Gaelic Mythology, or history, to show how the present ruler should act.
Most poems, praising the Chiefs during this period have shown them as warriors and hunters. In other poetry, we see him as Chief of the Patron of the Arts, and as a host we see him surrounded by his warriors in the great drinking halls, gambling and drinking, with the noises of his musicians and poets about him. At times like this, the Chiefs were able to confirm the allegiance of their people. He would give them wine and food, and they would return this with their loyalty in battle. Often at the end of a poem, there would be a verse about the Chiefs wife, praising her beauty.
Many examples of the type of poetry written during the high point of Gaelic culture can be read in the 'Book of the Dean of Lismore'. This manuscript was compiled between 1512 and 1542. It was compiled by, 'James McGregor', the Dean of Lismore, and his brother. It represented poetry from both professional and aristocratic amateurs. The type of poetry that was written during this period was normally based on honour and reputation, which was very important in Gaelic society.
None the less, the divide between Gael and lowlander was never a chasm. Throughout the early modern period, individuals and families moved between both zones and both cultures. Towns like Perth , Stirling, Aberdeen had long-standing relationships with Gaelic-speaking hinterlands which were close at hand. In the 15th century the lords of the isles were as often in their seats in Inverness and Dingwall as in Islay . The family whose hands scribed the most important manuscript of the Gaelic middle ages, the 16th century Book of the Dean of Lismore, boasted notary publics; in this manuscript, Gaelic poems are rendered in the spelling conventions of lowland Scots. Noble families highland and lowland married within their class as much as their culture. Political alliances such as those which wracked Scotland during the Covenanting Wars and the Jacobite Risings were made across the divisions of speech and community. It is important, too, that for these communities, Gaelic remained a high register language associated with culture and learning. Even in a place like Aberdeen Grammar School in the 16th century, Gaelic (though not Scots) was an accepted medium of conversation, alongside Latin and French.
Highland Clearances

Later successive defeats of movements and individuals who seemed tied to Gaelic culture produced a sense of unease for Gaels, and of disenfranchisement within the Scottish and British nations. The 18th century saw matters change in several dramatic ways at once. The defeat of Charles Edward Stuart at Culloden led to the targeting of images of Gaelic culture - the pipes, the tartan cloth - and thus their closer identification with that culture. The ‘discovery' of Ossian led to the elevation of Gaelic imagery within Scottish culture, and to the opening up of the highlands to tourism and the infection of the Scottish imagination with the fading relics of the Gaelic past. Gaelic culture became in the late 18th and through the 19th century ever more closely bound in to a wider Scottish identity, but it did so as a culture of the past, and through images more than through words.

At the very same time, modern Gaels were on the move, changing their locations and their horizons, and in the process modernising their culture. Gaels from the Highlands became mainstays of the British Army, helping to forge the British Empire , whilst other Gaels were thrown by economic downturn, famine and rapacious landlordism onto the ebb-tide of emigration. Some of these émigrés made for other lands: North America, Australia , New Zealand . More migrated to Scotland 's emergent industrial cities in search of work. Dundee, Edinburgh , Glasgow , and also London , became hosts to large Gaelic communities. These communities were of the highlands yet modern too. Their songs and Gaelic Societies were often nostalgic for the homeland, but could also be feverishly patriotic or enthusiastic for the new, whether it be steamboats or electoral reform. They were increasingly literate, and fuelled a burgeoning Gaelic publishing industry of books and periodicals. If the twelfth century saw the greatest extent of Gaelic in Scotland , the 19th century saw the greatest numbers of speakers, and many of them, increasingly, lived in the lowlands, in towns and in cities.

But a language needs more than sheer numbers to survive. The final decades of the 19th century saw successful struggles by Gaels for land rights in the wake of savage clearances and brutal landlordism, but it also saw the end of the fragile experiments in Gaelic-medium education, as the Education Act of 1872 brought in English as the sole medium of teaching. Subsequent reforms to allow Gaelic as a subject did not address the fundamental problem. Excluded as a language of law, and now of education, Gaelic was increasingly confined to the family, the croft and the kirk. Gaels who might have become literate in the 19th century would have less opportunity to do so in the 20th. The Gaels who populated the regiments would also take their disproportionate toll on the killing fields of the Great War.

