How (Not) to Use Scottish Gaelic in Your Novel: A Guide for Authors

by | Apr 28, 2019

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In this post I’ll give some guidance on how to incorporate elements of Scottish Gaelic language into an English-language work of fiction such as a historical novel, fantasy novel, or short story. This post is mainly for authors who do not have previous experience of growing up in a historically Gaelic-speaking area, or living in such an area, and authors who have not previously studied Gaelic language and culture in depth. In this post I’ll discuss examples of how Gaelic-speaking characters are portrayed by non-Gaels in English-language fiction, and make some suggestions for how to incorporate Gaelic language elements into your novel — or not!

Gaelic in Outlander

The most well-known recent example of this is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Gabaldon’s use of Gaelic in her writing has been a mixed blessing. On the positive side, it has greatly raised awareness of the existence of Gaelic among the non-Gaelic-speaking general public, and the production of the television series created some further visibility as well as employment for Gaelic speakers. If you’re writing English-language fiction about 18th-century Highlanders — in other words, Gaels — then it’s only logical to incorporate historical information about their language and culture into your writing. The more of this you can incorporate, and the more accurate it is, the more realistic and believable your fiction ought to be.

I think it’s great that Gabaldon did this. Her choice was very much outside the box when she starting writing the novels, because Gaelic language and culture had been largely neglected and overlooked in depictions of the Highlands by anglophone media and culture. In the 1990s, when she was writing, even many Scottish historians who researched the Highlands didn’t think it was necessary to say much about Gaelic language and culture, or consider Gaelic a valid research language.

On the other hand, Gabaldon picked 18th century Scotland as a setting for her novel almost by accident after seeing an old episode of Doctor Who featuring the companion character Jamie McCrimmon. Gabaldon also has a Ph.D. in quantitative behavioural ecology, though, and she had an academic career as an expert in scientific computation before starting to write fiction. She had been trained in how to conduct research, and she was not raised with the blinkers of prejudice about Gaelic and the Highlands that so many Scots were. So after selecting a time and a place to set her first novel, Gabaldon conducted library research about that time and place and discovered among other things that Highlanders spoke Gaelic. Therefore, she made a logical decision to include some bits of Gaelic dialogue in her novels.

Unfortunately, the Gaelic wasn’t done entirely correctly. Here is an example from the very first book in the series (I have strategically excerpted it here, because the original passage is from a sex scene):

“You’re mine, mo duinne,” he said softly… “Mine alone, now and forever. Mine, whether ye will it or no… Aye, I mean to use ye hard, my Sassenach,” he whispered. “I want to own you, to possess you, body and soul.” (Outlander, 1991, p. 319)

The tiny bits of Gaelic in this short passage have multiple problems: “Duine” is spelled with one “n,” not two, and “mo” means “my” but it also changes the spelling and pronunciation of the noun following it, so the phrase would be “Mo dhuine.” However, mo dhuine means “my fellow,” “my man,” or “my husband,” and so in this passage the male character Jamie is calling the female character Claire “my husband” in Gaelic. If this was accurate as written, it would certainly be a major plot twist, but it’s clearly a mistake that is not in keeping with the actual story.

As a Gaelic speaker, I experience a “nails on chalkboard” physical reaction to reading the above passage. I can describe the mistakes to you, but I can’t make you experience the pain of it, which is just as well. Almost as bad as the pain is the numbness that comes from repeating the mistake to explain it.

Gabaldon acknowledges on her website that she eventually learned that “mo duinne” wasn’t correct. She notes that in between writing books two and three of the series, she was advised by a native Gaelic-speaking consultant to use “mo nighean donn” instead, and she seems to have done so from then on.

Mo nighean donn is an appropriate, culturally-relevant choice. It is part of the title and chorus in the well-known Gaelic song “An Cluinn Thu Mi Mo Nighean Donn” (Will you listen to me, my brown-haired girl?). You can hear the audience singing along with the chorus in this audio recording of a performance by Art Cormack at a cèilidh at the Royal National Mòd in 1986, in the Tobair an Dualchais online archive.

