From traditions to folklore and language, Gaelic is an integral part of Scottish culture, history and identity. You simply can’t experience Scotland to the fullest and not engage with Scottish Gaelic culture and language. Here are several ways to do just that and support the Scottish Gaelic tourism economy along the way.
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When you travel through the Scottish Highlands or visit the islands on the west coast, and pay attention to the road signs, you will come across a language that has shaped the country over the centuries: Scottish Gaelic.
Gaelic originated in Ireland and spread across Scotland during medieval times. The language was once spoken all over the country, from the Scottish Borders and Galloway to the Outer Hebrides.
Best known as the language of the Highlands and Islands – it hasn’t been spoken in south Scotland for a very long time – it is today a minority language in Scotland. Approximately 60,000 speakers remain across the country, with the highest concentrations in the Outer Hebrides, the West Highland Peninsulas, parts of Argyll and Glasgow.
But Gaelic is making a comeback! There are now more Gaelic schools and the number of young speakers is actually increasing. The Scottish government is recognising the importance of the language and there are many initiatives to facilitate the learning of Gaelic and to support Gaelic-speaking communities.
Tourism can play a big role in this – who wouldn’t want to learn about this thriving Scottish culture and language?
Supporting local communities is a big part of being a responsible tourist. With this in mind, here are a few ways you can engage with Scottish Gaelic culture & language and simultaneously support the Gaelic tourism economy in Scotland.
This article covers:
- Why it is important to engage with Scottish Gaelic culture & language as a traveller
- How you can support Gaelic tourism in Scotland
- Where you can encounter Gaelic speakers in Scotland
- What you can do to be a responsible and culturally engaged visitor to Gaelic Scotland
Table of Contents
Why engage with Scottish Gaelic as a traveller?
There are many reasons to engage with Scottish Gaelic culture and language while you’re travelling around Scotland.
As mentioned above, Gaelic was once the dominant language spoken all over Scotland. With the language came a complex system of folklore, beliefs, practices and traditions which are still alive in many parts of Scotland today. If you want to understand Scotland, it is important to engage with this integral part of Scottish culture.
However, the Gaelic population has suffered significant losses over the centuries, not at least during the Highland Clearances. The Highland Clearances have decimated Gaelic-speaking communities throughout the Highlands and Islands. Many people were forced to move to large cities or emigrate abroad. In the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden, speaking Gaelic, along with other key elements of Highland culture like the clan system and wearing tartan, were prohibited. In many ways, the Gaelic language became something to be frowned upon – for example, schools taught children in English and would punish them for speaking Gaelic.*
And while the Scottish people who emigrated took their language with them – which is why there are pockets of Gaelic-speakers around the world – the language suffered significantly.
The drop in speaker numbers continues today, even though the number of young speakers is actually slowly starting to increase again. Add to that the depopulation trends of rural Scotland, which once again forces young people to move to the cities or abroad due to the unaffordability of living in rural Scotland (among other issues which I won’t go into here).
By learning about Scottish Gaelic culture, engaging with Gaelic-speaking communities and supporting Gaelic tourism businesses today, you are actively contributing to righting a wrong in Scottish history (and present) one encounter at a time.
The Gaelic tourism economy strengthens this significant Scottish culture and language, fosters a stronger connection between visitors, tourism businesses and local communities, and creates a deeper understanding for Scotland’s history, nature and landscapes.
To understand Scotland, you have to engage with Scottish Gaelic language, culture and history.
*For an interesting memoir about growing up on Lewis in the early 20th century, read Crowdie and Cream by Finlay J. Macdonald.
Gaelic in Scotland
While Scottish Gaelic was once spoken all over Scotland, it is primarily associated as the language of the Highlands and Islands. This includes the Inner Hebrides (Na h-Eileanan a-staigh) and Outer Hebrides (Western Isles = Na h-Eilean Siar), but not Orkney and Shetland. The northern islands are culturally and historically different, and in many ways have stronger ties with Norse culture and language.
The largest number of Gaelic speakers lives in Na h-Eilean Siar (the Western Isles / Outer Hebrides). There, road signs are first in Gaelic, and English as second. You will meet many native speakers here and hear Gaelic spoken in cafes and pubs on a daily basis.
Other places where I have personally encountered vibrant communities of Gaelic speakers on my trips, are Badenoch and Strathspey, the Isle of Skye, the Heart of Argyll, the West Highland Peninsulas and some of the Inner Hebridean islands, especially those with smaller communities like the Isle of Canna or the Isle of Tiree.
