There are three main languages in Scotland. English, of course, is spoken by virtually all Scots and is the de facto official language of the country. Scots, a unique language descended from Old English, is still spoken in parts of lowland Scotland. In the highlands and islands of Scotland, the traditional language is Scottish Gaelic.
Origins and history
The Gaelic language arrived in Scotland from Ireland sometime prior to the year 500 AD. It reached its height in about 1100, when it was probably the most commonly spoken language in the country. Soon after, efforts to anglicize Scotland began in earnest and the language never fully recovered its prominence. It remained a primary language on the islands, mostly due to the Lordship of the Isles, a semi-independent dynasty ruled over by mixed Gaelic and Norse kings.
Gaelic in Scotland today
The Lordship of the Isles hasn’t been a real political force in Scotland for over 400 years, but one of its lasting effects is the widespread use of Gaelic on Scotland’s islands, especially the Outer Hebrides, where almost 75% of the population speaks the language. For most of Scotland, though, Gaelic has become a minority language and is continuing to decline in use. In 2001, census results indicated about 59,000 Gaelic speakers in Scotland, only 1.2% of the population, nearly all in the highlands and islands. This was a decline over more than 7,000 from ten years earlier. Efforts are being made to teach more Gaelic in schools in order to help the language survive, but like many indigenous languages around the world, it continues to decline.
Like most languages, Gaelic has contributed to English, and some prominent English words have been taken from Gaelic, including some that you might not expect. galore, slogan, tinker and trousers are just a few.
One of the most common ways that travelers to Scotland interact with the Gaelic language is through place names, many of which still retain their old Gaelic names. Check out our guide to Scottish place names and their meanings to learn more. Many of these names are also shared with their local whisky distilleries, and so our Scotch whisky pronunciation guide can come in handy for more than just whisky.
At the top of our pages about specific places, like cities and islands around Scotland, I have tried to place Scottish Gaelic (as well as Scots) translations of the places’ names. I hope this helps you appreciate the history of the language in Scotland and helps these beautiful names to survive and always be associated with Scotland.