Gaelic dialects of Arran and Arran's prehistory

By Linden Alexander Pentecost, July 2022

A note about sources

I have arranged and written this information, and created the example sentences and looked into the ancient language, but all of the Arran Gaelic words here and all of the information presented about the dialect’s phonology is based from the attested words and phonetic information in Nils M. Holmer’s book The Gaelic of Arran, unless otherwise stated. When I am discussing the dialect’s phonology, I am discussing this in my own way, from my own perspective, but based upon what I have learned from Nils M. Holmer’s book. All of the words here come from attested phonetic forms which I have then re-written in this spelling, unless otherwise stated. This and the phonetic information is essentially based upon my observations of what Nils M. Holmer has written. There are two other printed books for Arran Gaelic research which I know of, although the first is several volumes:

Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland, edited by Cathair Ó Dochartaigh.

Linguistic atlas and survey of Irish dialects – Vol. IV: The dialects of Ulster and the Isle of Man, specimens of Scottish Gaelic dialects, phonetic texts of East Ulster Irish by Heinrich Wagner and Colm Ó Baoill

(2) is to indicate where the second resource Survey of the Gaelic Dialects of Scotland has been consulted in the writing of this article, and when a written form has been based upon this information, it is given as (2). The third resource was not consulted for writing this article. By and large, the above two resources show much the same patterns on phonemes of Arran Gaelic as does Nils M. Holmer’s book, except for that Nils M. Holmer has described the Arran dialects especially in detail in his book. I haven’t yet had a chance to look through the Arran material in immense detail in the third resource, but when I have done I shall write more on Arran Gaelic no doubt.

In a previous article on Omniglot, I wrote a little about the Gaelic of Arran and some other dialects. To briefly recap, one of the distinguishing features about Arran Gaelic is that [a] and [aː] are often [ɛ] and [ɛː], and that there is a distinctive [y] like sound in the dialect, which I write as y.

I thought I would go into a wee bit more detail about the Gaelic dialect, or rather, dialects of Arran. Arran, being an island, and having an obviously distinct Gaelic language or dialect group on the island, makes for a very interesting topic, I think, and I hope that by writing this I can help to encourage more interest in the dialect and in Scottish Gaelic dialects in a more general way.

What I have learned about Arran Gaelic came from the book, The Gaelic of Arran, by Nils M. Holmer, and later from the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland edited by Cathair Ó Dochartaigh, which contains many examples of Arran Gaelic in a form of phonetic alphabet, and I am grateful to those who contributed to this, greatly so. And I am grateful to Cathair Ó Dochartaigh and of course to Nils M. Holmer. If it wasn’t for Nils M. Holmer’s work on the dialect, I would never have taken such an interest in it.

From these resources I have tried to develop a broader understanding of the dialect, and have done my best to devise a way of writing Scottish Gaelic, with the addition to some of these differences which make Arran Gaelic distinctive. Although the standard spelling of Scottish Gaelic is good for communicating the connectedness of the language as a whole, I feel that the lack of any dialect spelling for dialects like those on Arran, really does inhibit their ability to become ‘visible’ in a sense, and that it also inhibits our ability to write and express these important parts of history. I feel that the rhyme and prosody of Arran Gaelic is simply not expressible through the standard spelling of Scottish Gaelic.

So going back onto the topic of the change from [a] and [aː] to [ɛ] and [ɛː], this change or variation can be classed as a kind of ‘broad dialect’ change in my opinion. This is something I haven’t really gone into before, but what I mean is that, as well as there being variations within Arran Gaelic, from what I feel, there also appears to be two registers in a sense, with one being far more linked to the Gaelic language as a whole, and the other being far more linked to the rural and ancient way of talking on the island. This is my interpretation of it

In the non-’broad’ speech, the differences in Arran Gaelic are somewhat more slight, and a speaker of Arran Gaelic at least this is my interpretation of is written in The Gaelic of Arran by Nils M. Holmer, may go between a more ‘standard’ and more ‘broad’ dialect when telling the same story or during the same sentence. This concept of a ’broad’ form as far as I’m aware is not mentioned as such in Nils M. Holmer’s book, at least not by this name.