Against a sombre backdrop of decline, the past four decades have seen increasingly significant attempts to change the status of gaelic and its fate. Migration, exclusion (partial or full) from education and legal usage, the decline in established religion, and the rise of English literacy and the media all continued to take their toll on Gaelic and its communities through the 20th century, to say nothing of the globalisation that affects all local communities in the 21st. Regions which entered the 20th century with solid Gaelic-speaking neighbourhoods, such as the Lennox, Arran, Easter Ross, Perthshire, Southern Argyll, left it with at best a rare, aged speaker still remaining. More and more, the mainland has ceded Gaelic to English speech, and the Hebrides have become the stronghold of Gaelic. And yet a slow but steady change in fortunes has marked the last half-century. Struggles to secure a modicum of Gaelic presence in the media (especially radio and television), to increase and consolidate Gaelic-medium education, and to secure Gaelic's status in law, have been partially successful.

. Gaelic signs now mark the offices of the Scottish parliament, along the High Street to the castle, where once Gaelic-speaking kings reigned, and along the streets the Perthshire poet and Edinburgh resident Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir walked two centuries ago. In Glasgow 's west end, not far from the Broomielaw where countless Gaels once alighted from ships from the west, the first full Gaelic-medium school has been established. There have never been more or better opportunities for those without Gaelic to learn. Not for many decades have there been so many good and often gainful opportunities for those with Gaelic to use it.

Gaelic still occupies a special place in Scottish culture, has never been entirely displaced of national language status, and is still recognised by many Scots, whether or not they speak Gaelic, as being a crucial part of the nation's culture. Of course, others may view it primarily as a regional language of the highlands and islands.

Gaelic Road Sign

Gaelic has a rich oral (beul aithris) and written tradition, having been the language of the bardic culture of the Highland clans for several centuries, and the survival of Gaelic has been therefore a very important factor in Scottish politics. The language preserved knowledge of and adherence to pre-feudal (tribal) laws and customs (as represented, for example, by the expressions tuatha and dùthchas). Where the language survived, therefore, people were stubbornly resistant to the rule of a lowland-centred and English-speaking Scottish state. This stubbornness was not seriously overcome until after the Scottish state had become allied with England . The language suffered especially as Highlanders and their traditions were persecuted after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and during the Highland Clearances, but pre-feudal attitudes were still evident in the complaints and claims of the Highland Land League of the late 19th century: this political movement was successful in getting members elected to the Parliament of the United Kingdom . The Land League was dissipated as a parliamentary force by the 1886 Crofters' Act.


Gaelic is the longest-standing language used in Scotland and can boast one of the richest song and oral traditions in Europe . It is part of a family of Celtic languages, which today are spoken in six separate areas: Scotland , Ireland , the Isle of Man, Wales , Cornwall and Brittany in France . Yet with this in mind, from the beginning of the 20 th century until recent years, the Gaelic language struggled within educational, legal and political systems that favoured English. As in Wales , the speaking of native languages in preference to English was often punishable in schools. Gaelic as a commonly spoken language became marginalised to the islands and rural parts of mainland Scotland . However, in the last fifty years, the decline of the language has slowed, and there are signs in recent years of an increase in its use and the number of people learning the language.

There was a steady decline in the number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland in the last hundred years. There were 230,806 Gaelic speakers in Scotland in 1901 according to the Census. There are a number of reasons for this decline, including economic ones, but it is hoped that with more support this decline will finally be halted.
By the middle of the 20th century, the language was, at a very low ebb but in the mid 1970s, there began a grass-roots renaissance which aimed to create new generations of Gaelic-speakers. There are now numerous Gaelic playgroups, Gaelic units in primary schools, Sradagan (Gaelic Youth Clubs) and many Gaelic television programmes.

Internationally renowned bands like Runrig and Capercaillie make Gaelic language and music interesting to a younger audience, and the fèisean (Gaelic tuitional festivals) and Mods (Gaelic competitive festivals) attract hundreds of young musicians. Gaelic writing is flourishing, and the National Gaelic Arts Project is involved in a wide range of cultural activities.

