Scotland’s Language Myths: 4. Gaelic has nothing to do with the Lowlands


Myth 4: Gaelic has nothing to do with the Lowlands

Read myth 1, 2, 3

by Paul Kavanagh

Gaelic used to be widespread across Lowland Scotland.  In the 12th century when Gaelic was at its greatest extent it was the dominant language or the only spoken language everywhere in mainland Scotland north and west of a line drawn very approximately from Musselburgh to Gretna -with the possible exception of parts of the extreme north.  To the east and south of this line there was a Gaelic speaking landowning class.

It’s the Gaelic language which gives the place names of Scotland their distinctive character. Gaelic names litter the Lowland landscape.  Their existence all over the Lowlands is a living trace of a time when Gaelic was the everyday language of most people in Scotland.  Although to English and Scots speakers these names seem collections of nonsense syllables, to Gaelic speakers their meanings are transparent when cast in modern Gaelic spelling.

The hundreds of Scottish place names which begin with Auch- contain the Gaelic word achadh ‘field’, such as Auchinleck Achadh nan Leac ‘field of the flagstones’ in Ayrshire or Auchinree Achadh an Rìgh ‘the king’s field’ in Wigtonshire.  Bal- names contain the Gaelic word baile ‘farm settlement, town’; in the Lothians there are Balerno Baile Airneach ‘hawthorn farm’ in Midlothian and Ballencrieff Baile na Craoibhe ‘farm of the tree’ in East Lothian, Selkirkshire provides Balnakiel Baile na Cille ‘farm of the church’.  Names which begin with Kil- derive from Gaelic cille or cill ‘monastic cell, church foundation’; Kilmarnock is derived from the mediaeval Gaelic Cille Mo Earnag ‘the church of Saint Earnan’ (Literally, ‘the church of my little Earnan’ an affectionate diminutive in mediaeval Gaelic.  The meaning has been lost in modern Gaelic which has Cill Mheàrnaig – a form borrowed back from Scots), East and West Kilbride are from Cille Bhrìghde ‘the church of St. Brigit’, Kilbucho in Peebleshire is from Cille Bheagha ‘the church of St. Bega’ (an early Irish saint).

Other Gaelic names are constructed of different elements.  There are so many that it’s only possible to give a brief list to illustrate the variety of Lowland Gaelic names; Moffat Am Màgh Fada ‘the long plain’, Airdrie Àrd Ruigh ‘high reaches’, Cumbernauld Comar nan Allt ‘the confluence of the streams’, Cambuslang Camus nan Long ‘the riverbend of the ships’ (a camus was a bend in a river with a sandy shore where boats could be beached and cargoes unloaded), Lochgelly Loch Gheallaidh ‘the shining loch’, Sanquhar An t-Seann Chathair ‘the old fort’, Stranraer An t-Sròn Reamhar ‘the broad headland’, Greenock Grianaig ‘a slope which catches the sunlight, formerly used for drying hay’. 1.

Many of those who dispute the Gaelic heritage of Lowland Scotland point to the substantial number of Cumbric place names in southern Scotland and Pictish names in eastern Scotland as evidence that Gaelic is not relevant to the Lowlands.  These languages belonged to a different branch of Celtic traditionally called P-Celtic in older linguistic studies.  Sometimes the claim is made that the Lowlands have a linguistic heritage more like that of Northern England, where P-Celtic dialects were replaced by Old English in Anglosaxon times.  

For most of Lowland Scotland this claim is simply inaccurate.  Pictish was replaced throughout its territory by Gaelic, ‘English’ (however it’s defined) only established itself in former Pictish lands hundreds of years after the Anglosaxon period, by which time the region had long been solidly Gaelic speaking.

Cumbric was directly replaced by Old English in only a fairly restricted portion of the southern Lowlands – East Lothian and most of the Borders.  In almost all of the rest of Lowland Scotland south of the Clyde-Forth line Cumbric gave way to Gaelic long before the final absorption of the last Cumbric kingdom (Strathclyde) into Scotland in the 11th century.  A few centuries later when Lowland Scots came to replace Gaelic in these districts, Cumbric was merely a historical memory except perhaps in a few isolated valleys in the most remote parts of the Southern Uplands.  For many generations the inhabitants of most of Lowland Scotland spoke Gaelic and considered themselves Gaels.

The majority of Cumbric and almost all Pictish names in Scotland come down to us in Gaelic disguise.  They were passed into Gaelic first, and only much later borrowed into Lowland Scots from Gaelic.  When the names passed into Gaelic, they were phonetically adapted and often fully or partially translated.  The names which survive today are usually derived in turn from these Gaelic adaptations, even when the original name was P-Celtic.

