National languages for a whole nation

Since publicising on this blog that I’ve been doing Gaelic maps of Scotland, I’ve experienced a considerable amount of abuse on social media from people with a political motive for denigrating Scotland’s distinctive linguistic history and traditions. Strangely, these very same people accuse me of politicising the Gaelic and Scots languages by attempting to use them as national languages pertaining to the whole of Scotland.

1000The most common objection is that “Gaelic was never spoken in XYZ”, where XYZ is a town or district in the Lowlands which is chock full of Gaelic place names. The existence of these names is incontrovertible proof that Gaelic was once the dominant language of the district. The map on the left is a representation of the approximate extent of different languages in Scotland around the year 1000.  The map is largely based on information contained in the book Scottish Place Names by WFH Nicolaisen.  It’s important to remember that Gaelic was influential and important even beyond those areas where it was spoken by a majority of the population.

There was a time when Gaelic was spoken natively in the areas of all of Scotland’s modern cities. Like everywhere else on the Scottish mainland north of the Forth and Clyde, Dundee and Aberdeen were once solidly Gaelic speaking. Dundee is itself a Gaelic name, Dùn Dè in modern spelling, the first part of the name means fort, the meaning of the second part is disputed, but may be an Old Gaelic word for fire.

Likewise Glasgow was once deep within the Gaelic speaking area, as is proven by Gaelic place names within the city, and north, south, east and west of it. Barrachnie in the east of the city is from Bàrr Fhraochnaidh ‘the hill of the heathery place’, Garscadden in the west of the city is from Gart nan Sgadan ‘the farm or yard of the herring’. Ibrox, the spiritual home of red white and blue fleg waving deniers of Scotland’s Celtic identity, is from the Gaelic Àth Bruic ‘badger ford’.  Dumbreck is from An Dùn Breac ‘the speckled fort’. To the south east there’s Cambuslang from Camas Long ‘the river bend of the ships’.

Even Edinburgh contains numerous Gaelic place names like Craigentinny – Creag an t-Sionnaich ‘the rock of the fox’, Craigmillar – Creag Mhaol-Àirde ‘the rock of the bare height’, Balerno – Baile Àirneach ‘town of the hawthorn’, Corstorphine – Crois Thoirfinn ‘Thorfinn’s cross’, and many more.  These names prove that Edinburgh was once home to a large and politically and culturally important Gaelic speaking population.

Gaelic belongs to the Lowlands as much as it belongs to the Highlands. It may no longer be spoken natively in Lowland communities, but this is a fairly recent historical development. Gaelic survived in the south of Ayrshire and Galloway until as late as the end of the 18th century. It was once present in every part of the country. There is even evidence that Gaelic was present in the Northern Isles prior to the Viking invasions which established a form of Norse as the majority speech of the islands.

The Buckquoy spindle-whorl is a stone weight discovered in Buckquoy in Orkney in 1970. It’s a circular stone once used as a weight to assist weaving and it bears an inscription in Ogham letters. The inscription is in Old Gaelic and reads Benddact anim L. ‘A blessing on the soul of L.’ The stone is local, not imported from outwith Orkney. It does not prove that Gaelic was the majority language of Orkney, but it does provide evidence that the Gaelic language was both known to and was culturally important to the pre-Viking inhabitants of Orkney.

The truth is that Gaelic was once the sole or dominant language of every part of the Scottish mainland west and north of a line drawn very approximately from just to the east of Edinburgh to Gretna on the Border. It’s only in the relatively small part of Scotland to the east and south of this line where Gaelic was never spoken by a majority of people as a mother tongue. That doesn’t mean that Gaelic had no presence whatsoever in these areas. It did. Gaelic was present in all parts of what is now the territory of Scotland. It was even present across the modern border in what’s now the English county of Cumbria where there are a number of Gaelic place names, such as Ravenglass from Gaelic Roinn Glas ‘the green share’.

There’s a small but significant cluster of Gaelic place names in East Lothian. In this part of the county Gaelic probably was at one time the language of the majority. This Gaelic area is centred on the town of Gullane which most likely takes its name from the Gaelic word Gualainn, meaning ridge. Even much further south in the Borders we find places like Auchencrow, which is seemingly from Achadh na Craoibhe ‘field of the tree’, although this isn’t certain as the oldest attested form of the name is Aldencraw. However place name scholar Iain Mac an Tailleir suggests that Aldencraw may represent the Gaelic Allt na Crà ‘stream of the salmon trap’.

