Scottish Gaelic is one of six modern Celtic languages.

Celtic languages are divided into two groups, Gaelic and British. Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Manx belong to the Gaelic group, and Welsh, Breton and Cornish to the British group. Cornish and Manx, however, are increasingly rare.

Older versions of the modern Celtic languages were spoken in a large part of Europe at the height of Celtic civilization.

As of 1990, Gaelic was spoken by about 70,000 of 5,000,000 Scots, somewhat more than 1% of the population. In the Western Isles (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) and in some parts of the Highlands (a' Ghaidhealtachd), Gaelic is used as the everyday language in some communities. The highest concentration of Gaelic speakers is in the Outer Hebrides, and others live in the Highland and Strathclyde regions. Almost 10% of Gaelic speakers live in Glasgow, with smaller concentrations in Inverness and Edinburgh.

Gaelic was spoken in most parts of Scotland from the 9th to the 11th centuries, and its influence can be found in the names of places and people. As a result of depopulation in the 18th and 19th centuries, Gaelic communities were established in North Carolina, Nova Scotia (Alba Nuadh), Cape Breton Island (Eilean Cheap Breatainn), and elsewhere.

Among Gaelic nouns which have influenced placenames are achadh, baile, beinn, dun, gleann, innis, inbhir, cill, ceann, loch, srath, and taigh (see handout), corresponding to ach, bal, ben, dun/dum, glen, inch, inver, kil, kne/kin, loch, strath, and tay/y (field, village, mountain, fort or hill, valley, island, river-mouth, church or cell, head or end, lake, wide valley, house). Other important words include ard, buidhe, ban, beag, breac, dubh, garbh, and mor (high, yellow, fair or white, small, speckled, black, rough, and large).

Bog (a moss or marsh) has its origins in the Gaelic adjective bog (soft or moist). Bog is often used in Gaelic to describe damp weather, e. g. Tha i bog an-diugh (It's damp today).

One of Scotland's chief exports, whiskey, derives its name from uisge-beatha, the water of life. Smashing (British slang) is thought to derive from the Gaelic 'S math sin (that's good). The Highland sporran and caber are anglicized versions of Gaelic sporan (a purse) and cabar (a pole). The Highland sport of shinty is played with a ball and caman, Gaelic for stick.

Slogan is thought to be a drivative of the Gaelic battle-cry of sluagh-ghairm. Other Gaelic traces are found in company names, Cunard from Cuan Ard (high sea), Alba Hi-fi (Alba, Scotland), Cala Hotels from Cala (a harbour), Skean Dhu Hotels from Sgian Dubh (black knife, a ceremonial dagger), Claymore Dairies from Cleaidheamh Mor (great sword), the word for twig (Scottish English for understand, from tuig), and galore (plenty, from Gaelic gu leor).

Some Gaelic names have been adopted in English, e. g. Calum and Catriona, and others such as Hamish and Innes are adaptations of Gaelic names, in this case Seumas and Aonghas.

English has adopted other Gaelic words such as ceilidh, which originally meant a house gathering with music, songs and stories; now in English it means a concert of Highland music and song, but in Gaelic is still a term for visiting.

Traditional Gaelic musical instruments are the great Highland bagpipe (a' phiob mhor) and the slarsach or harp. There are two kinds of bagpipe music (ceol na pioba): pibroch (ceol mor) and light music (ceol beag). Both the bagpipe and the harp have been popular in recent times. Other popular instruments are the fiddle/violin and accordion.

In the past, however, instruments were rarer and a form of mouth music or puirt-a-beul was used to accompany dancing (parallel to Breton kan ha diskan).

Unaccompanied singing is the most traditional form of Gaelic singing, as in folk songs, and of these, waulking songs (orain luaidh) were used by groups of women working together shrinking tweed. Another distinctive form is the psalm singing practiced in Gaelic protestant churches (seinn nan salm), in which a precentor gives out the line, and the congregation repeats it with ornamentation.

The largest Gaelic festival is the National Mod (Am Mod Naiseanta), held annually in October, a week-long event similar to the Welsh National Eisteddfod, with subsidiary provincial festivals. Local mods are also held throughout Scotland in May and June, and a 'festival fringe" has grown up in recent years. Mods are competitive festivals with competitions in singing, piping, Highland dancing, shinty and drama.

Throughout Scotland many householders give their houses Gaelic names (Taigh na Bruaich, house of the bank). In Gaelic-speaking areas, many houses are known by the name of their inhabitant, e. g. Taigh Ailein Bhig, little Alan's house, Taig Moraig, Morag's house.


The Gaelic alphabet has only 18 letters, but many more sounds, so that combinations of letters are used for some sounds.

The five vowels a, e, i, o, u, may be short or, when written with a grave accent, long.

Vowels are divided into two classes, slender--e and i--and broad--a, o and u. When a consonant is preceded and/or followed by a slender vowel it is pronouned differently than when used in combination with a broad vowel. Rules govern the sequence of vowels--if a consonant is preceded by a slender vowel, it must be followed by a slender one also; and similarly if preceded by a broad vowel it must be followed by a broad one: a rule of "slender to slender and broad to broad."

The thirteen consonants are b, c, d, f, g, h, l, m, n, p, r, s, t. The sound of a consonant is changed when followed by an h, a change called lenition. All consonants except l, n, r can be followed by h.

Many Scottish surnames begin with the Gaelic word Mac, son, e. g. MacInnes, MacAllister. In Gaelic, the form changes when referring to a female, to Nic.

Murdo MacRae is Murchadh MacRath, but Margaret MacRae is Mairead NicRath (compare Icelandic, Magnusson, Magnusdottir).

Personal names often change form when someone is addressed, i. e. Mairead becomes a Mhairead, Tormod becomes a Thormoid. (cmp. Latin vocative case) Female names add h after the initial letter, e. g. Sine (Jane) becomes a Shine and Catriona (Catherine) becomes a Chatriona.

Nicknames (by-names) are often used, perhaps because in some districts the same surnames are repeated, e. g. MacNeill in Barra, MacGriogair in parts of Perthshire.

Nicknames can be descriptive, as Anna Mor, "big Anne." They can be patronymics or matronymics, e. g. Mairi Sheumais (James' Mary) or Calum Seonaig (Calum of Joan). They can be occupational, e. g. Domhnall Ciobair (Donald the Shepherd), or refer to the father's occupation, e. g. Mairi a' Ghobha (Mary of the Blacksmith). Nicknames can be residential, that is, Morag a Ghlinne, Morag of the Glen, or indicate the person's place of origin, Ruairridh Leodhasach, Roderick of Lewis.

All nouns are either masculine or feminine, with the appropriate adjectival forms. All pronouns have a gender, masculine or feminine. Personal pronouns also have an emphatic form, for which there is no English equivalent (we would italicize). Sentences usually begin with verbs. As in many other languages, there are two forms of the verb "to be."

Some place names: Alba (Scotland), Glaschu, Inbhir Nis, Dun Eideann (Edinburgh), An t-Eilean Sgitheananch (the Isle of Skye), An t-Oban (Oban), An Gearasdan (Fort William).

Traditional Gaelic counting is based on twenties, so that thirty is seen as twenty ten. The decimal system has been a late introduction, and the metric system is even less often used.

source: Boyd Robertson and Iain Taylor, Gaelic, A Complete Course for Beginners, Hodder Headline Plc, 1993