What is Gaelic?

Scottish Gaelic is a Celtic language, which is a family of languages including Irish, Welsh, Manx, Cornish in the UK and Breton in France. Of these, Irish is most closely related to Gaelic, although these are two separate languages. In the past, Gaelic was most used in the North and West of Scotland, and was linked to the clans of Scotland.  

How similar is Gaelic to English?

Gaelic is not in the same language family as English. For this reason it is not easy to quickly understand Gaelic unless you know a similar language. 

However, you may hear some English words when Gaelic speakers talk. This is because everyone who speaks Gaelic today also speaks English, so speakers often switch between the two languages during a conversation or even mid-sentence!

Where is it spoken?

Today, Gaelic is spoken in communities in the Highlands of Scotland, and in particular the Hebrides, a group of islands off the west coast of the country. It is also spoken by various groups across Scotland, especially in Glasgow and Edinburgh. 

There are a growing number of schools in Scotland which teach in Gaelic. This is partly because parents in Scotland have the legal right to request an education in Gaelic for their children. Gaelic is also taught in many Scottish universities, and has a strong link to the traditional music of Scotland.

Where am I likely to see or hear Gaelic?

You may notice Gaelic on road signs (usually written in yellow), police cars or ambulances in Scotland. 

Because of its links with traditional music, you might hear Gaelic being used at a cèilidh (especially in the North West), or in a pub where people are playing traditional songs. There is also a Gaelic-language radio station, Radio nan Gàidheal, and a Gaelic-language TV channel, BBC Alba, which both broadcast a variety of shows for Gaelic language communities. These shows may often introduce information about events in the Gaelic-speaking world, as well as more general news, entertainment and useful updates. 

It is possible you might have already heard Gaelic thanks to shows like Outlander and bands like Runrig, both of which have been seen around the world. There is also a sport associated with Gaelic: shinty. If you attend a match, you might well hear some Gaelic spoken. In a pub, you might also hear people say “cheers” in Gaelic: slàinte or slàinte mhath

Finally, at the border between Scotland and England, you will probably see a sign which says Fàilte gu Alba/Fàilte do dh’Alba. This means ‘Welcome to Scotland’. Gaels (Gaelic speakers) are a friendly bunch!

Do I need to know Gaelic to live in Scotland?

Only about 1% of Scots speak Gaelic, so you do not need to know the language to live in Scotland. However, there are many reasons to learn Gaelic. 

If you are interested in the traditional music associated with the language, you can learn a lot more about the significance of song names or lyrics by understanding Gaelic. In addition, knowing Gaelic offers many job opportunities, such as in teaching, media, research, and elsewhere. Knowing even a little about Gaelic also allows you to enter into a community with a rich culture, heritage, history and strong links to many places and people around Scotland. And, if nothing else, you’ll be able to pronounce the names of places you visit in the Highlands!

Where can I find out more?

Hopefully this article has helped you understand the place of Gaelic in Scottish life a little better.

For those now excited to begin learning Gaelic, we would suggest heading to LearnGaelic.scot, which contains all the resources you need to start, or checking out the Scottish Gaelic course now also available on Duolingo.


Izzy Flower graduated from the University of Glasgow with a first-class degree in French and Gaelic and is now working on a postgraduate research project through Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, University of the Highlands and Islands. She also teaches beginners’ Gaelic courses through the University of the Highlands and Islands and has been involved in a number of Gaelic arts projects, including winning Best Student Film at the FilmG Gaelic Film awards last year.

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