Gaelic Punk Band

The new face of Gaelic music. Seattle based Gaelic punk band, Mill a h-Uile Rud write and sing entirely in Gaelic and use the language on their website

Yet perhaps the real success of this movement can be seen in the way in which Gaelic is gradually being reincorporated into public life for the first time in over 200 years. Until recently, the naming of official bodies in Gaelic was virtually unknown whereas there are now over a hundred bodies, including national organisations, local authorities, banks and commercial organisations who have adopted Gaelic name. There is also a new Gaelic development agency, Bord na Gaidhlig , and at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on the Isle of Skye , full-time vocational courses are taught through Gaelic in a Gaelic environment.

Gaelic Today as well as the Future

It is only since 1984 that Gaelic has re-emerged in Scottish life as a proud part of our heritage. Today it has once more become the medium of instruction in a number of schools at primary level.
Yet there is still much to be done to ensure that Gaelic is seen to belong not to the past but as having a central role to play in Scotland 's vibrant cultural future. The 2001 General Census of Scotland recorded 58,650 Gaelic speakers, most of who live in the Outer Hebrides, the Central belt and the northern Highlands, but there is an increase in the number of those learning and speaking Gaelic who stay out with the traditional heartland areas. In fact there has been a vast increase in Gaelic learning worldwide, not just with societies and institution being formed, but with the help of educational websites which teach the language online.

In 2003, the SNP MSP Michael Russell introduced a private member's bill in the Scottish Parliament which wanted to grant Gaelic full legal equality with English in public life and see it revitalised as a living entity in Scotland 's social, cultural and political life.

Following a consultation period, in which the government received many submissions, the majority of which asked that the bill be strengthened, a revised bill was published with the main improvement that the guidance of the Bòrd is now statutory (rather than advisory).

In the committee stages in the Scottish Parliament, there was much debate over whether Gaelic should be given 'equal validity' with English. Due to Executive concerns about resourcing implications if this wording was used, the Education Committee settled on the concept of equal respect. It is still not clear if the ambiguity of this wording will provide sufficient legal force to backup the demands of Gaelic speakers against the whims of local councils.

The Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament unanimously, with support from all sectors of the Scottish political spectrum on the 21st of April 2005.

The Education Act of 1872, which completely ignored Gaelic, and led to generations of Gaels being forbidden to speak their native language in the classroom, is now recognised as having deal the education system with a major blow to in restoring the language. People still living can recall being beaten for speaking Gaelic in school.

Chamber at Scottish Parliament

The first solely Gaelic-medium secondary school, Sgoil Ghàidhlig Ghlaschu, was opened at Woodside in Glasgow in 2006 (several Gaelic-medium primary schools and partially Gaelic-medium secondary schools also exist).

Bilingual signs in English and Gaelic are now part of the architecture in the Scottish Parliament building completed in 2004 .

After centuries of persecution, prejudice and neglect, Gaelic has now achieved a degree of official recognition with the passage of the Gaelic Language ( Scotland ) Act 2005 .

As well as being taught in schools, including some in which it is the medium of instruction, it is also used by the local council in the Western Isles, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar . The BBC also operates a Gaelic language radio station Radio nan Gàidheal (which regularly transmits joint broadcasts with its Republic of Ireland counterpart Raidió na Gaeltachta ), and there are also television programmes in the language on the BBC and on the independent commercial channels, usually subtitled in English. The ITV franchisee in the north of Scotland , Grampian Television, has a studio in Stornoway. Viewers of Freeview a non-subscription digital TV service can receive channel, TeleG , which broadcasts for an hour every evening.

A full Gaelic language TV service, however, similar to S4C in Wales and TG4 in Ireland , has been under consideration. As in Wales , the showing of programmes in the language as opt-outs on the main channels has been regarded as inadequate for the 58,552 who speak it, and as an annoyance to some of the English or Scots speaking 5,003,459 who do not. In fact, this annoyance may be largely assumed: the evidence is that at least one Gaelic television programme produced by the BBC attains viewing figures in excess of the number of Gaelic speakers that could view it in Scotland . No complaints are being received by the BBC about Gaelic-language television programmes on BBC TV channels, perhaps because subtitling them in English makes them equally accessible to non-Gaelic speakers.

