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 principal language of the medieval Kingdom of Alba, extending from the Borders to Aberdeenshire, the Highlands and Islands.

In the late 18th century, it was heavily suppressed during the infamous Highland Clearances following the turbulent Jacobite uprisings. Although speakers of the language were persecuted over the centuries, Gaelic is still spoken today by around 60,000 Scots.

Endowed with a rich heritage of music, folklore and cultural ecology, Gaelic is enjoying a revival! It 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.

Where is it spoken?

You're most likely to hear it spoken in The Highlands and islands, particularly in the Outer Hebrides, on the Isle of Skye, and to a lesser extent in Argyll & The Isles. You can see it on road signs across the country, hear it in theatres, on radio and television productions, or by chatting to the locals! The cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh have large Gaelic populations too - nearly half of all Gaelic speakers live in the Lowlands.

The Nova Scotia region in Canada, 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 and 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.
Courtesy of Caledonia TV on behalf of BBC ALBA