Scottish Gaelic—often called Gàighlig. You may or may not know much about it. The most you may have heard is songs or snippets in Outlander. Or maybe you’ve downloaded the Duolingo app and are having a blast with quality sentences like, “Halò a charaid! Tha drathais orm!” (Hello, friend! I’m wearing underpants!)
No matter what your familiarity, Gaelic’s a part of Scotland’s history and culture. So let’s talk about it! Consider this entry a wee introduction to Scottish Gaelic—or Gàidhlig—and its history.
Background and History
Scottish Gaelic is one of six Celtic languages, with the others being Irish, Manx, Welsh, Breton, and Cornish. Most research states Scottish Gaelic evolved from Irish. You can actually see and hear the similarities in the two languages, as present day speakers can attest. Some research shows that Irish and Gaelic shared a literary language up until the 16th/17th century, though Gaelic had developed its own dialect in the 1200s.
Starkey Comics created a gif that shows the change in languages from 400AD to present day. Click the link to see the gif, as it shows the development of language on the British isles.
Edit: In the past few years, there’s also been some new research to suggest that Scottish Gaelic may not have come have over from Ireland, but was developing on its own in Scotland. I’m including this here for further information for interested readers. It was mentioned to me after this post went live, and it felt important to include.
Gaelic enjoyed a rich life in Scotland, especially in the Highlands where it thrived. For many years, Scottish Kings were even speakers of Gaelic. Gaelic still holds a spot in place names throughout Scotland. For example, loch is a Gaelic word meaning lake; the word dun means castle or fortress; and the word inbhir (pronounced inver) is where waterways meet, or the mouth of a river. These are words one might see frequently in Scotland—such as Loch Ness, Dundee, or Inverness. Considering many of these place names have carried over into present day, it’s obvious Gaelic played a great part in Scotland’s identity and history.
However, despite Gaelic’s growth and usage up into the 18th century, it declined among the aristocracy when King Malcolm III Canmore (ceann mòr, meaning “great head” or “chief”) declared that Gaelic should no longer be spoken at court. He did this to ensure his queen, Margaret, would feel more welcome, as she did not have Gaelic. This brought about a decline of the language within the ruling class.
Fun fact: King Malcolm was the son of Duncan I, who was slain by MacBeth, well-known due to the Shakespearean play.
Despite the aristocracy moving away from Gaelic, it still thrived among the people, but this, unfortunately, changed drastically in 1746 after the Battle of Culloden. Those fighting to put Prince Charles (Bonnie Prince Charlie) onto the throne were defeated, and as a result, the Highland way of life was completely outlawed. It marked the end of the Highland culture and heritage: the clans, the dress, and also the Gaelic language, which was no longer permitted to be spoken.
Due to this, the Gaelic language was unable to continue its use in Scotland. It led to the language’s stagnation and ultimate decline, which has affected the language to this very day. According to the 2011 census, 57,600 (of approximately 5.2 million) people in Scotland were fluent in Gaelic, with 87,100 people reporting they had some language skills.
But there has been an active revival going on for the language for several years. Gaelic Medium Education has been offered throughout different areas of Scotland, which help children become fluent in Gaelic. When you walk through areas of Scotland, you’ll see road signs and train stations with the Gaelic place name alongside the English one.
With the growth of the internet, as well as technology, Gaelic practice and exposure is easier than ever. Whether you’re getting tutored by someone via Skype; are listening to An Litir Bheag on Radio Nan Gàidheal; or you’ve just downloaded Duolingo, which released a Scottish Gaelic programme in 2019.
We cannot forget to mention Outlander, which has made people outside Scotland more aware of Highland culture and the language itself. I credit the show massively for that, even if it’s not 100% accurate.
And while Gaelic is a Scottish language, there are pockets of people who use it around the world as well. The most notable of these is Nova Scotia, which has a Gaelic community.
So though I often hear that Gaelic is a dead language, it isn’t out for the count yet. We won’t know what growth the language has seen from this revival until the next census year, 2021, but with so many more resources available now, and interest growing, I think there’s a lot more potential for Gaelic to continue its resurgence—and at some point, it would be wonderful to have a worldwide census to see how Gaelic is growing beyond Scotland as well.
Sabhal Mòr Ostaig — Scottish Gaelic: Gaelic in Scotland
Encyclopedia Britannica — Scots Gaelic Language
Scotland’s Census — Gaelic Analytical Report
Visit Scotland — Gaelic Language and History
Wikipedia — Scottish Gaelic
Undiscovered Scotland — King Malcolm III Canmore