The Best Gaelic Dictionary for You – And How To Use It
You’re learning Scottish Gaelic, and you need to buy a Gaelic dictionary. Which one is the best for you?
A web search on “Scottish Gaelic dictionary” yields very mixed results. There are online dictionaries, some legit and some not really. Amazon lists a confusing array of new and used books for sale, and the real Gaelic bookstores may not pop up in your search at all.
No dictionary is perfect, but there are good and bad Gaelic dictionaries out there. Sometimes a dictionary that looks shiny and new is actually obsolete.
I’ve informally surveyed some Gaelic language teachers and scholars in Nova Scotia and Scotland on which dictionaries they prefer. Based on their experience and my own, I’ll recommend which dictionaries to spend your precious money on, which ones to avoid, and the best way to use a dictionary as a tool for learning.
All Dictionaries Are Not Alike
There are many different kinds of Gaelic dictionaries: small portable ones with everyday vocabulary, basic language learner dictionaries, desktop reference tomes, specialty dictionaries with new words, and dictionaries and lists of words unique to certain dialects.
Because different dictionaries serve different purposes, you’ll probably end up buying more than one! Not every dictionary contains every word, and sometimes it’s wise to triangulate, in other words to check multiple sources to verify that you have the best definition or translation.
Most dictionaries are bidirectional, with both Gaelic-English and English-Gaelic sections. In one section you can look up a Gaelic word to find the English equivalent, and the other section you can look up an English word to find the Gaelic equivalent. Not all of the popular dictionaries are bidirectional, however – some are only Gaelic-English – so be aware of this when you make your selection.
When you’re browsing titles online, it can be hard to tell the difference between different dictionaries. Not only are the titles similar, but also a title can change when the dictionary is reprinted, along with the cover design, and even the publisher. Because of this, I’ll identify the dictionaries in this blog post mainly by the last names of the authors.
If you’re taking a Gaelic language course, the dictionaries you’ll be using the most fall into two categories on the basis of size and cost: “pocket” and “desktop.” The pocket ones are smaller and cheaper (hence easier to carry to class or while traveling), while the desktop ones are larger and more expensive, but also contain more entries (that is, more words).
Basic Dictionaries Part 1: Pocket-Sized
There are two powerhouse pocket dictionaries:
R. W. Renton & J. A. MacDonald
The original 1979 edition was known as “the little white dictionary” or by its title Abair!. If you’re lucky to find a used copy of the little white book, about 10x14cm in size, it’s worth buying, although the print is tiny – only about 1mm high! There is also a 1994 reprint for sale online, with a different title and a cover illustration of a castle reflected in the water. Unfortunately this edition is also out of print, according to Trueman Matheson, proprietor of the online Gaelic bookstore Sìol Cultural Enterprises in St. Andrews, Nova Scotia.
This is a good dictionary to carry back and forth to class, or to a destination language learning course. Gaelic teacher Davine Sutherland points out that despite its more limited range of words, this little dictionary contains a lot of useful information: up to four forms for each noun (nominative singular, nominative singular with definite article, genitive singular with definite article, and nominative plural); for the verbs, both the second person singular imperative (which is also the root form), and the verbal noun with preposition at (a’/ag); for adjectives, the simple and comparative forms; and for prepositions, an indication of which ones are followed by aspiration and the dative or genitive case.
Boyd Robertson & Iain MacDonald
This one is known as either “the Teach Yourself Gaelic Dictionary” (2004, with a dark cover and a big yellow lower-case ‘g’), or by its second edition title, The Essential Gaelic Dictionary (2011, with a white cover featuring a sprig of heather surrounded by text). This dictionary is meant to pair with the 2011 edition of the Teach Yourself Gaelic course, also written by Robertson and MacDonald (but sold separately), now titled Complete Gaelic, and comes with a book and 2 audio CDs. (Note: the Teach Yourself Gaelic book/audio course set has gone through several transformations over the past few decades. New and used editions of the course book that are still for sale online, with or without audio CDs or cassettes, include the 2005 edition with a photo of purple heather flowers on the cover, the 1995 edition with the red and multicolored painting on the cover, and the earlier blue Teach Yourself Gaelic book by Roderick MacKinnon, first published in 1971, and reprinted regularly through 1992.)
