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History of Gaelic

Gaelic Scotland: a brief history

Gaelic is one of Scotland’s national languages. This status is marked on the map as much as on the mind. There are very few regions of Scotland that do not boast at least a smattering of places originally named by Gaelic speakers, from Balerno (baile airneach ‘hawthorn farm’) in Midlothian to Baile Màrtainn in South Uist, from Craigentinny (creag an t-sionnaich ‘fox craig’) in Edinburgh to Aultivullin (allt a’ mhuilinn ‘mill burn’) in the far north of Sutherland; from Drummore (druim mòr ‘big ridge’) on the Mull of Galloway to Cairnbulg (càrn builg ‘gap cairn’) near Fraserburgh. In many places where Gaelic is no longer spoken as a native tongue, such as Galloway, Fife, or Aberdeenshire, the landscape is still predominantly one named by Gaelic speakers. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the high point of the expansion of Gaelic as a language in Scotland, one could traverse the whole mainland of Scotland and find speakers of Gaelic in most corners, whether it be the Gaelic landowners of the Lothians like Colmán and Gille Mhuire who gave their names to Comiston and Gilmerton, or the Clydesdale serf belonging to Glasgow Cathedral, named Gille Mochaoi; or the serfs of the upper Tweed valley called Mac Cormaig and Maol Mhuire; or the men of Norse lineage but Gaelic speech who were becoming the political hard-men of the western coast and the Hebrides, men with names like Raghnall and Somhairle.

In thinking about Gaelic in Scotland, we often think of it as in terminal decline from the time of Queen Maragret and her sons. Yet studies indicate that the 12th century was the time when the most ubiquitous Gaelic place-names, those employing the words baile ‘farm, settlement’, and achadh ‘field’, were coined. How did Gaelic become so dominant, and how did it lose sway; how did it become associated so closely with the highlands, and now with the Western Isles? When did it first reach here, and how did it change once it was here? When did various regions last have native speakers of Gaelic? This introduction tries to answer these questions and more.

Scottish Gaelic is a language of the Celtic family - it is a close relative of Welsh, Cornish and Breton, but shares a more intimate relationship with Irish and Manx Gaelic. These three Gaelic or Goidelic languages descend from a common ancestor, spoken in Ireland in the late first millennium BC and early first millennium AD. Writers in Latin referred to the inhabitants of Ireland, and thus the speakers of this ancestor language, as Scoti, and to Ireland as Scotia, but early in the middle ages, they adopted a name for themselves from their British cousins - Goídil, Gaels. Gaelic had spread to north-western Britain, to Argyll, by the 6th century AD at the very latest. It presumably arrived through the migration of Gaels, of Scoti across the Sea of Moyle, though this has been hotly debated in recent years, and the possibility that Gaelic evolved as a language simultaneously in Argyll and in Ireland has been advanced. Whatever the truth of the matter, by the sixth century it was the language of the rulers of Argyll, and of their kingdom of Dál Riada, which still included parts of County Antrim in the north of Ireland. It was the language also of its churchmen, who still had close kinship and political ties to Ireland.

Gaelic settlement was limited at this time. North of Ardnamurchan, east of the mountains, south of the Clyde, lay speakers of other Celtic languages - Pictish and British - and beyond them to the south, speakers of the ancestor of lowland Scots, northern Old English. In the subsequent centuries, although their numbers and territory continued to expand, Gaels were one people among many in northern Britain, and far from the most powerful in political terms. In the church though, they were highly influential - Gaelic churchmen played a large part in converting many parts of Scotland to Christianity, and right through the 9h century (and beyond) men from eastern Scotland would travel to Ireland for their church education.

In the 9th century, during a time of great upheaval caused by Viking invaders all around Britain’s shores, Gaels took power in eastern, as in western Scotland. By 900 the old name of Pictland was no more, and a new Gaelic name for that kingdom - Alba - and with it a new identity as Fir Alban (‘the Men of Alba’) was being promoted. The Scoti thus became the major players in the kingdom which would bear their name in English as Scotland. The kings of Alba boasted Gaelic names like Domhnall, Maolcholaim, Aodh, and Donnchadh, and one dynasty ruled that kingdom right through to the 12th century and beyond. North of the Forth, Gaelic speech supplanted Pictish entirely. South of it, the kings of Alba made conquest as far as the Tweed by 1018, and in their wake came nobles from the north and their retainers, bringing Gaelic speech into south-east Scotland.

