The Gaelic language & its history
The Gaelic language belongs to the Goidelic branch of the island Celtic languages and is closely related to the Irish and Manx languages. The close relationship with the Irish language can be explained by the immigration of Scots from Ireland to Scotland since the 4th century. In Ireland the language is Irish, while in Scotland the correct term is Gaelic. Although Irish and Gaelic share a common linguistic ancestor, they diverged and switched to two different languages over time. You might be wondering why this is of interest to whisky drinkers but the Gaelic toast Slàinte Mhath .
Gaelic and the origin of Gaelic
Gaelic has existed for centuries and is the founding language of Scotland beginning as the main language in the medieval Kingdom of Alba. From Alba Gaelic spread throughout the country, from the Borders to Aberdeenshire, the Highlands and the Isles. Gaelic is descended from the language of the Gaels and is believed to originate in Ireland. Though both Irish and Scottish Gaelic began to develop before the settlement of the Gaels in Scotland.
A persecuted people and language
In the late 18th century, the turbulent Jacobite uprisings were followed by the infamous Highland Clearances. Not only were numerous people displaced from their homeland in the Highlands, considerable effort was made to suppress the Gaelic language as well. Although the speakers of the language have been persecuted for centuries, Scottish Gaelic is still spoken by around 60,000 Scots.
Closely associated with a rich culture full of music and folklore, Gaelic is currently experiencing a revival. You can hear it in pubs in the Lowlands and at Ceilidhs in the Hebrides. Gaelic also hit international screens recently as it featured in the incredibly successful series Outlander.
Where is Gaelic still spoken?
Gaelic is most commonly spoken in the Highlands and Islands. In particular the Outer Hebrides, Isle of Skye and Argyll & the Isles, however Gaelic is to be found all over the country. Gaelic adorns street signs, the theatre, radio and television productions. The Lowlands are currently home to almost half of the Gaelic-speaking population. In 2005, the Gaelic Language Act was passed unanimously to recognize Gaelic as an official language of Scotland.
Nova Scotia in Canada, along with New Zealand, Australia and other regions of North America Scottish Gaelic communities still exist. These date back to the waves of emigration in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Gaelic use in Scotland is also increasing, although this is controversial in southern parts of the country. As Gaelic was never a traditional language in places like Edinburgh, adding Gaelic translations to English road signs is seen by some as an attempt to create a nationalist identity, or cultural tokenism. The Norman invasion of the British Isles during the 11th and 12th century left Gaelic speakers effectively isolated on the northern and western parts of Scotland. Gaelic was never spoken traditionally in many southern areas of Scotland, including Edinburgh.
Gaelic in Ireland and Scotland
The Scots Gaelic and Irish languages are both rooted in Ogham, an ancient Irish alphabet that evolved into early and late Central Irish and spread through trade and agricultural practices in the island of Ireland and north and west Scotland. After the Gaels moved to Scotland from Ireland, two different languages began to develop independently.
Is Gaelic a dialect or a language?
The forms of Gaelic in Scotland and Ireland are considered separate languages. The definition of language is often as political as it is linguistic! It’s sometimes said that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy! If Scotland and Ireland were not politically independent from each other, they would in all liklihood be considered dialects of a common language.
Historically both the Scottish and Irish are related in that they are both Gaelic in that they are both descended from the language of the Gaels: a Celtic people who relocated from the European mainland. The Gaels initially settled in Ireland, but later also settled in Scotland and on Isle of Man. The two languages are very similar as they descend from the same common language.
In both Ireland and Scotland, attempts have been made to eradicate the language and culture associated with Gaelic with varying degrees of success. However, both countries have recently seen a revival of their mother tongue. Irish is recognized as an official language by the European Union, Gaelic is not instead being classified as an indigenous language.
History of Gaelic
Gaelic originated in Scotland from the Kingdom of Dál Riada (Dalriada) which encompassed the western seaboard of Scotland and the north-eastern corner of Ireland. Gaelic was not a politically-prominent language until the 9th century, when Kenneth MacAlpin, a Gaelic king, united the Scots & Picts. Through the 11th century Gaelic was the most widely spoken language in most of Scotland.
