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Gaelic in modern Scotland
Gaelic in modern Scotland

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  1. Not all historians accept the view that Scotland’s Gaels originated as a result of immigration from Ireland to Scotland in the early to mid-First Millennium AD. Much of the evidence for that view comes from ancient manuscripts such as Senchus Fer nAlban (The History of the Men of Scotland) and the Annals of Tigernach, but the copies we possess of these documents were rewritten centuries after the events and might have been altered for political purposes. Some historians argue that the ‘legends’ of an Irish origin for Scottish Gaelic obfuscate the possibility of a continuity that takes the Gaels back well into the Iron Age (circa 700 BC to 500 AD) in Scotland.
  2. The Book of Deer is a very significant Scottish document. Written on vellum in the 10th century, and containing portions of the gospels in Latin, its greatest claim to fame is the marginal notes which were added in the 12th Century in the Gaelic of the time. Here is a section dealing with the origin of the place name ‘Deer’:

    Colum Cille & Drostán mac Cosgreg a dalta tángator a hÍ mar ro falseg Dia doib gonic' Abbordoboir, & Bede cruthnec robo mormær Buchan ar a ginn; & ess é ro thidnaig doib in gathraig-sain in saere go bráith ó mormaer & ó thosec. Tángator as a athle-sen in cathraig ele, & do-raten ri Colum Cille sí, iar fa llán do rath Dé. Acus do-rodloeg ar in mormær i. Bede go-ndas tabrad dó, & ní tharat. Acus ro gab mac dó galar, iar n-ére na glérec, & robo marb act mad bec. Iar sen do-chuid in mormaer d'attac na glérec go ndéndaes ernacde lesin mac go ndísad slánte dó; & do-rat i n-edbairt doib ua Cloic in Tiprat gonice Chloic Pette Mec-Garnait. Do-rónsat i n-ernacde, & tánic slá dó. Iar sen do-rat Collum Cille do Drostán in chadraig-sen, & ro-s benact, & fo-rácaib in mbréther, ge bé tísad ris, ná bad blienec buadacc. Tángator déara Drostán ar scarthain fri Collum Cille. Ro laboir Colum Cille, ‘Bed Déar a anim ó shunn imacc.’

    The English translation is:

    Columba and Drostan son of Coscrach, his disciple, came from Iona, as God guided them, to Aberdour; and Bede the Pict was mormaer of Buchan on their arrival; and it is he who bestowed on them that monastery, in freedom till Doomsday from mormaer and toisech. They came after that to the other monastery, and it pleased Columba, for it was full of the grace of God. And he begged the mormaer, that is, Bede, that he should give it to them, and he did not. And a son of his took a sickness, after the clerics had been refused, and was all but dead. Thereupon the mormaer went to beseech the clerics that they should make a prayer on behalf of the boy, that health might come to him; and he gave to them land as a grant from Cloch in Tiprat as far as Cloch Peitte Meic-Garnait. They made the prayer, and health came to him. Thereupon Columba gave Drostan that monastery, and blessed it, and left the curse that whoever should go against it should not be full of years or of success. Drostan's tears [déra] came as he was parting from Columba. Columba said, ‘Let Deer be its name from this on.’

  3. In his classic publication, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, Professor W J Watson wrote: ‘Malcolm, son of Kenneth, routed the Northumbrians in the great and decisive battle of Carham in AD 1018, and fixed the boundary of Scotland practically as it stands now... It was during this period, probably from about AD 960 onwards, that Gaelic came to be current in Lothian; there is some evidence that it extended beyond the present boundary of Scotland.’
  4. People in the Scottish diaspora tend to pronounce the surname Menzies as ‘MEN-zeez’ and are intrigued by the native Scottish pronunciation ‘MING-iss’. It appears that the clan’s progenitors originated in Mesnieres in Normandy. They were called de Meyneris in English after the Norman French fashion and Mèinnearach in Gaelic (similarly Bruce was de Brus in English and Brus in Gaelic). The ‘z’ in Menzies was not originally a ‘z’ at all but a letter called ‘yogh’ in the old Scots and Middle English alphabets, written ‘ȝ’ but pronounced like a ‘y’. Typesetters often found the yogh unavailable to them and they replaced it with the similar letter ‘z’, altering the pronunciation of this surname in English, but not in Gaelic (where it’s still Mèinnearach). The replacement of the yogh with a ‘z’ has also led to the aberrant spellings of some Scots words and names based on Gaelic eg capercailzie (capall coille, ‘horse of the forest’), MacKenzie (MacCoinnich, ‘son of Kenneth’) and Cockenzie (Cùil Choinnich, ‘Kenneth’s nook’).
  5. In his Historia Majoris Britanniae (1521), the Lothian-born philosopher John Mair (or Major) wrote of the linguistic divide in Scotland, referring to Gaelic as ‘Irish’: ‘The Irish tongue is in use among the former, the English tongue amongst the latter. One half of Scotland speaks Irish and all these as well as the Islanders … belong to the Wild Scots. In dress, in the manner of their outward life, and in good morals, .. these come behind the householding Scots.’