I think that perhaps these are registers, and that the ‘broad’ language has a particular context in relation to storytelling as well. I will give some examples of ‘broad’ Arran Gaelic from my head, for example, fwȧnaidh mi ann an Glaschu – ‘I will stay in Glasgow’, standard spelling: fanaidh mi ann an Glaschu. This sentence illustrates a short [ɛ] in fwȧnaidh which is also associated with the development of a [w] glide sound, more or less identical with the English ‘w’.

The letters e and ȧ can be pronounced the same, and their long forms è and á are generally pronounced the same. But the difference is that e and è are slender vowels, whereas ȧ and á are broad vowels. This is why I thought it important to write in Arran Gaelic different letters for these vowels, because otherwise it is not really correct to write them. For example, to write mwȧth as “mweth” would not really make sense, because this would imply that mwȧth contains a slender vowel, which it does not. Below are some easy phrases containing this word:

These examples are in the Northwestern dialects of Arran Gaelic and are in the ‘broad’ language form. In this form, the á is also common where we would usually see à, for example thá an laʔa álainn – ‘the day is beautiful’, standard spelling tha an latha àlainn. Or for example thá an camasg lán éisg – the bay is full of fish, standard spelling tha an camas làn éisg, note that camasg is an Arran form of camas. The form thá is bhwá or bhwȧ in the past tense, in ‘broad’ Arran language, for example bhwá na bwȧtha a’ syidhe – ‘the cows were sitting’, standard spelling bha na bà a’ suidhe. The word bwȧtha [bwɛhə] is an Arran form of [baː], containing an additional schwa sound - this pronunciation is as given in Nils M. Holmer's The Gaelic of Arran.

Other examples of words with [ɛ] include cȧraid – ’friend’, standard spelling caraid, cȧt – ’cat’, standard spelling cat, e.g. thá cȧraid ȧʔam – ’I have a friend’, thá cȧt ȧʔam – I have a cat, standard spelling: tha caraid agam, tha cat agam. Note that ȧʔam is a ’broader’ form of ȧgam or agam.

Arran Gaelic contains an [ø] like sound, the exact meaning of which I would not like to assign to a particular IPA letter, as I do not feel that the information is entirely clear about what this sound would be in the IPA, the same with the Arran Gaelic y. The best way to learn these sounds I think is to listen to the original recordings of Arran Gaelic available at Tobar an Dualchas.

This [ø] like sound has a short form, which I write as ȯ, and a long form, which I write as ö. The long form often corresponds to ao in the standard spelling, for example, Arran Gaelic fröch – ‘heather’ (2), informants 34 and 35, standard spelling fraoch, Arran Gaelic lög – ‘calf’, standard spelling laogh, ödann – ’face’, standard spelling aodann. The sound also occurs in some other instances, for example in teölach – ‘family’, standard spelling teaghlach, fȯg – ’throughout’, standard spelling feadh. Note that this word also gives an example of where the broad and slender distinctions are not always so distinct on Arran, another example is crȯid – ‘believe’ and crȯidsinn – ‘believing’, standard spelling creid and creidsinn.

You may have also noticed that the final -dh and -gh in the standard spelling is often something closer to [g] on Arran, written g in this spelling. For example samhrag – ‘summer’, standard spelling samhradh. In Arran Gaelic mh is generally pronounced [v] when around broad vowels, for example in samhrag – ‘summer’, Clann Támhais – ‘ the Thomsons’. Sometimes though the mh in my spelling is no-longer pronounced [v], but instead indicates a nasalisation of the previous vowel(s). This is often written when a glottal stop is found, e.g. domhʔain – ‘deep’.

Note also that the nn in clann and also in words like ann - ‘in’, and ceann - ‘head’ is a long or short ‘n’ sound on Arran, and the previous a does not become [au] before nn as it does in many parts of the Western Isles.

The glottal stop on Arran Gaelic often replaces intervocalic lenited consonants, for example in leoʔar – ‘book’, standard spelling leabhar, fiʔach – ‘raven’, standard spelling fitheach, Duʔabhainn – Blackwaterfoot (an Arran place-name), Standard Spelling Dubhabhainn or Dubh Abhainn – ‘black river’. Not every lenited intervocalic consonant becomes a glottal stop, e.g. tuanach – ’farmer’, standard spelling tuathanach, söal – ’world’, standard spelling saoghal, although the glottal stop does not always appear consistent in where it occurs, at least from my current understanding of its processes. In some words it seems often to be [h] instead, e.g. athair – ’father’, màthair - ’mother’ Sometimes it appears in single-syllabled words, e.g. féʔi (2), based on the language of informants 31 and 33 from southern and southwestern Arran respectively, from (2), standard spelling fèidh, féidh – ’deer’.