The town of Kinneil close to Bo’ness at the Firth of Forth end of the Antonine Wall is a unique example of a name whose Cumbric, Pictish, Gaelic and Old English names were all been recorded.  It was known as Pen Gwaul to the Cumbric speaking Britons, Pen Fahel to the Picts and Ceann Fhàill to the Gaels.  All these names mean simply wall’s end.  According to the Anglosaxon historian Bede the settlement was called Penneltun by the Anglosaxons.  The Old English name, directly based on a P-Celtic form with the addition of English -tun (ie. ‘town’), has disappeared without trace.  The modern name Kinneil comes from a Scots phonetic adaptation of the Gaelic name (fh is silent in Gaelic).

Sometimes the sequence of languages is apparent in the versions of the names in historical documents and manuscripts.  Kirkintilloch began life as the Cumbric Cair Pen Tallog ‘the fort at the head of the hillock’, when the district later became Gaelic speaking the name was translated to Cathair Ceann Tullaich.  Even later this form was phonetically adapted into Scots to give the modern Kirkintilloch.  Like Kinniel, Kirkintilloch preserves a distinctly Gaelic version of its name even though the name was first created by P-Celtic speakers.

To complicate matters, Scottish Gaelic borrowed some of its geographical terminology from Cumbric and Pictish, and many names which are often claimed as P-Celtic were in fact created by Gaelic speakers who were using a loanword borrowed from Cumbric or Pictish.  At the time these place names were created Cumbric and Pictish may very well have been extinct locally.  These names are therefore Gaelic names, even though they contain a “P-Celtic” element.  In a similar way English has borrowed the words mountain and rock. Mountain comes from French montaigne.  The word rock is of obscure origin, first occuring in Vulgar Latin as rocca, some believe it is ultimately of Celtic origin (Breton has the word roc’h ‘rock’), however English almost certainly got it from Norman French.  Despite the fact that the words in the US place name ‘Rocky Mountains’ were borrowed into English from French, we do not say that it is a French name.  It’s an English language name, created by English speakers.

The element cair / cathair is common in Lowland place names often cited as P-Celtic or Cumbric, in the modern English version of these names it is generally spelled Car-.  The element car- (Welsh caer, Gaelic cathair) was actually a loanword into Ancient Brittonic from Latin castrum ‘fort’.  It was then borrowed into Old Irish – whether from Brittonic or directly from Latin is uncertain – and was widely used in the creation of place names in Ireland.  In their modern English spellings these names usually begin with Caher- and some have exact equivalents in Scotland.  Caherdaniel in County Kerry is Cathair Dónall in Irish (old spelling, Cathair Dómhnall), which is the Irish version of the Scottish Gaelic Cathair Dhòmhnaill now known as Cardonald in Glasgow.  So it cannot be automatically assumed, as some do, that all Scottish names beginning with Car- or other “P-Celtic” elements are Cumbric or Pictish.  Some Car- names are Cumbric, but many were actually created by Gaelic speakers.

A large number of Scottish names combine a P-Celtic element with a Gaelic element. Pittenweem in Fife is from Pit na h-Uaimhe where pit is a Pictish word borrowed into Gaelic to refer to a specific type of farming settlement and na h-Uaimhe is a Gaelic phrase meaning ‘of the cave’.  (In modern Gaelic the word pit has fallen out of use and in many place names was later replaced by the word baile.  The modern Gaelic name for Pittenweem is Baile na h-Uaimhe.)  It is possible that Pittenweem was a Pictish place name created by Pictish speakers then partially translated into Gaelic when this part of Fife became Gaelic speaking, but it’s just as possible that it was created by local Gaelic speakers using a word they’d borrowed from Pictish.

The Old English speaking regions of south eastern Scotland were not immune to Gaelic influence.  There is a scattering of Gaelic names in parts of the East Lothians and Borders which attest to pockets of vernacular Gaelic.  There is a small cluster of Gaelic place names around Ballencrieff in East Lothian, other Gaelic names in the area include Kilduff, Kilspindie, Glenarrol and possibly Gullane.  These names probably reflect Gaelic influence coming from Fife.  Gaelic was well established in Peebleshire in the 12th century as is proven by another cluster of Gaelic place names such as Kilbucho, Glenrath and Finglen, whilst place names like Balnakiel in Selkirkshire show that use of Gaelic extended quite far down the Tweed valley.

