So You Want a Scottish Gaelic Tattoo – Part Two
(1) Find a professional translator who will do the translation for you.* It’s not easy to find a professional translator who deals with Scottish Gaelic. Why? Because as I discussed in the previous post, Gaelic is an endangered language. There are just not that many of us Gaelic speakers in the world, compared to speakers of Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, and Hindi/Urdu, for example. If every non-Gaelic speaker who got a Gaelic tattoo paid a professional translator to translate or check it for them, this would support the Gaelic language community in a significant and concrete way. If you are planning to spend hundreds of dollars, pounds, or euros to have a design injected permanently into your skin, then it is not unreasonable to spend a bit more to ensure that it is correctly spelled and idiomatically translated. You will have peace of mind, and your tattoo will be not only beautiful but also ethical.
(2) My second suggestion is hardcore — learn the language. If Gaelic is important enough to you that you want to inscribe it permanently on your body, then spend 3 to 5 years studying Scottish Gaelic first, at your own pace, in whatever manner you can afford (here are some suggestions and resources). Studying the language will start to give you a feel for the culture and the kinds of things that people express in Gaelic. (Hint: it’s different from English.) After 3 to 5 years, you will probably still not be fluent enough to make your own elaborate tattoo translation, but you will be able to do some simple ones, you might have a greater sense of what Gaelic expressions are desirable to tattoo, and you may even have started to make some friends and acquaintances who would be willing to do a reliable translation out of goodwill, because you are helping the language too (but my warnings still apply). In this case, your tattoo will be even more deeply significant to you, as well as being supportive of Gaelic in general.
(3) If you can’t do either of these two things, my third suggestion is to find a line or phrase from a Gaelic poem or song that speaks to you, and make that your tattoo. 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, and then select the Gaelic translation of the line on the facing page. I would recommend that you post such a Gaelic passage on an online forum and say “I want to make this into a tattoo — which portion of the Gaelic passage corresponds exactly with this passage in the English translation?” The good news is that you are liable to get much more reliable and friendly advice than you would when asking for a random translation, as you will be demonstrating greater involvement with the language.
You can find Gaelic poetry books to order online from Sìol Cultural Enterprises in Nova Scotia, the Gaelic Books Council in Scotland, and publishers and bookshops. If you prefer something medieval, why not start with an anthology of poems from AD 600-1600? If you prefer modern poetry, there are anthologies of that, too. You can also ask people for reading recommendations on various topics: love, war, death and loss, spirituality, sexuality. In this way, just as with hiring a translator or actually learning the language, your Gaelic tattoo will still be supporting the Gaelic language, not detracting from it. But Gaelic poetry books are expensive, you say? Probably no more expensive than the tattoo you are planning! You’re worth it, and so is the Gaelic language and culture you love.
* Professional Scottish Gaelic translators:
Akerbeltz Translation – http://www.akerbeltz.com/contact.htm
Alasdair MacCaluim – https://www.fiverr.com/gaelicalasdair
Comas Creative Consultancy – https://www.facebook.com/Comas-Creative-Consultancy-113295967082591/
When I receive contact info for other professional Gaelic translators, I’ll add them to this post. (Ma ‘se neach-eadar-theangachaidh a th’annaibh, nach cur sibh teachdairdeachd thugam? Bhithinn toilichte ur n-ainm a chur a-steach.)
I found your post very interesting… more so about the language its self than tattoo translations. As I have just begun to learn the language and studying Gaelic song in honor of my own Scottish highland ancestors. But I was moved by the poem you shared and if it’s not too much to ask is “in praise of your place in my heart” on its own a translatable and relevant Gaelic sentence? And if so what is the Gaelic for that?
Thank you for sharing the poem, will be looking into more of it..
GDAY Skye how would a Aussie learn the language as my great grand parents spoke the language id be keen to learn.
G’day / Latha math! For suggestions, have a look at another blog post of mine: https://gaelic.co/learning-scottish-gaelic/. You can also visit Comunn Gàidhlig Astràilia (The Scottish Gaelic Association of Australia) for help locating resources: https://ausgaelic.org/. Hope this helps!
Thanks for this. I’ve been looking for translation into Scots gaelic, not for a tattoo, but as part of a story I’m writing that includes a pan-Celtic independence movement. The line you quoted, in English, “Break the cords of your bondage” makes a great name for that movement. I’ll add a credit to the poet for the line.
I looked too for the anthology Duanaire Na Sracaire, but the only copy I can find is on Amazon at £85.00 for the paperback so I’ll have to pass on that…
Trying to learn the old language to honor my ancestors and heritage, bit of a struggle in the Mid west, shall keep plodding along your posts have provided valuable information, keep up the good work.
