BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

29 October 2014
Your Voice

BBC Homepage

Contact Us

Elsewhere on BBCi
BBC Scotland - Alba

In Your Area
What do you think about your local accent?
Talk about Voices in your area

Did You Know?
'Booze' is an anglicised version of the word 'busen', borrowed from the Dutch term meaning to 'drink to excess'.

Page 2 of 3
Scottish Gaelic today
History of Scottish Gaelic
Features of Scottish Gaelic

History of Scottish Gaelic

The Scottish people originated with Gaelic-speaking incomers from North Eastern Ulster who settled in the North Western coastlands and islands of Caledonia in the later fifth century, and subsequently relocated their kingdom of Dal Riata from Ulster to Argyll, 'the coastland of the Gael'. This subsequently grew by absorption of the Picts in the east, and conquest of the Britons and Angles in the south, into what came to be called Scotland by the 11th century. Viking settlements in the Northern Highlands and Northern Isles from the end of the 8th century established the Norn language which survived in Caithness, Orkney and Shetland until the eighteenth century.

Under the kingship of Malcolm III "Ceannmòr" (1054-96) Gaelic began to lose its preeminence at court and amongst the aristocracy to Norman French, and in the Lowland area to the Anglian speech of the burghs, which were established first in eastern Scotland by David I (1124 - 53). This speech was known firstly as Inglis, and later as Scots, and it rapidly became the predominant language of the Scottish Lowlands, meaning that by the later middle ages Gaelic had retreated to the Highlands and Hebrides, which maintained some degree of independence within the Scottish state.

Attempts were made by legislation in the later medieval and early modern period to establish English at first amongst the aristocracy and increasingly amongst all ranks by education acts and parish schools. The Scots Parliament passed some ten such acts between 1494 and 1698. The Statutes of Iona in 1609-10 and 1616 outlawed the Gaelic learned orders, and sought to eradicate Gaelic, the so-called 'Irish' language so that the 'vulgar English tongue' might be universally planted. The suppression of the Lordship of the Isles (1411), the Reformation (1560), the final failure of the Jacobite cause (1746) and the end of the clan system were all in turn damaging to Gaelic.

Further setbacks for the language were loss of life in the Napoleonic Wars, the ensuing Highland Clearances, potato famine in the 1840s, and economic marginalisation and underdevelopment which engendered large-scale migration to the Lowlands and overseas. Some mitigation resulted from legislation following the 'Crofters' Wars' in 1886, and at the end of the nineteenth century Gaelic was still the predominant language throughout the mainland Highlands and Hebrides.

In the 1914-18 war, losses of life at sea and in the armed forces took considerable toll of the Gaelic population, and the inter-war period witnessed renewed emigration, especially from the Hebrides. The numbers of Gaelic speakers declined sharply from 254,415 in 1891 to 58,969 in 2001. Internal migration from Highlands and Islands to Lowlands has resulted in 45% of all Gaelic speakers today normally residing in Lowland, urban Scotland.

previous next

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy