As you travel, do you take time to learn a few words and phrases in an unfamiliar language before you go? It’s a good idea, one that will enhance your journey — and it is an idea Claire Randall did not have time to explore when she found herself at one moment walking through a
stone circle in the Highlands of Scotland in the 1940s and in the next moment two centuries back, in those same Highlands, but in a time not her own.
This is the premise which informs Outlander, both the series of television programs and the series of books by Diana Gabaldon on which those films are based. In addition to interest in the actors who play lead and support roles, the televised programs have raised interest in the landscapes of Scotland — so far it has been filmed in a studio in Cumbernauld and in varied locations from Castle Doune to the streets of Glasgow — in its history, and in its languages.
In eighteenth century Scotland, people spoke English, as they do today. They also spoke Scots, and Scottish Gaelic, as they do today. In the eighteenth century though, both those languages were much more widely spoken. Producer Ronald D. Moore decided to use both languages as seasoning, you might say, for the films. As the character Claire, a mid twentieth century English woman, would not have understood them, he decided not to use subtitles. Those decisions have had the interesting effect of raising the profile of Gaelic and of Scots.
Will you need to know Gaelic (which in Scotland is said with a short a, Gallic) or Scots when you travel in Scotland? No, but learning a bit of and about them will enhance your appreciation for the country and its heritage. In fact, you’ll be introduced to Gaelic right away, as most international arrivals halls in Scotland have signs saying Failte gu Alba — Welcome to Scotland. You will also see Gaelic on road signs, and if you visit public buildings and museums, most of them will have bilingual signs. The further north you go in the Highlands, and the further west you go on the mainland and in the Isles, the more likely you are to find Gaelic as a first language. There are Gaelic speakers in all parts of Scotland, though. Most often you will find Scots spoken to the southern parts of Scotland, and in a slightly different version, up along the northeastern part of the country.
If you have been following the Outlander series, or awaiting the beginning of the second set of programs, you’ll know a bit about what these languages sound like. Whether that is your gateway or not, poetry and song make good ways to explore the sounds and rhythms and stories and ways of thinking these languages shape. You might, for example, look for the work eighteenth century poet Duncan Ban MacIntyre in Gaelic and twentieth century Gaelic poet and writer Sorley Maclean. For Scots, perhaps you have already come across poems and songs of Robert Burns. Hugh MacDiarmid is a a writer to explore for twentieth century Scots poetry.
Then there’s the music. The band Runrig takes Gaelic into rock; Julie Fowlis seeks out songs from centuries back and sings them anew; Gillebride Macmillan, who plays the bard in Outlander, also explores Scotland’s history in song. For Scots, you might look to Emily Smith or Alistair Ogilvy as musicians who work with both newly written songs and those from the tradition; top Scottish singer Eddi Reader explores the work of Robert Burns to good effect.
Perhaps you may already speak bits of Gaelic and Scots. Bonnie lass and bonnie dearie are two phrases which have come over from Scots, while galore and banshee are over from Gaelic. And the phrase well known to Outlander fans, Dinna fash sassenach, is a combination of the two. Dinna fash is don’t worry in Scots, and sassenach is — as you may already know — Gaelic for stranger, English person — and outlander.
If all this has you thinking you’d like to explore further
Beag ar Bheag will introduce you to a bit of Scottish Gaelic
Read Alice in Wonderland and other stories in Scots
Instruments of traditional Scottish music introduced through the tale of The Boy and the Bunnet available in English, Scots, and Gaelic versions
A story I did for Journey to Scotland, with a bit more about the history of the languages, and the Outlander cast learning them — and links to quite a bit of great music
If you are in North America, you may experience Scottish Gaelic a bit closer to home, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. More on Cape Breton, and on Scotland, to come…
photograph of Catriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in Outlander courtesy Starz/Sony, photograph of West Highland Way sign by Kerry Dexter
Consider subscribing to the Perceptive Travel blog by email, and connecting with us through your favorite social networks. Thanks!