Practical Facts: Introduction to Scottish Gaelic

Twelve years ago it was revealed in the national census that only 1.8% of Scots had any knowledge of Gaelic, their native language.  Originally thought to have been brought to Scotland by settlers from north eastern Ireland in the 5th century AD, who moved their kingdom of Dál Riata from Ulster to Argyll, it was adopted by the Picts, and by the the 11th century, had become the official language of the newly named kingdom of ‘Scotland’.  However, as French, and later English grew to be the language of the court, Gaelic fell from favor and by the final Jacobite failure at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, its use was starting to wane.  A resurrection followed in the late 1880’s, but after the devastating losses suffered in both World Wars, the number of native Gaelic speakers had dropped to just 58,969 in 2001.  Despite this, the last two decades have seen a real resurgence in the teaching of Gaelic in schools, an increased presence in the media, and festivals such as The Royal National Mod taking place annually across Scotland.

The west coast of Scotland
The west coast of Scotland

Although traditionally ascribed to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, Gaelic can be found all over the country, in both rural districts and cities alike.  With this is mind, we put together some useful phrases and pronunciation tips, to help you impress the locals:

In most Gaelic (or Gàidhlig) words the  stress falls on the first syllable.  For example, while in English we pronounce the word poLICE, in Gaelic, the emphasis is on the the first syllable:  POILios.   Remember that ‘ch’ should always sound like ‘Loch’ or ‘Bach’, and always roll those ‘R’s.

Some useful phrases might be:

  • “Dè an t-ainm a tha oirbh?” (Jeh un TAH-num uh HAW-ruv?) – What’s your name?

  • “‘S mise…..(insert your name).” (SMIH-shuh…) – My name is…

  • “Ciamar a tha sibh?” (KIM-mer uh HAH shiv?) – How are you?

  • “Tha gu math, tapadh leibh.” (HAH guh MAH, TAH-puh LEH-eev) – I’m well, thank you

  • “Càit a bheil an taigh beag?” (KAHTCH uh vehl un tye bek?) – Where’s the bathroom?

  • “Slàinte mhòr agad!” (SLAHN-tchuh VORR AH-kut!) – Great health to you! (“Cheers!”)

  • “A bheil Gàidhlig agaibh?” (uh vil GAH-lik AH-kiv) – Do you speak Gaelic?

  • “Tha, beagan.” (hah, BECK-un) – Yes, a little

  • “Chan eil mi a’ tuigsinn.” (chan-yel mi uh-TOOK-shin) – I don’t understand

  • “Tha mi duilich.” (hah mee DOOH-lich) – I’m sorry

  • “Gabhaibh mo leisgeul.” (GAHV-iv moe LESH-kul) – Excuse me

  • “Ma ‘se ur toil e.” (mah sheh oor TUL-leh) – Please

  • “Tapadh leat.” (TAH-puh LAHT — also — TAHplett) – Thank you

  • “Mòran taing.” (MAW-run TAH-eeng) – Many thanks

  • “‘Se do bheatha.” (sheh doe VEH-huh) – You’re welcome

And for the most famous of all Scottish exports, did you know that the etymology of ‘whisky’ comes from the Latin aqua vitae = “water of life”, which was translated to Scottish Gaelic as uisge beatha = “lively water”.  A Gaelic proverb fits in with this thought: “Cha deoch-slàint, i gun a tràghadh”, meaning “It’s no health if the glass is not emptied!”