Three Scottish Gaelic dialects and their possible relationship to ancient history

Article and photo by Linden Pentecost, April 29 2022

Mountains on the Isle of Arran / Beanntan ann an Eilean Arainn
Mountains on the Isle of Arran / Beanntan ann an Eilean Arainn

I feel personally that Scottish Gaelic dialects are very difficult to classify or to group. Many of the similarities and differences between dialects are related to historic clans, to geography, and perhaps to ancient peoples and their languages.

The Gaelic of Arran

The first dialect I shall talk about is that of Arran, a mountainous island in the Firth of Clyde. This island and its dialect are separated from other recorded dialects by the Mull of Kintyre Peninsula, and perhaps it is not surprising that Arran Gaelic has many unique features not found in other recorded dialects.

Arran Gaelic generally does not have pre-aspiration. Arran Gaelic frequently has [ɛ] and [ɛː] for [a] and [aː], where this occurs in words on Arran is frequently associated with a [w] like sound following the initial consonants, b, f, m and p. I created an improvised spelling for Arran Gaelic, where for example mwȧth - ‘good’ and fwȧcal – ‘word’, would be in standard spelling math and facal. I write ȧ for [ɛ] and á for [ɛː], the latter being a practice I have borrowed from Àdhamh Ó Broin’s spelling of Argyll Gaelic dialects. The long version of this sound, occurs in for example thá – ‘is or are’, as in thá siybh – ‘you lot are’, standard spelling tha sibh. The letter y I employ to write an [y] like sound, a long version of which can be found in smỳintidh, standard spelling smaointich or smaoinich ‘to think’. The Gaelic of Arran also has the glottal stop, in words such as moʔa – ‘big’ (comparative form) (2), standard spelling motha.

Resources I used:

The Gaelic dialect of Southwestern Mull

The second dialect I would like to talk about is that of speaker 82 as recorded in the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland .The examples below are based upon Scottish Gaelic spelling, with incorporation of some of the phonemes as recorded for these words in the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland. Note that δ is employed to write [ð].

One of the quite unusual features of this dialect, is that what is written as a slight schwa sound, often separates an initial consonant cluster. Thus the words crodh – ‘cattle’, gràdh – ‘love’, and drochaid, might be spelled as cᵊro, gᵊrag and dᵊrochaidᶻ. The broad, velarised l, is often a voiced dental fricative sound, and so for example, eunlaith – ‘birds’, diallaid – ‘saddle’, and eaglais – ‘church’, might be spelled as iaδaidh, dᶻiaδvaidᶻ and eagδais.

Note that the slender d is generally something like [dᶻ] in this dialect, although this is not unique to Mull.

As in various other parts of Argyll, the glottal stop can be common. For example, the word domhain – ‘deep’, might be spelled as domhʔain.

All words above are written according to what I have studied about this dialect in Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland (2).

Hear a bit of Gaelic from Mull:

The Gaelic dialect of Duirinish in Wester Ross

The third dialect I would like to talk about is that of Duirinish close to Eilean Donan Castle in Wester Ross.

A common feature of some Wester Ross Gaelic dialects, is that the final broad -dh is often pronounced [k], for example in leughadh – ‘reading’, samhradh - ‘summer’ and laogh - ‘calf’. Wester Ross dialects do have their own variations however, and one of particular interest to me is that of Duirinish close to Eilean Donan Castle. Sometimes the vowels in this dialect are of a rather different quality, with the word craobh - ‘tree’ being something like [kɾiuː] around Duirinish (3). This approximation is something I learned from a more exact written approximation from The Dialects of Skye and Rosshire, by Carl HJ Borgstrøm (3). This book also gives a description of the prosodic features of the dialect of Duirinish, and some examples of words.

One particularly interesting thing about the Gaelic of this area is that vowels often have quite different pronunciations, for example the verb-noun leughadh or leubhadh – ‘reading’ is pronounced something like [ʎia-uk], but this is again only approximate to the original transcription in the book (3). In this book by Carl HJ Borgstrøm mentioned above, he comments on the prosody of this dialect, which I believe may be connected to the elongation of certain syllables and some of the vowel changes talked about above.

.Note: whilst I have created improvised spellings for the Arran and Southwest Mull dialects, I have not done this for the Wester Ross dialects. This is because the relationship that these dialects have to ‘standard Gaelic spelling’ is different from how the other two dialects relate to that spelling. In the case of Arran and Southwest Mull, I feel that altering the spelling can help to show more of the dialects and to accurately represent them.

