2007 - 2021

Learning Gaelic, Learning Scotland: Normalising Language

I’m sitting in an entirely empty train carriage at Glasgow Queen Street Station on my way to Mallaig. Two older ladies board and start speaking to each other in Gaelic, believing they won’t be understood. They are discussing how I am sitting in one of their booked seats and how young people these days have no respect or regard for the rules. I politely reply, in Gaelic, that they could have their booked seat and I was just trying to find a better view for the journey. I said that I was more than happy to move and I hoped that they would enjoy their trip.

I often tell people this story and say that the reaction on the ladies faces when they realised I had understood every word made learning Gaelic worthwhile. However, this is only the start of a large list of experiences that have made learning Gaelic one of the best things I have ever done.

Na Luinn – “shimmering, glitter-like appearance in grass during an especially hot summer.”

I started my degree at the University of Glasgow in 2010 and chose Gaelic as my third subject. Coming from Stirlingshire there was no opportunity to learn Gaelic in my Primary or Secondary School and so attending the University was my first chance. I think I could just about stumble through a ciamar a tha thu and maybe even a slàinte, but that was pretty much it. It became clear to me very quickly that I was going to stay in the Gaelic department for the rest of my time at the University and it soon became my priority.

My decision to learn Gaelic came from many years travelling in the Outer Hebrides with my parents and attending the Hebridean Celtic Festival. It is hard to imagine now, but I remember a time when our family would be the only people camping on Horgabost beach on Harris. It always seemed strange to me that I had no understanding of a language that was so commonly used in parts of my own country. I still find this strange. Only recently at Murrayfield watching Scotland play rugby did it occur to me how many patriotic Scots, while singing along to Runrig’s Loch Lomond, fall silent when it comes to Ho, ho mo leannan, ho mo leannan bhòidheach. Is even this too much of a stretch?

Glasgow University has a Gaelic Initiative which creates opportunities for Gaelic speakers to use it daily on campus. It also, as I discovered, helps introduce learners to the fluent speakers and the culture of Gaelic in Glasgow. We had ceilidhs and events and weekly meet ups and I quickly got to know all the Gaelic speakers in the department and realised that, dare I say it, Gaelic was… cool? Vibrant? No, just normal. A completely normal part of these young Scots’ day to day lives.

Driùchcainn – ‘chaffing between the toes caused by walking barefoot in warm sand.’

I have had so many different opportunities since strolling into the Celtic and Gaelic Department back in 2010. Performing Gaelic songs at Celtic Connections gigs with fellow students, attending the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig college in Skye for workshops and summer schools, appearing on television shows filmed in Glasgow and in Skye, doing interviews on Radio nan Gàidheal and recently taking part in some extra work for the 4th series of Outlander. All of this is in addition to teaching Gaelic classes to adults and children and also my current job.

I work for the Digital Archive of Scottish Gaelic (dasg.ac.uk) and we currently have a team of 15 people. We speak Gaelic to each other every single day. In meetings, during our lunch breaks, organising work schedules, and in the pub on a Friday evening, Gaelic is our language of communication. I am part of the Glasgow Gaelic Choir where, again, Gaelic is used commonly. It is normal. For this reason the recent negativity in the press and on social media goes over my head, as it is so far removed from my own experiences that, if it wasn’t so concerning, would be laughable.

When people say nobody speaks Gaelic, I say, I speak it every day. My best friends speak it. My work colleagues speak it. My bosses speak it. Those two ladies on the train slagged me off in it. I text in it. I write Facebook messages in it. To say that nobody speaks it is untrue, and nothing but ignorance. Of course people speak Gaelic.

I have heard it claimed (mostly by monoglot English speakers) that Gaelic is insular and restrictive. Again, this is not something that I recognise to be true. I have met people with not only a tolerance of but huge interest in other cultures. This could be down to the understanding of speaking a minority language and being regarded as ‘other’, even in a country that you call home. Mine is not the place to lecture on the benefits of bilingualism, but only to observe the skill and talent with language of my Gaelic speaking friends.

Meuran nan daoine sìthich – ‘foxglove’ (lit. ‘the thimble of the fairy people’)

As an adult learner of Gaelic I am in the position to remember my life without it. To say that Gaelic opens up your country to you feels cliché but it’s what I’ve found to be the case. Place names are an obvious example. I think there is sometimes an acceptance among non-Gaelic speakers in Scotland that place names just are what they are without questioning why. Before learning, I didn’t think much about them. Now I see them as descriptions of the land and sometimes what the land was used for. They shape my vision of place and many Scots are missing out on this, which is a massive shame.

