Gaelic at the University of Edinburgh

History of Gaelic in Edinburgh

An introduction to the history of Gaelic in Edinburgh, dating back to the Gaelic-speaking Kingdom of Alba.

Gaelic has been present in Edinburgh for more than a thousand years, when the settlement was incorporated into the Gaelic-speaking Kingdom of Alba. Gaelic was the language of political, economic and cultural power in Edinburgh for two centuries or more before beginning a decline in the twelfth century.

In more recent times, Gaelic speakers from the Highlands began to settle in the city in significant numbers, establishing a Gaelic community that has continued to develop ever since. Gaelic speakers were represented in all social classes in eighteenth century Edinburgh.

Many sedan chair carriers, City Guard members, and domestic servants as well as members of the professions were Gaelic speakers. Many of the Gaelic-speaking gentry lived in Edinburgh for part of the year.

The first Gaelic chapel was established in the Old Town in 1769, and regular Gaelic services continue to be offered, now at Greyfriars Kirk. The Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, which originated in Edinburgh in 1784, had the support of Gaelic culture and literature among its original remits. 

Edinburgh has also made a major contribution as an intellectual and cultural centre for Gaelic in Scotland. The first Gaelic book was published here in 1567 and the first collection of poetry in 1751. The University of Edinburgh established the first Chair of Celtic in Scotland in 1882. The city has been home to many leading Gaelic writers and scholars through the centuries, including poet Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir (Duncan Ban MacIntyre) (1724- 1812), folklorist Alasdair MacGilleMhìcheil (Alexander Carmichael) (1832-1912), and poet Somhairle MacGill-Eain (Sorley MacLean) (1911-96). Many of the major poets and novelists writing in Gaelic today have been based in Edinburgh.

According to the 2011 census, there were 5,935 people in Edinburgh who had some skills in Gaelic, some 1.29 per cent of the city’s population. While this proportion is small, it is significant that approximately 6.82 per cent of Scotland’s Gaelic population lives in Edinburgh. Gaelic-medium education is provided in Edinburgh at Bun-sgoil Taobh na Pàirce and James Gillespie’s High School.