The dictionary lists most of the same information as Renton and MacDonald for nouns, verbs, adjectives, and prepositions, albeit in a more condensed form, and also contains appendices with lists of common Gaelic personal names and placenames, the definite article, regular and irregular verbs, and prepositional pronouns.
Robertson and MacDonald comes highly recommended by multiple Gaelic instructors. Gaelic instructor Davine Sutherland calls it her “all-purpose pocket-dictionary… modern, astonishingly comprehensive, and easy to read and refer to.” Michael Bauer, co-creator of Am Faclair Beag online dictionary, says that Robertson and MacDonald is his “main recommendation for beginners these days,” while Gaelic poet Marcas Mac an Tuairneir writes, “Nuair a bha mi ris a’ Ghàidhlig ionnsachadh san Oilthigh ‘s e am faclair aig Robasdan a mhol iad. ‘S e goireas math a tha sin le taic feumail ann do luchd-ionnsachaidh” [When I was learning Gaelic at university Robertson was the dictionary they recommended. It’s a good resource with useful support for learners].
If you are on a budget, an older used edition might suit your purpose depending on where you live and what you intend to do with Gaelic. Sutherland points out that the most recent edition, the 2011 edition titled Essential Gaelic Dictionary, “reflect[s] recent changes in the spelling conventions (as used in Scotland nowadays for schools, journalism etc). If you ever have to pass exams, this may be useful. Otherwise the previous  edition is just fine, and extremely useful and usable.”
Basic Dictionaries Part 2: Desktop Workhorses
There are two relatively recent desktop dictionaries that any Gaelic learner should know about. Each one has a quirk, however.
Colin Mark’s The Gaelic-English Dictionary/Am Faclair Gàidhlig–Beurla comes highly recommended by Gaelic instructor Davine Sutherland:
“Colin Mark is THE book-based resource for anyone at a higher level of Gaelic – very detailed, original, helpful and practical examples of usage. I would add also that it has an amazing Grammar Reference section at the back that is a book in its own right. If there is ever an English > Gaelic version, or even a word list to allow cross-referencing, it would make it the one best source around. You can get an idea of it, and even look things up in it, via Google Books.”
The main drawback is that Mark is only a unidirectional dictionary, while Watson is bi-directional. As Sutherland notes above, and indeed as the title indicates, Mark only contains entries for Gaelic-English. In other words, you can look up a Gaelic word to find the English equivalent, but not vice versa. This really does bear repeating – I can’t even count the number of times I have absent-mindedly reached for a Gaelic-English dictionary and tried to look up an English word!
One of the Gaelic teachers I polled recommended Mark in preference to the Watson dictionary (see below). Nonetheless, another Gaelic teacher offered a warning:
Mark’s is an excellent dictionary but I’ve seen a very few things that would completely mislead a learner. I can’t think of one offhand, but there are things that may be right within certain contexts and are far afield in terms of everyday translation. (And I don’t mean idiomatic phrases.) I’ve seen very few, but they are there.
Another drawback to Mark is the price: as of the time of writing, a new copy costs about £53 on Amazon.co.uk, and about US$76 on Amazon.com.
The other main desktop dictionary accepted and recommended by the Gaelic users I polled is Angus Watson’s.
Unlike Mark’s dictionary, Watson’s is bidirectional – but still slightly confusing because it can still be purchased online as both a single volume (The Essential Gaelic-English/English-Gaelic Dictionary, 2014) and as two separate volumes (The Essential Gaelic-English Dictionary first published in 2001, with a revised edition in 2004, and The Essential English-Gaelic Dictionary, 2005). All of these are published by Birlinn. If you are buying a used copy online, be very careful that you have got either the combined bidirectional volume, or both unidirectional volumes! The price for the combined volume is more affordable than Mark.