You might also like: 9 Ways to Connect with Locals in Scotland
How can you engage with Gaelic as a visitor?
While Gaelic is technically a minority language in Scotland, it is important to keep in mind that it was once spoken by a much larger number of people living in a vast area of Scotland.
As a visitor, I encourage you to actively learn about and engage with Scottish Gaelic culture and language. As such you will create a richer experience of Scotland for yourself, develop a deeper understanding for the country and its people, and at the same time, support local Gaelic-speaking communities.
If you run a tourism business and would like to incorporate Gaelic into your visitor experiences, check out the VisitScotland Gaelic Tourism Toolkit.
Here are some ways you can engage with Scottish Gaelic on your trip and beyond:
Learn a few words of Gaelic
There are many resources to help you learn Gaelic, whether you just want to practice a few words and phrases, or learn to speak fluently. Two recommended platforms are SpeakGaelic and LearnGaelic. Both offer free online learning services. You can even learn Scottish Gaelic with Duolingo!
For more in-depth learning experiences, look into language courses offered by Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the National Centre for Gaelic Language and Culture on the Isle of Skye. They offer residential and online courses. Ceolas Uibhist on South Uist also offers Gaelic immersion courses for learners.
Here are some useful phrases for travellers:
- Halò – Hello
- Tapadh leat – Thank you
- Madainn mhath – Good morning
- Feasgar math – Good evening
- Ciamar a tha sibh? – How are you?
- Slàinte! – Cheers!
- Tìoraidh – Goodbye
- Alba – Scotland
- Uisge-beatha – whisky
Check out this handy phrasebook for travellers.
Call places by their Gaelic names
Many places in Scotland are known by their English names, even though their Gaelic names pre-date the English translations by centuries. Try to make an effort to look up and learn Gaelic place names and use them in addition to (or even instead of) the English names.
For example, in my interview with native Gaelic-speaker Calum Maclean on Wild for Scotland, we talked about the Cairngorms National Park. “Cairngorms” can be translated literally to something like “blue mountains” (gorm meaning blue), but the Gaelic name is actually “a’ Mhonaidh Ruaidh”, which means “the red upland”.
So, while you may need to say Cairngorms in order for English speakers to know where you’re talking about (or in my case, in order for search engines to understand what I’m writing about), it is fascinating to learn the actual Gaelic place names and its origins.
Some people go as far as to phonetically anglicise English place names that they deem “too hard to pronounce” (or remember). For example, there is a mountain in Glen Carron called Bidein a’ Choire Sheasgaich. Its Gaelic name means “point of the barren corrie” and describes a place where grazing for cattle was known to be bad. However, some hillwalkers call it “Cheesecake” – presumably because that’s the closest-sounding English word to “Sheasgaich” they can think of.
By doing that though, they are not only disrespecting Gaelic language and culture (imagine calling Mont Blanc in France “white mountain”), you’re also losing the history of that place name, how it came to be called that, and how it was significant to the local communities.
Note, that while it is important to pronounce things correctly in order to pass on Gaelic language and tradition, as a learner of the language, I think it’s more important that you try and give it your best – even if you might mispronounce a word. Hopefully, someone will correct you and you can say it correctly going forward.
Learn about Scottish Gaelic history
While learning the Scottish Gaelic language can take years and is a serious commitment, it is easy to educate yourself about the history of Gaelic people in Scotland. Visiting heritage centres is a great place to start, but there are also many cultural and historic sites out and about that you can visit.
The Highland Clearances in particular are an important part of Scottish Gaelic history to learn about. The clearances strongly affected Gaelic communities in the Highlands and Islands. Understanding the history of the clearances is key to understanding the distribution of Gaelic speakers in the world today.
But there are also more positive aspects to learn about the history of Gaelic people. Heritage centres and museums can give you an insight into their way of life, traditions and beliefs.
Here are some places to visit to learn about Gaelic history:
- Culloden Visitor Centre near Inverness: The Battle of Culloden affected how Gaelic people were treated in Scotland for centuries to come.
- Highland Clearance villages such as Aoineadh Mòr in Morvern, Arichonan in Argyll, Strathnaver in Sutherland and many more.
- Follow local heritage trails like the Strathnaver Trail.
- Download the Coast app and listen to local stories and folklore gathered all over the Scottish west coast. Listen to some of them here on my podcast.
- The Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore is an open air museum that looks back at life in the Highlands from the 1700s onwards.