However, the differences that make Wester Ross Gaelic distinctive are not so easily written by adapting the spelling, as the changes in Wester Ross Gaelic are essentially a part of a different system of sound changes, which do not directly relate to the glottal stops and other phonetic changes of Argyll dialects.

On the origins of Gaelic dialects and of language in general

If we are looking at Gaelic as being a Celtic. Indo-European language, then ‘Indo-European’ is ultimately the origin of Gaelic dialects. But if we are looking specifically at the phonetic and prosodic nature of these dialects, their rhythm, and the folklore contained within them, then I believe that at least some aspects of Gaelic dialects, originate in the prehistoric cultures of Western Scotland dating back to the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Ages.

There are for example, several megalithic monuments on the Isle of Arran. And on the south of the island, is a sacred sea cave, with carvings and an Ogham inscription. I feel it quite possible, that

certain things about the Arran Gaelic dialect, like the prosody and phonemes, originate in these original ancestral cultures, who had an animistic worldview, their ancestral spirit and wisdom being visible in Gaelic folklore and in the landscape itself.

To what extent these original languages were ‘Celtic’ or ‘Indo-European’ is unsure. But I suspect that originally, Indo-European was a sort of connection between ancient languages, and originally part of a wider trade network, before later ‘evolving’ into the indigenous languages, as various ancient cultures merged together. I believe that Indo-European as we know it today, has evolved within the past ten thousand years, with the first languages of Scotland likely being more characteristic of what existed prior to that. The arrival of ‘Indo-European’ may also have to do with the climatic changes which brought about shifts in the landscape over the past ten thousand years.

Some of these ancient people seem to have become associated with ‘cave spirits’ and other supernatural beings throughout Gaelic folklore, including ‘giants’. On Arran, giants are generally given the name famhair as far as I know, whilst in parts of the Hebrides, a particular giant, a ciuthach, is associated with sea caves and with brochs. It is quite fascinating that, from my own research, a lot of the food waste found at Iron Age broch sites seems to consist of shellfish, which might imply that the people who inhabited brochs were in some way descendants of those earlier Mesolithic people who ate shellfish, particularly given that the ciuthach may be connected to the Mesolithic cultures and landscape as well. Oddly enough there are also legends from other parts of the world where ‘giants’ are associated with shellfish, but of course we are not talking about ‘physical’ giants, but rather, people who were remembered as being ‘giant’ due to their wisdom and knowledge of the land.

The Mesolithic cultures of the West Coast are connected to shell midden sites. I believe that shell middens are not merely piles of rubbish, but are symbolically representative of consciousness, life, spirit, emerging from the underworld, or more literally, from the sea. Shell middens are also associated with ancient peoples, and it is curious I think that there are shell middens in Denmark, in Argyll and in parts of Donegal in Ulster, such as on the Rosguill Peninsula. The prosodic features of Danish and the stød in Danish, are, in my opinion, somewhat comparable to the prosodic features and glottal stops found in some Argyll Gaelic dialects, and to the prosodic features and glottal closure found in certain Donegal Irish dialects. I feel that these similarities are not representing the same thing, but they may give us some idea of an ancient connection in languages, that pre-dates both Germanic and Celtic languages, and represents a far older indigenous link between coastal cultures. Sometimes these ancient places are associated with ‘Danes’, ‘Tuatha Dé Danann’, ‘giants’, demonstrating that something of these ancient cultures and peoples does survive in the land and mythology of Goidelic languages and cultures.

In terms of the symbolic meaning behind shell middens, we can observe ‘sacred geometry’ in the shape of a shell, and perhaps even in the physical shape of cephalopods, like squid and cuttlefish. When we also take into account that these animals have multiple brains, and compare that to the collective ‘behaviour’ of some ancient spirits, and their connection to water and to the sea, we start to see a sort of symbolism emerging. We might even discover things about language by looking at sea life, and how some cephalopods have a kind of ‘pre-language’ whereby they communicate using waves or patterns of light.

How does this relate to Gaelic dialects? Well, I wonder if we are wrong to assume that humans created language. Sound, and light existed before humans, before biological life. This sound and creative power is present in all of nature, in the mountains, forests and seas. Are languages a human invention? Or are they in some way a continuation of those patterns and intelligence that exist in all of the nature around us? And then, by learning the language or dialect of a particular place, are we then better able to understand and communicate with the nature of that place, and it with us?

Note that in my comments about the connections between light and language, not all light is good for us. I believe that when we feel confused by light, the vibes we feel can often tell us if the light is true or false.