Gaelic instructor Davine Sutherland reviewed the two unidirectional volumes, but her description and positive recommendation can apply equally to the combined volume:
I also use and like the two Angus Watson dictionaries – the E>G is useful as there are few such resources beyond pocket dictionary level, and it’s more modern in outlook and word-selection than Mark, but the G>E is actually more comprehensive, I feel, and has a good section at the back with verbs.
Dwelly: In a Class by Itself
A dictionary that intermediate and advanced learners may wish to buy is Dwelly’s Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary. Edward Dwelly (1864–1939) was a lexicographer who first published his dictionary as a whole in 1911 (although he published sections of it starting in 1901). The dictionary is a tome over 5cm thick, containing over 70,000 entries.
Dwelly’s dictionary has been reprinted at least a dozen times over the years, usually in facsimile edition, but most recently by Akerbeltz who have newly typseset the text in a slightly larger font which may be beneficial to those of us who wear reading glasses!
Dwelly is a unidirectional dictionary with Gaelic-English only, and so like Mark, one can only look up Gaelic words in it. However, the online version, Dwelly-d, makes it bi-directional (see below for further information).
You will find a copy of Dwelly’s on the desk of many fluent speakers. At the time of writing, it is still the most comprehensive Gaelic dictionary in existence, and even though it is over 100 years old, it can act as something of a final authority, settling debates even for native speakers who were raised with the language. Of course it does not contain more contemporary words like post-dealain (e-mail) but it still conveys the richness of traditional Gaelic expressions and vocabulary, some of which has gone out of frequent use but is only waiting to be rediscovered. Gaelic instructor Davine Sutherland treasures hers:
…I still like to use my big old Dwelly as a book, when I’m working at my desk rather than pc – a rich resource and fascinating to wander through at random. Only G>E, so most useful when reading old or difficult texts.
Trueman Matheson likewise uses his regularly:
Still Dwelly’s Dictionary is a requirement for the serious learner. It may be older but still has as many headwords as all other dictionaries combined. My wife and I have four copies (two are almost worn out).
Incidentally, my own household was a three-copy household; my husband brought one copy to the marriage and I brought two, one facsimile edition purchased in Aberdeen in 1990 and a much nicer, older facsimile received from a family member of Basil Megaw after his passing. (We passed one copy on to our minister who lacked one!)
The most useful online Gaelic dictionary is Am Faclair Beag (The Little Dictionary), created by Michael Bauer (who I previousy interviewed) and Will Robertson. This online dictionary also incorporates the online version of Dwelly, also created by Bauer and known as Dwelly-d, which is also available as a separate website.
In this screenshot of the entry for “faclair,” the results from Am Faclair Beag are displayed in the left-hand column and the results from Dwelly-d in the right-hand column:
The online Stòr-Dàta Briathrachais Gàidhlig (Gaelic Terminology Database) hosted by the Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig contains a great deal of the most up-to-date Gaelic vocabulary, and is convenient to use in its free online version (there is also a book version which is out of print). However, it is not a dictionary but rather a word list, with no context given for the words. As such, in the words of Michael Bauer, it is “to be used with caution – in the sense that it’s easy to mislead a learner.” A sample definition shows that on a small scale – two different terms are given, but no recommendation is made about which one is more common (faclair!).
Gaelic poet Marcas Mac an Tuairneir calls attention to a useful feature in the Stòr-Dàta, the two check-boxes with an asterisk (*) before and after which allow you to look up partial words:
“Chan ann gun tric a chleachdainn Stòr-dàta air loidhne ach ma tha mi a’ cleachdadh * le freumh facail is mi sireadh faclan an eagan le chèile. Gu mì-fhortanach chan eil mìneachadh sam bith am measg mìneachadh nam facal is bidh agam ri faclair.com a chleachdadh gus a bhith cinnteach, mur a h-eil mi eòlach air facal sam bith.” [I wouldn’t use Stòr-dàta online often except if I use an asterisk with an etymon (root word), looking for rhyming words. Unfortunately there is no meaning at all in the word definitions and I’ll have to use Am Faclair Beag to be certain, if I’m not familiar with any of the words.]