- Other small cultural museums include the Skye Museum of Island Life, the Museum of Islay Life, the Strathnaver Museum in Bettyhill, Timespan Museum in Helmsdale, An Iodhlann on the Isle of Tiree and countless local heritage centres from Applecross to Wick.
Listen to a story about my visit to Aoineadh Mòr clearance village on the Wild for Scotland podcast.
Visit a Gaelic Heritage Centre
Visiting Gaelic heritage centres and museums is a great way to engage with Scottish Gaelic culture and possibly practice speaking Gaelic with native speakers too.
There are several Gaelic heritage centres in Scotland. These are thriving places that bear the Gaelic traditions of local areas, encourage the learning of Gaelic language and offer immersive cultural experiences.
- Lismore Gaelic Heritage Centre, Isle of Lismore
- Islay Gaelic Centre, Isle of Islay
- Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre, North Uist
- Ceòlas, South Uist
Book an activity with a Gaelic-speaking guide
A great way to support the Gaelic tourism economy while engaging with Gaelic culture is to book an activity with a Gaelic-speaking guide, or a guide who has at least a working knowledge of the language.
Gaelic speakers can translate place names, such as the hill mentioned above, and put the landscapes you visit into historical and cultural context. They can also draw on their cultural heritage and create an authentic experience for you. This will enrich your understanding of Scotland and its culture.
Two of my favourite guided experiences with Gaelic-speaking guides I’ve done in the past were swim sessions with Dan the Merman in Argyll, a guided story walk with Sarah Hobbs from Strathspey Storywalks, and a croft tour with Long Island Retreats on South Uist.
Dan and Sarah are both learning Gaelic and incorporate that into their guided experiences – they were also both guests on my podcast Wild for Scotland:
- Listen to my conversation with Dan the Merman aka. Dan Coyle about his route to learning Gaelic and how it helps him connect with his heritage.
- Listen to my conversation with Sarah Hobbs about her work as an outdoor storyteller and how important it is to put the landscapes we visit into the context of folklore and stories.
You might also like: 35 Things to do in Uist in the Outer Hebrides
Seek out Gaelic music and other events
Experiencing Gaelic culture and language is not just about museums, history lessons and learning experiences. Music is an integral part of Gaelic culture and as such, music performances and dances are great opportunities to experience authentically Gaelic events.
- Seek out a local ceilidh – many communities host regular ceilidhs in local village halls or pubs, for example A’ Chéilidh Chàrnach which regularly takes place at the Cairnbaan Hotel in mid-Argyll.
- Attend local music festivals, especially festivals that are held in small communities and make use of community halls instead of or in addition to purpose-built stages. They often have local music nights and host ceilidhs that blend music, dancing and storytelling. For example, the Jura Music Festival on the Isle of Jura or Berneray Week on the Isle of Berneray.
- An Taigh Cèilidh is a Gaelic community café in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. Their events include live music sessions, conversation circles, talks about culture and the environment, and film screenings.
- Ceòl is Craic is a platform for contemporary Gaelic culture in Glasgow. They are based at the Centre for Contemporary Arts and host informal social gatherings as well as events such as music, film screenings and exhibitions.
- Listen to Gaelic-speaking musicians and find out whether they are performing while you are visiting Scotland. Some of my favourite Gaelic-speaking artists are Julie Fowlis and Braebach but there are obviously many more.
- Celtic Connections Music Festival in Glasgow is a great event to find lots of Gaelic-speaking musicians in one place.
Read books about Gaelic Scotland
It might take years until you will be able to read books in Scottish Gaelic, but that doesn’t mean you can’t read books by Gaelic-speakers or books about Scottish Gaelic culture and history.
Some of my favourite books about Scottish Gaelic culture and/or the history of Gaelic Scotland have been:
- Crowdie and Cream by Finlay J. Macdonald – a memoir about growing up on the Isle of Lewis
- Soil and Soul by Alastair McIntosh – a book documenting land right struggles in Harris and Eigg, and about the deep connection between land and people in Gaelic Scotland
- Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting – not by a Gaelic speaker, but nevertheless an interesting travel memoir about visiting islands affected by the Highland Clearances.
With all this in mind, I encourage you to actively engage with Scottish Gaelic culture and language while you’re travelling around Scotland.
Whether you pick up a few words of the language, learn about the history, or book an activity with a Gaelic-speaking guide, I hope this article inspired you to incorporate a Scottish Gaelic experience into your itinerary.
You will have a better understanding of the country and a richer experience overall.