Bilingual road signs (in both Gaelic and English) are gradually being introduced throughout the Gaelic-speaking regions in the Highlands and elsewhere across the nation. In many cases, this has simply meant re-adopting the traditional spelling of a name.

The Ordnance Survey has acted in recent years to correct many of the mistakes that appear on maps. They announced in 2004 that they intended to make amends for a century of Gaelic ignorance and set up a committee to determine the correct forms of Gaelic place names for their maps.

Historically, Gaelic has not received the same degree of official recognition from the UK Government as Welsh. With the advent of devolution, however, Scottish matters have finally begun to receive greater attention, and the Gaelic Language ( Scotland ) Act was confirmed by the Scottish Parliament on 21 April 2005

The key provisions of the Act are:

  • Recognising in legislation Gaelic as an official language of Scotland with 'equal respect' to English.
  • Establishing the Gaelic development body, Bòrd na Gàidhlig , on a statutory basis to promote the use and understanding of Gaelic.
  • Requiring Bòrd na Gàidhlig to prepare a National Gaelic Language Plan for approval by Scottish Ministers.
  • Requiring Bòrd na Gàidhlig to produce guidance on Gaelic Education for education authorities.
  • Requiring public bodies in Scotland , both Scottish public bodies and cross border public bodies insofar as they carry out devolved functions, to consider the need for a Gaelic language plan in relation to the services they offer.

Learning Gaelic

Why learn Gaelic? In Scotland itself, many people will offer you inexhaustible reasons for not learning it. Some people claim it is almost obsolete therefore irrelevant to their lives even if it is only for academic interest. In Scotland , only a few percent of Scots have knowledge of Gaelic so why learn it? Is it not, simply useless knowledge, that would be very seldom used.

Why learn a language if you have few opportunities to use it? In addition, people have problems improving English never mind learning an ancient language. The culture of the Gaels is no longer appropriate in a modern industrial society. The main argument against learning Gaelic is utilitarian; it is no longer useful to learn.

These questions were arguments and notions which a Russian Scottish Gaelic Society refused to bow to, why?. After much consideration, they firmly believed that there were overwhelming reasons for not just Scots to learn Gaelic, but for anyone regardless of nationality, religion or political beliefs. The Scottish Gaelic Society in Moscow has been established to hold up another candle for the cause of Scottish Gaelic. They intend to keep the candle burning from afar, in Moscow , for a long time. A favourite story told by the society may help to sum up their spirit.

One day the Duke of Buccleuch was being driven in a carriage through his land when he was astonished to catch a glimpse of a shabby looking stranger squatting on his land. The duke was taken aback by this, he stopped his carriage, got out and addressed the stranger ' Do you know that you are trespassing on my land?' The stranger replied 'By what right is it your land?' ‘My family fought for it' The stranger retorted 'Then fight for it again'.

That is how they feel about Scottish Gaelic. We have to fight for it again. A tremendous blow was inflicted on the Gaelic language and culture at Culloden and the Highland Clearances. The language and culture were devastated. It is a miracle the language survived at all! Now we have to fight again the war to recover Gaelic. This time it will be a war without guns. The ink of the pen is worth far more than the blood of the martyrs. The potential power of the word has a magic of its own that can weave many a spell.

They presented some other reasons for learning Scottish Gaelic.

Highland Clearances

Scottish Gaelic is a special language. It is a unique spiritual gift. We, of the Scottish Gaelic society in Moscow are learning Gaelic not for profit, prestige or power but to preserve a profound spiritual legacy. Unless we make a tremendous effort to learn Scottish Gaelic then this language will die. A priceless treasure will be lost forever. It will remain no more than a historical curiosity for academics. We certainly will not let this happen.

Yet another example of how different Gaelic is from English can be defined by the word Ceilidh. The word can be simultaneously defined as both visit a highland gathering and where people gather to entertain themselves by telling stories, poems and singing music. In contrast to a society where people prefer to watch TV and play computer games, the people assume an active role in their entertainment. In some Highland villages, every house was thought to contain a fiddle!