It is an absolute privilege to be able to consider myself even a small part of the Gaelic community. I put down my love of Gaelic not only to the language itself, but down to the wonderful people I have met along the way, fluent speakers and learners alike who have been nothing but welcoming and supportive.

If you are even considering giving Gaelic a go, siuthad! Do not underestimate the opportunities and richness of culture that will open up to you once you begin. You don’t need to become fully fluent to gain a better understanding of the culture and language that surrounds us in (all areas of) Scotland. The next time I’m at Murrayfield, I hope to hear you singing as well…

Ho, ho mo leannan, ho mo leannan bhòidheach.

Comments (29)

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  1. Tom Hubbard says:

    Yes – the poetry of Sorley MacLean (as of the Gaelic poets who have followed him) could hardly be described as ‘insular’. I write in Scots, and do not grudge a penny spent on Gaelic. Abi Lightbody’s article is both moving and inspiring – it lifts the heart after the awful news from Glasgow (whose Mackintosh Building, by the way, can be restored – look at the bigger challenge that was magnificently met by post-war Warsaw). The article rightly points out that even a limited knowledge of Gaelic can be culturally enriching. Along with Bard Beag’s recent pieces, we can welcome such alternatives to the ‘staleness and ungenerosity’ (EM Forster) of ‘the armies of the benighted’ (EM Forster again!).

    1. Thanks Tom – good to hear more unity and solidarity between scots and gaelic – that’s always been the basis we’ve published from.

    2. Jo says:

      You’ve mentioned in your response the second fire in four years in the Mack Building, the second even more damaging than the first.
      I’m not trying to divert the thread but I’m afraid I really felt compelled to respond to your laid back, “by the way, it can be restored” reassurance to us all. With respect, we are owed many explanations from the GSA management before the Mack’s future is decided. And frankly, leaving this lot in charge after the building has gone on fire twice due to their failure to protect it wouldn’t be an option for me. We need a full investigation into the whole debacle because it is scandalous.

      Sorry again for departing from the main subject.

      1. Tom Hubbard says:

        Jo, it’s the Warsaw example I have constantly in mind. The Mackintosh Building has a European reputation, and it seems right to me that we be aware of European precedents, and therefore of European contexts to its past and possible future. With respect, that’s not being ‘laid back’ and I wouldn’t understimate the challenges of restoration. Please also consider the House of the Art Lover, which had existed only as plans left by CRM, but it’s now an actual building. Where there’s a will …

        You’re absolutely right about the investigation being the priority just now.

        I don’t think this interrupts the thread, as all our cultural questions – linguistic, literary, architectural, musical etc. – are interrelated, and concern us all.

    3. Ewan Macintyre says:

      Tom, you may be able to answer this question given your expertise in Scots. Why are the eighteen terms listed for Highlander in The Scots Thesaurus (Aberdeen University Press) ALL derogatory?
      Here is one of them: “teuchter, freq disparaging or contemptuous term for a Highlander, esp a Gaelic speaker or for anyone from the North; an uncouth, countrified person.”

      1. Tom Hubbard says:

        This has been going on since Dunbar’s notorious poetic stairheid rammy with Kennedy. I’m a literary chiel (as scholar, novelist, poet) not a linguist; experts on Scots per se – such as Derrick McClure or Billy Kay – would be able to offer a more informed answer anent the prevalence of the insults you cite. Sadly, Scots speakers aren’t possessed of any special virtues of tolerance, and the Lowland / Highland cultural divide is still dreichly with us. In his anthology of 19th century poetry in Gaelic, Donald Meek includes a poem which trashes the Irish in Glasgow, but prints another which emphasises the common culture of the Irish and the Scottish Gaels. Happily the latter attitude prevails in our own day, and there is much valuable literary traffic between poets who write in Irish and in Scottish Gaelic (I’ve been aware of that since my time at the poetry library). Moreover, there is much practically-expressed good will between writers in Scots and in Gaelic.
        That said, insults can be a source of light-hearted (and enlightening) cultural exchange. When I worked in America, the students and I had great fun comparing Scottish and American insults. We speculated that a jerk might be equivalent to a nyaff, a dork to a choob, an asshole to a bawbag, that sort of thing. I’ve since wondered if the Noo Yawk Yiddish ‘nebbish’ (which apparently has some Czech etymology) might be the equivalent of the Glaswegian ‘sowel’ (‘Och he’s a poor sowel so he is’), to describe someone deserving of affectionate pity.