The standard Scottish Gaelic eu is often represented on Arran as éa and èa in this spelling, éa is pronouned [eː] as in féamaidh – ’must’, and èa is pronounced [ɛː] as in sgèal – ’story’.

Often where Standard Scottish Gaelic spelling has a slender ch, it becomes silent on Arran, for example toilichte I would write as toilide. Note that toilichte is also found on Arran. In other cases there is a slender ch in Arran Gaelic where it is not present in Hebridean dialects, for example ryich – ‘to run’, standard Scottish Gaelic spelling ruith.

The point about the silent slender ch also applies frequently to plural formations, for example àitidhean – ’places’, standard spelling àitichean. The -idhea- in this word is pronounced [i].

Arran Gaelic generally does not have pre-aspiration, which is an important thing that distinguishes other dialects from Arran Gaelic.

Note that in this spelling a, ȧ, à, á, o, ò, ó, ȯ, ö, u, ù, y, ỳ are all broad vowels, so for example, in the word siybh – ‘you plural’, the i indicates that the s is slender and pronounced like the English ‘sh’, but the i itself is not pronounced. The bh is pronounced [v].

Arran Gaelic does have special word forms, for example eileag – ‘other’, standard spelling eile, and camasg – bay, standard spelling: camas.

Note: when I talk about ‘broad’ in commas, I am referring to ‘broad dialect’, which is a common way in English of describing a form of speech which is more difficult to understand for speakers of a more widely spoken register of language. When I say broad without commas, I am talking about broad and slender, this is in the context of Gaelic phonology, and what are referred to as broad and slender vowels and consonants.

Some more phrases and sentences:

Note that iỳnnsachag – (2), based on the language of informant 35, north Arran. In the Survey of the Gaelic Dialects of Scotland (2). Note that the long ỳ that I have in my writing is based on what is written as [üː] in the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland.

North Arran Gaelic and South Arran Gaelic

The examples I have written so far are often particular to the north of the island. The southern dialects of Arran Gaelic had some features that distinguished them from the dialects in the north. Here are some examples. Some of the examples below

Note that oì is pronounced something like [iː]. The letter , or ᴇ́ when long, is a broad vowel that seems somewhat similar to the slender vowel é [eː], but is not quite the same. I have borrowed this particular vowel spelling from how Nils M. Holmer writes it. This long sound is often found in Southern Arran in places where ö would occur in Northern Arran. In the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland (2), this is given as [ėː] in saoghal, which I think is the same as [ᴇ] given in Nils M. Holmer’s book, or at least a similar sound. It is written as here.

Other examples of differences are given in The Gaelic of Arran by Nils M. Holmer, but I am not sure if these were specific to dialects when recorded, or if these were less specific to the part of Arran, such as föileag – ‘seagull’, also fᴇ́ileag and fwáileag, standard faoileag.

Ancient language on Arran, and ancient peoples

I have suggested elsewhere, that our generally accepted history of Scotland, which says “The Picts were here in the Iron Age, then the Gaels came”, is perhaps wrong. For one, there is, as far as I am aware, no evidence on Arran to prove that a P-Celtic language was ever spoken there. Furthermore, we don’t know the depth of history that the Gaelic dialects contain. If they arrived during the Medieval period, as most scholars seem to suggest, then the Scottish history incorporated into the dialects would be little more than 1300 years. But, due to the immense variety of Gaelic dialects in Scotland, and due to that many features in these dialects do not have an obvious origin in ‘Celtic’ nor in Indo-European, in my view, I suggest that at least parts of the modern Goidelic dialects are in fact far older. Thousands of years older. And this is another important reason for the dialect to survive and return.

I personally think that the Norse, and Gaelic-speaking cultures of Scotland, are in a sense, re-transformed continuations of language and culture dating back up to ten thousand years ago. I won’t go into too much detail about this here, but I believe for instance that a lot of the ‘Norse’ words in Gaelic, whilst having cognates in Norse, are not necessarily of Norse origin, but rather, passed into Norse, and Gaelic, from even earlier languages.