Ideas from Russian philosophy can strongly inspire Scots to revive their lost traditions of hospitality, care for others and reawaken a spiritual sense of community. Learning Scottish Gaelic helps to recover our sense of society.

It is amazing to think that a society from a foreign land feels the need to uphold a Scottish tradition so passionately when people in our own country fail to do so!

•1   By learning Scottish Gaelic you are undertaking something special. You are helping to preserve just one of the languages still under threat of perishing. You might also be inspiring native Indian people to defend their own languages. This is important because the World might lose as many as 3000 languages by 2010 unless it takes radical action.

•2   If you love history, then Scottish Gaelic is necessary. You can be transported back into another bygone age. The speaker of Gaelic embraces modern times, the Middle Ages and antiquity and his mental horizon is radically enlarged. If Americans seriously seek to affirm their roots then donning a kilt and tracing their ancestral roots is not an answer; learn Scottish Gaelic. This act not only more fully affirms an almost lost identity but practically supports Scottish culture. (Incidentally, the fact that so many Russians and Americans think the 'kilt', an English invention a symbol of Scottish, demonstrates how people continue to cling to a highly impoverished reinvention of the Scottish identity.)

•3  If you are a serious writer or poet, Scottish Gaelic can inspire creativity. Is it any wonder that we are at present witnessing a renaissance in Scottish writing when some Scots speak Lallans, Gaelic and English! The German philosopher, Schopenhauer, thought that learning ancient languages was far better for creativity than mastering modern languages as 'learning an ancient language offers more ideas than mastery of modern languages.

•4     If you are unhappy with your old identity and feel profoundly estranged and alienated from your own then join us. There is no harm in becoming Scottish. You do not have to be born in Scotland to embrace a Scottish identity. Learn the language than be born in Scotland .

•5    Learning Gaelic offers an insight into Irish culture. 75 % of words from Irish are identical with Gaelic. So you befriend not only the Scots but also the Irish. Learning Scottish Gaelic will get you far more respect from the Scots than learning English. It is one of the best complements you can pay Scotland .

There are many education institutions, which offer courses, and there are pockets in cities such as Glasgow and Aberdeen where Gaelic is spoken. Around 60,000 people in Scotland are fluent in Gaelic. There are also several thousand who have a basic grasp of the language. Out with Scotland , there are clusters of Gaelic speakers, especially in locations such as Nova Scotia in Canada that received many emigrants from Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries

In Nova Scotia there are somewhere between 500 and 1,000 native speakers, most of them now elderly. In May 2004 the Provincial government announced the funding of an initiative to support the language and its culture within the province.

In Prince Edward Island , the Colonel Gray High School is now offering two courses in Gaelic, an introductory and an advanced course, both language and history are taught in these classes. This is the first recorded time that Gaelic has ever been taught as an official course on Prince Edward Island .

The UK government has ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in respect of Gaelic.

The Columba Initiative, also known as Iomairt Cholm Cille , is a body that seeks to promote links between speakers of Scottish Gaelic and Irish.

The Language

Scottish Gaelic spelling can initially seem complicated. However, it is more regular than English, so you can often tell how a word should be pronounced once you are familiar with the spelling system. There are eighteen letters in the Gaelic alphabet; the letters j, k, q, v, w, x, y, and z are not used, except in recent words "loaned" from other languages. Acute and grave accents are used to indicate short and long vowels. For example, é is pronounced like 'ay' in 'say', while è is pronounced like 'ai' in 'fair'. The acute accent é is used far less frequently than the grave accent.

Lenition is an important aspect of Scottish Gaelic. This is where certain consonants (b, c, d, f, g, m, p, s and t) can be made 'softer' by adding an 'h' after them. For example, lenition changes p to an f sound that is spelt ph. Lenition is usually caused by a preceding word. For example:

  • A cat : Her cat
  • A chat : His cat
  • A cù: Her dog
  • A chù: His dog

Scottish Gaelic is best learnt in both spoken and written form at the same time. Whilst there are a large variety of books available, when used on their own, these have the disadvantage that learners cannot hear the pronunciation. It is far easier to learn accurate pronunciation of words and phrases if you listen to a genuine Gaelic speaker.