This was not the only way in which Gaelic was expanding in Scotland at this time. The Vikings who had destabilised Britain so greatly in the 9th century settled in great numbers along the northern and western seaboard. In many places they, and their Scandinavian language, were in the minority. Self-consciously hybrid communities sprang up, such as the Gall-Ghàidhil, ‘Scandinavian Gaelic-speakers’, who went on to colonise the south-west of Scotland, giving it its name, Galloway (later confined to one portion of the south-west), and peppering the landscape with Gaelic place-names. By the 12th century, too, Scandinavian noblemen in the west had Gaelic nicknames, and could speak Gaelic, from Dublin to the Outer Hebrides. These men, with their Viking names like Oláfr, Ljodr, Ívarr, Thorketill were the new Gaels of the central middle ages. Their descendants, as MacAmhlaibh, MacLeòid, MacÌomhair, MacCorcadail, and many others, would be the lordly families of the later middle ages and early modern period. During the course of the 12th and 13th centuries, the western isles that had been most thoroughly settled by Scandinavians - Skye, Barra, the Uists, Harris and Lewis - began to become Gaelic-speaking communities, both through the increasing use of Gaelic by the ruling elite, and through less perceptible changes further down the social scale as well.

This period - the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries - was one in which the great Gaelic families were founded and began to make their fortunes. Families like Clann Dòmhnaill, descendants of Scandinavian Gaels, who ruled as lords of the Isles for 200 years; but also like the Frasers (na Frisealaich), who drew their descent from Anglo-Norman settlers from south of the Forth; or the earls of the Lennox, whose ancestor bore the Old English name Ælwine. The Campbells saw themselves as descendants of northern Britons (indeed, of Arthur!) and of Normans, as well as of Gaels. To be a Gael, in the middle ages, then, was to be a speaker of Gaelic - it was not a racial or ethnic tag. Gaelic clans looked to multiple lands for their ancestry, not just the Highlands.

For at this time, prior to the 14th century, the Highlands did not exist as a concept. But this very same period saw the circumstances which would bring in the Highland-Lowland divide now so familiar to us, and restrict and then reduce the sway of Gaelic speech. For although the kings of Alba, the kings of the Scots, still boasted of their Gaelic and Irish ancestry, they were progressive Europeans as well, bringing in new religious structures and monastic orders from England and the Continent; opening up the central belt and east coast to trade through the establishment of urban enterprise zones - the burghs - and changing fundamentally the way land and lordship operated. The personnel who effected these changes in many areas - Clydesdale, for instance, or Fife - were largely drawn from furth of Scotland. In burghs and in the church, the majority language came to be, over the course of the 13th and 14th centuries, the language we now know as lowland Scots, but which was then simply Inglis, English. Though burghs like Perth or Elgin must have had many Gaels working and living in them, most burghs did not. So too the great monasteries like Lindores or Arbroath were staffed largely by people who spoke the language which gave rise to Scots.

A map of burghs and new monasteries founded during this period is a telling one: the borders, the central belt, the east coast are dotted with new foundations, the western seaboard and the highlands on the whole are bare. Divergent cultures, as well as divergent speech zones, were emerging. From the 14th and 15th century, too, Inglis - Scots - was becoming an increasingly official language, and especially a language of law. By the 16th century, even those great Gaelic magnates who patronised, and indeed composed, Gaelic poetry used Scots for their correspondence, and for their tombstones. Not only in regional and in economic terms, but now in terms of domain of use, Gaelic was receding. As a token of this, take the printing press - the maker of early modernity. A few religious books were printed in Gaelic in the 16th and 17th centuries, but it would not be until the end of the 18th century before Gaelic culture as a whole embraced the Gaelic printed word.

None the less, the divide between Gael and lowlander was never a chasm. Throughout the early modern period, individuals and families moved between both zones and both cultures. Towns like Perth, Stirling, Aberdeen had long-standing relationships with Gaelic-speaking hinterlands which were close at hand. In the 15th century the lords of the isles were as often in their seats in Inverness and Dingwall as in Islay. The family whose hands scribed the most important manuscript of the Gaelic middle ages, the 16th century Book of the Dean of Lismore, boasted notary publics; in this manuscript, Gaelic poems are rendered in the spelling conventions of lowland Scots. Noble families highland and lowland married within their class as much as their culture. Political alliances such as those which wracked Scotland during the Covenanting Wars and the Jacobite Risings were made across the divisions of speech and community. It is important, too, that for these communities, Gaelic remained a high register language associated with culture and learning. Even in a place like Aberdeen Grammar School in the 16th century, Gaelic (though not Scots) was an accepted medium of conversation, alongside Latin and French.