A name providing more certain evidence for the presence of Gaelic in the Borders is Longformacus, from the Gaelic Longphort Mhacais, the stronghold of Macas. Longformacus is next to the town of Duns, which takes its name from the nearby Iron Age hillfort. It was probably given the name dyn in the Brittonic Cumbric language, a word which refers to a hillfort, but the modern name derives from the Gaelic equivalent, dùn. In modern Gaelic the town is called Dùintean, the plural of dùn. Likewise Dunbar in East Lothian is probably originally a Cumbric name, but like Duns it comes down to us in a thoroughly Gaelicised form. The original Cumbric name Dyn Barr ‘the fort of the hill’ was Gaelicised to Dùn Bàrr with the same meaning and the modern English name derives from this Gaelic version.

The scattering of Gaelic names in the extreme south and east of Scotland, and the larger number of Cumbric names which have been Gaelicised tell us that while Gaelic might not have been numerically dominant in these areas, it was culturally and politically dominant. The presence of Gaelic, even in these areas, is still felt to this day.

Scotland has a complex linguistic history. Before the spread of Gaelic, the inhabitants of Scotland south of the Forth-Clyde line spoke a language known to modern linguists and historians as Cumbric, those to the north spoke Pictish. The claim is sometimes made, most often by people who seek to downplay the importance or relevance of Gaelic in modern Scotland, that if we acknowledge that Gaelic is a national language of modern Scotland, then we must also acknowledge that Cumbric and Pictish are too.

There’s a problem with this argument, and that problem is that before any linguistic variety can be acknowledged as a national language of a modern country it must first of all be capable of functioning as a language. Pictish and Cumbric are not capable of functioning as languages. They are fossil languages preserved only in a handful of place and personal names. There are no connected texts in Cumbric. We know it was closely related to Welsh, but we know nothing about how it differed, as it must have differed, from Welsh. Pictish is attested in some two dozen inscriptions in the Ogham alphabet, but no one is able to make much sense of them. We know next to nothing about the grammar, sound-system or vocabulary of Pictish, not even things as basic as the numerals or the personal pronouns. For that reason, while Pictish and Cumbric are important in Scottish history, they cannot be national languages of a modern Scotland. Not enough is known about them in order for anyone to speak them.

There’s a similar problem with the Norn language which was spoken in Orkney and Shetland, and bilingually along with Gaelic in Caithness, until as late as the middle 19th century (at least in parts of Shetland). Norn is far better attested than either Pictish or Cumbric, but the surviving texts in the language total only a couple of pages, written in a spelling which doesn’t accurately represent the underlying sounds of the language. All that can be said with any certainty is that Norn was probably very similar to modern Faroese, although it differed from Faroese in ways we can be far less certain about. Given the poor attestation of the language, it’s not feasible to revive Norn. That doesn’t mean that people who live in the Northern Isles should not celebrate their Norse linguistic heritage, but it does mean that in practical terms it’s only feasible for them to do so by learning a modern Scandinavian language proper to some other Norse country.

There are other languages spoken in Scotland. There’s Scots, which likewise has a claim to the status of national language. In the case of Scots, its claim to that status rests upon the fact that it was the official language of the Scottish state for much of the time that Scotland was an independent country. Due to limitations of space, I’m not going to discuss Scots in this article, suffice to say that I believe that Scots is every much a national language of Scotland along with Gaelic and Scottish Standard English.

Polish, Chinese, Urdu, and other community languages are present in modern Scotland. But they’re not national languages of Scotland. Their use should be encouraged and supported, but the main demographic and cultural weight of these languages is outwith Scotland. The communities within Scotland which use them can make use of cultural resources produced in Poland, China, or Pakistan in order to foster and support the continuing use of these languages within Scotland. That’s not the case for Scots or Gaelic. Gaelic and Scots rely entirely upon the cultural resources produced for them within Scotland.

I’ll be blunt. I have no time or patience for idiots who complain that a bilingual road or train station sign, or a Gaelic medium school that their children are not obliged to attend, means that Gaelic is being “imposed” upon them. Imposing a language means being punished for speaking some other language, an experience within the memory of many Gaelic and Scots speakers. Having to see the Gaelic version of a place name on a train station sign is not imposing a language. A bilingual English-Gaelic sign neither prejudices nor punishes English speakers. It’s simply making a public statement that Gaelic has as much right to a public presence in Scotland as English does. English speaking Scots who regard this as an imposition upon them are nothing more than mewling fools with a sense of monoglot privilege who seek to legitimise their disdain for Gaelic by claiming victimhood status. They do not deserve either sympathy or understanding. They are victims only of their own arrogance and their own ignorance. If you believe that Gaelic or Scots are irrelevant to you that is perfectly fine. But you do not have the right to demand that they should be irrelevant to everyone else as well.

