What is Scottish Gaelic?

Let’s talk about Scottish Gaelic!

Let’s begin by debunking the myth – we do not speak garlic! You may laugh, I do too when my guests make the mistake, we speak Gaelic.  On my tours, I try to explain and share a wee bit about the Scottish Gaelic language. Often speaking and translating a few words. I say “wee” because I am ashamed to say I don’t speak very much of it. I got Gaelic classes at primary school back in the 1960s and sat for many hours during lockdown speaking to my Duolingo App. I’ve also recently had a lady contact me about one of my Scottish Gaelic social media posts. The lady told me that Gaelic was not Scottish but Irish! So please let me explain.

How did Gaelic get to Scotland?

St Columba visiting Inverness 565AD Craig Phadrig trail
St Columba visited Inverness 565AD Craig Phadrig trail

It is thought that raiders spread the language from Ireland to the west coast of Scotland in the 4th and 5th centuries.  After setting up the Catholic Church on the Islands of Iona St Columba, the Irish abbot visited Inverness in 565 AD. As St Columba brought Christianity to the Highlands you can see how the language would spread.

Irish and Scottish Gaelic come from the same source but are not the same. National and regional dialects also change the sound. Think about the Scottish phrase “ceud mìle fàilte” (A hundred Thousand Welcomes). Irish Gaelic speakers will spell the phrase céad míle fáilte, using different accents above the letters. The phrase will also be pronounced differently and will also have regional differences.  PHEW! I hope you understand it’s just different!

In the census of 2011, we see that only 11%, 58, 000 people in Scotland speak Gaelic. Scottish Gaelic is still spoken mainly in the West of Scotland mainland and the Western Isles. We are anxiously awaiting the results of the 2022 census to see if Scottish Gaelic will survive.

Why is Scottish Gaelic dying?

There are many reasons why the language is dissipating. Not to give you a too in-depth analysis, here are just a few of the reasons the language has disappeared over centuries: –

  • 11th Century- Queen Margaret of Scotland, wife of King Malcolm the III, spoke no Gaelic and taught her husband to speak English. Queen Margaret or St Margaret of Scotland moved away from the Celtic religion to a more Roman Latin practice and brought English-speaking priests to Scotland to help in this process.
  • 14th Century- English became the main language of the Scottish Government, this is what we now know as Scots.
  • 17th Century-  Passed, in 1609 the “Statutes of Iona”  tells the Highland Clan chiefs to send their oldest child to the lowlands, Edinburgh, and London to be educated. The Scottish Government wants the Clan heirs to be able to speak, read and write in English.
  • 18th Century- After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the Jacobites lost. A law known as the Act of Proscription is credited with the banning of bearing arms, wearing tartan, speaking Gaelic, congregating in groups, and playing the bagpipes. After Culloden we see many people moved from the Highlands and Islands during the period known as the Highlands Clearances.
  • 19th Century- The Scottish Education Act in  1872 declared that education was compulsory for children. Great damage to the Gaelic language was done by The Act.

Interpretation board at Raining Stairs inverness

Will Scottish Gaelic Survive and who speaks it?

Nowadays in Scotland, we have nurseries, primary schools, and secondary schools teaching Scottish Gaelic Medium Education. In 2021 we had just under 12,000 pupils learning Gaelic, this represents 1.7% of the Scottish schools’ population.

If you visit us in Inverness and the Highlands you will notice that our street and road signs are bilingual. Looking after signage is one of the roles of the Highland Councils Gaelic Committee. The Gaelic committee makes sure that Gaelic is a major part of Highland life.

Gaelic music festivals and events

Main Stage, Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival
Main Stage, Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival
Artist an performers at Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival
Blessings from the Caileach (Old Woman)
Cath Horsing around at the Tartan Heart Festival
Cath Horsing around at the Tartan Heart Festival
Tartan Heart Festival 2022
Tartan Heart Festival 2022

There are many Celtic festivals that help keep Gaelic music and song alive. There are festivals and events across the Highlands and Scotland all year.  Even more importantly you don’t have to be a Gaelic speaker to attend!

Celtic Music Festivals

Boydie from Peat and Diesel meeting my walking group in Inverness
Meeting Boydie from Peat and Diesel in Inverness 

We feed the sheep and cut the peat!

Have you heard of Peat and Diesel? They hail from Stornoway, in the Western Isles, and the band is well-known (at least in this part of the world). Singing humorous songs about Island life engages young people. And at the same time, young people are more interested in learning Gaelic.  You may spot the band in Inverness on their way to a gig on the mainland. I sometimes see Boydie in the pub! He is always so generous with his time and has chatted away with my guests. Why not look the band up? About – Peat & Diesel (peatanddiesel.band)

During the Covid 19 lockdown, many people turned to online learning. Duolingo – The world’s best way to learn a language reported in 2022 that they had over a million people learning Gaelic online. I am one of the statistics and have shaken up my primary school (ages 5-12) Gaelic and I’m remembering more of my conversational Gaelic from my summer season working in a hotel in Stornoway many moons ago.

Where can you learn Scottish Gaelic for FREE?

Do you want to help keep the language alive? You can now follow the links below if you are interested in Scottish Gaelic or learning the language yourself.

Saffron Alexander Hanvidge Gaelic Singer Inverness
Saffron Alexander Hanvidge Gaelic Singer Inverness

On Social media, and  YouTube there are also lots of great Gaelic speakers. Some of the young people are really helping to put a new spin on it. Keep an eye out if you are on Inverness High Street, you might be lucky enough to get to see Saffron singing. Saffron has the prestige title of being a BBC Scotland young traditional musician finalist. You will find her in all weathers sharing her amazing voice. Saffron is on Facebook

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