Learning Gaelic

Gaelic. Maybe you’ve been introduced to the language through Outlander on television or through the film Brave. Perhaps you’ve seen Gaelic on road signs or in museum descriptions in Scotland, or heard someone speaking it in the street in Inverness.

Would you like to learn more? Doing so will enhance your understanding of Scotland, and your travels there.

gaelic english sign scotland

Gaelic is on my mind because the Royal National Mod, the world’s largest Gaelic language festival, is set to return to Glasgow later this month, for the first time in nearly thirty years. Events will begin 11 October.

scotland woman piper busker

The Royal National Mod is part competition, part festival, and all celebration. For the competition part, Gaelic speakers from all across the world, many of them having made their way to the top of regional and national competitions, come to vie for top prizes in song, drama, playing bagpipes and other instruments, Highland dance, sport, and many other areas. The festival part includes concerts, workshops, children’s activities, come and try and come and learn events for adults and children, and walks and talks.

sauchiehall street Glasgow at night, copyright Kerry Dexter

For this year’s events in Glasgow, three major concerts are scheduled. There is one at City Halls curated by young Glasgow Gaels to celebrate the rising generation of Gaelic speakers and the interaction of Gaelic music with other styles, from beat box to dhol. There will be another one which finds top musicians, many of them former Mod medalists, sharing past and present of song and tune. An evening that’s free and open to the public will see trad-rock band Manran and Eurovison Choir Alba (if you’re thinking choir means stuffy, think again) and guests including pipers, beat boxers, and Highland dancers set to rock George Square in the city center.

You do not have to know Scottish Gaelic to enjoy any of these events. The atmosphere is welcoming and inclusive. There are workshops and conversation cafes as well as sporting events and children’s activities to enjoy, and learn a bit of Gaelic along the way no doubt.

scottish gaelic sign in inverness scotland

If you will not be in Glasgow during the Mod, you’ll want to keep an eye out on BBC Alba, which broadcasts some of the events. Because of licensing issues, these can usually be seen only in the UK. Radio broadcasts, though, can be accessed world wide over the air or online: check schedules for Radio nan Gaidheal and various channels of BBC Radio in English.

Listening to Radio nan Gaidheal is a great way to get a taste of what Gaelic sounds like. So is attending festivals: even when it is not the main focus, Celtic Connections and The Hebridean Celtic Festival are two Scottish festivals which always have strong Gaelic strands. Celtic Colours, on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia , also has a strong Gaelic presence. The closing concert at Celtic Colours this year will feature the bands Beolach and Breabach, and singer Julie Fowlis, and, no guarantees, but there’s a good chance that concert will be live streamed.

breabach scotland musicians gaelic

If you’d like to go a bit deeper into learning the language, one good place to begin is online at Beag Air Bheag. There’s no cost to work through the material there. If you are up for a deeper experience and have funds to invest, Sabhal Mor Ostaig, on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, has online courses. So does the Gaelic College in Saint Ann’s on Cape Breton; the Gaelic College also offers immersion weekends several times through the year. There’s no Scottish Gaelic Duolingo as yet, but there’s an initiative to create a course there. You may want to follow @ScotsGaelicDuo on twitter to see how that’s getting on.

One of the best ways to enjoy Gaelic (which is said in Scotland with a short a, Gallic) is through music. A few ideas to spark your listening:

As the Mod is in Glasgow this year it seems only right to suggest Mary Ann Kennedy’s album Glaschu, in which she weaves stories of people, places, and history of the Gaels in her hometown.

Mary Ann Kennedy is an accomplished harpist, producer, and broadcaster in addition to her talents as a singer. Several years ago she got to thinking that there were men who were rising stars of Gaelic singing but they (at the time) weren’t as well known as the rising women stars. She set out to remedy that and you can enjoy the result on the album Mary Ann Kennedy and Na Seoid. Artists you will hear include Gillebride MacMillan (you may know him as the bard on Outlander), Griogair Labhruidh, and James Graham.

The award winning band Capercaillie has taken their west of Scotland roots and Gaelic language into connection with the work of musicians from many traditions. Their albums often comprise song and tune, and songs in English and in Gaelic. You’ll not go wrong with any of their albums. One of my favorites is At the Heart of It All. You will also enjoy lead singer Karen Matheson’s album Urram.

Julie Fowlis has recorded a range of excellent albums as well. In Alterum she blends music, mystery, and story in songs in Gaelic and in English. If you happen to be reading this in October of 2019, she’s about to set out on a run of dates in the US.

There are many other fine Gaelic singers with work to explore, as well as festivals, learning experiences, poetry, and literature. You’ll have good fun exploring, and come to know more about Scotland along the way.

Side note: I’m often asked if Scottish Gaelic and Irish are the same thing. They are not. They are two different languages, which diverged about four centuries ago. If you know one it’ll perhaps help with understanding the other, in the same way that knowing Spanish will help with French: connected, but different. If you’d like to hear some of the differences through song, I recommend to you the album Allt, in which Julie Fowlis, Eamon Doorley, Zoe Conway, and John McIntyre join up for songs in both languages.

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