The LearnGaelic online dictionary uses selected content from Am Faclair Beag under a license. It does not contain as much information as Am Faclair Beag, but clicking on the tiny dropdown arrow next to certain words gives information such as the plural, and pronunciation in IPA. There is also a clickable audio file for many of the words and phrases.
The Scottish Parliament website provides a list of these and other free online Gaelic resources, including a Gaelic thesaurus, Scottish Natural Heritage nature vocabulary, the Dictionary for Local Government of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, and Gaelic Vocabulary for Specialised Subjects.
Regional and Specialty Word-lists
Apart from the free online resources mentioned above, there are quite a few Gaelic specialty dictionaries and word-lists published in book form. These might be purchased by an advanced Gaelic learner, or one who lives in or whose ancestors are from the particular area in question.
Some of these specialty dictionaries are for words that are unique to regional dialects that were historically spoken in different areas of Scotland, including the following titles:
The Gaelic of the Mackay Country by Seumas Grannd (Taigh na Gàidhlig Mhealanais, 2013)
Gaelic Words and Phrases from Wester Ross by Roy Wentworth (Clar, 2003)
Gaelic Words and Expressions from South Uist and Eriskay Collected by Rev. Fr. Allan McDonald of Eriskay (1859-1905) ed. by J. L. Campbell, 2nd ed. (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1972, reprinted 1991 [first ed. 1958])
Other specialty word-lists are not dialect dictionaries, but rather booklets containing lists of the Gaelic placenames of particular areas. Such traditional placenames are also easily lost when they were only transmitted through oral tradition and not included on printed maps. These include for example:
Ainmean Àiteachan Sgìre Sholais (Placenames of the Sollas area of North Uist) by Catriona M. NicIain
Place-names of Scarp by John MacLennan, ed. Calum J. Mackay (Stornoway Gazette Ltd., 2001)
The Gaelic Place-names of Carloway, Isle of Lewis, Richard A. V. Cox (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 2002)
Others are lists of specialty vocabulary, including for example the names of Gaelic plants which have faded from use as people have ceased to use the plants themselves for nutrition, medicine, and dyes:
Ainmean Gàidhlig Lusan – Gaelic Names of Plants by Joan W. Clark and Ian MacDonald, 1999.
Last but not least, no list of specialty dictionaries would be complete without Michael Newton’s The Naughty Little Book of Gaelic. Did your Gaelic teacher ever try tell you that there were no curse words in Gaelic? My very first teacher did!
The Dictionary You Probably Shouldn’t Buy
When I took my first university Gaelic course in 1990, the instructor told us that there was one dictionary we should not buy in our first year, even though it was stocked by the university bookstore in the high street. It is a reprint of a dictionary first published in 1925, known as “MacLennan’s” after the author, Malcolm MacLennan. It’s a facsimile edition, which means that it’s a reprint of the exact image of each original page.
The edition that I was warned about was published in 1979 by Acair and Mercat Press. It came in both hardback and paperback, with a green cover. That one is out of print, though it still pops up for sale online. It has now been reprinted with a shiny, attractive new cover, but the author and the 1925 contents are still the same. On Amazon there are new and used copies for sale, and the listings even feature 4- and 5-star reviews.
Why not buy this dictionary as a beginning student of Gaelic? First, if you were learning English as a second language, would you want your main English dictionary to reflect the language as spoken no later than 1925? No? Then apply the same logic to Gaelic. It’s a living language, not a fantasy time capsule.
Secondly, this dictionary can be very misleading to students. It lists obscure and archaic terms side by side with words that are still in use, with no indication of which is which.
For example, picking an entry at random from the English-to-Gaelic section, my eye fell on “eagle.” Three Gaelic words are given, with no clarification or context: iolaire, fìr-eun, and a’ bhratach Ròmanach. The first, iolaire, is the proper word for “eagle” that you would want from a dictionary. The second according to Dwelly’s also means eagle or possibly just golden eagle, and the third means “the Roman standard.” Wait, what? If you are a language learner doing your homework, how are you supposed to know that “iolaire” is pretty much the only word among these choices that you need, 99% of the time?
