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Irish and Scottish Gaelic

Gaelic inscription on a stone

The Gaelic language has been continuously spoken in Ireland and Scotland for thousands of years. During that time, its use has waxed and waned, and diverged significantly between the two countries to become Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic. Even more confusingly, the language is referred to as Irish or Gaeilge (Gwal-gah) in Ireland, with “Gaelic” being used to describe the people and culture. As different as the modern languages may be between the two countries, they have roots in the same Old Gaelic (or Old Irish).

The history of this language is a bit murky. We know it comes from an even earlier Celtic language, which came from the Celts that conquered Ireland and Britain some 3,000 years ago (conquering the pre-Celtic peoples that already inhabited those lands). Other Celtic languages include Welsh, Breton, Cornish and Manx. The Celts that settled in Ireland become known as the Gaels, and their Gaelic language traveled with them as they spread throughout Scotland and the Isle of Man.

Irish mailbox

The Vikings invaded these areas between the 8th and 10th centuries, bringing an increase in the use of the Norse language. While some Norse words found their way into the Gaelic language, the structure of the language was not affected, and ultimately Gaelic dominated in usage.

The Catholic Church played a major role in spreading the Gaelic language. One example of this influence is the numerous place names starting with “Kil” (from cill meaning church or cell), which is usually combined with a saint’s name.

County Cork sign in Ireland

The Gaelic language reached its peak between the 12th and 14th centuries. In Scotland, King Robert the Bruce spoke Gaelic, and the parliaments at Ardchattan in the 1320’s were conducted in Gaelic.

King Robert the Bruce statue in Scotland

By the Middle Ages, the use of Gaelic was dwindling, as the use of the English language expanded. It is also during this time that the common Gaelic language split into distinctly different languages between Ireland and Scotland.

Welcome to Scotland sign

While the Scottish Gaelic and Irish languages persisted in rural areas, in the cities they were all but lost. The 18th century saw the New Testament of the Bible printed in Scottish Gaelic, thanks to small groups of Gaelic speakers in the cities promoting the use of Gaelic. The 19th century saw a growth of Gaelic Schools. The same push to preserve the language was seen in Ireland, and in the 19th century the Irish language began to be declared as a national language, and the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language was established.

While the use of Irish and Scottish Gaelic has continued to decline, today there is a renewed interest in the preservation of these languages. Unlike the Irish language in Ireland, Scottish Gaelic is not an official national language. However, The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act of 2005 did give it formal recognition.

Village of Adare, County Limerick, Ireland

Worth mentioning is the third, little know Gaelic language, Manx, which is spoke in the tiny country of the Isle of Man, found between Ireland and Scotland. The Manx language follows a very similar history to its sister languages, and is also experiencing a revival.

Today, it is possible to begin to learn Irish, Scottish Gaelic or Manx, with the help of books and recordings, various resources on the internet, or through one of the many societies springing up all over the world to help preserve these languages. Books and television shows such as the Outlander series have kindled an interest in new audiences. The future of these ancient languages with common roots certainly looks much brighter!