The reason that Gaelic is a national language pertaining to all of Scotland rests upon two main claims. Firstly there’s the claim that the language was present across virtually all of the territory of modern Scotland. It was once far more widespread territorially than Scots has ever been. But more importantly even than that is the role that the Gaelic language played in the creation of the Scottish nation. The mediaeval Latin word Scotti referred to speakers of Gaelic, and after the Wars of Independence and during the High Middle Ages when the various linguistic and social groups present in the Kingdom of Scotland adopted a Scottish identity, they were making the social statement that they shared a national identity with Gaelic speakers. It is no coincidence that the national myths of Scottish origins, the stories of Dalriada and Fergus Mor MacEarca, the stories of Kenneth Macalpine and his violent dinner party, are all Gaelic stories.

Scotland was born in the imaginings of the Gaelic language.  Gaelic is fundamental to Scottishness.  The great flourishing tree of Scottish identity and culture took root in Gaelic soil.  Gaelic speakers created a state and for much of its history as an independent country that state expressed itself through the medium of Scots.

The real reason that Gaelic and Scots attract such hatred is that they are proof that Scotland has a culture and an identity of its own. They prove that Scotland is a nation with a rich heritage. They prove that there is substance to being Scottish beyond the Unionist claim that Scottish nationalism is motivated by hatred of the English, and that’s why they have to be diminished and destroyed. It’s really those who seek to undermine attempts to foster and protect the Gaelic and Scots languages who are politicising the languages.

Audio version of this blog article, courtesy of Sarah Mackie @lumi_1984

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0 thoughts on “National languages for a whole nation

  1. I find the Gaelic names really interesting. I just wish they would include a pronunciation for those of us who need it.

  2. I completely applaud what you are doing. I do not speak Gaelic, I did try to learn at the Gaelic Free Church in Glasgow in the 1980’s but found it very difficult.
    Well done and keep up this very important task.

  3. Hi Paul – great article, and a line of argument I wholly endorse. Trouble is the culture denying cringers will never change and all you can do is shake your head at their arrogance and stupidity. If and when we get indy, I wonder how many of them will up sticks and move south, to bask in the residual flames of their dying Daily Mail Empire; because patently everything Scottish is just an embarrassment; I mean, we are even reasonably welcoming to Johnny Foreigner, just how bad is that!

  4. If anyone still questions that Gaelic was previously spoken throughout Scotland, direct them to that most ‘lowland’ of areas, the urban South of Fife.

    A brief drive between Kirkcaldy and Dunfermline will take you past places called Invertiel, Balwearie, Kilrie, Kinghorn, Balbairdie, Balmule, Dunearn, Auchtertool, Dalgety and Inverkeithing. None of those names would be out of place in the modern Gàidhealtachd.

    And, for the record, the two great towns of Fife were once known as Caer Caledon and Dùn Phàrlain…

  5. Pingback: National languages for a whole nation | speymouth

  6. Haven’t posted in a while…great article. Sadly never learnt Gaelic. I struggle with Scottish Standard English (with the odd covert Scotticism thrown in). Lost track of the number of times I’ve had to explain that “Yes, I did mean outwith”

  7. Thank you. As a Scot who was made to feel like a 2nd class citizen for using “slang” (which I’ve since realised was Scots) I appreciate your comments about the “imposition” of another language. Nobody is forced to read the Gaelic road or rail signs but many of us were forced to use “proper” English. I must make the effort to learn at least some Gaelic and learning the place names from your maps will be a good start. Greetings from Mòin na h-Eibhe:-)

  8. There is a great Gaelic saying, and I think the Irish have a very similar one: “Tir gun chanan, tir gun anam” A Land without a language is a land without a soul”

    Cum a’dol, “cu ruadh beag” 🙂 Thig ar latha!

    You jist keep daein the guid work, WGD, ye’re daein a grand job!

    Three languages, one nation.

  9. ‘S math sin, a Phòl! That’s brilliant Paul, a great exposition of Gaelic and its place – linguistically, geographically and spiritually – in Scotland. A great piece to learn from for those of us who are interested. Won’t make any difference to the usual anti-Gaelic bigots and ignoramuses but, hey, aren’t they always with us!

    Hope to see you in Dingwall next week.

  10. Thank you so much for setting out so lucidly things that I’ve been talking about for years. I don’t know Gaelic, more than a few words or phrases, but I’ve never had any patience with people who loudly declare that Gaelic is not part of their heritage.