This might explain why I sometimes come across similar looking words in totally unrelated languages. An example is Estonian vene – a small, dugout boat. This word is in certain branches of the Uralic languages, e.g. Northern Sámi fanas, but is not the only Uralic word for boat or canoe. Furthermore, I cannot find any non-Uralic cognates to this word in either Africa or across Eurasia. But the Ona language from Patagonia has yèni – ‘canoe’ (4), Proto-Wakashan has *hupin(u)wa(ː)š – ’a kind of canoe’ (5), Klamath has wonǰ – ‘canoe’ (6). I am not sure if these words are cognates in any way or not to each other.

Even though these cultures were definitely not in contact with Estonia in ancient times, I find it fascinating that the same sound connected to the movement of boats, may be found in these unrelated cultures and languages. From my research, the Americas have far more instances of this ‘word’ or group of words, and only by studying this word in indigenous American languages, have I been able to better understand how the Estonian word might be related. I do not believe that this word arrived in the Americas from somewhere else, I believe it may indeed have originated in the Americas.

If some of these ancient words, do in a sense originate through a repetition of natural sounds in the cosmos, then perhaps the reason for the similarity with Estonian vene is due to the spiritual power associated with the natural landscapes of these places, especially considering that the regions in question all share climatic and landscape features in common. Which leads back to the idea that spirit and consciousness somehow manifests itself through water, and spirits are often associated with coming from, bringing and creating storms, clouds, rivers, sea and rain. Water being the life giving substance. I do personally believe in the existence of this life-force, and of spirits. They can be ferocious guardians and this is generally because, I believe, they are protectors and guardians of living things and of nature. And Modern Society by and large does not respect nature, and therefore does not respect them. We do have these traditions in Europe, this ancient animistic spirituality, and our relationship to each other and to the cosmos, but we have mainly forgotten it. And we need the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Australia, Africa, and elsewhere, to teach us how to reconnect with that.

I personally believe that people appeared on different continents simultaneously, and that the possible evidence for connection between ancient languages might be in some way related, to what indigenous Australians may refer to as the Dream-time or Dreaming, the time before the ‘physical’ world existed, but when the patterns, laws and music of the material universe existed. I feel that this ancestral time is not located in the past, present or future, it simply is, the underlying reality that is all of time, flowing into and creating the present. My own views are perhaps similar to some indigenous Australian beliefs, and really, I feel that this way of seeing things is quite beautiful. ‘Time’ is seen as real in many cultures, but in indigenous Australian perspectives, as I understand, this is not always necessarily the case. I believe that perhaps ‘time’ is an illusion, associated ironically with our ability to record time and recognise time. But where does time originate? When we sit and look at some beautiful, wild mountains, where does time go, and what are we left with? What does time mean, when the rocks, pine trees and skies are more or less the same forms as they have been for millions of years; and beyond that, where does time go? What is left?

When I first visited the Isle of Arran, it sparked an interest in spirituality for me. Because I walked in those mountains, and down the glens, and I felt that ‘thing’ which is beyond time, that place and beauty that is beyond everything knowable. The Gaels recognised this in how they were dedicated to the Christian god, and in earlier times, they recognised this in their connection to other gods. In the book Momo, the author Michael Ende beautifully sums the true meaning and identity of ‘time’ I believe, in this quote:

“Time is life itself, and life resides in the human heart.”

Please note, any thoughts about the beliefs and languages of indigenous people which I have, are only my own perceptions, and should not be taken as accurate. I believe that only the indigenous people themselves can accurately give knowledge about their own ancestors, cultures and languages.

Peace and may the cosmos (whatever you believe in) and your ancestors, be with you. May you have long life, health and love. This particular subject was very challenging and confusing to try and write about, and I just hope that it is interesting to read.

(1) The Gaelic of Arran, Nils M. Holmer

(2): Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland: questionnaire materials collected for the Linguistic Survey of Scotland - edited by Cathair Ó Dochartaigh

(3): The Dialects of Skye and Rosshire, by Carl HJ Borgstrøm, published with Norsk Tidsskrift for sprogvidenskap, utgitt av Carl J.S Marstrander.

(4): Selknam Dictionary, Author: Elena L. Najlis, Data Entry: Mary Ritchie Key, available on the Intercontinental Dictionary Series, here: Mary Ritchie Key is the founding author of this website, Bernard Comrie is the general editor.

(5): Fortescue, Michael. 2007. Comparative Wakashan Dictionary. Lincom Europa

(6): Klamath word list from Barker (1963), as digitized by Philip Spaelti of Kobe Shoin Women's University at his Klamath Dictionary website

Articles by Linden Pentecost


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