The Norman invasion of the British Isles during the 11th and 12th century effectively isolated Gaelic speakers on the northern and western parts of Scotland. In fact, Gaelic was never spoken traditionally in the southern areas of Scotland, including Edinburgh.
The political turmoil widened the gap between the southern and northern parts of Scotland. In the north, physical and political isolation allowed Gaelic to define the culture of the Scottish Highlands, including a social structure made up of family clans.
When Scotland and Great Britain were united under the Acts of Union 1707, Gaelic lost its legitimacy as a legal and administrative language. Gaelic continued to gain importance as the language of the Highland clans and the language of the Jacobites. The latter seeking to reseat the house of Stewart to the Scottish throne.
Following the defeat of Prince Charles Edward Stewart and the final uprising of the Jacobites in 1746, the British government banned all elements of highland culture. These bans including the kilt and the use of the Gaelic language itself. These attempts to reduce highland culture and prevent another uprising left Gaelic critically endangered.
The Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott was the first writer to depict Gaelic speakers in his 1814 historical novel Waverley. However Scott seems to have seen the revival of the language as a romantic ideology rather than a useful means of communication. In recent years the use of Gaelic as a second official language has boomed as part of the modern Celtic Revival.
The legacy of Gaelic
The Gaelic speaking community has provided Scotland with many of the country’s national symbols including the kilt, tartan, bagpipes, ceilidhs, Highland Games and the word whisky itself! Despite having been subjected to oppression and condemnation for a little more than 200 years remnants exist in Scots English today. Words such as “bard”, “cairn”, “clan”, “glen”, “pet”, “slogan” and even “trousers”. The Gaelic form of aqua vitae; uisge beatha is also the origin of the word for whisky.
Gaelic itself has been preserved over the centuries through literature, art and folklore from all eras. Gaelic music and culture is very much alive in the modern world too, particularly within the Outer Hebrides.
Today you can still:
- Hear great Gaelic songs and stirring music in pubs and on the street.
- Shake the dance floor to traditional reels, jigs and waltzes and enjoy the unique atmosphere of a ceilidh.
- Learn about the history and customs of Gaelic music and songs at a traditional music festival in Scotland such as the Hebridean Celtic Music Festival, the Harris Arts Festival, Barra Live, Celtic Connections or other Fèisean (festivals).
- Discover (arts) handicrafts from the Gaelic culture, such as Harris tweed, a high-quality, hard-wearing fabric that is only made in the Outer Hebrides.
What does Glè mhath mean in Scots Gaelic?
Glè mhath means very good, glè is the word very, and mhath translates as well or good. You might recognise the second word for the Gaelic toast Slàinte mhath meaning good health. Glè mhath is also the origin of the name Glayva (a whisky liqueur).
Is Scots Gaelic still spoken?
Yes, the Scottish Gaelic language and is spoken today in parts of Scotland on the islands of the Inner and Outer Hebrides as well as in the west of the Scottish Highlands and in Glasgow.
Is Scottish Gaelic a dying language?
Yes Scottish Gaelic is considered at risk of dying out. In 2018, Gaelic was placed on Unesco's of imperilled languages, classed as 'definitely endangered'.
Is Scots the same as Gaelic?
No Scots is a Germanic language descending from Old English but which has been influenced by Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic is a Celtic language with ties to the Irish language.
What is Scottish Gaelic?
The Scots Gaelic language spoken along the northwest coast of Scotland and in the Hebrides islands. Gaelic is a member of the Goidelic group of Celtic languages related to both Irish and Manx. Gaelic is also called Scottish Gaelic and Scots Gaelic Gàidhlig.
Has Gaelic been banned in Scotland?
Yes, the Gaelic language was banned after the Jacobite rebellions in the 18th century and was often frowned upon as the language of the Catholics from the Highlands. Despite efforts by the English the language survived and became an offically recognised language in 2005 with the introduction of the Gaelic Language Act.
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