Later, successive defeats of movements and individuals who seemed tied to Gaelic culture produced a sense of unease for Gaels, and of disenfranchisement within the Scottish and British nations. The 18th century saw matters change in several dramatic ways at once. The defeat of Charles Edward Stuart at Culloden led to the targeting of images of Gaelic culture - the pipes, the tartan cloth - and thus their closer identification with that culture. The ‘discovery’ of Ossian led to the elevation of Gaelic imagery within Scottish culture, and to the opening up of the highlands to tourism and the infection of the Scottish imagination with the fading relics of the Gaelic past. Gaelic culture became in the late 18th and through the 19th century ever more closely bound in to a wider Scottish identity, but it did so as a culture of the past, and through images more than through words.

At the very same time, modern Gaels were on the move, changing their locations and their horizons, and in the process modernising their culture. Gaels from the Highlands became mainstays of the British Army, helping to forge the British Empire, whilst other Gaels were thrown by economic downturn, famine and rapacious landlordism onto the ebb-tide of emigration. Some of these émigrés made for other lands: North America, Australia, New Zealand. More migrated to Scotland’s emergent industrial cities in search of work. Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and also London, became hosts to large Gaelic communities. These communities were of the highlands yet modern too. Their songs and Gaelic Societies were often nostalgic for the homeland, but could also be feverishly patriotic or enthusiastic for the new, whether it be steamboats or electoral reform. They were increasingly literate, and fuelled a burgeoning Gaelic publishing industry of books and periodicals. If the twelfth century saw the greatest extent of Gaelic in Scotland, the 19th century saw the greatest numbers of speakers, and many of them, increasingly, lived in the lowlands, in towns and in cities.

But a language needs more than sheer numbers to survive. The final decades of the 19th century saw successful struggles by Gaels for land rights in the wake of savage clearances and brutal landlordism, but it also saw the end of the fragile experiments in Gaelic-medium education, as the Education Act of 1872 brought in English as the sole medium of teaching. Subsequent reforms to allow Gaelic as a subject did not address the fundamental problem. Excluded as a language of law, and now of education, Gaelic was increasingly confined to the family, the croft and the kirk. Gaels who might have become literate in the 19th century would have less opportunity to do so in the 20th. The Gaels who populated the regiments would also take their disproportionate toll on the killing fields of the Great War.

Against a sombre backdrop of decline, the past four decades have seen increasingly significant attempts to change the status of Gaelic and its fate. Migration, exclusion (partial or full) from education and legal usage, the decline in established religion, and the rise of English literacy and the media all continued to take their toll on Gaelic and its communities through the 20th century, to say nothing of the globalisation that affects all local communities in the 21st. Regions which entered the 20th century with solid Gaelic-speaking neighbourhoods, such as the Lennox, Arran, Easter Ross, Perthshire, Southern Argyll, left it with at best a rare, aged speaker still remaining. More and more, the mainland has ceded Gaelic to English speech, and the Hebrides have become the stronghold of Gaelic. And yet a slow but steady change in fortunes has marked the last half-century. Struggles to secure a modicum of Gaelic presence in the media (especially radio and television), to increase and consolidate Gaelic-medium education, and to secure Gaelic’s status in law, have been partially successful. Gaelic signs now mark the offices of the Scottish parliament, along the High Street to the castle, where once Gaelic-speaking kings reigned, and along the streets the Perthshire poet and Edinburgh resident Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir walked two centuries ago. In Glasgow’s west end, not far from the Broomielaw where countless Gaels once alighted from ships from the west, the first full Gaelic-medium school has been established. There have never been more or better opportunities for those without Gaelic to learn it. Not for many decades have there been so many good and often gainful opportunities for those with Gaelic to use it.

Professor Thomas Owen Clancy
Chair of Celtic
Head of Department of Celtic
Head of the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies
University of Glasgow