    To be fair, though,it’s not a new attitude. Even as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries, Highlanders and Gaelic culture were mocked, derided and belittled. I can recall my mother describing something being done awkwardly as “Hielan”.

    Gaelic is not Other, not an alien language, we’ve just forgotten that it’s ours.

  11. While I support Gaelic and linguistic diversity in general, a very disturbing thought came to mind as I read this blog.

    It seems hard to believe that within just a few short centuries the Gaels colonised Scotland almost entirely. The previous communities and cultures, the Picts and Britons were somehow wiped off the map (almost literally!) Not even in the most remote highland glen or the deepest borders valley has anything survived beyond a few scattered ´fossil´ names. I don´t quite know how this was achieved, but you leave little doubt that it happened, that the Gaels, culturally at least, trampled all before them.

    So now it´s their (our?) turn to get the same treatment. What moral basis can we have to object? Perplexing no?

      • Agus carson? There was a British king in Din Edyn powerful and influential enough to gather a force from many tribes to send south to challenge the English expansion in what was to become Northumbria. The Welsh remember this even if the Scots have forgotten. Why would so proud, cultured and significant a people give up their capital and their culture to what in their eyes was a barbarian horde? The Gaels expanded to all the Western parts of Britain, to Llyn (named for the Laighean) to Penfro and to Kernow, but in all those places they were assimilated by the Britons. All that remains is a scattering of ogham inscriptions. How come it all went the other way in Alba? I can´t quite imagine a mob of Gaelic cowboys turning up at the gates of Din Edyn and saying, right we´re taking over, and no more of that British shite, it´s Dùn Éidean from now on …

        Tha mi duileach, ach cha eil mi ´ga thuigsinn?

        • Din Edyn and Dùn Éidean are different spellings of the same term. The reason why the Brythonic King of Din Edyn is remembered in Wales is because he is mentioned in the earliest Welsh poem to have survived, called the Gododdin. The poem describes how the king and his warlords went to fight the Saxons in Cartraeth (probably Catterick in Yorkshire) and all were killed, apart from Aneurin, the poet who told the tale.Having lost their king and all of their warriors the people of Din Edyn would, probably, have welcomed support from their Gael cousins with open arms.

          • Even more interesting is that the lord of Eidin was Uruei son of Golistan, which, as Koch points out <AS Wolfstan. A Brythonic warband then, led by a man "half Anglo" and indeed also including men from "beyond Bannauc" and thus Pictish, Our earliest indigenous literature:(The earliest in Northern Europe) thus concerns a Lothian warband who are already multicultural and indeed multi linguistic.
            As William McIlvanney apty pointed out, Scotland is a mongrel nation and we always have been.

        • There’s a lot of evidence from early Irish texts that the Gaelic penetration of Pictland was largely peaceful. It’s certainly the case that Pictland had been largely Gaelicised long before the final demise of the Pictish kingdom. It was possibly related to the spread of Christianity.

        • Maybe you’re looking at it with the eyes of the 21st century?
          It’s a genuine question, I don’t have the answer. But I suspect there were no such thing as “the Gaels” like there was no such thing as “the Greeks”. Just people, tribes, clans, which sometimes forged alliances but would betray them the next day.
          I’m not saying they did not have a sense of identity, but they probably did not have a sense of being “a nation” – language was probably less linked to identity and people probably spoke various languages to various extent.
          They did not go to school, did not study, etc… So you probably would communicate in various tongues with your neighbours, as it’s still the case in other parts of the world today – people can easily speak 4 or 5 tongues without feeling the need to give up one or another. They just use them differently in different contexts.
          So one could argue that there was a certain period at which Gaelic was used as a local lingua franca. It’s pure speculation obviously, but it’s as worth considering I think.

      • There is a strong suggestion in old Welsh texts that many of the Brythonic warlords from Ystrad Clyd (Strathclyde) decamped to support north Wales in its defence against the Saxons, which would have created a need for the Gaels to protect their territories by filing the vacuum left by the Brythons; which would explain how Gaels took over those territories quickly and without opposition.
        Interesting that you claim Garscadden as a Gaelic place name, I have heard it used as as an example of residual “Welsh” place names in Scotland, indeed Garth Sgadan (herring headland) still makes sense in modern Welsh (my great grandfather was a fish pedlar known as Dai Sgadan) .

