The Highland Council ~ Comhairle na Gàidhealtachd

Gaelic History

Gaelic Toolkit

Dealing with the public

Classroom assistant's course

Gaelic Phrasebook

Gaelic Glossary

Scottish Gaelic belongs to the Celtic family of languages and, being of the ‘Q’ Celtic branch, is closely related to Irish Gaelic and Manx. The other Celtic languages of Welsh, Breton and Cornish, which belong to the ‘P’ Celtic branch, are more distant cousins.

Settlers brought Gaelic to Scotland from Antrim in Ireland over 1500 years ago and it quickly spread from its initial base in what is now known as Argyllshire. At one time Gaelic was the language of the Scottish court and of the majority of the country’s population. Very few parts of Scotland, notably Caithness and the Northern Isles, were not Gaelic speaking at one time or another and placenames of recognisably Gaelic origin abound even in districts where the language was last spoken centuries ago.

But Gaelic began to lose ground in the early Middle Ages as the Scots language made progress in south-east Scotland. Gaelic continued to flourish in the Highlands and Islands, particularly during the heyday of the Lordship of the Isles in the 14 & 15th centuries. But as the power and influence of the Lords of the Isles declined, Gaelic’s status also weakened. The Statutes of Iona, enacted by the Scottish Parliament in the early 17th century, even went to the lengths of justifying its measures to undermine the language on the grounds that Gaelic in itself was one of the “chief causes of barbarity” in the Highlands and Islands.

Economic hardship in the late 18th and 19th centuries resulted in both forced and voluntary emigration from the north of Scotland which meant that many thousands of Gaelic speakers left for the industrialising Lowlands or for the New World. This, together with factors such as the failure to give Gaelic its proper place when universal education was established in the late 19th century, caused the number of Gaelic speakers to decline. While Gaelic contacted both in numerical and geographic terms in its native country, the numbers speaking the language in Canada actually rose, due to the influx of so many emigrant Gaels. There remains a Gaelic–speaking community in Cape Breton and while their numbers remain dangerously low, its impact nationally and internationally in terms of music, song and the arts is considerable.

Remarkably after centuries of neglect repression, Gaelic is still spoken by around 65,000 people in Scotland. It is strongest in the Western Isles but there are substantial Gaelic communities elsewhere in the Highlands & Islands and in the nation’s cities.

Gaelic is currently enjoying a revival in its fortunes with more interest being shown in the language and its health that at any other time. Crucial to supporting this revival have been developments in education and in promoting Gaelic culture. Gaelic playgroups and Gaelic-medium education at both primary and secondary levels have undergone unprecedented growth in many areas of Scotland. Gaelic is increasingly used on road signs notices and in advertisements, and with the setting up of a fund to provide a Gaelic television service in 1992; more Gaelic television and radio programmes are now available than in the past. At the same time there has been a healthy and growing interest in Gaelic music and arts and such organisations as Fèisean nan Gàidheal, Ceòlas and the Blas Festival have been at the forefront of raising awareness of and skills in Gaelic traditional music and songs. The establishment of Bòrd na Gàidhlig (The Gaelic Board) to promote Gaelic both in Scotland and around the world builds on the work being done in this field by such bodies as An Comunn Gàidhealach (The Gaelic Association), Comunn na Gàidhlig (The Gaelic Council) and many local authorities including Highland Council.

Gaelic has been spoken in Scotland for more than sixty generations and the current generation of Gaels is united in its resolve to ensure that Gaelic remains a vital and vibrant language of the community.