Someone has made an Outlander fan video that connects this traditional Gaelic song with and the use of the phrase in Outlander, pairing a photo from the television series with this recording of the song from the Isle of Benbecula by John Alex MacKay and Seonaidh MacIntyre on MacIntyre’s album The Torlum Sessions:

“Mo nighean donn” was also used in place of “mo duinne” in the dialogue of the equivalent scene in the Starz Outlander television show, found in season 1, episode 9. I wanted to post a GIF of it here, but it’s still a sex scene… the Vulture media blog describes it thus: “Bless those smut-loving producers at Starz! They show us nearly everything.”

By the way, in the original book quote above, there’s also the problematic use of the Scots word “Sassenach,” derived from the Gaelic word “Sasannach,” which does not mean “outlander” or “foreigner” — it only means an Englishman. In Gaelic the word is neutral, but in Scots the word has a pejorative sense which can be offensive to English people. (I’m sorry I can’t go into the issue in greater detail here, but I’ll write another blog post about this word!)

Gaelic Characters in Scottish Fiction

You might think that English-language authors living in Scotland, especially during the era when Gaelic speakers were far more numerous, would have had an edge on Diana Gabaldon in 1990s New Mexico in the accurate portrayal of Gaelic speakers in fiction.

However, it turns out that English-language authors in Scotland did not tend to depict Scottish Gaelic speaking characters in novels very accurately, either. From the 19th century through to the mid-20th, English and Scottish authors wrote novels and literary nonfiction set in the Highlands and islands of Scotland, depicting Gaelic-speaking characters with varying amounts of stereotyping and linguistic blunders.

The first Scottish author to depict Gaelic-speaking characters in prose fiction was Sir Walter Scott, starting with his 1814 historical novel Waverley. Not coincidentally, Scott also pioneered the historical novel, creating an enduring, heavily romanticized image of Scottish history and culture through his writing.

“Disbanded”. Illustration to Walter Scott’s novel Waverley, engraving by F. Huth after a painting by John Pettie, as found in 1893 illustrated print edition available on Project Gutenberg. Wikimedia Commons.

“Disbanded”. Illustration to Walter Scott’s novel Waverley, engraving by F. Huth after a painting by John Pettie, as found in 1893 illustrated print edition available on Project Gutenberg. Wikimedia Commons.

Although Scott’s fiction was enthusiastically received among anglophone readers worldwide, a Gaelic-speaking minister named Rev. Colin C. Grant took issue with it in a paper delivered to the Gaelic Society of Inverness in 1889. The paper, titled “Highland-English as found in books” (Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. 15, 1888-89, pp. 172-188), complained about the depiction of Gaelic speakers by Scott and other 19th-century authors:

“…fiction offends against good taste, the canon of art in writing, whenever any [character] speaks what and as one of the class, to which he is described to belong, could not and would not have spoken. In English works, then, where it is the case of a Highlander, these laws of correct writing are in very rare cases observed. When a [character who is a] Highlander opens his mouth he is no longer one of ours.” (p. 173)

The Rev. Grant’s complaints included the following misrepresentations of Highland speech, that is, the speech of native Gaelic-speaking characters in both Gaelic and English, in works of fiction:

1. Using “eye dialect” to represent Gaelic-accented English

Eye dialect,” or “the use of nonstandard spelling for speech to draw attention to pronunciation,” was often used to represent the speech of a native Gaelic speaker who spoke English with a heavy Gaelic accent. However, this was usually done incorrectly, because most English-language authors did not have an ear for Gaelic or Gaelic-influenced English.

B is frequently altered to p, d to t, v to f, th to s. Thus because becomes pecause, good becomes goot, very becomes ferry, and three becomes sree. Now, if writers who have learned this much would limit themselves to these faults no one would complain. But when they have not learned how a Highlander would express himself they fall back upon their own imagination. This is not an allowable method, for it offends against the truth. […] …it appears to me that the whole talent displayed by these writers, if it can be called talent, is wasted in trying to make as much a muddle as possible of the words of the Highlander. It seems a too extravagant effort to make him speak as he naturally would speak.

