Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Dwindling and Extinction of Gaelic in Angus

   The date at which Gaelic ceased to be a living, spoken language in Angus is possibly presents more of an enigma than when it started to be spoken in the area, despite the thousand or more years which separate these two events. In the beginning we can imagine piecemeal Gaelic infliltration, whether peaceful, warlike, or both, but in a piecemeal way, brought in by small groups.  There are the possible personal and tribal names behind places:  Brachan in Brechin, possibly Daig behind Dundee, Angus itself of course, plus maybe Gabran, the son of Aedan of Dal Riada, whose name may lurk behind the name of Gowrie, the region just west of modern Angus.

   The heyday of the tongue from the west must have been between the middle of the ninth century and the middle or end of the twelfth century.  The onset of  English speech came from the south and was certainly not imported through military adventurism.  Among the earliest settlers were those from the Low Countries who have left traces of their identity (in all probability) in a scatter of places across Scotland.  In the Angus parish of Kettins there was a place called Flemings-land, plus a Flemington in Aberlemno.  The latter was gifted in the 13th century by King Alexander II to a Flemish knight named Bartholemew who later settled in Aberdeenshire.  But it was in the major coastal towns, like Montrose and Dundee where English may have taken a decisive, early foothold, though immigrants from England and Flanders. 

   Other clues to ethnicity, if not to language spoken, can be found in personal names.  In the early 14th century the scribes at Arbroath Abbey copied a record of a local perambulation of their lands at Kinblethmont which  happened on 23 September 1219.  Such perambulations, undertaken by representatives of landowners and other local people of importance, were performed to clarify the boundaries of specific estates and areas of land.  In this case the task to determine the boundaries between Kinblethmont, Arbroath and Athinglas was performed by walkers whose names evoke Gaelic ancestry:  Gilpatrick mac Ewen, Duncan son of Gilpatrick, Malcolm brother of the thane of Idvies, Gilchrist son of Ewen, Gilchrist man of the earl of Angus, Kerald brother of Adam the judex, Matthew son of Matthew son of Dubsíd of Conon.  (Other officials present were Hugh of Cameron, sheriff of Forfar, Angus son of Earl Gilbert of Angus, Robert of Inverkeilor, W. de Mowat, Adam of Nevay, Donald son of Macbeth Mac Ivarr, John (or Eoin), abbot of Brechin, Morgann his son, Adam de Bonville, Robert of Rossie, Duncan of Fernevel, Adam the steward of Arbroath, Thomas son of Robert son of Adam Garmund, Gilise thane of Idvies, Nicholas brewer of the king, Roger, mair of the bishop of Brechin, Walter de Balliol.)  But even those with demonstrable Celtic names recorded here may not have used Gaelic as their first language.  


  Another record, dated 17 January 1227,  recognises a perambulation made by the Abbot and convent of Arbroath and Gwarin of Cupar relating again to the boundaries of Kinblethmont.  The ‘good men at Angus’ present at the king’s court at Forfar swore an oath about the precise extent of the territory.  The list of witnesses contained an ethic cross section of part of society: 
Kerald Judex de Anegus, Adam Judex domini Regis, Angus filius comitis [Angus son of Earl Gillebride of Angus], W de Monte Alto [William Mowat], Duncanus de fernevell, Gilandr’ mac leod [son of Donald, Abbot of Brechin], Ricardus flandrensis, Gilescop mac camby, Patric fothe seriens domini episcopis sancti Andree, David senescallus de Rostynoth [the steward of Restenneth].
  Around this time there is a record of one of the earliest known English place-names in the region, the evocative but unflattering Stinchenhavene, recorded in the records of Coupar Angus Abbey in 1214.  Local landowner Philip de Valonges of Panmure (d. 1215) granted the clerics an acre of his land in the port, for a toft to build on (which was perambulated in his presence by Adam of Banevyn – Benvie -  and ‘other worthy men’), along with a toll on the fishing.  These rights were renewed periodically until the end of the 15th century.  Then as in many centuries afterwards this place was a fishing port, now known as East Haven, in the parish of Panbride.  Arrangements for the procurement of fish between the coastal traders and the Cistercian monks, who would certainly not have had many Gaelic speakers in their midst, would probably have been  conducted in the English language.  Not far up the coast from Panbride was the abbey of Arbroath, another focal point and driving engine for the spread of the new tongue of English.  Those who lived and traded on the coast may have been susceptible to the need to learn English if they were not in fact incomers themselves.  In later centuries coastal dwellers were regarded by others as being a race apart, with the implication that their society was insular and backwards.  But they may in fact have been among the first communities to shift languages to take advantage of trade.

