meaning in Scottish Gaelic words By Richard Gwynallen
Learning a new language
is, at its best, opening new ways of viewing the world. To be sure, it’s
only glimpses in the beginning, but those glimpses draw the learner into
a deeper relationship with the language.
Far from Samuel Johnson’s characterization of Gaelic as the “rude speech
of a barbarous people,” Scottish Gaelic is a poetic language with
complex concepts of time, and the intersection of people and place,
embedded within the grammar and vocabulary.
Although the student of Scottish Gaelic may well find its grammar
complex and challenging, deeper study reveals, embedded within its
grammar, a different way of viewing the world that requires some
conversion to its philosophy in order to understand it.
Scottish Gaelic sayings and word combinations are also rich in meaning.
However, even single words can unlock a new way of seeing and relating
to the world.
If grammar is the path we walk, and sayings and phrases are the
landscape itself, words may be like stones along the path that opens
ultimately to a new horizon. They speak to us of both Scottish Gaelic
culture and mindset.
Academic linguists may take issue with my interpretations. But in this
essay, I will offer a few of the terms that I think reflect the
relationship of the speaker to his or her community, and suggest how
even a single word can convey a different way of viewing our reality
that is entirely unique to the Scottish Gaelic language. I caution that
this is but a smattering of the possibilities.
Let’s take as our first example one of the Scottish Gaelic terms best
known to English speakers: céilidh.
Céilidh – the word resounds with joy, fun, and music even to those who
have no intention of learning the language. For many readers, the term
may immediately conjure up a band, dancing, and lots of beer. Or perhaps
a concert or performance with several singers or musicians taking turns
on a stage.
However, the basic meaning of the term is to visit. It refers also to a
gathering at a “céilidh house” where songs, poems, stories, and news are
shared, usually amongst people who know each other well; an expanded
form of a visit and an expanded form of what might happen in a visit
with a friend or relation.
The poet, Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn, or in English Iain Crichton Smith,
described his view of the traditional céilidh:
“The traditional ceilidh which was held in the village in the village
ceilidh house was a celebration of the happenings of the village, it was
alive, it was a diary and a repeated record.” (Real People in a Real
Place, p. 23) “ . . . the ceilidh represented the community that joined
together in entertainment created from within itself. Stories would be
told, songs would be sung.” (Real People in a Real Place, p. 21)
The traditional céilidh also reinforced bonds. And for the exile, it
evoked home and warmth. At the end of the song ‘S fhada leam an oidche
gheamhraidh, Murchadh MacPhàrlain writes that he is “Far ‘m bu mhiann
leam dhol a chèilidh” (“far from where I would like to be ‘céilidhing.’”).
In this context, céilidh, implies “belonging”, being in a place where
you feel connected, wanted, and a part of the fabric of community.
Before proceeding into anything more esoteric, we can visit another
Scottish Gaelic term also well known to English speakers: slàinte.
Slàinte! the crowd shouts as glasses are raised. If we ask a group of
people at an Irish pub the meaning of slàinte we are likely to get
“Cheers.” Perhaps a few will say it actually means “health”, and they
would be correct. Slàinte directly translates as “health”. Slàinte Mhath!
Good Health. Air do shlàinte! To your good health! Òlaidh sinn do
dheoch-slàinte. We drink your health!
The root of the word, however, is slàn. The root word, of course, also
refers to health. An slàn dhut? Are you well? Guma slàn a chì mi thu.
May I see you well. However, it also means “whole,” as in the poem, An
Roghainn (The Choice), by Somhairle MacGill-Eain (also known by his
English name Sorley MacLean):
Ach nan robh ‘ roghainn rithist dhomh
‘S mi ‘m sheasamh air an àird,
Leumainn à nèamh no iutharna
Le spiorad ‘s chridhe slàn.
MacGill-Eain translates that part of the poem as:
But had I the choice again,
And stood on that headland,
I should leap from heaven or hell
With a whole spirit and heart.
So what are we really saying when we toast with the term “slàinte”?
We’re wishing upon others wholeness, represented as health, and
including all those things that constitute health and wholeness:
physical and mental health, vibrancy, love, family, community,
livelihood, and peace.
Dùthchas is a term that resists easy explanation, as it represents a set
of ideas. The origins of any language reflect the intersection of people
with their land. “Place” is a very important concept in Gaelic.
Dùthaich refers to land, but specifically to one’s native land, the land
with which one has an intimate connection. In the form dùthchas, the
word refers to the place of one’s origin and, specifically, to
hereditary temperament, spirit, or rights derived from that connection.
In the form dùthchasach, it refers specifically to indigeneity, as well
as traditions or customs that derive from that indigeneity and a love
for one’s native land.
All these terms refer to an intersection between people and land that go
beyond the place you were born or places you’ve lived.
