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Summary Article: GAELIC
from Dictionary of Languages


Scottish Gaelic, one of the q-CELTICLANGUAGES (see map there) and historically an offshoot of Irish, spread into western Scotland from the 4th century onwards. There was heavy migration across the narrow straits that separate Ulster from Galloway, and settlement spreading from southwestern Scotland over land that had formerly belonged to the Picts and the Vikings. The even heavier influx of English speakers, which began a few centuries later, has in turn almost overwhelmed Gaelic, which is now commonly spoken only in some of the western islands and the most isolated parts of the western Highlands. It was never the language of the whole of Scotland.

Gaelic is known to its own speakers as Gàidhlig; Hielans, the ‘language of the Highlands’, is a term that has been used in Scots.

Celtic Christianity reached Iona with Columba's arrival from Derry in 563 and spread across Scotland and beyond. The Gaelic-speaking realm of the west gradually absorbed the old Pictish kingdom, the British kingdom of Strathclyde (which spoke a variant of Welsh), and part of Northumbria, by the 11th century, but Gaelic was never widely spoken over this large territory. Norman French was adopted, as in England, as the court language, while the Scots variety of English gradually spread north-westwards in everyday speech.

By the 17th century Gaelic had retreated to the Highlands and the Hebrides, where it had meanwhile absorbed the remaining Scandinavian-speaking territory: Norse rule in the Hebrides had ended in 1266. Independent Gaelic culture was gradually undermined by central government: bards, the itinerant poets and storytellers, were outlawed. The voluntary Gaelic schools of the early 19th century were replaced by English-speaking state schools after 1872.

In the first centuries of publishing, Irish was regarded as the literary standard for Gaelic: the Liturgy of 1567 and the Bible of 1690 are both essentially in Irish. Gaelic literacy is at its strongest now in northern Skye, Lewis, Harris and North Uist, where a Calvinist religious tradition encourages home worship and Bible study. The language is also spoken in Tiree, Mull, the remainder of Skye and parts of the western Highlands. These districts are the Gàidhealtachd, corresponding to the Gaeltacht of western Ireland. There is now some bilingual primary education in these areas. Practically all speakers of Gaelic are bilingual in English.

Comhairle nan Eilean, the Western Isles Island Area Council, created in 1975, has a bilingual policy, using both Gaelic and English in its activities and on public signs. There is broadcasting in Gaelic, but there has never been a generally accepted standard spoken dialect, and listeners tend to dislike hearing dialects that are not their own.

There are small communities of Gaelic speakers in Glasgow, Edinburgh, London and in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. It was in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, that the first all-Gaelic newspaper was published: Mac Talla ‘The Echo’ ran from 1892 to 1904.

Little is known of the language of the Picti ‘painted people’ who were the Romans' main opponents across the Imperial boundary that was marked by Hadrian's Wall. Some scholars believe that this early language of Scotland will have belonged to the Celtic family, though not especially close to the Gaelic of today.

Scottish Gaelic has many Scandinavian loanwords: ób ‘creek’, mód ‘court’, úidh ‘ford’. Scottish names such as Lamont, MacCorquodale and MacLeod (Mac Laomuinn, Mac Corcadail and Mac Leóid in Gaelic) are ultimately Norse. As many as half of the place names of the western Highlands and the Hebrides are Gaelic versions of originally Norse names.

Numerals in Manx and Scottish Gaelic


Scottish Gaelic





daa, ghaa

























Dictionary of Languages © 1998 + 2004

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