In Compton Mackenzie’s well-known novel Whisky Galore (1947), it is used for comic effect and to emphasize the difference in language and culture between bilingual, Hebridean English-speaking islander and standard English-speaking outsider. Part of a conversation between Sergeant-major Alfred Ernest Odd and the mailboat skipper Captain Donald MacKechnie of the island Great Todday demonstrates this:

“You’ve had a long churney right enough, Sarchant. Teffonshire? That’s a place I neffer was in. It’s a crate place for cream, I believe.”
“It may have been a great place for cream before this war, but we didn’t see much cream where I’ve been since I got back from Africa,” said the Sergeant-major. “No, give me good old Scotland before Devonshire any day of the week – except perhaps Sunday,” he added quickly.
“Ah, but the Sabbath’s not what it was,” Captain MacKechnie insisted firmly. “When I was a poy, man, it wass a tay. My word, what a tay, too, what a tay! I remember my mother once sat down on the cat, because you’ll understand the plinds were pulled down in our house every Sabbath and she didn’t chust see where she was sitting. The cat let out a great sgiamh and I let out a huge laugh, and did my father take the skin off me next day? Man, I was sitting down on proken glass for a week afterwards…” (p. 10)

2. Exaggerating English errors

Quite a few authors depicted poorly spoken English by Gaelic speakers for comic effect, including exaggerated errors in translation from Gaelic to English. Rev. Grant singled out for particular criticism the over-use of “she” in place of “it” and “he” when referring to inanimate objects. At the time when he wrote, this was was a genuine mistake made occasionally by Gaelic speakers who were not fully fluent in English, but Grant noted that authors like Scott sprinkled these mistakes liberally in their writing for comic effect, putting “she” in Gaelic characters’ mouths even where it would never have been realistically done, due to the noun in question being masculine in Gaelic. Even beyond inanimate objects, Scott and other authors had male characters refer to other men, and themselves, in the third person as “she.”

A 20th-century example is found on pp. 2-3 of the first novel by Lillian Beckwith, The Hills Is Lonely (1959), ostensibly a fictional novel, but based on her real-life experience of moving from England to the Isle of Skye:

An illness some months previously had led my doctor to order me away to the country for a long complete rest. A timely windfall in the shape of a small annuity had made it possible for me to give up a not very lucrative teaching post in a smoky North of England town, and look around for a suitable place where, within the limits of my purse, I might, in the doctor’s words, ‘rest without being too lazy, and laze without being too restive’.

My advertisement in a well-known periodical had brought an avalanche of tempting offers. England it appeared, was liberally dotted with miniature Paradises for anyone seeking recuperative solitude, and I had almost decided to remove myself temporarily to a Kentish farmhouse when the postman brought a letter which changed my plans completely. The envelope bore a Hebridean postmark; the handwriting, though straggly, was fairly legible, but the words themselves painted a picture as vivid and inviting as a railway poster. It ran thus:

Dear Madam,
Its just now I saw your advert when I got the book for the knitting pattern I wanted from my cousin Catriona. I am sorry I did not write sooner if you are fixed up if you are not in any way fixed up I have a good good house stone and tiles and my brother Ruari who will wash down with lime twice every year. Ruari is married and lives just by. She is not damp. I live by myself and you could have the room that is not a kitchen and bedroom reasonable. I was in the kitchen of the Thirds house till lately when he was changed God rest his soul the poor old gentleman that he was. You would be very welcomed. I have a cow also for milk and eggs and the minister at the manse will be referee if you wish such.
Yours affectionately,
Morag McDugan.
PS. She is not thatched.

This “she” is not a mistake that a Gaelic speaker would have made, because the Gaelic word for house, taigh, is masculine. But what kind of impression does this mistake create of the character Morag McDugan? What kind of contrast does it set up between Morag and the English narrator?

