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Gaelic in East Perthshire, and other languages and dialects in Eastern Scotland

By Linden Alexander Pentecost

Scottish Gaelic, like Faroese, is a language which, when written, often gives an imposing indication of the etymological roots of that language. The etymological spelling of Gaelic does work very well I think, to show the language as a whole, and as a medium that fits the dialects due to their historic etymological connections. On the other hand, standard Scottish Gaelic spelling makes it rather impossible to indicate, or see the dialects of the language in the spelling. And so the dialectal diversity of Scottish Gaelic is perhaps not as widely considered or discussed as it should be. 

The standard spelling of Gaelic works particularly well for the dialects of the Isle of Skye for example. Skye is a wild island, massive mountains, deep sea-lochs, which are technically ’fjords’ in geological terms. But Scotland is a diverse country, with a diverse range of landscapes, and also a diverse range of dialects. So let’s take a tour away from the Gaelic-speaking highlands, eastwards, to a land of wooded valleys, moorlands and gently flowing rivers. This is Perthshire. When the autumn comes to Skye, and the wind blows, the autumn arrives more gently in Perthshire. The trees turn golden, orange and red, where the gently countryside meets the wilder valleys. If we go north of Perthshire, we reach the Cairngorms, and the great ancient forests of Scots pine forests, which make me feel more like I am in Northern Norway or Canada than Scotland. 

The eastern landscapes of Scotland from Perthshire, and north to the Cairngorms, were also historically Gaelic-speaking. But you will hear very little of the native Gaelic dialects nowadays. I have only really heard these dialects thanks to recordings available at the website: Tobar an Dualchais; and I can say that, the prosody of these eastern dialects is quite different. Prosodic differences also coincide with phonetic differences. For this reason for example, there is a informant with recordings at Tobar an Dualchais, his name is Christopher MacDonald, from Acharn close to Loch Tay, Loch Tatha. When I listen to this speaker, I find it sometimes quite hard to understand. Many of the Gaelic vowel sounds are identical to those in Western Scotland, but other differences with Eastern Gaelic, including the prosody, can make it quite difficult for me to understand.

Note that Loch Tay is also the site of a Crannóg visitor centre. A Crannóg is an ancient Scottish dwelling, often situated on a lake, and supported upon wooden poles. The area of eastern Scotland has a far larger ’Brythonic’ o ’P-Celtic’ influence that is visible in place-names. This language is usually described as ’Pictish’, although I myself am unconvinced that Pictish can be thought of as a single language. In any case though, I suspect that the prosody of Perthshire Gaelic around Loch Tay/Loch Tatha, could contain a sort of continuity from whatever language was spoken there thousands of years ago.

One of the major differences that one might encounter with Perthshire Gaelic and the Gaelic in the Cairngorms, is apocope. This is perhaps more pronounced in Perthshire than anywhere else, but apocope does occur to different degrees throughout the whole of eastern and northern Scotland. 

Most of what I have learned of East Perthshire Gaelic is from the book  East Perthshire Gaelic, Social History, Phonology, Texts and Lexicon, by Máirtín Ó Murchú. The samples of words in the section just below, are based on the phonetic examples of informant 201 in the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland, edited by Cathair Ó Dochartaigh. With the exception of the first word, the other words are written based on the pronunciation of informant 201 but written into the orthography. This orthographic adaptation of East Perthshire Gaelic only represents some of the sounds and is a simplification compared to the detail in the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland. Note that some of the words such as lagchin and doimhnd are quite specific to informant 201. 

samhradh – ‘summer’, East Perthshire Gaelic: samhar, pronounced [sãʊ̃ər]

sealladh – ‘view’, East Perthshire Gaelic: seoll

diùltadh – ‘refusal’, East Perthshire Gaelic: diùlt 

falt – ‘hair’, East Perthshire Gaelic: folt 

duine – ‘man’, East Perthshire Gaelic: dun

sluagh – ‘people, crowd’, East Perthshire Gaelic slua

lagan – ‘a hollow’, East Perthshire Gaelic: lagchin 

domhain – ‘deep’, East Perthshire Gaelic: doimhnd

sgrìobhadh – ‘writing’, East Perthshire Gaelic: sgrìu

diallaid – ‘saddle’, East Perthshire Gaelic: diollt 

The apocope in East Perthshire Gaelic seems to be connected to a general ’compacting’ of syllables and word elements, which of course can make the Perthshire dialects quite hard to understand, for those not used to hearing them (i.e., me). For example, according to what I understand from information in the book: East Perthshire Gaelic, Social History, Phonology, Texts and Lexicon, by Máirtín Ó Murchú; the consonant of the definite singular article in East Perthshire Gaelic often seems to be attached onto the following noun. 

