What is Gaelic?
The Gaelic language has been part of the Scottish consciousness for centuries - it's the ancient tongue of Scotland and is considered to be the founding language of the country.
Gaelic, like English and Scots, belongs to the Indo-European language family. This is the most widespread language family in the world.
The family contains some of the languages with the greatest number of speakers (English, Spanish, Hindi and Urdu). It also includes critically endangered languages like Gaelic.
What are the origins of Gaelic?
Gaelic is a close relative of Irish and Manx Gaelic. The Gaelic language is believed to have come to what is now Scotland from what is now Ireland in around 500AD.
The term Scot comes from the Latin word Scoti, meaning a Gaelic speaker. These Scots established the kingdom of Dál Riata in modern-day Argyll. This gradually spread out to form the medieval kingdom of Alba or Scotland.
In past times, Gaelic was spoken across Scotland, from the largest cities to the smallest islands and rural communities. However, Gaelic was gradually replaced as the primary language of government by Scots and then English.
This coincided with a demographic shift, meaning that Scots and English became the dominant languages in lowland and urban Scotland. Gaelic became associated with the Highlands and Islands.
Despite these shifts, Gaelic remained an important language in Scottish public life. This was due to the importance of powerful Gaelic families within the country’s politics.
It was also a result of the proportion of the population and land mass for which it was the primary language of daily life. Not only that but also the fundamental role it had in shaping Scottish identity and nationhood.
Amazingly, despite over 200 years of decline, Gaelic still retains a strong identity in Scotland, mainly through the mediums of folklore, literature, and music. It remains a vibrant contributor to modern Scottish life.
Callanish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis
Gaelic in the modern day
Gaelic, along with other languages and dialects in the British Isles, has been weakened by various examples of government policy.
Contemporary legislation and policy are designed in response to this history. One example which captures the broader modern experience of Gaelic is the 1872 Education Act. This Act first established a system of state schooling in Scotland.
The Act made English the sole language of instruction within Scottish schools. For the many parts of Scotland where Gaelic was the common language, this meant they could no longer receive their formal education in Gaelic. It also meant that the position of the language in public life was undermined.
We can see the consequences of this below. You will notice Gaelic’s decline between the 1891 and 2011 censuses.
- 1891: 254,415
- 1901: 230,806
- 1911: 202,398
- 1921: 158,779
- 1931: 136,135
- 1951: 95,447
- 1961: 80,978
- 1971: 88,892
- 1981: 79,397
- 1991: 65,978
- 2001: 58,652
- 2011: 57,600
Historical events saw the social and cultural foundations of Gaelic weakened by official hostility or neglect.
This process also meant that the Gaelic language was more vulnerable to national and global shocks such as world wars and economic depressions.
How many people speak Gaelic?
The number of Gaelic speakers fell from 254,415 in 1891 (6.3% of the Scottish population) to 58,652 in 2001 (1.2% of the Scottish population).
This number almost stabilised at the 2011 census which showed a return of 57,600 Gaelic speakers.
This is due to the advances made in the last generation which have re-established the language within Scotland’s public life.
In 1985, Gaelic language schooling was returned to Scotland after being absent for more than a century.
The 1980s and 1990s also saw increasing provisions made for Gaelic within the public broadcasting system. In 2008, this increased with the launch of the standalone Gaelic channel BBC ALBA.
The Gaelic Language
Further official recognition came with the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005. The Act gave Gaelic equal respect to English as a national language of Scotland.
It also established Bòrd na Gàidhlig as the national body with responsibility for the language.
Gaelic’s history and present-day difficulties are part of a global picture. Half of the 6,000-7,000 languages spoken globally today are estimated to be at risk of extinction by the end of this century.
The effort to preserve Gaelic is part of a wider battle against language loss. It’s one for which Scotland and the Scottish Government have a unique responsibility.
Who speaks Gaelic?
Nowadays, you’ll find Gaelic speakers across Scotland and the UK. Most speakers are either in the northwest Highlands and Islands or Scottish cities.
In these areas, you can see the language thriving in Gaelic medium schools such as Glasgow’s Sgoil Ghàidhlig Ghlaschu or the annual celebration of Gaelic song and culture, the Royal National Mòd.
Gaelic is not only spoken in the UK but also across the globe. If you listen to the BBC’s Gaelic radio station, Radio nan Gàidheal, you can hear Gaelic speakers of all backgrounds being interviewed from Australia to Alaska, Chile to China.
At one time, it was believed that Gaelic was the third most spoken language in Canada after English and French.
Nowadays, there’s still a community of around 2,000 Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia and the province has its own Oifis Iomairtean na Gàidhlig, or Office of Gaelic Affairs.
Each May, Nova Scotia hosts its own Mìos nan Gàidheal, or Nova Scotia Gaelic Month, to celebrate the language and the links it creates between Canada and Scotland.
Chances are, if you visit Scotland today, you'll encounter the Gaelic language in one form or another. For example, motorists travelling through the Highlands of Scotland encounter bi-lingual road signs along their routes.
The Scottish Government formally introduced these signs in 2001, which now show Scottish towns and cities in both English and Gaelic.
Also, in 2008, the BBC introduced a dedicated Gaelic language television channel, named BBC ALBA. The channel, which airs throughout the UK, is further helping to increase the awareness and popularity of the language.
Bòrd na Gàidhlig
In 2005, Bòrd na Gàidhlig was created to further promote the development of Gaelic throughout Scotland.
It provides advice to Scottish Ministers on the development of the Gaelic language, through the creation of a National Gaelic Language Plan and its work with public bodies to develop and implement their own language plans.
Over half of the Local Authorities in Scotland now deliver Gaelic-medium education. There is provision from early years through to post-graduate studies.
For those who want to learn the language, there is SpeakGaelic, a multi-platform initiative delivered by BBC ALBA with its partners. There is also LearnGaelic, an online resource for Gaelic learners and speakers.
As a result, there have never been so many ways to learn Gaelic, and every year the resources to support this continue to grow and adapt as Gaelic continues its modern renaissance.
How to learn Gaelic
Gaelic has a huge learner community. On DuoLingo, there are 500,000 active Gaelic learners – around eight for each Gaelic speaker!
Scotland’s universities and colleges offer a range of Gaelic courses for anyone with an interest or any level of ability in the language.
Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the national centre for Gaelic language and culture on the Isle of Skye, offers degrees entirely taught through the language.
Why not give learning Gaelic a go and join an international community of language enthusiasts doing their bit to support this essential aspect of Scotland’s culture?
Useful Gaelic phrases
To get you started on your own Gaelic journey, we wanted to introduce you to a few handy words and phrases. Below are a couple of what we think are some useful words and phrases if you ever find yourself in the company of a Gaelic speaker.
So, what are you waiting for - join the growing number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland and around the world and ensure this beautiful language is heard for another 10 centuries.
Ciamar a tha thu?
“How are you?”
Tha mi airson Gàidhlig ionnsachadh
“I want to learn Gaelic”