   David Murison noted a spread of English names in the county in the early thirteenth century, including  a place called Reidfurde (1214), and four years later there is a recorded crop of English names surprisingly emerging in remote parts of Glen Isla:   Strype, Staneycroft, Muirford, Corncairn, Stobstane.  He notes that, ‘These names could only have been given by people who could speak English, that is, by land-stewards of the barons, ground-officers or the like, or by incoming tenants.’ There must have been some bilingualism between Pictish and Gaelic in the late Pictish period (the 9th and perhaps 10th centuries), and there is evidence in dual place-names of a later phase of bilingualism of English and Gaelic in certain places.  A writ dated 1256 from Arbroath Abbey records a place in the parish of Kingoldrum with the Gaelic name of Hachethunethouer, with an equivalent English name Midefeld; and a certain marsh is referred to as called in English Moynebuche.  Slightly later names around Dunnichen are Fishersgate and Greystone.  Another set of rarer place-name elements has been pointed out by G. W. S. Barrow as indication places particularly associated with Gaelic speakers by those whose own native tongue was Scots/English.  These are places which use the descriptive term Scottish.  In Kingoldrum, Angus, there were examples of a 'Scottish [road] way', vie Scoticane, and elsewhere in the county there was a 'Scottish mill'.

   Kingoldrum crops up again in Arbroath Abbey records under the year 1456 when Abbot Malcolm Brydy (abbot from 1456 to 1470) records a number of names in that parish which possessed dual names, evidently showing that there were both Gaelic and English speaking inhabitants there.  The description of the marches of the abbey lands there included the following places:  Myllaschangly (Scottismyll),  a stream called Athyncroith (Gallowburne), Tybyrnoquhyg (Blind Well), Monboy (Yallowpule), Carnofotyr (Punderis Carne), the burn of Haldyrischanna (Gled Bwrne). 

   The 16th and 17th centuries must have seen further wide scale displacement of Gaelic in Angus and it would seem reasonable to assume that it was retained longer in the northerly glens. In the 1580s Timothy Pont in the 1580s  records Whytemyre in Glen Clova, while Edward’s map of Angus (1678) shows many Scots/English places in north Angus.  David Dorward suggests that Gaelic survived longer in the western glens of Isla, Prosen and Clova than in the eastern ones of Lethnot and Esk.  He cited evidence of the comparable Gaelic and English geographical terms of sron and shank, noting that the Gaelic term sron had over twelve examples in westerly glens, while the Scots or English shank was common in the east.

   An interesting complication is provided by the movement, of possible movement of Gaelic speaking people, from outside the area into Angus.  One example is the settlement of the McCombie family who migrated from eastern Perthshire into Glen Isla in the mid 17th century, though they only inhabited the area for several generations.  A more contentious piece of evidence is provided by the English poet and traveller John Taylor (the ‘Water Poet’, 1578-1653) who journeyed through the area in 1618.  Passing north from Brechin, and thoroughly alarmed by the steepness of the terrain, Taylor was relieved to arrive at a certain place in Glen Esk:
At night I came to a lodging in the Laird of Eggels [Edzell’s] land, where I lay at an Irish house, the folkes not being able to speake scarce any English, but I supped and went to bed, where I had not laine long, but I was enforced to rise; I was so stung with Irish musketoes, a creature that hath sixe legs, and lives like a monster altogether upon mans flesh; they doe inhabite and breed most upon sluttish houses, and this house was none of the cleanest...had not this Highland Irish house helped me at a pinch, I should have sworn that all Scotland had not been so kind as to have bestowed a louse upon me;  but with a shift that I had, I shifted off my cannibals, and was never more troubled with them.
   Beyond the evidence that Gaelic was spoken in the glen at this date there are other points of interest.  It is assumed that Taylor slept at a traveller’s inn or lodging house, though this is by no means clear in his writing, as Taylor's expressed intention of his Scottish expedition was to travel without the inconvenience of paying for either his quarters or his food.  If the place was an inn, it would suggest that its common customers in Glen Esk would also habitually speak Gaelic.  It has been suggested that this ‘Erse inn’ was an anomaly established by Gaelic speaking incomers who arrived from the north, though this is doubtful.  The survival of Gaelic at such a relatively late date here would also  contradict the suggestion that the language had been quickly decimated in the locality by the usage of English as the language of administration by the Lindsay landowners from the 1380s onwards.

Where the last Angus Gaels spoke?  The River Isla near Forter.

   In the records of the Presbytery of Brechin (on 15th April 1729, noted by Jessop, Education in Angus, 84), there is active discouragement given to 'Students and Preachers having Irish,' as they thought that 'it were much better, that Language were worn out by Degrees,' and that individuals who were taught to read 'the Irish Bibles and Catechisms' were at the same time taught to read English by the schoolmasters of the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, and others like them.  This provides very strong supporting evidence that the existence of Gaelic was a fact, if a disagreeable one, within the presbytery bounds at that time.  In the first volume of Lives of the Lindsays, published in 1849, Lord Lindsay states that his friend Bishop Low informed him that Gaelic was still spoken in the glen until roughly a century before. Further west, it appears as if Glen Isla harboured some native Gaelic speakers into the 18th century. At the beginning of that century this glen was possibly  still strongly Gaelic, but there were likely very few Gaelic speakers there at the end of that century.  Neighbouring Glen Shee in Perthshire still had sufficient Gaelic natives in 1683 to necessitate the minister preaching to them in their own tongue on Sunday afternoons (presumably he gave an English service to others on Sunday mornings).