A number of places names in the Lothians and Borders contain Gaelic personal names although the names are Anglosaxon in construction.  Gilchriston in East Lothian is a good example, it means the ‘town (ie. farm) of Gille-Chriosd’ a Gaelic personal name meaning ‘servant of Christ’.  The name was most likely created by local Old English speakers on lands owned by a member of the Gaelic nobility.  Names like this do not occur in England.  They provide evidence for Gaelic-Old English bilingualism in the Anglosaxon areas of mediaeval Scotland.

Gaelic linguistic and cultural influence even made itself felt in Shetland and the Orkney Islands.  The alphabet used in the dozen or so surviving pre-Viking inscriptions from the Northern Isles is the Irish ogham alphabet.  The occurrence of this form of writing is convincing proof that the islanders were strongly influenced by Gaelic language and culture before they were conquered by Scandinavian settlers from Norway.  At least one pre-Viking inscription from the Orkney islands was written in a form of Old Irish and others apparently contain Gaelic names, although whether this meant that some islanders natively spoke an early variety of Gaelic or used it as a second language is unknown.  After the Viking invasions the language of the Northern Isles became Norse, which evolved locally into the Norn language.

Norn was also spoken in Caithness, but here it seems that the local population was bilingual in Norn and Gaelic.  The Norn/Gaelic bilingualism of Caithness was seemingly replaced from the 14th century onwards by Gaelic/Lowland Scots bilingualism.  According to British army reports from the early 18th century, the people of Caithness spoke both Scots and Gaelic with Gaelic clearly dominant.  However during the course of the 18th century Caithness Gaelic disappeared and gave way to the English/Scots bilingualism which characterises the region today.

But there’s another way in which Gaelic is directly relevant to all Scots, even Scots from areas such as Berwickshire where the language never had a substantial number of speakers.  In the early middle ages the minority Middle English speaking community of Scotland did not think of themselves as having any special cultural or linguistic connection with Scotland’s Gaelic speakers.  When writing Latin, the Middle English speakers of Scotland referred to the region they inhabited as terra Anglorum et in regno Scottorum ‘a land of the English and yet in the kingdom of the Scots’. 2. They saw themselves as English people living in a land which was as English as Kent or Yorkshire, it just happened to be ruled by the King of Scots.

However during the Scottish Wars of Independence something truly remarkable happened, the inhabitants of the Middle English speaking districts of the Scottish kingdom began to call themselves Scots and by extension came to call their language Scottis.  Previously the term Scottish had referred only to the Gaelic language and culture and was synonymous with Irish.  In Old English, the name Scotland meant the island of Ireland but later became extended in usage to refer to Ireland and those areas of Britain which had adopted the Gaelic (ie. Irish) language.  Throughout Europe, Ireland was referred to as Scotia Maior (Elder Ireland or Greater Ireland) in Latin texts of the period, whereas Scotland was Scotia Minor (Younger Ireland or Lesser Ireland).

The disasters wrought by the Wars of Independence affected the Middle English speakers of Scotland severely since the areas they inhabited were right up against the English border and most open to the the invading armies.  The status of the locals as Middle English speakers did not apparently grant them any special favours from the English armies, controlled as they were by a Norman French aristocracy.  The war so alienated the Middle English speakers of Scotland from England and English culture that they abandoned an English social identity – they were no longer Englishmen on English lands in the Kingdom of the Scots.  Henceforth they would be Scots and their land a part of Scotland.

By calling themselves Scots the Middle English speakers of south east Scotland were declaring that in culture and identity they regarded themselves as belonging to the same people as their Gaelic speaking compatriots, in doing so they consciously distinguished themselves from Middle English speakers in England.  The change in name was accompanied by the wholesale adoption of Gaelic cultural motifs such as the legitimisation of the Scottish monarch on the Stone of Scone and the accompanying panoply of Gaelic legends and myths which provided historical justification to Scottish kingship.  Part of this naturally included the adoption of some of the ritual and emblematic aspects of Gaelic language and literature as symbols of a Scottish identity, even though the south east did not adopt Gaelic as a daily language.  One historian who specialises in Scottish mediaeval history notes that almost nothing of the rich legends and mythology of the Anglosaxons survived in Scotland.

These new Scots – Gaels by proxy if you like – continued to speak their Anglosaxon tongue.  Previously the variety of early Middle English spoken in Scotland had not even qualified as a distinct dialect of English, it was simply the northernmost continuation of the Northumbrian dialect which was widespread in England north of the Humber estuary.  After the Northumbrian dialect speakers of Scotland made the political and cultural decision to adopt a Scottish social identity which they shared with Gaelic speakers, but not other English speakers, their language began to differentiate itself rapidly from all other varieties of Middle English.  Lowland Scots owes its existence as a language to the decision of the English speakers of Scotland in the Middle Ages that their social and political legitimacy derived from Gaelic cultural traditions.