Even worse, my university Gaelic teacher warned me that MacLennan included words that he made up. That’s right, not real words that people commonly used, but words he made up himself. While we could never conclusively prove this unless we found a diary in which the author confessed that he Made Shit Up, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Here are MacLennan’s entries for “faclair/dictionary”:
MacLennan defines “faclair” not as “dictionary” but only as “vocabulary”.
And for “dictionary,” MacLennan gives facalair – not the correct faclair. As far as can be determined, facalair is not, and never has been, a real Gaelic word. I have never even heard it used once in over 25 years. It is not in any other Gaelic dictionary, even Dwelly. It is possible that it could be an obscure term used in a single dialect that is now obsolete, but even in that case, it would not be helpful at all to Gaelic learners! (By the way, the Irish equivalent is foclóir, and as of the writing of this blog post, the earliest attestation in eDIL is in a 16th century manuscript.)
Here is how some highly respected Gaelic teachers have reviewed the dictionary (I have chosen not to include their names):
“I gave up on MacLennan’s very early on, do not advise it to anyone.”
“MacLennan’s, to quote a friend, ought to be pulped or banned or both.”
“I begin every year telling [my students] ‘Maclennan’s’ Dictionary ought to be burned, and further reprints banned – a mean con-trick played on learners trying to steward their limited finances thus brought to an end. But they probably just wonder what I’m wittering on about a printed book for.”
Out-of-Print Dictionaries – Good, Bad, and Ugly
Some of the dictionaries that were new when I started learning Gaelic are now out-of-print! You’ll see a couple of them in the photo that accompanies this post. If you see them for a reasonable price in a used bookstore, they are worth buying:
Derick Thomson’s New English-Gaelic Dictionary (1986) is unidirectional and was created to fill the gap that is now better bridged by the Stòr-Dàta and Watson (see above).
Robert Owen’s Modern Gaelic-English Dictionary (1993) is also unidirectional and is superseded by Mark (see above). Both Thomson and Owen are a nice compact size however.
Apart from Dwelly, there is no dictionary over 100 years old that the average Gaelic learner would absolutely need to acquire. If you find one for a reasonable price in an antique shop or used bookstore, feel free to indulge in your love of old books.
But beware unscrupulous “publishers” who take old Gaelic dictionaries that are now in the public domain, and reprint them in facsimile edition to sell to unsuspecting buyers on Amazon. I include links here for informational purposes only – do not buy these! For example:
Neil MacAlpine’s Pronouncing Gaelic-English Dictionary, “to Which Is Prefixed a Concise, but Most Comprehensive Grammar,” published 1866. Available free online through Google Books.
MacLeod and Dewar, A Dictionary of the Gaelic Language in Two Parts, published 1831. Also available in a Kindle edition (seriously?). Available free online through Google Books.
How To Use a Dictionary
As you may have realized by now, you can’t trust every Gaelic dictionary that you find on the internet, or even on the shelf of a bookstore. Most of the time, dictionary recommendations should come word-of-mouth from your Gaelic teacher.
To avoid frustration, it’s also best to have a clear understanding of what a dictionary can and cannot do for you:
Word Lookup: Because the spelling (and pronunciation) of a Gaelic word can change so much depending on its role in the sentence (for nouns, nominative vs. dative vs. genitive case, and plural vs. singular; for verbs, tense), sometimes it’s not even possible to look up a word until you know the original uninflected form. Gaelic is a Celtic language, and one thing the Celtic languages are known for is initial consonant mutation, which is reflected in both spelling and pronunciation. So any Gaelic noun you encounter “in the wild” may be spelled with a slightly different combination of letters than usual… which makes it harder to look it up in a dictionary, especially if you are less experienced.
Another way that the spelling of words has changed is through orthographic reform. For example, Mark’s dictionary only uses the most recent Gaelic spelling reforms (GOC or Gaelic Orthographic Conventions). Thus if one is trying to look up a Gaelic word from an older source, whose spelling was substantially changed by GOC, it might be difficult to find it. In this case, it would be better to use Dwelly, or another dictionary which uses pre-GOC orthography such as Renton & MacDonald.