Iain chòir (Dear John),
Thank you very much for your kind words! Keep moving forward, beag air bheag (little by little) you’ll get there! Are there any particular topics you’d like to see in a blog post?
So I have enlisted the services of a local librarian who claims to speak. How do I double check his work? I have bought two dictionaries and his recommendations seem to check out howver, I only want one word. Should I hired yet another translator to double check his work? I do not mind the expense but I want it to be accurate considering it will be forever.
I’d say if it’s a single word, and you have a fluent speaker and two dictionaries agreeing, you should be safe! If you are interested, you can also check out my new book The Scottish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook! (more info at: http://eepurl.com/b0WymH)
Is it possible to take names that are English and spell them in Gaelic? For example, can you spell Cullen with the Gaelic alphabet?
I would like to tattoo my children’s names but I can’t figure out how.
Yes and no – whether any English name will make sense when transliterated into Scottish Gaelic spelling depends on the name itself, whether it was originally a Gaelic name, and how similar the sounds in the English name are to the sounds of the Gaelic language. I have another a blog post closely related to this issue which you should read, which explains it in more detail: https://gaelic.co/gaelic-wendy/.
Cullen was originally an anglicized Irish-language surname, not Scottish Gaelic, so to back-translate it to Irish, you would have to look at what the original Irish spelling was, and decide if that is close enough to the English name to satisfy you. In this case it doesn’t look to be that close; looks like there is an extra syllable in the Irish original which makes it sound more like “Cullinane”. In Scottish Gaelic, it happens that the closest spelling of “Cullen” would just be the the word “cuilean” which is just literally the word for a puppy, so it probably does not make sense to get the word for puppy tattooed on you… unless you think of your son as your human puppy!
If, on the other hand, you’re looking for Gaelic font suggestions to write the letters C-u-l-l-e-n (which is usually what people mean by writing something in the Gaelic alphabet), then I have a page of Gaelic and Celtic style font recommendations for tattoos in my book, The Scottish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook! I hope this helps!
There is only a slight difference between Gaelic and Gaeilge are somewhat problematic.However, there are a couple of online dictionaries, which can be very helpful.
For Gaeilge, Irish language, froerunner to gaelic, as spoken in Scotland, I recommend http://www.focloir.ie/
For Gaelic, which seperated from Gaeilge in or about the years c. 400 AD, I recommend
As can be seen, even from the dictionary names, Gaelic and Gaeilge are very similar, but pronounced differently — although Donegal Gaeilge, one of the several dialects of Gaeilge, is quite similar in sound to Scots Gaelic.
Mòran taing for your suggestions! I also recommend The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook by Audrey Nickel, a companion to my own book published by Bradan Press.
I have so much to learn!
Hi. I would like to have a tattoo that says “I will never walk alone” but gaelic. I dont find help for that. Can you?
Noora, thank you very much for your comment. As explained in the blog post above, I don’t provide free Gaelic tattoo translations.
My book The Scottish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook gives advice about how to pick a suitable Gaelic tattoo while honouring and supporting the language and culture. It is available on Amazon (USA, UK, and worldwide) and Indigo.ca (Canada):
Your particular request is not in my book, but I am working on a sequel. I will add your requested phrase to the list for the second book. The translations for the book are checked by 3 people (myself and two editors who I pay), so quite a bit of time, effort, and expense goes into getting it just right.
In the meantime, my friend Alasdair MacCaluim provides a professional translation service and welcomes individual tattoo translation requests: https://www.fiverr.com/gaelicalasdair
Michael Bauer, whose contact info is listed in part 2 of this blog post (https://gaelic.co/gaelic-tattoo-2/), also provides a translation service.
I would like a tattoo that simply says “kindness” in Scottish Gaelic. When I googled it I got the word caoimhneas. Can you tell me if this is correct? I understand your policy about giving out translations, so is it in your book? Also I was wondering if there is a Scottish Celtic symbol/knot for the word? There again I found a symbol online, but would like to be sure. I don’t mean to sound ignorant, but is there a difference between Scottish and Irish Celtic knots? If you can give me any help I would appreciate it. Thanks so much.
Google on its own is not accurate for translations. Look up the word in this online Gaelic dictionary to find what you are looking for: http://learngaelic.net/dictionary/index.jsp
I don’t have that in my book but I’ll add it to the list for Volume 2!
Celtic knots are decorative design motifs. Individual Celtic knotwork patterns do not stand for any abstract concepts, nor were they ever a symbolic language like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Anyone who claims that there is a particular knot pattern standing for any abstract concept like kindness, love, brotherhood, etc. is simply untruthful. Unfortunately this is another way in which Celtic art, archaeology, history, language, and culture are distorted and falsified by English speakers in contemporary times. The idea of “a Celtic knot for X” was made up as a modern marketing technique to sell something, or for online entertainment.
