Gaelic, Language of the Scottish Highlanders

A Highland Pearl


A Highland Pearl, the first book in The Highland Treasures Series, takes place in the Scottish Highlands during the early 16th century. The first language of the Highlanders during the time period was Gaelic, although some of the nobility spoke English.

What is Gaelic?

Gaelic, or Goidelic is one of the groups of the Celtic family of languages, comprising Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx. Scottish Gaelic and Manx developed through the migrations of Irish speakers in the first millennium AD. The Irish conquered Scotland starting in the 4th century. They spread northwards and eastwards through Scotland cutting through native Pictish resistance. Following the establishment of the Gaelic church on Iona by Columba in the 6th century, the Gaels acquired the means of spreading both their authority and their language. In the 9th century, Gaels and Picts were finally united under a Gaelic king, probably of mixed parentage. In the 11th century, Malcolm Canmore, son of Duncan, came to the throne with the aid of English forces and began to introduce Anglo-Norman customs and language. His descendants followed this policy and the Gaelic language was gradually replaced by English in state and church administration. Scottish Gaelic is still spoken in some parts of Scotland. Irish is still the first official language of Ireland and is regarded as the national speech; although since the nineteenth century most Irish people speak English. *

In the Late Middle Ages, Middle Scots, often simply called English, became the dominant language of the kingdom. It was derived largely from Old English, with the addition of elements from Gaelic and French. Although resembling the language spoken in northern England, it became a distinct dialect from the late fourteenth century onwards. It began to be adopted by the ruling elite as they gradually abandoned French. By the fifteenth century it was the language of government, with acts of parliament, council records and treasurer’s accounts almost all using it from the reign of James I onwards. As a result, Gaelic, once dominant north of the Tay, began a steady decline. Lowland writers began to treat Gaelic as a second class, rustic and even amusing language, helping to frame attitudes towards the Highlands and to create a cultural gulf with the Lowlands.

From the mid sixteenth century, written Scots was increasingly influenced by the developing Standard English of Southern England due to developments in royal and political interactions with England. With the increasing influence and availability of books printed in England, most writing in Scotland came to be done in the English fashion. Unlike many of his predecessors, James VI generally despised Gaelic culture. Having extolled the virtues of Scots “poesie”, after his accession to the English throne, he increasingly favoured the language of southern England. In 1611 the Kirk adopted the 1611 Authorized King James Version of the Bible. In 1617 interpreters were declared no longer necessary in the port of London because as Scots and Englishmen were now “not so far different bot ane understandeth ane uther”. Jenny Wormald, describes James as creating a “three-tier system, with Gaelic at the bottom and English at the top”.**

A Highland Pearl

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Excerpt from A Highland Pearl

A Gaelic Glossary located in the back of the ebook gives the reader an understanding of the Gaelic words used in the story.


Andrew led Maidie to her chamber. He nodded toward Tavish who stood beside the door, then opened the door for her to enter. Sven lay in the bed dressed in a nightshirt. He played with a wooden man holding a sword. Nellie stood beside the fire and curtsied when she saw them.

“Sven will be in safe keeping here in the castle. No need to worry about his welfare,” the chief said. “You will also be safe, and I want you to replenish your remedies. The castle garden is at your disposal.”

Maidie felt a lump form in her throat. “Thank you so verra much. I canna express my gratitude, but how will Angus feel about me intruding upon his territory?”

“No need to worry about Angus. He has plenty of work to keep him busy.” Andrew smiled, took her hand and brushed the back of it with his warm lips. “Thank you, Maidie, for saving my life. Oidhche mhath, a nighean mhaiseach.” He turned and left the chamber, closing the door behind him.

Maidie stood for a moment smiling at the closed door and rubbing her hand. She put the back of her hand to her lips where the warmth of his kiss lingered. “Good night to you, my handsome chief.”

Maidie turned to her son and watched him play with the miniature warrior. Living in the castle would not be good for Sven, but what could she do? She needed to find a way to leave soon. Her father was an officer in the Cameron chief’s sluagh, but only a few combatants dwelt in his home. At least in her father’s house, Sven would not be exposed to so much fighting.


Kilt of Munro Tartan



* Thomas Tidwell


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