Gaelic in Scotland

"An t-seann chànan Albannach"

What is "Celtic"?

"Celtic" is a branch of the Indo-European language family. The means by which the Celtic languages became established in Europe, and the time period in which this occurred in various regions, is currently a matter of research and speculation. The Celtic languages of the continent of Europe became extinct in the first few centuries after the Roman conquest, although they have left traces in languages such as German, French and English. The exact nature of the Continental Celtic languages, and relationships between them, is still a matter of debate.

Diagram of Celtic languages of British Isles

 Diagram of Celtic languages of British Isles
(Michael Newton, 2008)

The Celtic languages of Ireland, Britain and Brittany are traditionally grouped into two main branches, Goidelic ("Q-Celtic") and Brythonic ("P-Celtic"), because of a phonetic divergence that is thought to have developed in very ancient times.

A Short History of Gaelic in Scotland

It is still unclear when the Celtic languages arrived in the British Isles or how. At the time of the Roman occupation, the territories now claimed by the modern nation we call "Scotland" was inhabited by people speaking forms of Goidelic and Brythonic languages. It is only due to the Roman presence that divisions emerged in the Brythonic branch which led to the use of the labels "Pict" and "Briton." By about the 12th century, Brythonic speakers on the mainland had adopted the Gaelic language, although Brythonic influences were imprinted on Scottish Gaelic. Similarly, the Norse who settled the Western Isles and the western seaboard of the mainland had become Gaelicized.

The term Scot originally referred to a Gaelic speaker, whether s/he was living in Scotland or Ireland. The kingdom of Scotland was built and dominated by Gaelic-speaking kings, saints, churchmen, and warriors, and this label stuck to Scotland rather than Ireland. At its height in the 12th century, Gaelic was spoken in most parts of Scotland, and even south of the English border.

English-speaking peoples settled in the Lothians of south-eastern Scotland in about the 6th century. The influence of the English language expanded during the reign of David son of Malcolm Canmore when he planted burghs and military outposts in many other parts of the Lowlands of Scotland after becoming king of Scotland in 1124. David brought people from the north of England and the Low Countries of Europe to the burghs, which introduced a new social order, and language, to Scotland which soon dominated the Lowlands. The people of the Highlands, however, held on to their identity as the "Old Scots" and to their ancestral language, Gaelic.

Until the seventeenth century, Gaelic Scotland and Ireland were linked by a literary form of Gaelic, by dynastic intermarriage, and by the exchange of professional Gaelic scholars, poets, churchmen, lawyers, and warriors. These bonds were broken at the same time that Gaeldom in both Scotland and Ireland was besieged politically, culturally, and economically by the English-speaking world. The fortunes of the language were tied to the native nobility; when they were assimilated or exiled (during the seventeenth century in Ireland, and the eighteenth century in Scotland), Gaelic lost the crucial infrastructure and patronage it needed to ensure its development and survival.

Some Milestones of Scottish Gaelic Literature

  • c. 400 AD - Creation and use of ogham alphabet (for funerary inscriptions on stones)
  • c. 563 - Colm Cille (St. Columba) founds monastery of Ì (a.k.a. "Iona")
  • c. 597 - Gaelic elegy composed on death of St. Columba by Dallán Forgaill
  • c. 600 - The book Cathach written (by St. Columba?)
  • 600s - Gaelic law begins to be transcribed
  • 679 - Death of Cenn Faelad, author of first Gaelic grammar
  • 697 - Cáin Adomnáin (Law of Innocents) accepted as law by 50 Irish kings, king of Dál Riata, king of Picts
  • 908 - Death of Cormac mac Cuilennáin of Munster, compiler of first etymological dictionary for Gaelic
  • 1100s - Scottish Gaelic notes written in the margins of the Book of Deer
  • c. 1200 - Muireadhach Ó Dálaigh brings Classical Gaelic syllabic poetic tradition to Scotland, composes praise poems for Earl of Lennox and Amhlaíbh of the Lennox
  • c. 1220 - Gaelic poem composed in praise of Domhnall mac Raghnaill, King of the Isles and founder of Clan Donald
  • 1300s - Scottish Gaelic charms written in the Murthly Hours
  • 1403 - Commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates translated into Classical Gaelic
  • 1408 - Domhnall of Islay, Lord of the Isles, writes Gaelic charter for lands to Brian Vicar MacKay
  • 1513-42 - Book of Dean of Lismore written, including compilation of Gaelic poetry
  • 1567 - Gaelic translation of Book of Common Order becomes first book printed in any Celtic language
  • c. 1596 - Donnchadh Albanach Ó Conchubhair copies Gaelic medical treatise at Irish medical college
  • c. 1630 - Gaelic translation of Calvin's Catechismus Ecclesiae Genevensis published
  • 1726 - Death of Niall MacMhuirich, scribe of the Red Book of Clanranald
  • 1741 - First Scottish Gaelic vocabulary printed (compiled by Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair)
  • 1751 - Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair becomes first Gaelic poet to publish his own book
  • 1776 - Eigg Collection becomes first published collection of traditional Gaelic poetry
  • 1785 - First Gaelic proverb collection published
  • 1807 - Translation of entire Bible into vernacular Scottish Gaelic published
  • 1860 - Publication of Popular Tales of the West Highlands in 4 volumes