The Gaelic Language: Past and Present

The Gaelic language has been part of the Scottish consciousness for centuries. Recently, it's been enjoying a 'Renaissance' through the mediums of folklore, literature and music.

This year both Lorient and Rudolstadt music festivals will feature the highest representation of Gaelic artists in mainland Europe, ever! Promotion of Gaelic language, music and culture is placed firmly at the heart of Scotland's presence at both these festivals. With that in mind we thought we would take you on a journey of the language's significance in Scotland's past and present.

The Gaelic language has been part of the Scottish consciousness for centuries. It's the ancient tongue of Scotland, and considered to be the founding language of the country. The origins can be traced back as far as the 10th Century and is believed to have been brought to Scotland by way of Ireland. From these beginnings, Gaelic spread throughout the country. It became the main language of the medieval kingdom of Alba and remained that way right through until the 18th Century.

Though in past times the language was spoken across all of Scotland, from the largest cities to the smallest islands, it did eventually fall into decline. After the union of England and Scotland, English quickly began taking over as the main language of Scotland. This was because many of Scotland's rulers and noblemen embraced English as their language to better interact with their counterparts south of the border.

This gradual adoption spread throughout the rest of the country, although Gaelic remained dominant in more remote areas. Amazingly, despite over 200 years of suppression, Gaelic still retains a strong identity through the mediums of folklore, literature and music. Thanks to the determination to hold on to the Gaelic language, it remains a vibrant contributor to modern Scottish life.

Holding its own

Although the number of Gaelic speakers has dwindled in modern times, parts of the country still have a deep connection to the language. The 2011 Census revealed that just over 57,000 people are fluent in Gaelic – that's only 1.1% of the entire Scottish population. However, The Highlands and Islands remain a stronghold for the Gaelic language. In some of these areas the number of Gaelic speakers jumps massively. In the Outer Hebrides, for example, a massive 61% of the population speak Gaelic.

The language is also thriving far beyond the shores of Scotland, with Gaelic speakers found throughout the world. Nova Scotia in Canada, for example, has an estimated 2,000 people that can speak Gaelic. The language has remained in use here since colonial times, where it did not face the same level of suppression as in Scotland. As well as Nova Scotia, you can also find proud Gaelic communities in New Zealand, Australia and the United States. This shows how important Gaelic is to Scots; holding onto it as they settled in the far reaches of the globe.

Today in Scotland, the Gaelic language is celebrated at a variety of events and festivals. Traditional Gaelic song and poetry can be heard at the competitions of the Royal National Mod, as well as at local Fèisean, festivals of the Gaelic language, held annually across the Highlands and Islands. Gaelic is also sung by internationally popular contemporary musicians, such as the Hebridean folk singer Julie Fowlis and the renowned six-piece Mànran. Teaching festivals such as Fèis Rois also aim to bring Gaelic music to a whole new generation of musicians.

The Gaelic Renaissance

Chances are, if you are visiting Scotland, you will encounter Gaelic 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.

In 2005, Bòrd na Gàidhlig was created in order to further promote the development of Gaelic throughout Scotland. They provide support for people who want to learn more about the language. Gaelic education and learning are at the heart of Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s aspirations. Because of this they offer a vast array of options covering everything from pre-school education right through to post-graduate studies. 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.

Our friends at Creative Scotland have an excellent introduction to the Gaelic language, if you want to learn more about it, then you can visit the Creative Scotland website. As well as this, if you are interested in learning some Gaelic, then is a great place to start. We thought we would get you started on your Gaelic journey with a few handy words and phrases. We’ve given a couple of what we think are some of the most important words and phrases if you ever find yourself in the company of a Gaelic speaker… or at a pub in the highlands! You can join the growing number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland and around the world and ensure this beautiful language stays around for another 10 centuries.


“I love Scotland”
tha gaol agam h-Alba

“How are you?”
Ciamar a tha thu?

Uisge Beathe

“Cheers!” (To toast when drinking)
Slàinte mhor!

“Thank you”
Tapadh leat

“I want to learn Gaelic”
Tha mi airson Gàidhlig ionnsachadh

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