Books by Lillian Beckwith. Photo courtesy of The Eclectic Book Gatherer

Books by Lillian Beckwith. Photo courtesy of The Eclectic Book Gatherer

3. Mis-use of Scots words and phrases

Grant criticizes Sir Walter Scott, and others following in his footsteps, for writing Gaelic characters who use words and phrases in the Scots language. This is an anachronism. Historically, native Gaelic speakers in the Highlands of Scotland did not speak Scots. They learned English, not Scots, in school, and eventually the English spoken in the Highlands of Scotland became known as a variety of its own which is called Highland English by linguists (with a sub-variant called Hebridean English).

Scots was and still is a language of the Scottish Lowland areas and cities, although the use of Scots in the media and people’s tendency to move around Scotland and settle in different areas both mean that the linguistic boundary has softened.

We also see this throughout Outlander, particularly with use of the Scots words “aye,” “lass” and “fash”, which a Highland Gaelic speaker would not have used.

4. Incorrect Gaelic

This point was not raised by Rev. Grant, but I have already touched on this above in relation to Outlander. Scottish Gaelic has both grammar and a spelling system, and although the spelling system has been changed and updated over the years, Gaelic spelling is never random. There is in fact quite a limited number of ways to spell any given Gaelic word correctly, and misspellings are just as undesirable in Gaelic as they are in English. But you would never know that from the way that Gaelic words have been written in most English-language fiction.

Author Compton Mackenzie successfully incorporated Gaelic expressions into the dialogue of Whisky Galore, including a glossary at the back. Linguist David Cram analyzed the use of Gaelic in the novel, and noted that the meaning of the Gaelic words and expressions used by Mackenzie could be extrapolated from their surrounding English context (further aided by a glossary at the back of the book). Gaelic was used to frame the English dialogue, in order to indicate when the islander characters were speaking, and sometimes in order to indicate that a conversation reported in English had taken place in Gaelic. However, although the Gaelic is technically correct, the novel is still a mixed bag: simultaneously a sentimental and parochial depiction of whisky-obsessed Gaelic-speaking islanders, and a satire in which the islanders defeat the powers that be.

Summing up

This list is brief, but any number of research papers and theses could be written on the topic. From Waverley to Outlander, anglophone authors have used interaction between Gaels and anglophones (whether Scottish or English) to create “man vs. man” conflict in the narrative of Scottish historical novels and novels depicting life in the Highlands and islands.

However, the overall effect of most of these portrayals by outsiders has been to subtly mock and belittle the Gaelic-speaking characters. Rev. Grant summed it up in the view of his time (albeit focused solely on male characters):

“When [most English writers] portray the Highlander they portray a gentleman in manners. When they put a sword into his hands they arm a hero. But when they put words into his mouth they show us but a baby or a fool. How can writers represent what they themselves do not know? They should never have made the attempt.” (p. 181)

As a Gaelic speaker I find these portrayals cringey to read, not only because they are wrong, but also because they highlight the historical difference in power between English speakers and Gaelic speakers, and the ways that English speakers dominated and tried to destroy Gaelic, and then continually depicted it as amusing and quaint. These portrayals have helped to perpetuate ignorance and stereotypes that still affect how Gaelic speakers and our language are perceived and treated in anglophone society.

How to Use Gaelic in Fiction: Advice for Anglophone Authors

The way that Gaelic has been used and represented in English-language historical fiction leave us with a lot of undesirable baggage, frankly. What should you do if you have no previous experience with the language or culture, but you still really, really want to incorporate Scottish Gaelic linguistic elements into your fiction? Here is my advice for authors about how to approach the issue:

1. Understand that Gaelic is not a magical fantasy language

Gaelic is a real, natural, human language with a written literature, an extensively documented oral literature, grammar and vocabulary, and textbooks and dictionaries. To reiterate, actual Scottish Gaelic literature exists: literature written entirely in Gaelic, for Gaelic-reading audiences, including emerging genres like science fiction.

Gaelic is not a screen onto which English-language authors should project anglophone magickal fantasies. Its hurts us as Gaelic speakers if you do. And these days, we bite back.