An example of this may be seen on Arran in the place-name Sliddery in the south of the island, Gaelic Slaodraidh, Arran Gaelic perhaps Slödraidh or Slᴇ́draidh although these last two examples are just guesses, I haven’t yet found this name’s phonology attested (which isn’t to say that it isn’t attested). The word slaod in Scottish Gaelic basically means to pull or drag, it is likely a cognate to the Icelandic word slóða. But outside of Germanic and Gaelic this word seems rare and largely absent from Indo-European languages, as far as I am aware. But if we take a look into another time, a time when perhaps Afro-Asiatic, Celtic and Germanic shared some more ancient relationship, we could perhaps connect this word slaod to the Proto-Afro-Asiatic word *sVl- 'pull' (3), Arabic ssl (3). Is this Gaelic word just a Norse borrowing, or is there a far more ancient, and deeper relationship between this word, and the indigenous peoples on Arran thousands of years ago? It is perhaps no coincidence that there are legends around Sliddery, and a Mesolithic site is not far away.

Sometimes when looking at possible cognates between Afro-Asiatic and Celtic, I notice that what are non-grammatical consonant clusters in Celtic, e.g. sk, sl, fr, often appear as entire word-roots in Afro-Asiatic languages. This may be one of the more ‘ancient’ elements of Gaelic which we are as of yet unable to properly visualise or make sense of.

We don’t know who the ancient people of Arran were, or what they called themselves. I feel that ‘Pictish’ is likely a sometimes misplaced term. Sometimes anything Iron Age in Scottish history is given the label of ‘Pictish’, even if it shows no evidence of Pictish material culture, and even if there are no P-Celtic place-names nearby. I think it personally more likely that many, if not most of the Iron Age cultures in Scotland were actually a continuation of something much older, and that modern Gaelic dialects essentially represent the coming together and transformation of these older cultures, a process that I feel perhaps was completed only relatively recently in some places; not thousands of years ago, only hundreds.

There are stories of mysterious peoples who, according to folklore, never really disappeared, and were visible, whether in a spiritual sense or a physical sense, into the present. Often these people are described in some way as supernatural. On Arran there is the famhair, a giant, and the béisd, another name for perhaps a different ‘giant’ phenomena, béisd does not etymologically mean the same thing as famhair, but to be honest I don’t know exactly how to translate what béisd means in Gaelic folklore, it is also a borrowed word, connected to English beast. But I don’t think béisd means ’beast’ exactly either.

I believe that the ancestral spirits have not disappeared, and that we should acknowledge that the island is both their abode and ours. I also feel that like good sailors, we should not dillude ourselves into thinking that we can control the sea, we need to be respectful and also listen to our vibes and take care.

In other parts of Scotland there are legends of the ‘Finns’. I was extremely surprised recently to find that Shetlandic mythology details a magical sea people, who wore something like seal skins, and who were described as ‘Finns’, who seem to have been something like fearsome sourcerers, and also healers. I learned about them from the book Shetland folk-lore, by John Spence (4). These are not the same as the ‘Fianna’ from Goidelic mythology from what I can tell. Perhaps ‘Finn’ was a word adopted by the Shetlanders from the Vikings, who had their own legends about the magical and powerful sorcery of the Sámi and Finnish speaking peoples. But then, when researching more about the Rosguill Shell Middens in County Donegal, I came across a book, Ulster Folklore, by Elizabeth Andrews (5). Please note, that the author does share some outdated anthropological ideas and use of the word ’race’. I feel it is nevertheless a resource for the mythology collected and for some of the ideas about mythology being connected to ancient peoples in some way, a view which I also share.

Rather ironically, in a very good way, I was in Donegal recently, whilst doing a distance Finnish course. Little did I know that there are actually legends of ‘Finns’ from County Donegal, which I found mentioned in Elizabeth Andrew’s book on Ulster Folklore. Were the ‘Finns’ in these stories a magical name, borrowed by the Vikings, and attributed to ancient peoples and magical forces? Or were there really a group of people known as Finns, another ancient people that connect Scotland and Ireland with Northern Europe? Even if we had some kind of proof, I don’t think it would prove very much, too many thousands of years have passed since then.

