Learning the language of your ancestors
Scotland today is mostly an English-speaking country, but it was not always so.
In the Highlands, especially in the west and north, Gaelic used to be the dominant language and you can still hear it spoken today. Intensive efforts to keep the language alive in speech and writing appear to have succeeded and you will, for instance, find place names in both English and Gaelic on many signposts.
If your ancestors were from this Gaelic-speaking region and you’d like to learn some of this ancient language, an ideal starting point is Sabhal Mor Ostaig , Scotland’s only Gaelic college. The college offers courses and the website has lots of useful links. Another useful site is Learngaelic.net, a one stop shop for anyone interested in learning Scottish Gaelic.
In the meantime here are some handy phrases to try out on the locals!
How are you?/Ciamar a tha thu/sibh?
I’m fine thanks. And you?/Tha mi gu math tapadh leat. Thu/Sibh fhèin?
Where are you from?/Cò às a tha thu?
I’m from… / Tha mi à………...
Good morning/ Madainn mhath
Good afternoon/evening/ Feasgar math
Good night/ Oidhche mhath
Goodbye/ Mar sin leibh
Bon appétit/ Beannachd ort
Thank you/ Mòran taing
For the rest of Scotland, Scots is the predominant dialect though it varies from area to area. The Scottish Language Dictionaries project, a registered charity, will help you explore the language of your ancestors. Another useful resource is the bilingual Scots Online
If your ancestors came from the north east of Scotland, in the region with Aberdeen at its heart, the Scots dialect they spoke is called Doric.
In Orkney and Shetland, too, you’ll hear a distinctive dialect, at times more Scandinavian than English. These northern islands were once part of the Viking world and many of the dialect words have their origins in Old Norse. Lots of these are still recognisable today, much to the surprise and delight of visitors from Scandinavia.
Once you’ve spent some time in Scotland you’ll begin to pick out dialect differences. Subtle nuances of language that reflect regional identities and strengthen that all-important sense of place. Remember that dialect words are long-lasting and the words you hear today are probably those your ancestors used.