24 Aug 2016
From the early Stone Age people to the Celts, Gaels, Picts, Vikings, Romans, Normans, Spanish, and British: many different peoples have called these lands home, so you can understand why there’s an interesting combination of genetic traits and cultural traditions and beliefs to explore.
But it was the Gaels who had the most profound influence linguistically. Gaelic languages, including Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx, were a subgroup of the Celtic languages. In the Middle Ages, the Gaelic languages were dominant throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Gradually, the languages were supplanted by English, yet, they continue to live on in many coastal communities.
The predominant language in Ireland and Scotland today is English, although many speak Gaelic in the coastal regions of the west coast of Ireland – known as Gaeltacht, an Irish language term for regions where Irish is spoken at home on a daily basis.
The Gaeltacht districts were first officially recognized in the early years of the Irish Free State and in the 1920s, a government policy called the Gaelic Revival was instituted to preserve and restore the Irish language.
Whereas Irish is an official language of Ireland and the EU, Scottish Gaelic is not an official language of the UK or EU - although it is classified as an indigenous language. In Scotland only 1% of the population speaks Gaelic, with the Outer Hebrides being the main stronghold.
What is important for visitors to this region to note is that, whereas maps and charts tend to be written in English, many place names and signs in the West are written only in Gaelic – particularly when it comes to smaller or more remote destinations like the islands. It can be easy to get lost in coastal regions, and it definitely helps to get bilingual maps.
If you’re curious about the Celtic connection, part of the charm of the Gaeltacht is venturing out to hear the lilting sound of native Irish spoken or sung, hauntingly, in the pubs.
It is also interesting to come across the ancient Ogham stones inscribed with runes, a primitive Celtic alphabet dating to the 5th and 6th centuries. This alphabet is sometimes referred to as the Celtic Tree Alphabet, as each symbol also represents a specific type of tree:
The Celts were not dominant for long, but they left many traces of their being in their distinct art forms, burial sites, and sacred rituals. In any case, wandering the Gaeltacht can feel like a world apart and centuries distant. Exploring this region can provide a glimpse into somewhat simpler times: when trees were revered, and humankind still made time for treasured stories and enchanting lyrical tunes.