There is variation in styles of Celtic knotwork and other artistic motifs through time, but there is no significant difference between “Scottish” and “Irish” Celtic knots in the sense you are asking about (that’s a very condensed answer).
How desperately bad are the Scots Gaelic translations in Forvo?
My German friend giggles when I use them sometimes.
(Learned it long ago and I chea. . . get stuck.)
That I’m not sure of! Might be good to ask that same question on my post “Learning Scottish Gaelic” — some of the people who have commented on that one have used some of the newer courses and online resources and someone might know!
Am I being cheeky if I ask if you teach me Scottish Gaelic ?
Haha, yes you are! Check out my blog post “Learning Scottish Gaelic” for suggestions of many different ways to learn it, depending on where you live. There are some great courses and teachers out there, including online. Free resources are listed as well!
I have been working on learning Welsh, due having family in Wales that are incredibly proud of their culture. It always breaks my heart and astounds me when I think about all of the languages (hence cultures) that there has been systematic effort to remove. At the same time, with all the language tools, more and more of those near-dead languages have a chance to be preserved and potentially renewed.
I was looking into ogham script, as I like the look, and was thinking of commissioning a piece. I have always associated it with strictly Irish Gaelic. The ‘net being what it is, it recently threw a curve ball at me and tied Welsh with Ogham. Makes me wonder how closely ties they are, being Celtic languages and all, even as I know that Welsh, Irish Gaelic (trying to learn those two at the same time was a bad idea), and Scottish Gaelic have distinct differences.
Anyway, all that said to thank you for your post and resources. I love finding more references for the Celtic languages and learning more about them.
‘Se do bheatha! Sorry I missed replying to your comment right away! Did you see our blog post on Ogham?
How does one translate a name to Gaelic?
I had the same preconception about Ogham being Irish, but recently came across archaeological finds where it had been used for Pictish (which may or may not be another distantly related Celtic language) in the NW of Scotland, so it might have been wider spread than we all assume!
Point number 2 – yes! Learn the language. It’s great if you respect Gaelic language and culture, but in my mind, the best way you can show that respect is to put the time in and try to learn it. I’m doing that now, and it’s an uphill journey, despite having other languages. That said, the response I’ve had from native speakers has been both encouraging and remarkably patient. It’s a long-term project, but with native speakers in Alberta, it’s becoming easier! No, I don’t want a Gaelic tattoo 🙂 Excellent articles.
When my daughter-in-law began her tattoo apprenticeship, I bought her your book! May she use it wisely!
Thank you so much, that’s a wonderful idea! Best wishes to your daughter!
What is the translation for ‘My darling, my blood’?
Greatly appreciate your post and advice! How closely do you think Scottish Gaelic is to the original Celtic languages of antiquity?
It all really depends on what you mean by “antiquity”! Of the Celtic languages, Old Irish is the oldest Gaelic language for which there is a complete written record, and it is the language from which modern Scottish Gaelic developed from. Old Irish is certainly recognizable as Gaelic, but it is different enough that you would need to take a separate language course, with a separate grammar book and dictionary, to learn it. (Think of the difference between the Old English of Beowulf and modern English; it’s not a perfect analogy, but it gives you a rough idea.) Have a look at this interview I did with someone who worked on the Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language (which focuses mainly on Middle Irish), for more context: https://gaelic.co/edil/
Thank you so much, that’s exactly what I was asking about. I was looking for the oldest known Celtic language. Could you recommend any further reading about the ancient Celtic language, culture, religion? I have a seemingly unquenchable thirst to know everything I can learn about my ancient ancestors. Thanks!
Thank you for this article. I would love to learn to write my given Scottish name, Stewart…or to see how it may have been written by my ancestors. Could you recommend anything for that?
It would be neat to do a wood carving or even a cross-stitch embroidery of it with our crest and plaid. Thank you
‘Se do bheatha!/You’re welcome! Stewart would be “Stiùbhart” in Gaelic! Here it is in a helpful and pretty accurate list from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Scottish_Gaelic_given_names#S_2. (There’s also a variant spelled with “d” at the end, but “Stiùbhart” is the standard form that nearly everyone uses.)
.really wanted to have a tattoo done in Gaelic but, learning the language myself (…and barely fluent enough to construct grammatically correct sentences), I am very aware of the many ways it could go wrong so I was having second thoughts…
but it was very reassuring when you suggested taking lines from a song or a poem since I plan on quoting a verse from a song by Mànran..
Many thanks for this article!
Math fhèin! Great idea. Just make sure to proofread it letter by letter and make sure it matches the Mànran lyric exactly!