    While he made clear, as did other Lowlanders of his day, that he had little admiration for the Gaels, he nevertheless made the interesting comment that ‘most of us spoke Irish a short time ago’.

  6. The Gaelic and Norse languages interacted significantly with each other over many centuries, leaving a legacy which can still be seen in Gaelic (Old Norse borrowed Gaelic words like àirigh, coinneamh and gadan but its descendant, Norn, has long since become extinct). Modern Gaelic words like uinneag (window), sgeir (sea-rock) and sgarbh (cormorant) are of Norse origin, as is much of the vocabulary connected to the maritime environment. Norse may also have influenced Gaelic speech patterns, such as the accent on the Isle of Lewis and the pre-aspiration found in most dialects of Scottish Gaelic but not in Irish. Pre-aspiration is the insertion of a ‘h’ or ‘ch’ sound in front of certain consonants. It means that, for example, Gaels generally pronounce mac (‘a son’) as ‘machk’ whereas Irish speakers say ‘mak’.

  7. An invaluable book is WHF Nicolaisean, Scottish Place-Names: their Study and Significance (Batsford 1976). For example, a map on page 137 shows the distribution of Gaelic place names containing baile. The historical spread across Lowland, as well as Highland, Scotland is clear.
  8. An invaluable book is WHF Nicolaisean, Scottish Place-Names: their Study and Significance (Batsford 1976). A map on page 140 shows the distribution of Gaelic place names containing achadh. While the oldest names can sometimes pose problems of interpretation, the later (generally Highland) names are mostly transparent. For example, Achachork is Achadh a’ Choirce (the field of the oats), Achnacloich is Achadh na Cloiche (the field of the stone), Achanalt is Achadh nan Allt (the field of the burns) and Achnashellach is Achadh nan Seileach (the field of the willows).
  9. The Privy Council’s Act of December 1616 said as follows: Forsameikle as the Kingis Majestie having a speciall care and regaird that the trew religioun be advancit and establisheit in all the pairtis of this kingdome and that all his Majesties subjectis especiallie the youth, be exercised and trayned up in civilitie, godliness, knawledge, and learning, that the vulgar Inglishe toung be universallie plantit, and the Irische language, whilk is one of the cheif and principall causes of the continewance of barbarite and incivilitie amongis the inhabitantis of the Ilis and Heylandis, may be abolishit and removeit; and quhair as thair is no measure more powerfull to further his Majesties princlie regaird and purpois that the establisheing of Scooles in the particular parroches of this Kingdom whair the youthe may be taught at least to write and reid, and be catechised and instructed in the groundis of religioun.
  10. Charles Withers’ book Gaelic in Scotland 1698-1981: The Geographical History of a Language (John Donald, 1984) contains a map of the Gàidheatachd in 1765 and a table of the Gaelic-speaking population in about 1765 by county. It is interesting to note that both Caithness and Nairnshire were both more than 50 per cent Gaelic-speaking at that time. Withers calculated the actual number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland then at 289,798 (p71).
  11. The Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge wrote: ‘Nothing can be more effectual for reducing these Countries to order and making them usefull to the Commonwealth, than teaching them their duty to God, their King and Countrey, and rooting out their Irish language, and this has been the care of the Society so far as it could, for all the Schollars are taught in English.’
  12. The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 is mainly concerned with improving the status and visibility of the language in organizations which come under the devolved Scottish Parliament ( asp/ 2005/ 7 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ). The Bill for the Act was passed by the Parliament on 21st April 2005 and received Royal Assent on 1st June 2005. The following is its preamble: An Act of the Scottish Parliament to establish a body having functions exercisable with a view to securing the status of the Gaelic language as an official language of Scotland commanding equal respect to the English language, including the functions of preparing a national Gaelic language plan, of requiring certain public authorities to prepare and publish Gaelic language plans in connection with the exercise of their functions and to maintain and implement such plans, and of issuing guidance in relation to Gaelic education.
  13. Referring to language, the word is pronounced (and sometimes written) ‘Keltic’. The pronunciation ‘Seltic’ is generally reserved for sports teams, notably a famous football club in Glasgow.
  14. Some scholars postulate that P-Celtic evolved (with the subsitution of p- for qu-) in central Europe during the first millennium BC but that it failed to reach Ireland or the Celtic speaking parts of the Iberian Peninsula, which remained Q-Celtic. Thus, the division between the two branches of the existing Celtic languages is a long-standing one.
  15. A good reference source with information about Breton – and indeed all other five living Celtic languages – their history, current status and efforts to reverse their decline is Ó Néill, Diarmuid (ed.) Rebuilding the Celtic Languages: Reversing Language Shift in the Celtic Countries. Y Lolfa, 2005.
  16. A good reference source with information about Welsh in Argentina is Ó Néill, Diarmuid (ed.) Rebuilding the Celtic Languages: Reversing Language Shift in the Celtic Countries Y Lolfa 2005.
  17. For example, the administrators of British India in the late nineteenth century were keen to suggest that Indian art was merely a derivative of ancient Greek art, and consequently of limited value. Such ‘analysis’ can rationalise neglect.