        • Garscadden is in an area where there are quite a lot of “gart” names, which invariably have a Gaelic second element. eg Garscube, Gartnavel, Garnkirk, Gartsherrie, etc. I suppose it’s certainly possible that Garscadden could be Cumbric, it’s not always possible to distinguish between Gaelic and Cumbric names, but given the number of securely Gaelic gart names nearby, chances are it’s probably Gaelic too. See here for more info on place names in Glasgow

  12. Brilliant. An authoritative piece, clearly carefully researched.I thoroughly enjoyed it and I learned a lot.

    It’s a real shame that people feel threatened by the fact that there are other languages in the world besides English. I recall the story of an English family, the father of which worked in a bank. He was posted to an area of Wales where Welsh was predominant and where it was taught in the local school, and used by some teachers as the medium for teaching.

    The family got massively bent out of shape because their children were forced to learn the language. It seemed to me that if they went to live in France or Spain they might have kicked off about the locals having the temerity to speak French or Spanish.

    I thought… you’re in Wales, idiots. If you don’t like it piss off back to England and be monolingual.

    Here, I suspect none of our kids is forced to speak Gaelic.

    I’m sure it was Donny MacLeod who told of being beaten by teachers in his island school for crying out for his mum in Gaelic when he fell in the playground and skinned his knee. This on the order of London which wanted to stamp out the language.

    It’s not the way we do things in Scotland.

  13. Good on ya! If there was one thing I had to nominate that I would have studied full-time if I could have, it would have been toponymy. Norn, Cymbric, Pictish, Gaelic – bring it all on with the bifocal place name signs. O, Elbereth! Gilthonial!

  14. Another fundamental reason why Gaelic is a national language is that it is, now, spoken across Scotland. Almost half of Gaelic speakers live outside the traditional Gaelic-speaking areas. There has been a sizable Gaelic community in Glasgow for centuries, likewise Edinburgh. We could go through newspapers and kirk accounts and so on from the nineteenth century to demonstrate Gaelic-speaking communities in Aberdeen, Dundee, Port Glasgow, Greenock and many other places – but the fact is that in the here and now, Gaelic speakers live across Scotland. I live in Edinburgh.
    I go to a Gaelic church, and worship my God in Gaelic, with a small, but loyal congregation. I occasionally preach there, as we don’t have our own minister. I remember one Sunday, drifting through Twitter after leading the service, seeing someone complaining about the bilingual sign at Haymarket, as “Gaelic has never been spoken in Edinburgh.” Leave aside place names, leave aside the bulk of the nineteenth-century domestic labour force, leave aside the railway builders, garrisoned soldiers and the rest… I knew for a fact that Gaelic had been spoken in Edinburgh just an hour or so earlier, because it was me that was speaking it! Gaelic speakers in the Lowland cities are a minority. There are, it is true, few of us. But we do exist. Even leaving aside phone calls, online communication etc, I speak face-to-face with other people in Gaelic most days of most weeks.

    And this is in no way in opposition to Scots. My flatmate and I speak Scots – and only Scots – at home. It was a conscious decision we made when we moved in together, because we shared a common concern with the state and future of the Scots language. Both of us were passive Scots speakers before, more or less – we knew it and understood it, but didn’t habitually speak it. It felt a bit awkward and tung-tackit for the first couple of days, but that soon passed and now it’s just as natural to us as speaking English. That’s been about three years, now. So if yer fashed ava aboot the state o the Scots language, ken that ye hae the pooer in yer ain haunds (or on yer ain tung) tae dae sumthing for it richt noo.

    • A yince wurked fur United Artists in their cable call centre. Got telt oaf by an Anglicised Edinburger fur sayin “aye” and no “yes” tae customers in Wester Hailies. Wis made tae feel “common”.

  15. There seems to me to be a fundamental problem with Gaelic. I can’t read it, it might as well be Russian. I can read write and speak a bit of French. I have self taught enough Spanish to get by, I can read Catalan and understand the broad intent.
    Gaelic in the written form defeats me.The obscure form of notation adopted is a major impediment to my gradually picking up the words, their meaning and use.
    I’m all for reinforcing the Scottish identity, support the voluntary use of Gaelic in schools, but doubt that it will ever catch on with the Scots speaking population because of the aforesaid difficulty.
    My kids were brought up in an Aberdeenshire farming community, they have a first language, but it’s not Gaelic or standard English, There is no standard written form, but it can be written in a way that is understood with a bit of lateral thinking.
    If Gaelic is to become more understood outwith the areas where it is commonly spoken, some thought might be given to a more phonetic written form.

    • The unfamiliar use of letters (when coming from English at least) is a massive problem. The Scottish Gaelic course on Mango Languages might help as you hear the words while looking at it spelled in front of you.