This Twitter thread explains a bit more about why you should care as an anglophone author.

No matter what you think, Gaelic is not an inherently magical language, any more than English is. The “magic” in Gaelic, like the magic in any language, comes from connecting with people in a cultural community, learning and using the language in culturally appropriate ways, paying attention to the context and content of what real people have said, sung, and written in the language over centuries, respecting and learning about traditions before building on them and playing with them in the name of innovation, and appreciating and participating in the relationships between people that are formed in and through all of this.

If you’re just using Gaelic because you want to give a magical flavour to your story, consider what you think is magical about the language, and see if you can convey that magic through your writing instead of leaning on borrowed Gaelic words (which most of your readers won’t understand) to make it feel magical.

2. Understand that no Gaelic speaker owes you anything

Simply telling a Gaelic speaker “I need to have Gaelic in my novel because reasons” does not create an obligation on their part to help you make that happen.

If you contact people or ask in online forums and get replies and help, great! But if no one replies to your requests, then you are probably asking for more than you realize (and possibly also acting entitled about it). No one is obligated to translate anything for you, particularly for free. Translation is real work, and good, reliable translation costs money, the same as plumbing, haircuts, and legal services do. Fluent Gaelic speakers may or may not be interested in translating material for a book that doesn’t relate to real-life Gaelic culture, unless perhaps it’s for a paid job, or as a favour to a friend.

In particular, if you want to get a song or verse translated into Gaelic that you’ve written in English, please understand that literary translations are quite difficult, and translations of poetry and verse are the most difficult of all! If your high fantasy spell sounds cheeseball in English, it will still sound cheeseball in Gaelic.

See my blog post about Gaelic tattoos, and The Scottish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook, for more explanations of how Gaelic speakers view folks who ask for translations without getting involved in Gaelic language and culture first. It can be seen as cultural appropriation.

This may sound harsh, but the bottom line is that Gaelic speakers and teachers don’t owe you anything as a writer. The only person who “needs” your novel to be finished is you (unless of course it’s under contract, and then your publisher needs it, too). But in the end, it’s your project. If you lack the linguistic and cultural know-how to make Gaelic a part of your fictional work, and you aren’t in some kind of social relationship with people who have that know-how, and you can’t get anyone else excited enough about the project to help, then you can’t drag collaborators in against their will, no matter how determined you are.

3. Don’t Use Google Translate for your novel

So you can’t find anyone to help, but you’re still feeling determined. Can’t you just plug your text into Google Translate? Noooooooo! Never use Google Translate to translate a phrase, dialogue, verse, spell, or anything that’s going into your novel. Google Translate is not reliable for permanent and printed uses like tattoos, signs, and books.

The only exception I can think of is if you’re running the English text through Google Translate to generate some text as a placeholder, before you hire a professional translator to do the translation.

Likewise, do not try to undertake a word-by-word translation by yourself using an online dictionary. I guarantee that it will be wrong.

4. Start learning the Scottish Gaelic language

At a bare minimum, you absolutely must study the basics of the Gaelic language before trying to incorporate anything into your story. Studying Gaelic is an essential way to start connecting with the language and culture. You’ll learn more, while also starting to realize the depth of what you don’t know. This can be either a great motivator to learn more and do better in the research for your writing project, or a good warning sign to change the direction of your project.

Also, when you take group classes (whether online or in person), you may meet fellow students and teachers who may share your interests, and that can sometimes lead to friendships and collaboration further down the road.

How should you go about studying the language? In my post “Learning Scottish Gaelic” I offer lots of tips about online classes, free resources, and Facebook groups. The Mango Languages app is also offering Gaelic for free now.

5. Read about Scottish Gaelic history and culture

Not only is Gaelic not magical, it’s also a language whose speakers have quite a long real-life history which has been sorely neglected in mainstream history research, books, and education, even in Scotland until recently. If you intend to incorporate anything in or about Gaelic into your fiction writing, I strongly recommend to read more about Gaelic history in books first. Here are just a few reading suggestions:

The online review article “The Highlands” by Murray Pittock in Oxford Bibliographies, if you can get access through a library that subscribes to it.

