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The Scottish War on Gaelic


Mathematician, theoretical physicist and software professional (15 years experience). Curious about everything and keen to share knowledge.

The English view of Scots mirrors  an ancient Scots view of the Gaels

The English view of Scots mirrors an ancient Scots view of the Gaels

Road signs that include Gaelic have the unexpected benefit of raising blood pressure in Scottish Tories. The Wee Ginger Dug claims this is because it shows Unionists that Gaelic is one of Scotland’s national Languages along with English and Scots, that Scotland has an identity and culture separate from that of England and that the desire for independence is not based on hatred of the English even though the Westminster “Government” does its best to stimulate such hatred. The history of suppression of Gaelic reveals a more complex story than a devious English plan to neutralise rebellious Scots.

The Tory hatred of Gaelic is not an English phenomenon but an expression of a cultural gap between Lowlands and Highlands. The Tory war on Gaelic continues Lowland Scotland’s war on the language and culture of the Highlands that started long before the Union of 1707. English first exterminated Lowland Gaelic, then the Scottish crown under James V1 stepped in to promote English, passing laws foreshadowing England’s 1705 Aliens Act. English became the language of ambitious Scots and Gaelic declined.

Fear of the Gaels

Gaelic entered Scotland from Ireland, gradually replacing Pictish throughout most of what is now Scotland. Later, English, or more accurately a collection of Middle English dialects, replaced Lowland Gaelic.

In 1380, John of Fordum described two languages spoken in Scotland: the Scots and the Teutonic. The Teutonic was spoken in the seaboard and the plains – that is the Lowlands. Scots was spoken in the Highlands and Islands. He described Lowlanders as domestic, civilised and devout and Highlanders as savage, untamed, rude and independent, ease-loving, clever and quick to learn, attractive in person, but not in dress and hostile to the English people and language. These Highlanders sound like much more fun than Lowlanders but harder to handle.

Fordum’s description includes the idea that the Scots hated the English, and this echoed earlier writings. Most of it was used to justify pacification of the highlands and the attempted destruction of Gaelic after 1745. Every Western empire, including the British, adopted this attitude to the peoples they conquered or exploited, from the 18th century Irish Navigators who built the English canal system to the 21st century Polish Plumber. This prejudice may be traceable to Jung’s Theory of Archetypes and the fear civilised and devout people have for their less restrained neighbours who had to be considered less than human: for example, in the 19th century the Reverend Thomas Kingsley called the Irish “White Chimpanzees” and in the USA efforts were made to prove the Irish (and the Jews and the Italians) were actually Black thus equating them to the slave population.

The Scottish crown doubtless lacked the money to build a wall across Scotland to keep the savage Highlanders out, shortage of funds being a universal and eternal royal problem, so other measures were taken.

Laws Against Gaelic

The 1609 Statutes of Icolmkill required the education of chiefs’ heirs in Lowland schools where they “may be found able sufficiently to speik, reid and wryte Englische".

A 1616 act established parish schools teaching in English explicitly stating that the aim was to abolish “Irishche” as it was the cause of continuing barbarity in the Highlands. The act noted that living in the Highlands meant Highlanders could not reform their county so they should not be allowed to inherit property unless they could “write, read and speak Inglische”. An act of 1695 stated that in parishes where no Highland minister served schools should be set up "for rooting out the Irish language, and other pious uses".

Banning of Gaelic in schools meant English was seen as the only language for education, undermining the value of Gaelic to its speakers. The clearances also reduced the number of Gaelic speakers in the Highlands. In 1872 Scottish Education was centralised and standardised – without Gaelic, reflecting the fact that many educators considered Gaelic a mark of backwardness and a waste of time.

Gaelic was suppressed in schools, usually by corporal punishment and parents began to require their children speak English not Gaelic.

Ironically, there was a similar taboo against the Scots language and even in the late 20th century some parents and schools punished children for speaking Scots not English

In Conclusion

This brings us back to the current controversy Tory MSPs are trying to manufacture over the use of Gaelic on road signs. It is not an England vs Scotland conflict but a Lowland versus Highland clash over 600 years old. It was initially waged by Lowland Scots (James VI was a Lowlander) not English.

There are striking parallels between the Lowland perception of the Gaels as described by John Fordum and the attitude of many English to the Scots people, lumping together Lowlanders and Highlanders. Perhaps these can be exploited when pressing for independence.

It might be going too far to suggest that in the next Scottish Independence referendum the NO and YES voters will be separated geographically between Highland and Lowland Scotland – apart from Glasgow – but the centuries old cultural gap and Lowland fear of and contempt for the uncivilised Highlanders the Highlanders will be a potent, if subconscious, factor in swaying voters and this should be considered in canvassing for independence.

To preserve Scottish culture and further the independence cause, all three Scottish national languages must be respected. Scottish Tories respect only English. Not respecting all three is likely to harm the cause of independence.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2017 AlexK2009


Nell Rose from England on March 04, 2019:

Hi, I came back for another read. Since the last time I read this I have discovered that I am more Scots and Irish than actually English! LOL! good ol' DNA! and a huge chunk of modern Norway, but hey! lol! maybe I should be learning Gaelic now, forgot how interesting this was. :)

AlexK2009 (author) from Edinburgh, Scotland on March 04, 2019:


There is a lot about Scottish History that is hidden in plain sight.

It is not generally known that Scottish started as a dialect of Old English . And the tension between Lowlands and Highlands is generally not admitted.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on March 03, 2019:

Very interesting. As an American, I was never even aware of this dichotomy between lowland and highland Scots, and I'm a pretty well read guy. Movies such as Braveheart portray Scots as these robust, savage dudes in kilts, and I think we Yanks just lump all Scots together.

I have one experience with Scots Gaelic. My sister's best friend's Mother was Scottish, and apparently she spoke it. Not quite a dead language then, I suppose.

Very enlightening article.

AlexK2009 (author) from Edinburgh, Scotland on November 06, 2017:

Thanks Nell. Interesting points.

I think the initial invasions of French and Anglo Saxons may have been small but grew rapidly. And you did not mention the Danelaw. The situation was very complex with Scotland between England and an almost independent Gaelic region with some Scandinavian areas to the north. No wonder the kings were a bit paranoid.

James was a pretty nasty character, even allowing for the fact it was a brutal age.

Nell Rose from England on November 06, 2017:

James VI was a strange King, Scottish and protestant. It was him that caused so much trouble where Witchcraft was concerned, burning hundreds of poor women because he got the feeling they were after him. He invaded Ireland, hence the ulster scots, and started all that off. England of course got the blame. He also murdered thousands of Scots and English for being Catholic. Nice guy!

But how interesting! I always knew that the Scots lowlanders were different in many ways to the Highlanders, but not how much! Of course people these days, both Scots and English have this 'I know everything about Culloden!' thing going on. English bad, Scots good! but of course it was the Scots Lowlanders who asked for the English help. I remember seeing a video of a Scots girl being asked, do you like the English? She said 'No, hate them, but they love us!' how naive! first, we do not love people who hate us for no reason, and second we like people on a one to one basis.

Last on the subject of language. The English get very annoyed with the 'Celtic songs, speech etc' of Ireland and Scotland only.

In fact England was the biggest Celtic country of them all! at least 10 different tribes, including our most famous Iceni with Boadicca! And no, we did not all disappear because of the French and Saxon. Evidently there were only a few hundred each that invaded, leaving the rest of us to our Celtic roots. We really should bring it back, that would put the cat among the pigeons! LOL! great read, and so interesting.

And being an Outlander fanatic as I am, I am sort of learning the Highland, Lowland difference.

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