      For your own sanity though, go into the settings and turn off the narrator option. It’s quite annoying if you’re an adult.

    • Well, Gaelic is a different language after all! Once you learn the basic rules of how to pronounce the consonant combinations like dh, ch, mh and so on it is really quite easy. Gaelic is a lot more regular than English!

    • Gaelic orthography is quite complex, but very logical. Once you get the hang of it, it follows its own rules much more consistently than, say, English or French. Not as clear as Spanish or Finnish… about equal with German, maybe.

    • October 26, 2016 at 9:01 am
      In his book ‘Scots Gaelic – an introduction to the. basics’, George McLennan’ says:

      “Gaelic spelling follows clear rules, and is no better or no worse than English in this respect once the rules are understood, and, as a bonus, the sounds produced within the spelling system are a lot more consistent than those of English”.

      I think you’d really find this book interesting and helpful – it’s not a teach-yourself-Gaelic book but gives the background to various aspects of the language, including spelling. (ISBN 1 902831 88 8, Argyll Publishing, £4.99)

      If you want to see words and phrases written in Gaelic with accompanying ‘English phonetics’, then ‘Everyday Gaelic’ by Morag Macneill provides just that. (ISBN 1 84158 340 5, Birlinn, £7.99)

    • if you can learn the Latin-based languages such as Spanish and French, you shouldn’t find any difficulty with gaelic as the grammatical structure (nominative, vocative etc) as well as many words eg eaglis/iglesia (church or kirk)have similarities. I really don’t understand what the ‘obscure form of notation’ is that you refer to, and would be interested in some examples so that I could better understand what the difficulty is that you perceive with gaelic. For myself, I learned gaelic at school – written and spoken and loved the gaelic myths and legends, as I did in latin also. Sadly, I have forgotten most of the gaelic through lack of opportunity to use it, coupled with the patronising and even sneering attitudes of some Sgiannachs when I tried to practise speaking gaelic in Eilean Sgiannach, and the discouragement that many islanders showed towards we non-native learners.

  16. The fundamental problem with Gaelic is that you can’t read it? I couldn’t read it either until I learned! Gaelic spelling is actually much more logical than English. Just takes a bit of effort to get your head round.

    • ¨Gaelic spelling is actually much more logical than English. Just takes a bit of effort to get your head round.¨

      I couldn´t agree more. Also having seen the can of worms that any serious spelling reform opens, I would strongly recommend not touching it with a very long pole unless the situation is really dire.

      If you want to see how Gaelic would look if you tried to spell it like English or Scots, then Manx is not very far from what you´d get. Here´s an example, Gaelic speakers should be able to follow most of it if they sort of read it without looking (if that makes any sense), but it´s not really much of an improvement when all´s said and done IMO :

  17. Thanks for a comprehensive account of Gaelic and its place in our history. As I’ve said before, it’s a pity work like this doesn’t have a wider circulation because it can open minds.

    For the frothing Britnats, this is heresy, of course and I’ve had some pretty bruising spats with them, where they display their complete ignorance of the history of languages in Scotland. For some reason railway station signs really get them going and they mutate into Muriel Gray, displaying sneering and cringe in equal measure.

    One of these types had the nerve to say to me a few months after our spittle-flecked row that he’d had a great time in Rousillon on holiday and wasn’t it great they had signs in Occitane and French?

    Does not compute but it’s a funny old Yoon world, Saint.

    (Paul: shouldn’t Balerno be “farm of the sloe”? as in Earnock, Hamilton. Think it’s a slip of the keyboard.)

  18. In his book ‘Scots Gaelic – an introduction to the. basics’, George McLennan’ says:

    “Gaelic spelling follows clear rules, and is no better or no worse than English in this respect once the rules are understood, and, as a bonus, the sounds produced within the spelling system are a lot more consistent than those of English”.

    I think you’d really find this book interesting and helpful – it’s not a teach-yourself-Gaelic book but gives the background to various aspects of the language, including spelling. (ISBN 1 902831 88 8, Argyll Publishing, £4.99)

    If you want to see words and phrases written in Gaelic with accompanying ‘English phonetics’, then ‘Everyday Gaelic’ by Morag Macneill provides just that. (ISBN 1 84158 340 5, Birlinn, £7.99)

  19. “I’ll be blunt. I have no time or patience for idiots who complain that a bilingual road or train station sign, or a Gaelic medium school that their children are not obliged to attend, means that Gaelic is being “imposed” upon them.”

