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Gaelic Language and Origins

Posted by True Highlands in Kit and Caboodle | 1 comments

One of the things that make a place or a people distinctive is their language and it may come as a surprise to visitors to the Highlands that despite the dominance of English there is a Highland identity that has ties to a language that is much older. Gaelic has similarities with Manx and Irish and was once widespread over the Highlands and Lowlands, its influence still evident in place names and mountain ranges. Today however its use is mainly confined to the North West and the Hebrides with the last census showing nearly 60,000 speakers.

Since the advent of the Scottish Parliament renewed efforts have been made to re-establish the language with increased funding for broadcasting, bilingual education and the conversion of road signs to show both Gaelic and English. All this has led to a big of a renaissance in the language, now no longer the preserve of a cultural elite or the stereotype of a country bumpkin, the use of Gaelic has slowly become more acceptable and almost mainstream.

Gaelic was most likely brought to Scotland about the 4th century by settlers from Ireland and by the 11th century it would have been the primary language for most of the country. The first seeds of its demise as a dominant language would be sown in late medieval times as politically and culturally Highland and Lowland Scotland began to diverge. By the 1600s an increasingly suspicious English government was beginning to pass acts of parliament designed to limit the teaching of Gaelic in schools. Things took a turn for the worse in the aftermath of the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at the battle of Culloden in 1746. Highlanders and their traditions were persecuted and the use of the language declined. Mass emigration in the 19th century did little to help the language at home although for a brief period it resulted in large Gaelic speaking communities all over the new world.

On a purely practical level visitors who can speak English will be able to make themselves understood while visiting the Gaelic heartlands of the North and west. Native speakers who form the majority in many communities on the islands and who chose to converse in Gaelic at home or down the pub will only very rarely be unable to assist you in English. It is communities like these that preserve the True Highlands traditions.

Apart from the obvious, like saying cheers or thank you, understanding a few words of Gaelic can be of enormous benefit when identifying remote places and mountains, especially as the language can be very descriptive with place names having very literal meanings, Skye for example is known in Gaelic as An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, literally The Misty Isle. Below is a selection of words you may find in place-names and a rough guide to pronunciation. Bear in mind that accents differ wildly from place to place and that some of the older generation can speak with an almost comedic elongation of every vowel.

Gaelic                   Pronunciation                         Meaning

Baile                     Baa-la                                        Town
Allt                       Alt                                               Burn or stream
Beinn Mhor       Ben Voar                                    Big Mountain
Cnoc                    Croch                                          Small Hill
Fiacaill                Fike-ill                                        Narrow Ridge
Dearg                  Dyear-rack                                 Red
Dubh                   Doo                                             Black
Aonach               A-noch                                        Plateau
Ard                      Ard                                             High
Ban                     Ban                                             White
Bealach              B-yell-ach                                  Mountain pass
Ceann                 Key-awn                                    Head or headland
Clach                  Clach                                           Stone
Eilean                 Eh-lan                                        Island
Traigh                 Trayg                                         Beach

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Bilingual roadsigns, which have been common in the islands for years are slowly being adopted across the country, even in areas with little Gaelic heritage and in larger cities Gaelic medium primary education is available for children of non-speakers. But the question remains as to how relevant the language is in the 21st century. For most visitors it is little more than a quirky anachronism, but bear in mind it represents the heart and soul of the Highlands and is an immense source of pride for a fiercely independent people. There is a well recounted story of the Indian Restaurant in Inverness who had its menus translated into Gaelic. This short experiment ended not because of the anger or confusion of the customers, but because of the number of them stealing the menus. Although well intentioned this sums up the problem facing the language in the world today, instead of chuckling at the bizarre novelty of translating something as simple as a menu we should instead be looking towards a future where nobody would think twice about ordering something to eat using their native tongue.

Gaelic as a language is not perfect, but then again what language is, just look at how English has evolved over time and liberally appropriated from others around the world. Gaelic struggles sometimes to find ways to describe the modern world but adapting to fit the needs of the people rather than preserving it like a historical artefact is the key to its recent resurgence.

Should your visit inspire you to learn more, there are language schools and classes in all the major Scottish cities, a wealth of online resources and high quality Gaelic language television programmes (with English subtitles).

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Comments (1)
  1. Ealasaid Meiklejohn says:

    Thank you, really interesting, am currently trying to teach myself Gaelic (from a book!) prior to spending month in strontian in September ! Hard as I live in France and keep using french pronunciation…… I will persist !

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