Gaelic language & history

What is Gaelic and its origins?

Dating back centuries, Gaelic is the founding language of Scotland that is thought to originate from Ireland. It spread its way across the country as the principle language of the medieval Kingdom of Alba, extending from the Borders to Aberdeenshire, the Highlands and Islands.

In the late 18th century, the language was heavily suppressed during the infamous Highland Clearances which followed the turbulent Jacobite uprisings. Although speakers of the language were persecuted over the centuries, Gaelic remains spoken by some 60,000 people in many parts of Scotland, from Glasgow and Inverness to the Outer Hebrides.

Endowed with a rich heritage of music, folklore and cultural ecology, Gaelic is enjoying a revival and can be heard in Lowland pubs and at Hebridean ceilidhs. It has even crossed over to popular culture, having been featured in the phenomenally successful TV series Outlander.

Cairngorm National Park sign Deeside

Where is it spoken?

Go to the Scottish Highlands and islands, particularly communities in the Outer Hebrides, as well as on the Isle of Skye and to the lesser extent in Argyll & The Isles, and chances are that you’ll come to contact with Gaelic, be it on road signs, in theatres, through radio and television productions, or by chatting to the locals. The cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh have large populations too - nearly half of all Gaelic speakers live in the Lowlands.

Canada, in the Nova Scotia region, New Zealand, Australia and other regions in North America also boast proud Gaelic communities, established after the 18th and 19th century waves of emigration.

Machair Way sign

Gaelic heritage and legacy

The Gaelic community has supplied Scotland with many of the country's national icons, including the kilt, tartan, sporran, bagpipes, ceilidhs, Highland games and whisky.

You'll be surprised how greatly Gaelic has been preserved through literature, arts and folklore from across the ages, despite over 200 years of suppression and condemnation. The Gaelic culture is still vibrant in the modern world, with the Outer Hebrides being the heartland of it.

Today, you can still:

  • Hear rich Gaelic singing as well as foot-stomping traditional music in pubs and on streets.
  • Immerse yourself in traditional reels, jigs and waltzes and enjoy the party spirit of a ceilidh.
  • Absorb the history and customs of Gaelic music and song at one of Scotland's traditional music festivals such as the Hebridean Celtic Music Festival, Harris Arts Festival, Barra Live, Celtic Connections or at various Fèisean (festivals).
  • Discover arts and crafts produced by people with Gaelic heritage, including Harris Tweed, a luxurious, hard-wearing fabric only woven in the Outer Hebrides.

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