    How that resonates with me down here in England’s first colony! The constant moaning – even today – about how Cymraeg is “…forced down our kiddies’ froats it is!” whenever there’s a campaign to open a Cymraeg-medium school; about the supposed preferential treatment in employment prospects of the bilingual proportion of the population; and about the increased prominence and use of Cymraeg as being “langwich faaaascism, aye!”. Of course, it’s not surprising that the most virulent and vicious of these attitudes are to be found in the diseased heartlands of the Labour Party – here (as where you are) always more unionist that the Unionists.

    And Cymraeg was spoken by a majority of the population throughout our country until quite recently, and was even spoken in the ‘Little England Beyond Wales’ (i.e., south Pembrokeshire), although “Little Flanders’ would have been more apt at one time because that’s where many of the non-Welsh settlers there came from. Hell fire, even parts of what are now Herefordshire and Shrophire have names derived from Cymraeg (Perthi and Gadlas to the north-east of Oswestry, Llangarron and Pencoyd near Ross-on-Wye, for example)!

  20. I’m not convinced about Dyn/Dùn/Dun.

    You say the spelling “dun” in English is proof that Dunbar etc came to Scots/English via a Gaelic intermediary form, but I don’t see any reason to assume so.

    First I’d point to Doune in Stirlingshire, because the spelling there reflects the Gaelic vowel quality (“oo”) in a way “dun” doesn’t. The Welsh Y is a lot closer to “uh” than Gaelic U, and given that the names were likely to have been transmitted orally than in written form back then, the spelling “dun” could very, very easily be simple anglicisation of spoken “dyn”.

    Secondly, I’d point to “Balquhidder”. Where did the “Bal” come from? It was an assumption by someone somewhere down the line that “bo” was a local pronunciation of “bal” (probably by analogy to “ball”) made on the grounds that “everyone know Scottish placenames start with ‘bal’.” This falling together of old language placenames happens quite frequently, so it’s pretty much inevitable that even if a dun/dyn distinction had existed in local spellings for centuries, someone somewhere down the line would have decided to “standardise” them on maps.

  21. Absolutely wonderful article Paul. My grannie was belted for speaking Gaelic, and when I was at school in the 50s and 60s pupils who spoke Scots were mocked by teachers, and “corrected”, except of course when we had to study Burns!

    Only later in life did I realise that such cultural hegemony was a standard technique of imperialists the world over – eliminate the culture of a country so as to dominate them. It has been very effective up till now in Scotland, but the signs are that more and more of us are refusing to accept it.

    Saor Alba

  22. Excellent article. You are doing a better job for free in defending Gàidhlig than the salaried full timers of Bòrd na Gàidhlig.

  23. Great article. I grew up speaking Scots in my family and i’m now learning Gaelic. I’d always wanted to learn it but never did anything about it. Then i went on holiday up north with English friends and i was embarrassed at being unable to pronounce the Gaelic names, never mind comprehend what they meant. It frustrated me that we have become so disconnected with our history and heritage to the extent that we don’t understand the place names in our own country. So now i’m doing something about it, and loving it. I applaud efforts to support Gaelic and Scots, and i’m glad our languages have you as an eloquent champion.

  24. The same people who deride Gaelic have no problem with tartan, which is of more uncertain origin. But it’s much easier to just wear a kilt at a wedding or at Hampden than it is to open your mind to learning another language.

    Gaelic signage subtly reinforces that Scotland is different and has it’s own history and that’s why they hate it.

    • Thank Walter Scott and the sycophantic planning for George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822. Kilts and pink tights. There ‘s a plaque on The Shore in Leith to the King’s landing, even now, hidden behind the rusty buckets outside the derelict rustbucket “The Cruz”. How ironic.

  25. Have you ever read “Finding Merlin” by Adam Ardrey? A fascinating book in which the author puts forward the case for the “real” legends of King Arthur taking place around what is now the modern northern fringes of Glasgow. A lot of his evidence centres on Gaelic place names, and how they tie up with locations in the legends, along with some interesting stuff about the political motivations behind the relocation of the stories from western Scotland to southern England.

  26. Aiste shàr-mhath, a Phòil. Mòran taing dha-rìribh dhut air a son. Agus cuideachd, neo-ar-thaing, airson nam pìosan misneachail agus soillseachail eile a tha thu air sgrìobhadh air a’ chuspair. Nach mòr am feum. Abair aineolas agus nimh deargte aig cuid a thaobh ar cànain. Tha e doirbh a chreidsinn uaireannan. Tha thu nad ghuth cudromach, ùghdarrasail, agus ro-innleachdail. Chan eil tòrr dhed leithid ann air loidhne idir, mar a tha làn fhios agad fhèin. Cùm a’ dol, matà. Nì thu diofar gun teagamh sam bith.

