The origins of the Celtic language are lost in the mists of time, but it would appear that the language diverged into two distinct forms at an early stage: P-Celt and Q-Celt. Welsh, Cornish and Breton are examples of P-Celt. It is likely that Pictish was closely related to them. Gaelic descended from the Q-Celt form.
The coming of Gaelic to Scotland
The original Gaels (Scotti) came to the south west of Scotland from Ireland in the 5th century and brought their language with them. Gaelic spread north and east displacing the language of the Picts until, by the 11th century; it dominated across an area from Caithness to Cumbria. Indeed the earliest surviving remnants of written Gaelic are 12th century marginal notes written in the Book of Deer from Aberdeenshire.
The retreat of Gaelic to the Highlands
As Scottish kings came under Norman influence, they abandoned their Gaelic roots. By the 14th century, Gaelic had largely retreated to the Highlands. It was here that the Lordship of the Isles (c.1340-1493) provided a haven for those skilled in Gaelic-speaking culture and traditions.
Before 1600 the written language in Highland Scotland and Ireland was a strict standard called Classical Gaelic. Over time this broke down and a distinct Scottish Gaelic version began to emerge for the first time in writing during the 17th century.
The decline in Gaelic
Since the reign of James VI (1567-1625) governments in Edinburgh and London regarded Gaelic as 'barbarous' and threatening. They sought, therefore, to eradicate it most notably through education. A decline in the language set in. In 1800 there were possibly 300,000 speakers; today it has fallen to some 60,000 speakers mainly concentrated in the Western Isles and North West.
The Gaelic revival
Gaelic has benefited from an upsurge in interest over recent years. The establishment of the Gaelic College in Skye and Celtic Studies departments in some universities has secured for Gaelic a place in higher education. Gaelic medium teaching in both primary and secondary schools is also helping to turn the tide in favour of the language. In 2001 the UK officially recognised Gaelic under the terms of Part III of the Council of Europe Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
If a book listed in the bibliography below is available from the Highland Libraries it will be indicated by a book icon -
When was Gaelic Scottish? The Origins, Emergence and Development of Scottish Gaelic Identity 1400-1750'
Colm Ó Baoill and Nancy R McGuire (eds), Rannsachadh Na Gàidhlig 2000: Papers read at the Conference Scottish Gaelic Studies 2000 - 2002 pp 231-42
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