An additional complication is that travellers in Gaelic-speaking places may notice slight variations in spellings and pronunciations of places and some words. This is partially due to a standardisation of the language in the 1970s, but it is also due to regional and localised evolution.

Gaelic names

Lineage and ancestry are extremely important in the Outer Hebrides - to the extent that a Hebridean family history forms part of his Gaelic name.

For example, the name of one of the residents of Berneray is, in English, Fred MacLeod. In Gaelic, his name is: mac Dhomhnaill Thormoid Dhomhnaill Mhoir .

Mac means "son of", beag means "small", and mhoir means "big". Therefore, Fred's name translates as Fred, son of Donald, son of Norman, son of big Donald. Therefore, encapsulated in his name is the generational history of Fred going back to a great-grandparent, and including an adjective to differentiate the great-grandparent from other Donald's of the time.

Thus, when two people of Outer Hebridean lineage meet, one may ask, "To whom do you belong?" (Basically, the same as "What is your name?"). The answer can often provide enough detail for the listener to work out where, in the ancestral network, the person is connected.

Personal names

Gaelic has a number of personal names, such as Ailean, Aonghas, Dòmhnall, Donnchadh, Coinneach, Murchadh, for which there are traditional forms in English (Alan, Angus, Donald, Duncan, Kenneth, Murdo). There are also distinctly Scottish Gaelic forms of names that belong to the common European stock of given names, such as: Iain (John), Alasdair (Alexander), Uilleam (William), Caitrìona (Catherine), Cairistìona (Christina), Anna (Ann), Màiri (Mary), Seamus (James). Some names have come into Gaelic from Old Norse, for example: Somhairle ( < Somarliðr), Tormod (< Þórmóðr), Torcuil (< Þórkell, Þórketill), Ìomhair (Ívarr). These are conventionally rendered in English as Sorley (or, historically, Somerled), Norman, Torquil, and Iver (or Evander). There are other, traditional, Gaelic names which have no direct equivalents in English: Oighrig, which is normally rendered as Euphemia (Effie) or Henrietta (Etta) (formerly also as Henny or even as Harriet), or, Diorbhal, which is "matched" with Dorothy, simply on the basis of a certain similarity in spelling; Gormul, for which there is nothing similar in English, and it is rendered as 'Gormelia' or even 'Dorothy'; Beathag, which is "matched" with Becky (> Rebecca) and even Betsy, or Sophie.

Many of these are now regarded as old-fashioned, and are no longer used (which is, of course, a feature common to many cultures: names go out of fashion). As there is only a relatively small pool of traditional Gaelic names from which to choose, some families within the Gaelic-speaking communities have in recent years made a conscious decision when naming their children to seek out names that are used within the wider English-speaking world. These names do not, of course, have an equivalent in Gaelic. What effect that practice (if it becomes popular) might have on the language remains to be seen. At this stage (2005), it is clear that some native Gaelic-speakers are willing to break with tradition. Opinion on this practice is divided; whilst some would argue that they are thereby weakening their link with their linguistic and cultural heritage, others take the opposing view that Gaelic, as with any other language, must retain a degree of flexibility and adaptability if it is to survive in the modern world at all.

The well-known name Hamish , and the recently established Mhairi (pronounced [va:ri] ) come from the Gaelic for, respectively, James, and Mary, but derive from the form of the names as they appear in the vocative case Seumas (James) (nom.) ? Sheumais (voc.), and, Màiri (Mary) (nom.) ? Mhàiri (voc.).

The most common class of Gaelic surnames are, of course, those beginning with mac (Gaelic for son ), such as MacGillEathain (MacLean). The female form is nic (Gaelic for daughter ), so Catherine MacPhee is properly called in Gaelic, Caitrìona Nic a' Phì .

Several colours give rise to common Scottish surnames: bàn (Bain - white), ruadh ( Roy - red), dubh (Dow - black), donn (Dunn - brown), buidhe ( Bowie - yellow).


The majority of Scottish Gaelic's vocabulary is native Celtic There are a large number of borrowings from Latin ( muinntir , Didòmhnaich ), ancient Greek , especially in the religious domain ( eaglais , Bìoball from Ekklesia and Biblia ), Norse ( eilean , sgeir ), Hebrew ( Sàbaid , Aba ) and Lowland Scots ( briogais , aidh ).