Translation: Dictionaries should never be used to translate an entire phrase, sentence, or text word-for-word (especially for something as permanent and expensive as a tattoo)! Dictionaries are a guide to the lexicon (words) of a language; they do not usually contain all the grammatical information you need to use those words correctly and coherently in a sentence. Even when they do contain grammar guides, those are to refresh your memory, not to substitute for taking a language course. This can’t be stressed enough.
Idioms: Much of the time, dictionaries cannot tell you the meaning of Gaelic idioms. An idiom is an expression whose meaning by definition cannot be understood from the individual words. Some dictionaries like Dwelly do include some idioms in some word entries, and sometimes you’ll be lucky to find the right one. The online dictionary Am Faclair Beag, incorporating Dwelly’s, is the best place to try searching for the meaning of an impenetrable idiom, because a word search will turn up more entries containing that word. But most often, you’ll have to either ask someone, or build up your knowledge of idioms over time.
Pronunciation: A dictionary cannot teach you proper Gaelic pronunciation. Even a so-called “pronouncing dictionary” will only give you an approximation of what the word really sounds like in Gaelic. You cannot rely on a written phonetic representation, using English sounds, to pronounce a Gaelic word correctly. For example, MacLennan’s is a pronouncing dictionary… and it gives “facler” for faclair (see photo above). This does not represent the preaspiration before the c (not found in most dialects of English), nor the quality of the ‘r’ sound which is substantially different from English.
The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) does represent the sounds of Gaelic accurately in writing. It is a specialist tool and not everyone can master the IPA for daily use outside of linguistics.
Looking stuff up without learning the language: This relates to both pronunciation and the challenge of looking up words out of context, as well as entire phrases.
A one-star review of a Gaelic dictionary on Amazon said “I wanted it to refer to words used in “Outlander.” It wasn’t much help—most of the words weren’t listed in the dictionary.” Another poor review of a different Gaelic dictionary said “I am currently wrapped up in the Diana Gabaldon series [Outlander] which is set in Scotland. I want to know how to say the Gaelic words used in the books. I majored in foreign languages and never had a dictionary that didn’t include pronunciation. I returned the dictionary immediately (along with the Irish dictionary which was equally lacking).”
It’s not clear if the first reviewer was referring to the books or the television series, but if you’re a non-Gaelic speaker and you try to look up a Gaelic word in a Gaelic dictionary going by how it sounded, you will almost certainly not succeed. If you look up a Gaelic word expecting to learn exactly how it’s pronounced, you will be disappointed unless you use the online dictionaries mentioned above.
If you’re trying to look up entire phrases or sentences that you’ve read in a book, or even looking up individual words plucked randomly out of those phrases, then this is a case in which you are expecting too much from a dictionary. This relates to the difficulties of looking up words, described above. You would be far better off spending the money to take a beginner Gaelic language course (and asking the teacher).
Fortunately, the words listed in this Outlander Wiki are in all Gaelic dictionaries.
Respected Gaelic teacher Angus MacLeod in Nova Scotia sums up the dangers of mis-using a dictionary:
“…I think it exceptionally important that students understand very early on that translations are approximations and that placing too much confidence in them to give you the “meaning” of the word will at least slow down and sometimes prevent proper language acquisition.
dictionary – (n) – pl. dictionaries 1. good flashlight 2. bad crutch.”
Where to Buy Your Dictionary?
Ethically speaking, it’s best to buy your dictionary from a place that will support the Gaelic language in some way. These include:
Sìol Cultural Enterprises in Nova Scotia, Canada
The Gaelic Books Council in Glasgow, Scotland
Additionally, this post contains some affiliate links to Amazon. If you choose to purchase a dictionary through one of these links, a small percentage of the purchase price will help to support this blog.
What is the Gaelic dictionary you use the most or recommend to your students? Leave a comment below and let us know!