Designed & produced by Eric Maclewis


At first glance, this theme could be considered relatively simple: Scotland, as a Celtic land, has necessarily a Celtic language even if History has imposed English as a dominant language.
But this territory, open to all winds, invasions and migrations and which has not always been Celtic, has seen many peoples mingle and leave their mark.
Without going too far, Continental Celts, Romans, Gaels of Ireland, Picts, Vikings, Angles have all contributed to change the linguistic landscape and to create the diversity that is still observed today.
For example, many Gaelic names come from Norse, the Scandinavian language of the Vikings who have long occupied the north and the islands and shores of the west of the country: the word kilt probably comes from the Norse kjalta while the ancestor of the MacLeod clan, otherwise called Ljótr in Norse, would probably be of Scandinavian origin.

This is therefore a subject that is proving to be complex like everything related to linguistics.
No ambition to be exhaustive in this overview that is proposed to you but the desire to open a few doors on a theme mixing history and evolution of languages.

Let's start by agreeing on Celtic languages: the Celtic genus covers a set of languages belonging to the group of Indo-European languages; it is divided into two subgroups:

- Gaelic or Goïdal languages, otherwise qualified as Celtic in Q, a group that includes Irish (the mother language), Scottish Gaelic and Manx (from the Isle of Man located between Ireland and Scotland),
- the British or Celtic languages in P, a group that includes Welsh, Cornish (from the Cornwall area in the United Kingdom) and Breton.

This distinction calls for phonetics and corresponds to an evolution of the Indo-European sound -Kw towards two different forms.
For example, if we take the word son, it is translated:

- by Mac in Gaelic, a language belonging to the group in Q
- by Map in Welsh and Cornish or Mab in Breton, three languages belonging to the group in P.

However, it should be noted that this distinction is contemporary and reflects only part of the historical reality.
It can indeed be supplemented by a distribution between continental Celtic which includes languages now extinct (since the 7th century for the last) such as Gallic and island Celtic, which corresponds to a later migration of Celtic culture and the two Gaelic and Brittonic subgroups previously exposed (the current Breton spoken in Armorican Brittany in France is essentially impacted by a return migration from the « island of Brittany » to the continent in the 4th and 5th centuries).

Let us then focus - briefly - on the peoples who occupied the territory of present-day Scotland at the time of the Roman departure from island Brittany (5th century):

- the Picts, established in the north and whose origin remains unknown,
- the Scots, established in the west and originally from... Ireland (their name gave the Latin name of Scotland, Scotia),
- the Britons, established in the area called Strathclyde (south of a Glasgow-Edinburgh line).

The languages known at that time are:

- Gaelic,
- Brittonic or Cumbric (spoken in Strathclyde),
- a P Pictish language related to Brittonic (Celtic Pictish),
- perhaps a pre-Indo-European language(!) Called non-Celtic Pictish,
- Norse introduced later by the Scandinavians in the northern islands and the Hebrides,
- and Latin (language of jurists and ecclesiastics).

So, we are far from the standardised universe desired in the 21st century!

Gaelic (a word probably from Welsh and designating "foreigners"... like Irish immigrants!), originating in Ireland, will prevail in parallel with the extension of the kingdom of Scotia (Alba in Gaelic) born from the unification of the Pict and Scottish crowns in 843: first by the absorption of Strathclyde (Edinburgh becomes the capital) then by extension (south of the Glasgow-Edinburgh line) to the banks of the Tweed (or roughly to the current borders of Scotland) at the expense of the Angles.

This relative preponderance of Gaelic will always be fragile because it is threatened by Norse (settlements of the Vikings in particular in the north and the islands) and especially the Anglian or "Old English" spoken south of the Glasgow-Edinburgh line (Old Northumbrian).
The beginning of the significant decline of Scottish Gaelic can be set in the 16th century.
Under the impetus of the religious upheavals related to the Reformation, a cleavage crystallises in Scotland between the populations of the Highlands and those of the Lowlands: in the north the Gaelic speakers considered under-civilised (sic) and in the south the populations speaking Scots.
The latter, despite what its name suggests, is a false friend: it is in fact an evolution of the Anglian, originally Germanic language, influenced by Norse and - to some extent - by Gaelic itself.

The Act of Union (1707) would complete this decline and accentuate the hegemony of the English to Scotland.
The climax will be reached during the last Jacobite revolt and its tragic epilogue of 1746 that led to the forced emigration of thousands of Highlanders.


At the end of this accelerated overflight of nearly two millennia, it is time to catch our breath and observe Scotland's current linguistic landscape.
The decline of the Gaelic language remains topical, with the number of speakers probably less than 5% of the total population (with a majority residing in the Archipelago of the Hebrides).
This erosion has nevertheless slowed down thanks in particular to the official recognition of Gaelic as a language of Scotland but also of the United Kingdom: Scottish Gaelic is thus one of the three languages - along with English and Welsh - whose mastery makes it possible to be recognised as a British citizen (British Nationality Act - 1981).
Education, media and cultural productions have also contributed to this revitalisation.

Four languages are mainly spoken in Scotland in the 21st century:

- English,
- Scottish Gaelic with its status as a British official language,
- Scots, which is recognised as a regional language attached to the Lowlands but suffers from a lack of standardisation; it covers many dialects and lacks real unification by writing. It should be noted, however, that many works, especially literary, borrow from this language: Robert Burns is also the best known of its speakers,
- Scottish-English or "English-Scottish", a hybrid of Scottish and modern English and which will again be available between Highlands (Highland English) and Lowlands.
This Scottish-English alone illustrates the complexity and originality of this matter, highlighting the risk of being too divisive: language is a living matter and constantly feeds on exchanges - violent or not - between peoples.

We can reasonably hope that Scottish Gaelic (like the Breton language), witness to more than two millennia of history, will be saved this time and that it will still carry its particular accents far in the 3rd millennium. We will also wish the same happiness in particular to the Scots language as an integral part of Scotland's history.

Tapadh leibh! Fàilte gu Alba! (*)

NB: you can usefully complete this brief presentation thanks to the book (in French) Histoire des Langues Celtiques by Hervé Abalain (ed.Gisserot/Terre des Celtes-1998) from which I was partly inspired for the writing of this article.

(*) Thank You! Welcome in Scotland!

Scottish Languages yesterday and today