What Is Gaelic? Definition, History, and Modern Usage

Gaelic and English road sign
Official signs in Scotland are written in both English and Gaelic.

 Diane Macdonald / Getty Images

Gaelic is the common but incorrect term for Irish and Scottish traditional languages, both of which are Celtic in origins from the Goidelic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. In Ireland, the language is called Irish, while in Scotland, the correct term is Gaelic. Though Irish and Gaelic share a common linguistic ancestor, they diverged and changed over time into two distinct languages. 

Key Takeaways

  • Gaelic is the common but incorrect term for Irish and Scottish traditional languages.
  • Though Irish and Gaelic are derived from the same ancestor, they are two distinct languages.
  • Attempts have been made to eradicate both Irish and Gaelic, but revival movements have kept them from disappearing. 

Attempts were made in both Ireland and Scotland to eradicate the language and the culture associated with Gaelic, with varying degrees of success. However, both countries have seen recent revivals of their native tongues. While Irish is recognized as an official language by the European Union, Gaelic is not, as it is classified as an Indigenous Language.

Roughly 39.8% of Irish people speak Irish, with the highest concentration of speakers in Galway, while only 1.1% of Scots speak Gaelic, almost exclusively on the Isle of Skye. 

Definition and Origins

The term “Gaelic” takes its name from the Gaels, a group of settlers that arrived in Scotland from Ireland around the 6th century, though both Irish and Scottish Gaelic began to develop prior to the settlement of the Gaels in Scotland.

The Gaelic and Irish languages are both rooted in Ogham, an ancient Irish alphabet that evolved into early and later Middle Irish, which spread across the island of Ireland and into the northern and western parts of Scotland via trade and farming practices. After Gaelic moved from Ireland to Scotland, two distinct languages began to develop independently of one another. 

Historic Irish 

Irish is a recognized indigenous language, with ancient roots that evolved into the preferred literary language of Ireland between the 13th and 18th centuries.

The Tudors were the first British rulers to attempt to diminish the impact of Irish by restricting legal and administrative proceedings to English, though later English monarchs fluctuated between encouraging and discouraging its use. For centuries, Irish remained the common language of the people.

It was ultimately the introduction of a national education system in the 1800s in Ireland by the British government that prohibited Irish to be spoken in schools, leaving poor, uneducated Irish people as the primary speakers of the language. The Great Famine in the 1840s had the most devastating effect on poor communities and, by association, the Irish language.

Though Irish experienced a dramatic decline during the 19th century, it was considered a source of Irish national pride, particularly during the independence movement in the early 20th century. Irish was listed as an official language in both the 1922 and the 1937 constitutions.

Historic Gaelic 

Gaelic was brought to Scotland from the Kingdom of Dalriada in Northern Ireland around the 1st century, though it was not a politically prominent language until the 9th century, when Kenneth MacAlpin, a Gaelic king, united the Picts and the Scots. By the 11th century, Gaelic was the most commonly spoken language in most of Scotland.

Though the Norman invasion of the British Isles during the 11th and 12th centuries had little impact on Irish, it effectively isolated Gaelic speakers to the northern and western parts of Scotland. In fact, Gaelic was never traditionally spoken in the southern areas of Scotland, including Edinburgh.

Political turmoil created a growing divide between the southern and northern parts of Scotland. In the north, the physical and political isolation allowed Gaelic to define the culture of the Scottish Highlands, including a societal structure made up of familial clans.

When Scotland and Britain were unified under the Acts of Union 1707, Gaelic lost its legitimacy as legal and administrative language, though it maintained significance as the language of highland clans and the language of the Jacobites, a group intent on re-establishing the House of Stewart to the Scottish throne.

After the defeat of Prince Charles Edward Stewart and the final Jacobite Rebellion in 1746, the British government banned all elements of Highland culture—including the Gaelic language—in order to dismantle the clan structure and prevent the possibility of another uprising. Gaelic was lost almost to extinction, though efforts by Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott saw the revival of the language as a romantic ideology rather than a useful means of communication.

Modern Usage

In Ireland, the Gaelic League was established in 1893 to promote a strong sense of national identity and preserve the Irish language. Administrative and legal work is done in Irish, and the language is taught to all primary school students alongside English. Use of the language fell out of fashion for a few decades, but Irish is increasingly being used in formal and informal settings, especially by Irish millennials.

Gaelic use in Scotland is also on the rise, though its use, especially in southern parts of the country, is contentious. Since Gaelic was never a traditional language in places like Edinburgh, adding Gaelic translations to English road signs can be seen as an attempt to create a separate nationalist identity or as cultural tokenism. In 2005, the Gaelic Language Act was unanimously passed to recognize Gaelic as an official language. As of 2019, it is still not recognized by the European Union. 


  • Campsie, Alison. “Gaelic Speakers Map: Where in Scotland Is Gaelic Thriving?” The Scotsman, Johnston Press, 30 Sept. 2015.
  • Chapman, Malcolm. The Gaelic Vision in Scottish Culture. Croom Helm, 1979.
  • “Gaelic Language Skills .” Scotland's Census, 2011.
  • “Irish Language and the Gaeltacht .” Central Statistics Office, 11 July 2018.
  • Jack, Ian. “Why I'm Saddened by Scotland Going Gaelic | Ian Jack.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 11 Dec. 2010.
  • Oliver, Neil. A History of Scotland. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010.
  • Orton, Izzy. “How Millennials Are Breathing Fresh Life into the Ancient Irish Language.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 7 Dec. 2018.
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Perkins, McKenzie. "What Is Gaelic? Definition, History, and Modern Usage." ThoughtCo, Aug. 2, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-gaelic-4689031. Perkins, McKenzie. (2021, August 2). What Is Gaelic? Definition, History, and Modern Usage. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-gaelic-4689031 Perkins, McKenzie. "What Is Gaelic? Definition, History, and Modern Usage." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-gaelic-4689031 (accessed May 28, 2023).