  2. Lorna Campbell says:

    As a native Scots speaker, with just a smattering of Gaelic comprehension, I was delighted to read this piece by Ms Lightbody. We really do need a parallel encouragement of both Gaelic and Scots, with funding, to reclaim our two native tongues that are not English, although I love English literature and language, too.

    1. Alf Baird says:

      That’ll be the day, Lorna, when we ever see a Holyrood ‘Scots Language (Scotland) Act’ to give Scotland’s (under)estimated 1.6 million Scots speakers parity and equality of learning with the ‘Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005’ and pro-rata public funding for Scots vis-à-vis Gaelic’s £1,000 per speaker/per annum. I also get the rugby connection, Abi.

  3. Ilanora Sharp says:

    Great encouraging story! Gaelic is my first language from Islay and now as a resident of Ardnamurchan for many years my joy is in seeking out a Gaelic speaker at the Acharacle lunch club who indulges me as I struggle to enlarge my vocabulary. Never learned to read or write it but now in the later years of life absolutely hooked on using it as much as I can. Recently on the very same train as yourself and my friend, who is in her eighties, entertained a Central belt couple with tales from the North West…..they were fascinated by this vivacious Highlander with the soft lilt of the Gaelic speaker.
    Forgive me that I cannot yet write this in our language. Tapadh leibh. Ilanora

  4. Jo says:

    Lovely article. Has to be said however that the writer was absolutely in the wrong to occupy a booked seat on a train. It’s really bad manners whether one speaks Gaelic or not! You really should wait for the train to leave to make sure a booked seat is actually free.

    1. Abi Lightbody says:

      Hi Jo! I was nervous about putting that in the article! I was very early for the train and the tickets hadn’t been put on the seats yet so I believed it to be free… should have put that in the article somewhere. Thanks for your compliment though!

    2. Abi Lightbody says:

      Hi Jo, thanks for your nice comment. I’d like to point out that the reserved tickets hadn’t been placed on the seats when I arrived, so I had no way of knowing they were booked.

      1. Jo says:

        Hi Abi
        Thanks for clarifying.
        You are forgiven.
        Best wishes.

  5. Domhnall says:

    Gu dearbh. Cha bu chòir droch mhodh – mar suidhe ann an cathair chuideigin eile – bhith ceadaichte ged a bhiodh Gàidhlig na Fèinn fhèin agad.

  6. William Ross says:


    Very well done for writing this interesting article. I am a good bit older than you are and now live in Aberdeenshire which I am afraid is a Gaelic free zone. I was brought up in Sutherland in the 1960s and 70s and my father was the son of fluent Gaelic speakers from Easter Ross. Regrettably, I never knew my grandparents.

    My father`s English was filled with both Gaelic words and Gaelic idiom. I took an interest in the language and spent a lot of time learning it without formal instruction. Many hours with ” Gaelic without Groans” My father knew what he knew by heart and could not use words to make up sentences. Frustrating.

    In university I became friendly with lads from North Uist and Benbecula and my Gaelic got quite good. It would take me through a ceilidh. Now I have no one to speak to and I have a sense of loss. My wife and I speak Spanish and Portuguese but she has learnt only useful Gaelic phrases like ” Tha an-t-acras orm”. bheil thu deisal?” “Mach an seo”

    My grandfather ( and father) were salmon fishermen. Their favourite song was the immortal Fear a Bhata. The Gaelic proverbs live with you forever.


    Uilleam Ross

  7. Iain MacIlleChiar says:

    Mo bheannachd agad, Abi! Fàidh gun urram na dhùthaich fhèin, ‘s e a tha annad.

  8. Shannon says:

    Thug an artaigil seo toileachas mhòr orm Abi! ‘S toil leam a’ bhith a’ leughadh mun Ghàidhlig agus mar a tha e a’ bualadh air na beathan aig dhaoine diofraichte agus mar a tha e cho cudromach dhut ged nach do thòisich thu ag ionnsachadh mus deach thu dhan Oilthigh! Math cuideachd a chluinntinn nach eil sinn uile cho done sin

  9. SleepingDog says:

    If you are interested in the everyday and digital uses of language, it might be productive to try and get more Scottish Gaelic support in computer games.