  27. Great article and great points, but I have to disagree with quite a few of the points you make.

    Firstly, Cumbric doesn’t just exist as a handful of words, there are several hundred place names from Cheshire, Staffordshire, through Lancashire and Cumbria, and across Southern Scotland. There are a large number around Edinburgh and around Annandale, for example.
    Cumbric and Pictish came from a common ancestor, there are a lot of place named which can be traced back to that ancestor language, depending on interpretation, as well as more modern place names in Cumbric and Pictish.

    Secondly, Norn wasn’t just ‘similar to Faroese’. Faroese is actually pretty different to what information we have available on Norn. The evidence of the Norn Language appears to show three dialect areas, two in Shetland, the other occupying the Caithness and Orkney region. There’s very little evidence of The Orkney/Caithness Norn, but there are some predictable sound changes which seem to occur in that dialect and not elsewhere.

    Shetland Norn probably creolised with Scots, but Norn has been researched. Norn in Shetland can be put into two dialect areas, roughly an east-west split. Shetland Norn was phonologically far more similar to the continental Scandinavian languages than it was to Faroese or Icelandic, for example the loss of diphthongs, dental fricatives either disappear or harden to d and t.

    Faroese shared some parallel developments to Norn, but not because Norn was closer to Faroese than it was to Icelandic or Old Norse. Norn was a language distinct from Faroese, one of the insular Scandinavian Languages which came from Old West Norse.

  28. Hiya. Longtime reader, first time commentor.

    For the past two years I’ve been writing all of my texts in Scots. Despite speaking it all my life it has been quite challenging learning both traditional and more ‘modern’ spelling and to be able to write the texts quickly and ‘automatically’. I have found, tho, that people are generally delighted to receive texts in Scots and a few have begun to write theirs in Scots too – at least when they’re texting me.

    The interest thing, for me anyway, is that people are very accepting when I inform them that every time we text in Scots we are carrying out a political act and are being subversive against the British establishment, as well as helping to retake our cultural/linguistic heritage from those who have repressed both.

    Thanks for all your efforts both on this blog and with your work on the Gaelic. Lang mey yer lum reek.

  29. Not sure why Benbecula is Norse speaking and South Uist and Barra are Gaelic speaking? Similarly Why is Strath and Sleat Gaelic and the rest Norse? Is it because Sabhal Mhor Ostaig is based there today? Hmmm, Nicolaisen or not the placenames are very clear in South Uist and Barra eg Tangusdale, Daliburgh, Grogarry etc etc etc – These are very Norse places. Also Kintyre is Norse too.

  30. Excellent blog! Maybe you can review Language Contact and the Origins of the Germanic Languages by Peter Schrijver, Professor of Celtic Languages and Culture at the University of Utrecht.
    He appears to claim it was the influence of the Roman Empire that split Insular British Celtic into several dialects which later became separate languages including Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Irish.
    He also claims that Irish, which may have been brought to Ireland by British refugees fleeing the Roman advance, may tell us something of the Lowland Celtic language spoken in Britain when the Anglo-Saxons arrived.

    • I wouldn´t buy any of that TBH. British (the language of what is now England when the Romans arrived) was almost identical to the Celtic language of much of Gaul, whereas Irish was already distinct, with similar languages down in Spain, which is interesting of course because Irish legend claims that the Gaels arrived over the sea from Spain. (Though ´Spain´ in Gaelic stories can simply mean ´somewhere foreign over the sea´).
      Also, at the time of the English settlement/invasion of Britain, the flow was from Ireland to West Britain, not the other way! This is when the Scots began settling Argyll (Oir Thìr Gàidheal, ¨the Irish coast-land¨), but also parts of Wales and Cornwall, where they were assimilated after a few generations. Indeed the story goes that the English were invited to settle in Britain in exchange for guarding the place against Irish raids. (Well that went well didn´t it!)

    • The only migration/settlement out of Britain to escape the English advance, was AFAIK the settlement of Brittany (´Little Britain´ … which gives us Great Britain by contrast, nothing to do with the Brit. Empire etc.!)

  31. One fundamental question has not been answered in the article though………………….where can I buy a copy of the Gaelic map of Scotland? Searching the internet suggests that Newsnet had it for sale in 2012 but not any more. I would really really like one (and am off to a beginners gaelic class tonight to prepare me for reading it).

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