In common with other Indo-European languages, the neologisms which are coined for modern concepts are typically based on Greek or Latin, although written in Gaelic orthography; television , for instance, becomes telebhisean ( cian-dhealbh could also be used), and computer becomes coimpiùtar ( aireamhadair , bocsa-fiosa or bocsa-sgrìobhaidh could also be used). Although native speakers frequently use an English word for which there is a perfectly good Gaelic equivalent, they will, without thinking, simply adopt the English word and use it, applying the rules of Gaelic grammar, as the situation requires. With verbs, for instance, they will simply add the verbal suffix (-eadh, or, in Lewis, -igeadh, as in, Tha mi a' watch eadh (Lewis, watch igeadh) an telly (I am watching the television) (instead of "Tha mi a' coimhead air a' chian-dhealbh "). This was remarked upon by the minister who compiled the account covering the parish of Stornoway in the New Statistical Account of Scotland , published over 170 years ago. However, as Gaelic medium education grows in popularity, a newer generation of literate Gaels is becoming more familiar with modern Gaelic vocabulary.

Going in the other direction, Scottish Gaelic has influenced the Scots language (gob) and English, particularly Scottish Standard English. Loanwords include: whisky, slogan, brogue, jilt, clan, strontium (from Strontian , trousers, as well as familiar elements of Scottish geography like ben ( beinn ), glen ( gleann ) and loch. Irish Gaelic has also influenced Lowland Scots and English in Scotland , but it is not always easy to distinguish its influence from that of the Scottish variety.

Common Scottish Gaelic words and phrases with Irish Gaelic equivalents

To give a flavour of Scottish Gaelic, here are a few phrases.


Scottish Gaelic Phrase Rough English Translation Irish Gaelic Equivalent
Fàilte Welcome Fàilte
Halò Hello Dia Duit (Literally "God be with you")
Latha math Good Day Lá maith
Ciamar a tha thu? How are you?

Go dté mar atá tú (Ulster Irish), Conas atá tú

(Leinster/Standard Irish)

Ciamar a tha sibh a tá How are you? (Plural, singular formal

Go dté mar atá sibh (Ulster Irish), Conas

Sibh Leinster/Standard Irish)

Madainn mhath Good Morning Maidin maith
Feasgar math Good afternoon Trathnóna maith
Oidhche mhath Good night Oíche maith
Ma's e do thoil e If you please Má is é do thoil é
Ma's e (bh) ur toil e If you please (plural, singular formal)

Ma is é bhfuir thoil é

Tapadh leat Thank you Go raibh maith agat
Tapadh leibh Thank you (plural, singular formal) Go raibh maith agaibh
Dè an t-ainm a tha' ort? What is your name? Cad is ainm duit?
Dè an t-ainm a tha oirbh? What is your name?(plural, singular formal) Cad is ainm doibh?
Mar sin leat Goodbye

Slán leat

Mar sin leibh Goodbye (plural, singular formal) Slán libh
Dè a tha seo? What is this? Cad é seo?
Sláinte "health" (used as a toast [cf. English cheers"] when drinking) Sláinte
Càit a bheil a' phoit-ti? Where is the teapot?  
Cuin a tha an ath bhus? When is the next bus?  
Càite bheil an tràigh? Where is the beach?  
Hallò. Is mise Anna. Hello. I'm Anna.  


Marriage Vows in Gaelic

If your heart is set on a Highland wedding, why not set the seal on the occasion by reciting your marriage vows in Gaelic? Do not worry if you don't know any of the language - the phonetic pronunciation for the following vows is shown in italic, with the English translation at the end.

Am fear (groom)

Tha mise a-nis 'gad ghabhail-sa gu bhith 'nam chéile phòsda.

Ha meesh-u (groom's name) a-neesh 'gat gaval-sa (bride's name) goo vee num chay-lu fawsda.

Ann am fianais Dhé 's na tha seo de fhianaisean tha mise a' gealltainn a bhith 'nam fhear pòsda dìleas gràdhach agus tairis dhuitsa, cho fad's a bhios an dìthis againn beò.

