Gaelic – Language of the Highland Gael

Gaelic the language of the Highland Gael came to Scotland along with the Irish settlers who settled in the Kingdom of Dal Riada in Argyll on the west coast of Scotland. As the Gaels spread so did their language and it became considered the language of Scotland. Gaelic began to decrease, firstly during the Union of the Crowns when Scottish aristocrats had to learn English to negotiate with London. Secondly, after our defeat at the Battle of Culloden, Gaelic could not be understood by Government troops and was seen as a language of war and further acts were passed to abolish the language. Basically, if you spoke Gaelic you were persecuted.

But yet, although Gaelic speakers have decreased over the years, we still have a strong connection to our native language. The success of Outlander where it is featured and spoken has brought Gaelic to a wider audience. Once described as a dead language Gaelic is again being revived and today there are a number of universities and colleges in Scotland offering opportunities to study and learn Gaelic.

The Gaelic alphabet contains 18 letters and each letter is said to represent a plant or tree, it does not recognise j, k, v, x, y or z. The Gaelic language also describes a place or the scene of an event that once happened in the area. An example of this is Bealach Na Bà (Pass of the Cattle), which boasts the steepest ascent of any road climb in the UK, and a historical mountain pass used by Highland drovers taking cattle from the  Applecross peninsula in Wester Ross. Other examples are Eilean a’ Cheò which means Misty Isle, a perfect description for the mist-shrouded Isle of Skye. Those of who have watched Outlander would have heard Jamie describing Claire ‘Sassenach’, -Sassan means Saxon and Anach means from. In the Highlands & Islands, a Sassenach describes a person from out with the Highland boundary.

In Scotland today, Gaelic speakers are found mainly in the West Coast of Scotland with the highest percentage of Gaelic speakers living in the Outer Hebrides. When you enter by road into Scotland, a road sign welcomes you in both English and Gaelic Failte gu Alba (Welcome to Scotland)

After the Battle of Culloden in 1746 various acts were passed to dispose of the Highland Culture which led to a gradual breakdown of the clan system. Clan chiefs who supported the Jacobite cause found themselves heavily in debt and began to raise rents, they also found if they passed over their land to sheep grazing it would be more profitable, this meant the people had to go, this led to the Highland Clearances.

Because of the Highland Clearances Gaelic is not restricted to Scotland and has travelled to the four corners of the globe. Although the exact number of highlanders cleared from the Highlands is not recorded it was estimated to be in the region of 150,000 with 50,000 settling in Nova Scotia and Cape Breton where today there is the highest concentration of Gaelic speakers outside Scotland.

Language of the Highland Gael

One of the earliest ships to sail from Scotland was the wooden Dutch ship, the Hector which sailed from Loch Broom in 1773. On board were families all with hope in their hearts for a new life and a new beginning 3000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. They were sailing to a land where they were free to speak Gaelic and carry on their Highland traditions, free from any repercussions and threats. The decision to leave their homes wasn’t done freely as many were forcibly removed and had nowhere else to go.  Scotland still has close connections to the many descendants who still carry a ‘torch’ for the Highland traditions that died in their homeland, and throughout the world regular Clan gatherings take place. Because of those times, it is estimated in excess of 25 million people worldwide can claim to have Scottish connections and one reason the Gaelic language will never die.

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