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Scottish Gaelic

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History of Scottish Gaelic


Gaelic is the traditional language of the Scotti or Gaels, and the historical language of most regions of Scotland. The language was introduced to Scotland by settlers from Ireland, in the 4th century.


Gaelic eventually displaced Pictish north of the River Forth, and until the late 15th century was known in the Scots' English language as Scottis, and in England as Scottish. Gaelic began to decline in mainland Scotland from the beginning of the 13th century, accompanying its decline in its status as a national language, and by the beginning of the 15th century, the highland-lowland line was beginning to emerge.


The language suffered particularly as Highlanders and their traditions were persecuted after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and during the Highland Clearances. With this defeat came repression of both the aelic language and all things Gaelic. In the following years there was a systematic eradication of the Gaelic culture by the British government.

As can be seen from the chart below the number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland has plummeted from 1,265,380 in 1755 to 58,652 in 2001 - despite a population rise from 1,265,380 to 5,062,011.




The modern Scottish Gaelic alphabet has 18 letters:

A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, U.

The letter h, now used mainly to indicate lenition of a consonant, was in general not used in the oldest orthography, as lenition was instead indicated with a dot over the lenited consonant. The letters of the alphabet were traditionally named after trees (see above), but this custom has generally fallen out of use.

Long vowels are either marked with a grave accent (, , , , ) or are indicated through digraphs or conditioned by certain consonant evironments. Traditional spelling systems also uses the acute accent on the letters , and to denote a change in vowel quality rather than length, but reform from within the Scottish schools system has abandoned these in parts of Gaelic speaking society.

Number of speakers of Gaelic in Scotland

Year Scottish population Speakers of Gaelic only Speakers of Gaelic and English Speakers of Gaelic and English as % of population
1755 1,265,380 289,798 N/A N/A (22.9 monoglot Gaelic)
1800 1,608,420 297,823 N/A N/A (18.5 monoglot Gaelic)
1881 3,735,573 231,594 N/A N/A (6.1 monoglot Gaelic)
1891 4,025,647 43,738 210,677 5.2
1901 4,472,103 28,106 202,700 4.5
1911 4,760,904 18,400 183,998 3.9
1921 4,573,471 9,829 148,950 3.3
1931 4,588,909 6,716 129,419 2.8
1951 5,096,415 2,178 93,269 1.8
1961 5,179,344 974 80,004 1.5
1971 5,228,965 477 88,415 1.7
1981 5,035,315 N/A 82,620 1.6
1991 5,083,000 N/A 65,978 1.4
2001 5,062,011 N/A 58,652 1.2


Must Know Gaelic Phrases

Gaelic English Translation
Ciamar a tha thu? How are you?
Madainn mhath Good morning
Feasgar math Good afternoon
Tapadh leat

Thank you

A bheil an t-acras ort? Are you hungry?
A bheil am pathadh ort? are you thirsty?
Sln leat Goodbye
Slinte "Good health" (used as a toast when drinking - similar to the use of "cheers")
D an t-ainm a tha oirbh? What's your name?
'S mise..... My name is...
Ciamar a tha sibh? How are you?
Tha gu math, tapadh leibh. I'm well, thank you.
Tha gaol agam ort. I love you.
Tha mi duilich. I'm sorry.
D an t-ainm a tha ort? What is your name?
Tha deagh shde ann The weather is good. (This is a phrase seldom heard in Scotland as it has not stopped raining for the last 637 days)


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