Gàidhlig / Gaelic

 Gaelic (pron. Gay-lik) is the first language of Scottish Gaels (Highlanders). People in the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland will pronounce it as it is pronounced in the language, that is, Gàidhlig (Gah-leek).

After the Wars of Independence (14th century) there were only two languages spoken in great numbers in Scotland: Gaelic and Lowland Scots (which developed from Middle English). The Stewart kings, a shiny new dynasty, considered Scottish Gaels a terrible threat to the peace and unity of the kingdom; in this period Gaels are called 'wild Scots'. (Likewise Irish Gaels were called 'wild Irish'.)

After 1500 Scottish Gaels were called 'Highlanders' because the language was spoken in the mountainous regions of the north and west. The linguistic connotation of the word is more important than the geographical. Former professor of Celtic, Donald Meek, comes from the Island of Tiree and I don't think there is any part of that island which is more than 300 ft above sea level. Yet, when he first went to the Lowlands, he was asked if he were a Highlander and he said yes, meaning he was a a Scottish Gael.  


According to legend Tintagel was the birth place of Arthur, the legendary Welsh hero, whose warband fought the Saxons. Oh! Not what you're used to hearing? Wasn't Arthur a king? Warband...what about knights? What about the grail quest?

In the 15th century Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d' Arthur,  which is the legend as we know it today. The Welsh and Saxons were eliminated and the grail quest inserted. The knights of Arthur's Round Table wear plate armour similar to that worn by Sir Thomas, who was a professional soldier and knighted in 1441. He was later accused of theft, extortion and rape and was imprisoned several times. Go figure.

The earlier shape of Arthurian legend had a lot to do with a Cambro-Norman called Geoffrey of Monmouth Norman whose family settled in Wales after the Norman Conquest of 1066. The Normans came into contact with the Celtic people of Brittany, their neighbours in France. When William conquered England, the legends of another Celtic people, the Welsh, and their resistance to the Saxons was likely used as part of a campaign to legitimise the conquest. In Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) the good guys were Welsh and the bad guys were Saxons. It was wildly popular in the courts of England and France in the High Middle Ages and a frequent theme of medieval banquets.

So here is taste of Geoffrey's Arthur... or a shortened version thereof:

At Eastertime Uther Pendragon ordered his nobles to assemble in London. Many nobles attended with their wives and daughters. Among them was the duke of Cornwall, Gorlois, with his wife Igerna, the most beautiful woman in Britain. As soon as the king saw her, he suddenly burned with love for her and had eyes only for her. He kept on smiling and joking with her. Her husband noticed and angrily stormed out of court without permission. Uther angrily commanded him to return. When Gorlois refused, the king gathered a large army, marched to Cornwall and set about burning its cities and towns. Gorlois decided to fortify his strongholds, until he could get help from Ireland. He placed his wife in the fort of Tintagel. 

                        The Sea at Tintagel

When this was reported to the king, he marched on the castle where Gorlois was and besieged it. After a long week had passed, he recalled his passion for Igerna and summoned Ulfin of Ridcaradoc, a knight of his household, expressing his desire...

Ulfin answered that no power on earth could get Uther to her in the stronghold of Tintagel. It stood completely surrounded by the sea and could only be reached by a narrow cliff. Yet if Merlin was prepared to help, he could get them in.

Merlin was moved by Uther's great passion and said that with his herbs he could give Uther the exact appearance of Gorlois. Merlin accompanied him in another disguise.

                        The Castle built in Geoffrey's Time

Then they set off on the path to Tintagel, where they arrived at dusk. The gatekeeper was informed that the duke was approaching and the gates were opened and the men admitted. The king spent the night with Igerna and cured himself through the love-making he had longed for. Igerna was deceived by his false appearance and also by the lies he wove so well. That night she conceived the renown Arthur whose prowess secured his fame.