    I notice that a recent entry in the Total War series, Thrones of Britannia, allows you to play ten factions including “Anglo-Saxons, Gaelic clans, Welsh tribes or Viking settlers”, yet Gaelic is apparently not one of the 13 supported languages (for the record, these are listed as English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Czech, Korean, Polish, Portuguese-Brazil, Russian, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Turkish).

    Whatever you think of wargames, these games are usually pretty well researched, and will be teaching history and culture to a large group of players. Indeed, there already seems to be some historical debate in the forums.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      I have done a little more looking, found that Scottish Gaelic is one of 96 languages supported by popular game Minecraft (but apparently not Education Minecraft), and an interesting article:
      Conquering digital worlds in Scottish Gaelic
      which looks at translation projects, software internationalisation support, localisation challenges and volunteerism.

      For some games, however, you need voice acting as well, which may traditionally be associated with paid professionals rather than volunteers, who are often capable of working on text-only language packs. And while artificial voice generation is an option, it currently does not compare well with professional actors (I would guess).

      1. milgram says:

        Localisation of open source software is something I think that the people promoting Gaelic should be putting resources into.
        Here’s a game similar to Total War, 0AD (http://play0ad.com/) that’s both free and almost translated into Gaelic:
        Sure voice packs for similar projects would be welcome, too.
        And for the boring ones amongst us, LibreOffice has a translation. I’m in no position to say if it’s any good, but sure the team doing that would appreciate more hands (tongues, whatever).

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @milgram, thanks, an interesting game example. I see the Gaelic, Scottish translation at 93% is ahead of English UK at the moment.

          Yes, probably the free and open source software movement has generally been ahead of commercial games in terms of offering translation opportunities, although the modability of games has opened up some more. And productivity software is going to mean more to many people than games.

          My experience of working with software communities is limited, and I have no ability as a translator, but my impression is that you will get more encouragement than discouragement from such communities, knowledge of programming will not be required as a rule (good general computer skills will be needed), and there will be tools, guides and help available if you want to contribute to translations (language packs) for software. Generally such projects are pretty structured, often want to attract volunteers, and increasing supply user-friendly (often web-based) software with a fairly high degree of automation. Problems may include the usual issues around contributors with more pressing work/family commitments, quality control, decision-making, moving targets (software under development may keep adding language strings, for example). You would probably need to learn basic software management/collaboration skills (like checking files in and out, so one person’s work cannot overwrite another’s), fairly straightforward in use.

          Hopefully someone with direct experience can provide additional case studies.

  10. K.A.Mylchreest says:

    For a compilation of current blogs anns a’ Ghàidhlig, I’m pleased to see that Tìr nam Blog seems to be back online again, here :


    1. K.A.Mylchreest says:

      … but it would seem I spoke too soon. All I’ve been getting for a few weeks now is “Database Error” 🙁

      Does anyone know what has happened, or is anyone perhaps willing and able to set up an equivalent blog-of-blogs for Gàidhlig ??

  11. Wul says:

    Great article. And those photographs with the captions are brilliant. I’d love to see them on billboards, or as a series of postcards or discussion cards to get kids & adults interested in the language. Very powerful marriage of language and visuals.

    Anything which allows Scots (wherever they were born) to see themselves as a real people in a real country is to be cherished. As Hamish Henderson said; “Poetry becomes People”

  12. Welsh Sion says:

    Full steam ahead and all power to your and other Gaelic speakers’ elbows.

    If you need any contact, help, advice etc then drop me a line as a native speaker professional linguist (teacher/tramslator./editor/language activist) for Cymraeg/Welsh with many contacts.

    Pob dymuniad da.

  13. Àdhamh Ó Broin says:

    Briagh, a charaid.

  14. Pepsi and Shirley says:

    Why have my comments been removed? I’m a native Gaelic speaker. You are NOT. What’s going in?

  15. Eòghann MacColla says:

    Deagh teachdaireachd agus beachdan, taing mhòr Abi. Tha sinne a’ fuireach ann an Sìorrachd Àir agus gu àm gu àm tha troiblaid aig daoine sam bith air ar chànain, caran neònach, ‘s e cànain a th’ ann….

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