In Michael Newton’s words, dùthchas is the idea that “people belong to
places rather than places belonging to people.” Indigeneity is based on
a shared history, experience, and interaction with that land. The right
to it is rooted in daily habits and activities and it is bound up with
relationships to others, and responsibilities.
And how would you want to be known in your community? In traditional
Gaelic communities you would want to have cliù.
Cliù appears in the dictionary as “1 Fame, renown. 2 Praise. 3
Character, reputation.” Such as, Fo dheagh chliù. Under a good
But in context of the culture, what does “character” or “reputation”
mean? What does it mean to you, the reader, to have a good reputation?
Is it “honesty,” “kindness,” or other traits?
Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn (Iain Crichton Smith) describes cliù like this:
“The Highlander has a concept of cliù, which roughly means ‘reputation,’
and such a concept implies that a man who has it may be considered
useful to the community, not glorified, but respected. . . . . he wishes
to be known as one who belongs to a community and who does service to
that community.” (Real People in a Real Place, p 19)
This particular concept of having a good reputation is rooted in the
idea that the individual is part of a community.
With that, let’s begin to wander the path a bit outside the physical
world of the community. Take, for example, aiteal.
Aiteal is a very small quantity of something, but it can also be a
glimpse of something, a breath, a breeze, a ray of light, or briefly
heard speech. All of these are fleeting experiences that imply that
something much larger exists, glimpses, if you will, for those who want
to follow further, prods to take the next step.
A word like aiteal can swing you from the seemingly insignificant, to
passing things like a breeze or a ray of light that sharpen momentary
awareness of life, to breath, and to the glimpse of something that lies
behind and beyond all of that.
Some words combine the most unexpected things, like dust and atoms.
Smùirnean refers to truly tiny things… a mote, an atom, a particle of
dust – things that range from having no importance to us (except maybe
the need to clean it away), to unseen building blocks of life. But it is
also the small, even uneasy, feelings we get when we are on the point of
realizing something; a tingle, a shiver, a slight sense of unease or
heightened awareness, perhaps of the interconnected nature of life. Dust
and atoms – all parts of a whole.
And some words have the potential to upend our understanding of reality,
Crith reminds us that our understanding of the world we see is limited.
Crith refers to trembling or shivering. It could be from fear or cold,
but not just from fear or cold. It’s the vulnerability and
insubstantiality of solid objects – the tremor from an earthquake, or
the shimmering in the air one sees as part of a heat haze, or the ghost
light of a will-o’-the-wisp, (those mysterious atmospheric lights seen
by travelers at night, especially over bogs, swamps, or marshes). It’s
the layer of floating moss on top of clear water in a quaking or
quivering bog. It’s the crumbling earth from a ploughed and dry field.
Seen this way, crith reminds us that our material world is shifting,
that what seems substantial can change, that a glimpse of something on
the other side of the veil is not only possible but also very near at
hand. And that shiver might be the beginnings of understanding.
Scottish Gaelic has many ways of hinting that our world is not as rigid
or stable as we like to believe. Science has started to catch up with
such indigenous knowledge with our growing awareness of quantum physics
and how electrons are in continual movement… materialising,
dematerialising, then rematerializing somewhere else.
The fact that any solid, dependable mass that starts to quiver or falter
can be referred to as crith makes it an ideal word for the unpredictable
and infinitesimal particles that we have delineated as the building
blocks of all life.
It isn’t just trembling and quaking that gives a hint that something
else is to be glimpsed, as lannair indicates.
Lannair is a beautiful example of a word that leads from an experience
of physical sight to innersight. It means a glittering or gleaming, but
not like glitter thrown on art projects, or lights hung about the room.
It’s the reflection of rays from a polished surface, the phosphoric
glitter from fish scales in the dark, or the calm or glitter caused by
oil on water. It’s the quicksilver flash of the salmon in stirred
At the same time, lannair can be a great flame, and not just a bonfire.
It may refer to an inner flame: Thàinig lannair ann an sùil Chaluim (a
gleam came into Calum’s eyes, Calum’s eyes shone with an inner
fire/light). Understanding lies just beyond the glitter.
Finally, I will leave you with one of my favorite words in the language,
Deò is breath, but also air. It’s a ray of light, but also the vital
spark of life. It’s vision, but not just sight. It’s vision that allows
one to see beyond, even beyond the veil. And it is the place where a
stream falls into the sea, where one life or path merges with the
infinite, where we are all connected. Deò is almost like a mantra, a
chant that draws you to that point where the stream lets out into the
sea, a place between worlds, a gateway through which past and future
The beauty and the deep meaning of Gaelic words can enliven our language
learning as we weave through lenition, the genitive case, and
grammatical challenges. However, it can also be a path to reorient us,
to turn us back to what we have forgotten about our connection to the
earth, to each other, and to how we view our world.
If we dare to dive in and escape the confines that language and
modernity has placed upon us, there are whole worlds of new experiences
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