Gaelic, Scots






Language and Identity
Reality and Belief



June 24, 1999

Language Politics

Gaelic and Scots

Loch Ness Monster Hear
the radio documentary
about Scottish Languages

First broadcast Oct 19, 1999
It lasts about 55 minutter
The music (with Runrig)
is cut out, for copyright reasons
Producer: Ole Stig Andersen
Technician: Jesper Tholl

Review and discussion
Back to Scotland
The majority of Scotland's population speak English, a consequence of England's political and cultural domination during 3-400 years. But there are two other - lesser known - languages that have been there far longer, and they are still there. That's Gaelic and Scots.


A thousand years ago the majority of the Scottish population spoke Gaelic. Nowadays the language has largely been reduced to the Highlands and Islands. By the latest census in 1991 the language was brought down to 66.000, a poor 1,5% of a population of 5+ million. And it is still falling, since the 66.000 are mainly elderlies.

Gaelic is a very endangered language. But during the last 20 years it has experienced a revival which is part of the rising awareness - or creation of - a separate Scottish identity. Pop and rock stars sing in Gaelic, all the political parties want to protect Gaelic. There is a growing movement for Scottish Kindergartens/Pre-schools. Many schools now teach what was once a proscribed language and TV and radio broadcast in Gaelic. Together with tartan and whisky and bagpipes Gaelic is part of the romantic Scottish myth, and most Scots believe it is Scotland's aboriginal language. They also believe it is impossibly difficult.

Gaelic thus enjoys a high cultural status. But it is of limited practical value. The largest problem for Gaelic is the emigration from the Highlands and Islands where the language still survives. Young people move from central Gaelic speaking areas for education and work. And they don't return. Therefore the Gaelic organisations try to develop opportunities for work and education, where command of Gaelic is an asset, and not - as it is now - a trifle or even a disadvantage.

A thrashing for Scots

LINKS about Languages in Scotland


  • Scots Language Resource Centre Wab Page:
  • Scottish National Dictionary Association:
  • Stertin oot in Scots, the first beginners' book in Scots to appear, can be reached at


  • The Gaelic organisation Comunn na Gaeligh:

        Endangered Languages

  • The European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages, EBLUL:
  • Foundation for Endangered Languages:

    LITERATURE about Languages in Scotland

  • You can find several books to learn Gaelic from, but the first one for Scots is L. C. Wilson Stertin oot in Scots. Language of Lowland & Eastern Scotland. A Course for Beginners. (Glasgow 1999)

  • A fine description of the language situation is
    Scotland - a Linguistic Double Helix (European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages, 1995)

  • After Gaelic, it was Scots' turn to become the main language of Scotland. For 400 years, Scots was the spoken and written language of the Scottish state. When Great Britain came to be established in 1707, Scotland's government moved to London, and Scots lost its political status to English. And even when Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns, was writing in Scots - "Should auld acquaintance be forgot" among other things - the language was being rapidly reduced to a purely spoken one, to the status of an everyday colloquial language, not something one could use in school, e.g.

    For several centuries - until the beginning of the 1980s - Scottish children were under threat of corporal punishment for talking Scots in school. From having been an independent language used by people on all social levels Scots had descended to the status of being considered a dialect of English, a dialect used by ignorant peasants, fishing folk and laborers, not by genteel people. As recently as in 1993 a man was arrested for having spoken Scots in court proceedings, for contempt of court.

    Confusion between Scots and English

    The most recent British census asked if people spoke Gaelic but not if they spoke Scots. In the meantime, a government study conducted in 1996 has shown that it may be as much as 30% of the population, i.e., 1.5 million people.

    Furthermore, Scots has far more speakers than has Gaelic -- in excess of 20 times more -- but in a funny way be much harder to recognize, indeed even among Scottish people themselves, who tend to confuse it with English with a Scottish accent.

    Scots has virtually none of the resources that are now channeled in the direction of Gaelic. There is no radio or TV broadcasting in Scots, it is, generally speaking, not taught in school, and it is not at all used as an educational medium. There is a Scots renaissance underway too, led by singers, poets, movie and theater people. But Scots, the language with many speakers and low status, enjoys nowhere near the public support and awareness that is afforded Gaelic, which has far fewer speakers but at the same time carries far greater symbolic weight.

    Danish, Scots, English and Gaelic

    DanishJeg kender ham ikke
    Scots   A dinna ken him
    English  I don't know him
    Gaelic  Chan eil iólas agam air
    Danish, Scots and English are different, but alike. All three belong to the same language family - the Germanic. They have lots of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation in common. In fact, Scots even has many word that are not intelligible for Englishmen, but which are immediately recognisable to Danes, e.g. bearn (child, Da barn), flit (move, Da flytte), big (build, Da bygge) .....
    Comparison of words in Scots, English and Danish
    In the Gaelic sentence there is not much to be recognised. Gaelic belongs to another family of languages, Celtic, and is very closely related to Irish.

    The RadioDocumentary relates how Scots and Gaelic have been suppressed by the British authorities and the Scottish elite, about the loss of functional domains they have suffered from the pressure of English and about the flowering they both live through these years.

    Ole Stig Andersen
    EMIL, Weekend-Avisen, June 24, 1999
    Thank you to Reinhard Hahn for most of the translation.

    (EMIL is Danish Radio's Programme 1's monthly magazine, issued as a supplement to the newspaper Weekend-Avisen.)






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    © Ole Stig Andersen, 2000 (rev Aug 5, 2002)