History of Scottish Gaelic

Gaelic is the traditional language of the Scotti or Gaels, and the historical language of the majority of Scotland. It is not clear how long Gaelic has been spoken in what is now Scotland; it has lately been proposed that it was spoken in Argyll before the Roman period, but no consensus has been reached on this question. However, the consolidation of the kingdom of Dál Riata around the 4th century, linking the ancient province of Ulster in the north of Ireland and western Scotland, accelerated the expansion of Gaelic, as did the success of the Gaelic-speaking church establishment. Placename evidence shows that Gaelic was spoken in the Rhinns of Galloway by the 5th or 6th century.

The Gaelic language eventually displaced Pictish north of the Forth, and until the late 15th century it was known in Inglis as Scottis. Gaelic began to decline in Scotland by the beginning of the 13th century, and with this went a decline in its status as a national language. By the beginning of the 15th century, the highland-lowland line was beginning to emerge.

By the early 16th century, the Gaelic language had acquired the name Erse, meaning Irish, and thereafter it was invariably the collection of Middle English dialects spoken within the Kingdom of the Scots that came to be referred to as Scottis (whence Scots). Nevertheless, Gaelic still occupies a special place in Scottish culture, has never been entirely displaced of national language status, and is still recognised by many Scots, whether or not they speak Gaelic, as being a crucial part of the nation’s culture. Of course, others may view it primarily as a regional language of the highlands and islands.

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Gaelic has a rich oral (beul aithris) and written tradition, having been the language of the bardic culture of the Highland clans for several centuries, and the survival of Gaelic has been therefore a very important factor in Scottish politics. The language preserved knowledge of and adherence to pre-feudal (tribal) laws and customs (as represented, for example, by the expressions tuatha and dùthchas). Where the language survived, therefore, people were stubbornly resistant to the rule of a lowland-centred and English-speaking Scottish state. This stubbornness was not seriously overcome until after the Scottish state had become allied with England. The language suffered especially as Highlanders and their traditions were persecuted after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and during the Highland Clearances, but pre-feudal attitudes were still evident in the complaints and claims of the Highland Land League of the late 19th century: this political movement was successful in getting members elected to the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The Land League was dissipated as a parliamentary force by the 1886 Crofters’ Act and by the way the Liberal Party was seen to become supportive of Land League objectives.

Scottish Gaelic may be more correctly known as Highland Gaelic to distinguish it from the now defunct Lowland Gaelic. Lowland Gaelic was spoken in the southern regions of Scotland prior to the introduction of Lowland Scots. There is, however, no evidence of a linguistic border following the topographical north-south differences. Similarly, there is no evidence from placenames of significant linguistic differences between, for example, Argyll and Galloway. Dialects on both sides of the Straits of Moyle linking Scottish Gaelic with Irish are now extinct.

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