           A rather stunning statue of Arthur at Tintagel

In July 2018 I took a Rick Steves tour of the south of England and discovered Tintagel. Wonderful experience. The post-Roman dunum or fortress was sited on a flat headland of the sea. A narrow land bridge connects the 'mainland' to the 'island'. Today there are steps which lead visitors down to the narrow neck of land leading to the fortress site. You pass by the ruins of a 12th century castle, Geoffrey's time. Not much left of it, but more than the fortress constructed in the 5th century, possibly the time of Arthur. Tintagel might come from British Dyn Tagell meaning the 'fortress of the narrow neck'. 

            A view of the stairs which lead to the 'neck'

The site of the former 'palace' is surrounded by wide seas. Excavation has shown that the buildings were made of dry-stone walls commonly used in Ireland and western Britain. Amazing how they hang together without mortar. The site was probably used by the kings of Dumnonia or a sub-king--like Arthur? Expensive pottery imported from the Mediterranean in the 5th and 6th centuries indicates a prosperous household at Tintagel.

Most interesting of all, an incised slate dating to the 6th century was found with the name ARTOGNOU which might mean Bear Knowing, Bear son or Bear Born. Not quite 'Arthur' but close enough for people who love the legend.


Celtic Languages

Note: Modern Celtic languages are divided into two groups:

The Goidelic:                                        Country spoken:


Irish Gaelic — Gaeilge                          Ireland — Eire    

Scottish Gaelic — Gàidhlig                   Scotland — Alba

Manx  — Gailick                                   Isle of Man – Ellan                     

(died out 20th century)                              Vannin


The Brythonic:

Welsh – Cymreig                                    Wales — Cymru 

Breton – Breizhoneg                               Brittany (France) — Breizh

Cornish – Kernewek                               Cornwall — Kernow

(died out 18th century, but revived)  

Someone who speaks a Brythonic language like Welsh cannot understand a person who speaks Gaelic, but the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland can understand each other with some difficulty.

Scraps of History

After the Wars of Independence, conditions in many parts of Scotland were chaotic and lawless; the most secure social grouping proved to be the family and clan. Feudalism alone could not provide security. Even in the Lowlands there was a tendency to trust in kinship more than in feudal relationships. The Crichtons, the Livingstones, Homes, Hepburns were kindreds whose family pride was expressed in tailzies (entail) to heirs male who were obliged to bear not only the heraldic arms of the family but its name as well.

 The term 'clan system' is relatively recent--General Stewart of Garth wrote about 'the system of clanship' in his Sketches of the Highlanders (1822). Frank Adam used the term 'Highland Clan System' in his book of 1906. The common perception of a clan according to David Stevenson is:

 'a body of people related by blood, descended from a common ancestor, inhabiting a clan territory, ruled by a chief who is head of the kin, wearing a clan tartan and all having the same surname.'

 So what is a clan?

 Clans served social, cultural and military functions. The basic structure was composed of chiefs, their kin, chieftains (more remote kin to the chief or vassals) and their near relatives. They occupied a certain territory which they believed inalienable to their people; that is, it could not be sold. There were a number of itinerant people, poets, musicians, tradition bearers, supported by the elite.

 Some writers have described the clans as feudal but that is a simplification. As was mentioned before, Gaelic society was an accommodation of a kin-based society to feudalism. There was a lot of overlap between the two legal systems: Gaelic and feudal.

 The difference between feudal and Gaelic law 'although the theories of landholding that underlay the two systems were so different, in practice Gaelic clanship and feudalism were very much alike'. (Kermack  64)  

 For example, tenants (tuathanaich) gave rents to the lord/chief/king in return for protection. As well as certain labour services, military service was expected of the tenantry. The elite were expected to give justice and to protect their kin and tenants from their enemies, and provide for them in famine times.

 What made the Gaelic clan different from a Lowland family? Language: Highland clans spoke Gaelic; Lowland families spoke Inglish, later called Lowland Scots or Broad Scots. The most powerful of the Lowland leaders had feudal titles such as baron or earl, and they obeyed Scots Common Law. The most powerful of the Highland clans may also have held feudal titles, but their clansmen held them in awe as quasi-sacred figures. Gaelic chiefs were inaugurated like the ancient kings of Ireland and Scotland.  Highlanders also believed in the sacred nature of the land, a remnant of pagan belief that the land was a woman, married to the chief or king of a people.

  © Sheila Currie  2018