An Introduction to Scottish Gaelic

Page content

Current Figures

Scots Gaelic (properly pronounced ga:lik, and not to be confused with garlic!) is still alive and fairly well, although the numbers are falling.There are currently about 55,000 speakers in Scotland, not all mother tongue, predominantly in the Western Isles, but with significant populations in the Inner Hebrides and in Glasgow.Outside of Scotland, the largest Gaelic-speaking area is Nova Scotia in Canada, mainly as a result of Scots Highlanders settling there during the Clearances and afterward.


The government is trying to support the language by opening more and more Gaelic-medium schools and playgroups across the country, but the number of speakers is declining year by year.

What Is It?

Gàidhlig is, of course,a Celtic language, derived from Old Irish. Nowadays it uses 18 of the 26 Roman letters - no j, k, q, x, y, or z. The pronunciation is mainly phonetic and, once you’re accustomed to the system, you should be able to read most words with ease. It has many nasal sounds; one lovely example is cnatan, meaning “a cold”, which sounds nasal enough even before you throw in the stuffed nose!

As each language has its own idioms deriving from the surrounding culture, Gaelic has some lovely structures that native speakers tend to bring over into their English–e.g., “It doesn’t put me up or down” meaning “It doesn’t matter to me.”

Since Gaelic has never been standardized, there are variations from one island or area to another in both pronunciation and, to some extent at least, in vocabulary, but these forms are mutually intelligible. An Irish speaker and a Scots Gaelic speaker have no major problems understanding one another, as the languages are still pretty similar.

The pronunciations given below are based mainly on Skye Gaelic: Apologies to any native speakers of other areas who feel they are misleading!

Some First Phrases

The symbol V has been used to indicate the phonetic schwa: the sound of the letter e in German “bitte”, and a colon [:] has been used after vowels to indicate a long vowel sound.

As in many languages, Gaelic has two forms of the word for you, which affects other phrases, especially those with prepositions. Both forms are given where applicable.

Hello!= “Latha math!"[La:ma:]or just “Halò”[Hallo]

Welcome!= Fàilte![falchV]

How are you?= Ciamar a tha sibh?[kimer a ha shiv?] (plural or polite form)

or Ciamar a tha thu? [kimer a ha oo?] (singular familiar form, used with one person you know well or who is younger than you)

Goodbye= Mar sin leaibh. [Mar shin liv] (plural and polite form) or Mar sin leat. [Mar shin lat] (singular familiar form)

Please= Ma ‘se do thoil e [Ma she do hol e] (plural or polite form) =Ma ‘se (bh)ur toil e [Ma she (v)oor tol e] (singular familiar form)

Thank you= Tapadh leibh [Ta:pa liv] (plural or polite form) Tapadh leat [Ta:pa lat] (singular familiar form)


There are several good courses available, many of which the BBC has produced. A favorite is “Beag air Bheag” (“Little by Little”) which can be viewed and used online. Why not have a go?

Mar sin leibh!