This, arguably occurs across Gaelic as a whole, but in East Perthshire Gaelic the vowel is consistently deleted in most contexts, hence am bàta – ’the boat’ is written as mbàd. Below are some examples of sentences in standard Gaelic spelling and in East Perthshire Gaelic, I wrote them but the pronunciations are based on what I have learned of the dialect from East Perthshire Gaelic, Social History, Phonology, Texts and Lexicon, by Máirtín Ó Murchú, with some words included from informant 201 in the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland, edited by Cathair Ó Dochartaigh. 

Standard Gaelic: an taigh mór –  ‘the big house’, East Perthshire Gaelic: ndaigh mór

Standard Gaelic: tha an duine a’ sgrìobhadh –  ‘the man is writing’, East Perthshire Gaelic: tha ndun sgrìu 

Standard Gaelic: tha am fàinne agam – ‘I have the ring’, East Perthshire Gaelic: tha mvàinn agam 

Standard Gaelic: is toil leam an samhradh – ‘I like the summer’, East Perthshire Gaelic: stoil leam nzamhar

Standard Gaelic: tha am bàta a’ tionndadh – ‘the boat is turning’, East Perthshire Gaelic: tha mbàd tionnda

Standard Gaelic: bhiodh an iolaire a’ seinn – ‘the eagle would/used to sing’, East Perthshire Gaelic: bhioch nȷular seinn

Standard Gaelic: tha an geamhradh a’ tighinn a-rithist – ‘the winter is coming again’, East Perthshire Gaelic: tha ngeamhar tighinn rìsd

Standard Gaelic: théid mi thairis air a’ ghleann – ‘I will go beyond the valley’, East Perthshire Gaelic: théid mi thȧirs air ghleann

Standard Gaelic: bha am fear eile a’ leughadh an leabhar sin – ‘the other man was reading that book’, East Perthshire Gaelic: bha mvear eil lèu nleawar sin

Standard Gaelic: tha mi a’ seasamh an-seo – ‘I am standing here’, East Perthshire Gaelic: tha mi seasu njeo

Standard Gaelic: tha sinn faisg air a’ bhaile – ‘we are near to the town’, Perthshire Gaelic: tha sinn faisg air bhail

Spelling notes: ȷ is written for [j], j is more or less identical with the English ’j’; ȧ is a ‘broad’ version of [ɛ], aka an [ɛ] in contact with a broad consonant. Note also that v shows the mutation from [f] to [v] in these dialects, and that [z] is also present in these dialects, written as z

Other languages and dialects in Eastern Scotland

Further to the north is the Gaelic of Strathspey and Aviemore. This shared much in common with East Perthshire Gaelic, including in apocope for example, but it also had its own unique features and sounds. In the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland, edited by Cathair Ó Dochartaigh, informant 179 pronounces soillsich – ‘shining’ in an interesting way, which I could write as seiɮtich, which has an initial slender ’s’ [ʃ], rather than a broad ’s’, and a sound written as [ɮ] although I am not exactly sure what this phonetic form represents. Another example based on the language of informant 179 is samhraidh for ‘summer’, given with [i] as the final vowel in the nominative form. Informant 179 is from close to Speyside. This landscape is a place of moorlands, mountains and ancient Caledonian Scots pine forests. 

Further to the east, there is little evidence to what kind of Gaelic was spoken in the lowlands on the eastern side of the Cairngorms. That some Gaelic was historically spoken there is certain, but there is a different mixture of languages in this area, and the landscape is also different. Imagine Cornwall, but colder. And less granite. But yes, Aberdeenshire is very much a different landscape, green fields, rolling hills that reach down to the sea cliffs and the small fishing villages. If you have ever seen the film Local Hero, it was partially filmed in one of these villages, called Pennan. The language of these parts is a form of Doric, the type of Scots also spoken in the city of Aberdeenshire. Doric is still widely spoken, I remember a lady at a hotel said to me tha snaa for ‘the snow’. This region also has a strong link to the Pictish language and the ‘Picts’, which is visible in the name Pennan for example, compare the Welsh word pen – head. Another village closeby is named Aberdour, this is again more or less identical with the Welsh Aber Dŵr, or the Breton Aber Dour, the first word means a place where rivers meet or an estuary, the second word means ‘water’, so ‘estuary of water’ essentially. 

I think it would be incorrect though to say that Pictish was one language, and that it truly was entirely a Brythonic language like Welsh and Breton. This Pictish area around Aberdeenshire is very defined, archaeologically speaking. But, certain aspects of this Pictish ‘archaeological package’, for example the sacred stones with carvings on them, are also found outside of areas with P-Celtic place-names. So we are probably talking about a cultural complex within a range of cultures, rather than a single culture. Furthermore, the words *aber and *dour and *pen in Pictish have a rather obscure origin as far as Indo-European is concerned. So, on one hand, they are Indo-European words with Brythonic cognates, close to Welsh. But on the other hand, this particular set of words isn’t really a part of Indo-European vocabulary as a whole. Pictish still retains a lot of mysteries, I believe.

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