A history of Scottish languages – part 4


by Paul Kavanagh

800 AD : The Picts were still independent, but would shortly merge with the Gaelic kingdom of Dalriada to create the kingdom of the Scots.  The Pictish language was by now under severe pressure from Gaelic, and had already been displaced by Gaelic throughout large tracts of Pictland. It would disappear soon afterwards.  The exact dating of the spread of Old Irish at the expense of Pictish is unknown.  Goidelic speaking elements seem to have formed an elite group in Pictish society at an early date, there was probably a protracted period of bilingualism in Pictish and Gaelic before Pictish finally expired. On the dawn of the merger between the kingdom of Dalriada and Pictland to form the kingdom of the Scots, it seems safe to say that a knowledge of Gaelic was already widespread throughout Pictland.  Pictish disappears from the historical record in the 9th century, but the use of spoken Pictish doubtless lingered on in more remote locations for several generations afterwards.  It died out unrecorded and its passing went unmarked, so it is impossible to say exactly when the language died out.

Scotland 800 ADTo approximately this period date some two dozen enigmatic inscriptions in the Ogham script used for the oldest Irish.  The inscriptions mostly come from the north and north west of Scotland, with noticeable clusters in the Northern Isles.  Although they can be read and appear to contain some Goidelic elements, the inscriptions make no sense.  They are believed to be authentic examples of written Pictish.  Unfortunately the Pictish Ogham inscriptions are the only examples of Ogham being used to write something other than ancient Irish, and linguists and historians have no idea how Ogham was adapted to the needs of a non-Goidelic language.  It doesn’t help that Ogham inscriptions can be notoriously difficult to read at the best of times.  The inscriptions have sparked off many theories, but most of them are highly speculative.  One theory was that the inscriptions were not in any language, but were some sort of symbolic code.  Another theory claims the inscriptions are in Old Norse but this has not found general acceptance.  In recent years a couple of the inscriptions have been identified as being in archaic Irish after all.  All that can be said for certain is that the type of Pictish written in Ogham displayed influence from Goidelic, and the use of the Ogham alphabet itself demonstrates the strong cultural influence of Goidelic speakers upon the Picts.

Cumbric was also under pressure, being squeezed between the spread of Gaelic in the west and Old English in the east. By this time only the western Cumbric kingdoms survived, Strathclyde with its capital at Alcluith (Dumbarton) and Rheged, generally believed to have had its capital at Carlisle. These kingdoms maintained close cultural links with north Wales but were also coming under increasingly strong influences from their Gaelic and English speaking neighbours.

Gaelic was expanding rapidly across the Highlands and had probably already reached the east coast. During this period there is even evidence that it was used in the Northern Isles although it’s uncertain whether Gaelic was ever spoken natively there. Gaelic continued to expand in south west Scotland, becoming established in what is now Galloway and penetrating into Ayrshire and Central Scotland. The Cumbric kingdom of Strathclyde was under heavy cultural influence from Goidelic speakers, there was considerable intermarriage between the ruling classes of the Cumbric kingdoms and their Gaelic neighbours. It’s likely that a knowledge of Gaelic was already widespread in parts of Strathclyde, the lower Forth Valley and Fife. Bilingualism, and even multilingualism, was commonplace in many parts of Scotland.

Old English was also in an expansionist phase, the language consolidated itself in the lower lying districts and river valleys of the south east, leaving the hilly country to remnant groups of Cumbric speakers. Old English also began to penetrate into south-western Scotland. The Ruthwell Cross from Dumfriesshire dates to this period. This carved stone cross bears one of the oldest runic inscriptions in Old English. Groups of Old English speakers apparently also established themselves in parts of Ayrshire and Strathclyde. As the power of the Anglosaxon kingdom of Northumbria grew, so a knowledge of English was spread.  In the south east of Scotland the population had by this time already shifted to the exclusive use of Old English. English spread first onto the fertile coastal plains and up the broad river valleys.  As it did so Cumbric retreated into the hillier ground.

But everything was about to change, within a few years Scotland would be attacked by Vikings, who would introduce yet another language, one which would eventually influence all the other languages of Scotland.


Tomorrow: 1000 AD – The arrival of the Norse.


Read previous articles from the history of Scottish languages series. Part: 1, 2, 3