Owe-n um fee-an-nish Yay's na ha shaw jay ee-yan-i-shan ha meesh-u a gee-yall-ting a vee num er pawsda jee-lus grag-uch ag-us tar-ish goot-sa, cho fat's a veese un jee-ish ack-een bee-yaw.

I, [groom's name] now take you [bride's name] to be my wife.

In the presence of God and before these witnesses I promise to be a loving, faithful and loyal husband to you, for as long as we both shall live.


A' bhean (bride)

Tha mise a-nis 'gad ghabhail-sa gu bhith 'nam chéile pòsda.

Ha meesh-u (bride's name) a-neesh 'gat gaval-sa (groom's name) goo vee num chay-lu fawsda.

Ann am fianais Dhé 's na tha seo de fhianaisean tha mise a' gealltainn a bhith 'nam bhean phòsda dhìleas ghràdhach agus thairis dhuitsa, cho fad's a bhios an dìthis againn beò.

Owe-n um fee-an-nish Yay's na ha shaw jay ee-yan-i-shan ha meesh-u a gee-yall-ting a vee num ven pawsda jee-lus grag-uch ag-us tar-ish goot-sa cho fat's a veese un jee-ish ack-een bee-yaw.

I, now take you to be my husband. In the presence of God and before these witnesses I promise to be a loving, faithful and loyal wife to you, for as long as we both shall live.

Ancient Names of Scotland

The Reverend A.B. Scott, in his 1918 book The Pictish Nation, its People and its Church gives an interesting dissertation on the origins of ancient names for Britain and Scotland. According to him and various other authors, the early Basque seafarers from the north of Spain, as well as Greek shipmasters navigated around the British isles and referred to them as Alba or Albion (meaning "white"). Ptolemy spells it as Alouion around 127 AD, and later on Pliny refers to the island as Albion. It was the Greek seafarer Pytheas, who as early as 300 BC refers to the islands Pretanikai Nesoi (meaning "Pretanic Islands"), which Scott claims is based on the native name for Britain Ynis Prydain, which literally means Picts' Island. Another scholar, Kenneth Jackson derives the name "Pritanic" from the Pictish tribe called Pritani, meaning "The People of the Designs." Across the water, early Irish writers echo the "Albion" name and refer to Scotland as Alba or Alban, although the later Annals of Ulster refer to Scotland as Cruithintuait - the word Cruithni (meaning "the tribe of the designs") being the Irish word for the Picts and tuath for people, land or nation. The Vikings, upon landing in the north of Scotland at the beginning of the 9th century, called the country Pictland. The name Pentland Firth is derived from the Norse name Pettaland Fjord, literally "Pictland Fjord." In Britain, the P-Celtic speaking Britons spelled the Irish name "Cruithni" (Pict) as Pryten; this eventually becomes Briton in the tongue of the Teutonic invaders. The Romans referred to Scotland as Caledonia, a name obviously derived from the Pictish tribe Caledonii, which fought Agricola at Mons Graupius in 84 AD. Finally, when Kenneth MacAlpin usurped the dual throne as King of Picts and Scots in 845 AD, he called the crown Rex Pictorum or "King of Picts." However, by the beginning of the 10th century, his descendants changed to "Rex Alban," which is then translated as "King of Scotland" or "King of Scots." Historical records also add some variations. In Historia Britonum, Irish additions refer to the northern British mainland as 'O chrich Chat co Foirciu which means "From Caithness to the Forth." Myth also has it that the first Pictish king Cruithne had seven sons who gave their names to the seven Pictish subkingdoms of Fidach, Fib, Foltaig, Fortrenn, Cait, Ce and Circinn. The Gaels, or Gaidheal is the name by which the Q-Celtic people who settled in Ireland after migrating from Spain and western France were known. The Gaels of the north were of the race of Niall, the western Gaels were of the race of Brian. The Gaels who settled in Argyll were of the race of Erc and related to the Nialls; Incidentally, the name "Scot" appears in the writings of Claudius who describes them as allies of the Picts. Even as late as 800 AD, the Norsemen refer to the Dalriada Gaels as "Scots" and the Picts as Picts.

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© Crann Tara 2006