The book Ulster Folklore (5) also gave more details about the Rosguill shell middens. And according to the author, these shell middens are connected to the Danes. And, the author was told by a boatman that the ‘Danes’ lived in caves (5). What do ‘Dane’ and ‘Finn’ actually mean in these contexts? Whilst there may well be a link to Denmark and Finland in some sense I think, these legends are clearly not talking about the Danes or Finns that we know from history. Could these legends be instead referring to something much, much older, a part of our history that is almost forgotten? There are also mythology I have read in places, labout people from Iberia and from North Africa in Ireland and in Britain, forming a part of our origins. Given the possible cognates with Afro-Asiatic, in my view, these themes are perhaps in some ways more tangible and real than what we call fiction.

As far as I am aware there are no legends of Danes or Finns or North Africans on Arran, which again provokes the question, are these words regional equivalents for the same thing, or are they also telling us about different, ancient cultures? I think that in some sense, both are true. Note that the ‘Picts’ in the modern academic definition is also not always consistent with what Scottish mythology actually says about the Picts or ‘Pechts’. There is a lot of mystery, and perhaps one day we might see it a bit clearer. But at this stage, it is still a mystery.

(3) - Afro-Asiatic vocabulary by Alexander Militarev, and Olga Stolbova, vocabulary items were sourced from starlingdb.org, database by S. Starostin. Olga Stolbova has done a lot of work on Chadic languages, also the Chadic Lexical Database project.

(4) – Shetland folk-lore, by John Spence

(5) - Ulster Folklore by Elizabeth Andrews

A note about nasalisation and Gaelic dialect spelling

In Scottish Gaelic dialects, an n or nn will frequently disappear before another consonant, but leaving the previous vowels in that sequence nasalised. For example, on Arran the nn in iỳnnsachag (2) seems often not to be pronounced. In this example the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland (2) give this sound as having no nasalisation from informant 35, so iỳsachag is another possible spelling. Nils M. Holmer also writes that the n in ainm – ’name’ is not always pronounced from what I can gather, which would mean that this is pronounced like a very nasal ’I’m’ in English.

Some Scottish Gaelic dialects will miss out the ’n’s but also lose the nasalisation in certain words. According to the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland, edited by Cathair Ó Dochartaigh, this is the case in where for example Western Mull Gaelic has no ’n’ or nasalisation in eunlaith – ’birds’, which I write as iaδaidh (2), based on the language of informant 82. On Arran, eunlaith is something like èanlaidh (2) and there is nasalisation here as far as I can tell; the final -aidh is [i] in this spelling. The Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland contains a lot of information about the dialects, some of which I have attempted to ’write into’ Gaelic spelling. For example:

Thá mi ag iỳsachag – Arran Gaelic, note iỳsachag – (2, informant 35)

Tha mi ag ionnsachadh – Standard Gaelic spelling

Tha mi giaunzach – some eastern Gaelic dialects, gianzach is based on the language of informant 198, (2), the ’n’ here is also not pronounced, as in most dialects, but the preceding vowels are nasalised.

Most of the words above were learned in their pronunciation from The Gaelic of Arran by Nils M. Holmer; (2) indicates where a word’s spelling has been based upon information in the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland, edited by Cathair Ó Dochartaigh. I borrowed the use of á for [ɛː] from Àdhamh ó Bròin.

Other resources

Tobar an Dualchas – this is a great resource for Scottish folklore and history, and much more, including audio tracks in Scots, Scottish Gaelic and in English. It is one of the only resources out there when one can listen to the different dialects of Gaelic, from a time when much more of that dialectal diversity was present across Scotland.

I feel that resources like this, and like Nils M. Holmer’s book, are very important, and can help us to keep the heritage of our languages as a living heritage. But for the heritage of Gaelic dialects to remain as a living heritage, that heritage needs to live in us.

I thank the ancestors and peoples.

With regards to an ancient connection between Ireland, Scotland and parts of Denmark, please see my comments in the article Three Scottish Gaelic dialects, and their possible relationship to ancient history. In this article I talk about the Danish stød and similar stød-like sounds in Argyll Scottish Gaelic dialects and in some dialects of Donegal Irish. This is not I believe something that has its origins in Germanic languages, but which might suggest some kind of ancient link between these places. I personally think that this ancient language or languages shared more in common with Celtic than with Germanic


Articles by Linden Pentecost
Gaelic dialects of Arran and Arran's prehistory
Three Scottish Gaelic dialects and their possible relationship to ancient history
Gaelic, and ancient language on Ardnamurchan and Rùm
Pre-Celtic elements in the Goidelic languages

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