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TOPIC: Was Gaelic ever spoken in Ayrshire?

Was Gaelic ever spoken in Ayrshire? 10 Jul 2019 06:20 #1981

  • Ian Scott
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Recently the above question was asked on the Ayrshire Rootsweb List. A good answer is set out below.

This a very interesting question and had time to pop in to Edinburgh University library today and check Prof Charles Withers book on Gaelic in Scotland. I thought these brief notes might be helpful.

Linguistically Scotland is a nation of many languages: English, Gaelic, Scots, French, Cumbric, Pictish and a Norse variant called Norn. (Withers, 1984, p1)

The Kingdom of Strathclyde in the west was a Cumbric speaking region. This is an ancient language derived from Old Welsh and was spoken in lowland Scotland and northern England – the Old North (including Cumbria). Cumbric place names have a central and SW distribution in Scotland. (Withers, 1984, pp16-17)

Gaelic was the language of the Scotti – people of Irish origin. It declined in use from the late 11th century to late 1500s. Scotland north of a line between the Forth and Clyde was chiefly settled by Gaelic speakers (known as Scotia until about 1250). There’s little evidence for the extent Gaelic was actually spoken in the Middle Ages. Gaelic had ‘superimposed’ itself upon languages such as Pictish, Cumbric, Norn and Anglian. The language spoken by a dominant political group is not necessarily the language spoken by everyone. It varies from place to place, but Ayrshire is thought by Withers to have been relatively less permanently and less densely settled by Gaelic speakers. (Withers, 1984, pp16-18)

“…at no period within early and medieval Scotland was Gaelic everywhere understood and used as a spoken language for all purposes by all persons. …there was never a time when every person north of the Tweed spoke only Gaelic and swore allegiance only to a Gaelic-speaking lord.” (Withers, 1984, p18)

Later on in the book Withers states Gaelic was the common language of the north and NW of Scotland and the border between English-speaking and Gaelic-speaking should be seen as a diffuse zone. (Withers, 1984, p37)

One of the research tasks Withers undertook was systematically going through the Statistical Accounts (OSA and NSA) for reports on the state of Gaelic. Nothing is noted under Ayrshire in the OSA reports, but in the New Statistical Account 1831-1845 Withers found a single mention under Ardrossan parish (1837): Gaelic church at Saltcoats built at cost of £1,000, 720 sittings for the use of the many Highland families in the area. (Withers, 1984, p311) For comparison, Argyll had 25 entries.

So, Gaelic speakers in nineteenth-century Ayrshire were probably migrants who had relatively recently left the Highlands.

Withers, C. (1984). Gaelic in Scotland, 1698-1981: The geographical history of a language. Edinburgh: John Donald.
Academic biography: www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/fellows/charles-withers-FBA

For those interested in Cumbric and the Old North there are some enthusiasts around. I have no idea how reliable these sources are.

Best wishes, Kay

Dr JK Williams
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