The events of the War of Independence were followed by the creation of royal burghs and developing urbanisation.  This also created immense social upheaval in mediaeval Scotland.  Large numbers of English, Flemish, Low German and French settlers were attracted to the new burghs to take advantage of the new opportunities for trade and commerce.  The common language used for communication between the various groups was the northern Anglosaxon language now coming to be known as Scottis, the same language spoken by the ‘Gaels by Proxy’, which now spread rapidly across much of the central and eastern Lowlands.

Scots in the Middle Ages saw a direct equivalence between Lowland Scots and Gaelic as social markers of a Scottish identity.  When Lowland Gaelic speakers adopted the Anglosaxon language current in the new burghs they did not also have to adopt an English social identity, as had happened prior to the Wars of Independence.  Together with its utility as a tool of communication in the new economic conditions created by the burghs, this perception of the Scots language as equal to Gaelic as a social marker of Scottishness was one of the factors which permitted its rapid spread.  By the late 14th century Scots had already displaced Gaelic throughout the lower lying and more accessible regions of Lowland Scotland, particularly in the coastal plains and the large inland river basins and valleys like the Clyde and the lower reaches of the Tay and Forth.  Gaelic retreated into the high valleys and the less accessible hilly districts.  Increasingly Scots speakers came to see their own language as representing a “better and more modern” way of being Scottish than Gaelic, which came to be associated with social backwardness and ancient tribalism.  It was the beginning of the oppression and stereotyping which would characterise Gaelic’s history until recent times. 

It was one of the great misfortunes of Scottish history that the Reformation more or less coincided with the retreat of Gaelic to the geographical Highland line.  Since the nature of the terrain differed on either side of this line, the nature of the local economy also differed with an obvious impact upon the nature of local society.  To the naturally created economic divisions were now added linguistic and religious divides.  As the common threads of language and culture that once joined the Highlands and Lowlands weakened and frayed, the perception grew in both Highland and Lowland Scotland that there was an ancient gulf between them and that Highlanders and Lowlanders were different peoples with different languages, cultures and histories.  This perception still lingers to the present day.

Even so, Lowland Gaelic continued to be spoken in some areas until surprisingly recent times.  The language was still spoken in Galloway and south Ayrshire into the 18th century.  According to a somewhat unreliable legend the last speaker of Ayrshire Gaelic died on the same day that Robert Burns was born.  Many areas on the edge of the Highlands such as the Lennox in Stirlingshire retained Gaelic until the 19th century, the local features of the Gaelic dialects of these districts probably owe much to Lowland Gaelic.  The Gaelic of Arran is believed to have been especially close to the Lowland Gaelic of Ayrshire.  Speakers of some of these dialects survived well into the 20th century.

Lowland Gaelic was never adequately recorded so it is impossible to know how it differed from the Scottish Gaelic dialects which are still spoken.  It’s likely that in some respects Lowland Gaelic formed a linguistic bridge between Highland Gaelic dialects, Ulster Irish dialects and Manx.  During the Middle Ages the entire Gaelic speaking area from the south western point of Ireland to the northernmost point of Scotland formed a vast dialect chain, with no sharp dialectal divisions but rather an interconnected series of Gaelic varieties which changed gradually from Kerry to Sutherland.  With the death of Lowland Gaelic one of the most important links in the chain was broken.  

The final demise of Lowland Gaelic in the 18th century was not the end of the story of Gaelic in the Lowlands.  During the Industrial Revolution the development of mining and metal working towns brought thousands of Gaelic speakers flooding into Lowland Scotland.  As many Irish speakers also arrived, the vast majority of whom came from Donegal and spoke a dialect of Irish which was mutually intelligible with Scottish Gaelic.  Due to the massive linguistic pressure from English, these families rarely passed on the language beyond the first generation of migrants.

Gaelic has been a part of the Lowlands story throughout its history.  Without Gaelic the Lowlands would not be the Lowlands of Scotland, they’d be an extension of Northumbria.  If Lowlanders forget the Gaelic foundation to their identity, then they forget why they’re Scottish at all.

1. For more information about the fascinating study of Scottish place names, the best resource is the excellent website of the Scottish Place Names Society.

2. This was the Latin phrase used by Adam, abbot of Dryburgh Abbey near Melrose in the Borders, in a late 12th century text describing the abbey.


To read our 10 part series on the ‘History of Scottish Languages’ click: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10