Books by James Hunter, including The Making of the Crofting Community (1976, reprinted 2010), Last of the Free: A History of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (2010)

Books by T. M. Devine, including The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed, 1600-1900 (2018) and Clanship to Crofters’ War: The social transformation of the Scottish Highlands (1994, reprinted 2013).

There are also books that are out of print but worth seeking out in libraries and used bookstores, including Warriors of the Word by Michael Newton and Gaelic in Scotland 1698 to 1891: the geographical history of a language by Charles Withers.

6. Experience Gaelic culture through its literature and song

Listening to real Gaelic songs and studying their lyrics can also help you to immerse more in the historical culture. Here’s a post to help get you started with real Gaelic songs sung by fluent Gaelic-speaking singers. Many of the songs are quite old, with some dating as far back as the 1600s-1700s.

Surviving Gaelic literature dates from as early as the 12th century CE, and a broad summary can be found here. Unfortunately, information on Gaelic literature and oral tradition is easiest to access if you’re affiliated with a university library–it really shouldn’t be that way! So you may have to dig.

Most Gaelic poetry is published in parallel English translation; that is, with the original Gaelic poem on one page and the English translation on the facing page. Translations are usually done by the author her/himself for modern poetry. So you will be able to read and appreciate the poetry in translation to some extent. You can find Gaelic poetry and literature to order online from Comhairle nan Leabhraichean (the Gaelic Books Council) in Scotland and publishers such as Birlinn, Acair, Luath, (and my own company Bradan Press).

If you prefer something medieval, why not start with this anthology of poems from 600-1600 CE, Duanaire Na Sracaire: Songbook of the Pillagers: Anthology of Scotland’s Gaelic Verse to 1600. If you prefer modern poetry, there are anthologies of that, too. Or for sexy Gaelic poetry that goes way beyond Outlander territory: An Leabhar Liath: 500 years of Gaelic love and transgressive verse.

If you’re writing fantasy and you want to get an idea of what Scottish Gaelic spells and charms were probably like, check out the Carmina Gadelica, published in multiple volumes in the early 1900s. It contains many examples of real Gaelic charms and prayers, although in many cases they were heavily edited by the collector-author Alexander Carmichael. I suggest to read some background information about the Carmina Gadelica before looking at the free online texts. If you think you may want to use them for research, definitely read the introduction by John MacInnes in this edition or in this collection of MacInnes’s essays. Speaking as a denizen of the 21st century, I found it difficult to make sense of some of the Carmina Gadelica texts in translation — from a modern, anglophone perspective they can seem really “out there.” They didn’t really make sense to me until I could read them aloud in Gaelic and hear the poetry in them.

7. Consider using a conlang (constructed language) instead

Gaelic is a natural language, not a conlang like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish. Tolkien did base Elvish in part on Welsh, another Celtic language (Tolkien also reportedly hated the Gaelic languages!). [Correction: Tolkien disliked Old Irish and modern Irish (Gaeilge) in particular; he had nothing to say about the other Gaelic/Goidelic languages, Scottish Gaelic or Manx; see passages from Tolkien’s correspondence in my comment below this post.] But hey, if this is the sort of thing you’re interested in doing, why not construct your own conlang based on Gaelic. Again, you’ll need to learn about Gaelic before you can do that, but I think that would be a very cool idea. For resources, consult the Language Creation Society website.

These are some suggestions to help you consider carefully whether to incorporate Scottish Gaelic into your English-language fiction, and to point you in direction of helpful resources if you decide to do it.

And, because sequels are awesome, I’m very pleased to announce that next month’s post will be a sequel to this one! Iona Datt Sharma is writing a guest post on their process of incorporating Scottish Gaelic into an English-language science fiction short story. Iona is a British-Indian writer, with a longstanding interest in Gaelic and other colonized languages. Their debut short story collection, Not For Use In Navigation, is available here.

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