  Pinning down the precise area where a language held out or identifying the last speaker is an imprecise art. Gaelic must have lingered in the Scots idiom, an element in the everyday speech, albeit minimal, for a number of people in west Angus, perhaps for several generations.  The German cartographer and geographer Ernst Georg Ravenstein (1834-1913) stated the following in an article in 1879:

In Forfarshire Gaelic is spoken only in a very small district, namely in Blacklunans, which to the south of Mount Blair projects into Perthshire, and geographically belongs to Glenshee.  The names of many people, no less than the geographical nomenclature, point to a great extent of Gaelic in a former age, but Gaelic preaching has been discontinued for generations, except at Dundee, where services are held for the convenience of immigrant highlanders. *

      Blacklunans, due to boundary changes, is now firmly in Perthshire. He identified the precise linguistic boundary in this district:  '[it] begins at Bald Head on the Forfarshire boundary, runs west to the junction of Glenshee with Strath Ardle, intersects Cluny forest, crosses the Tay to the north of Dunkeld...'

   However, this ebvidence is starkly contradicted by John Ochterlony's Account of Angus is 1678.  Speaking of Glenisla and surrounding districts, Ochterlony specifically mentions Blacklunans and observes that its people do not differ from Highlanders in other places, except for one important respect:

the Irish is not their native language, for none speak Irish there except strangers that come from other parts; notwithstanding, that in Glenshie and Strathairdle, their next neighbours, the minister always preaches in the afternoon in the Irish tongue.
   As we have seen above, migration could sometimes reintroduce Gaelic as a living lanuage in to these linguistic border areas for a period of time, going against the tide of Gaelic shrinkage.  Whether this is the case at Blacklunans, we cannot be absolutely sure.

Map from Ravenstein's article, the black area denoting extent of spoken Gaelic.

   According to information from the 1891 census (collated online by Kurt Dawe ( there were eighteen bilingual Gaelic-English speakers resident in Glen Isla, all of whom were incomers, apart from one individual.  This sole exception was one 53 year old man who was living at Fodla post office, who Dawe states may well have learned Gaelic as an adult.  In contrast, native Gaelic speakers in the nearby Perthshire areas of Spittal of Glenshee and Dalmunzie comprised one third of the population.    

* A number of Highland families founded a Gaelic chapel in Dundee in Long Wynd in 1791.  It prospered well into the 19th century and eventually amalgamated with a Free Church congregation.


Barrow, G. W. S., Kingship and UnityScotland 1000-1306, Edinburgh 1989.
Barrow, G. W. S., Scotland and its Neighbours in the Early Middle Ages, London, 1992. 
Black, David G., The Hae’ens o Panbride, Brechin, 1990.
Cartulary of Arbroath Abbey, Liber S. Thome de Aberbrothoc, Bannatyne Club, Edinburgh, 1848-6.
Dorward, David, The Glens of Angus, Names, Places, People, Balgavies, 2001.
Eberlin, Amy, ‘The Flemish in Dundee and Surrounding Areas,’
French, Morvern, ‘Place-name as a Clue to the Flemish Presence in Scotland,’
Hammond, Matthew H., A Prosopographical Analysis of Society in East Central Scotland, circa 1100 to 1260, with special reference to ethnicity, Unpublished Phd thesis, Glasgow, 2005.
Hume Brown, Peter, Early Travellers in Scotland, Edinburgh, 1891.
Jessop, J. C., Education in Angus, London, 1931.
Miller, David,  Arbroath and its Abbey, Edinburgh, 1860.
Murison, David, ‘Linguistic Relationships in Medieval Scotland,’ in The Scottish Tradition:  Essays in Honour of Ronald Gordon Cant, ed. G. W. S. Barrow, 71-83, Edinburgh, 1974.
Ravenstein, , E.G. (1879). On the Celtic Languages in the British Isles; and Statistical Survey, the Journal of the Statistical Society of London, Vol. 42, no. 3 (September), pp. 579-643.
Rogers, Charles, ed., The Rental Book of the Cistercian Abbey of Cupar-Angus, vol 2, London, 1880.
Taylor, John, The Pennylesse Pilgrimage; or, the Moneylesse Perambulation of John Taylor,London, 1618.
Warden, A. J., Angus or Forfarshire the Land and People, vol 2, 1881.
Woolf, Alex, From Pictland to Alba, Edinburgh, 2007.


  1. Thank you Keith for another great blog. Rich, informative, enchanting yet scholarly.

  2. Thanks Charles, revisited the piece today and corrected the large number of spelling mistakes and errors!

  3. Excellent article.
    It somewhat gives the lie to a certain individual in Kirriemuir -apparently a self-proclaimed expert in placeanmes and therefore, somehow, an authority in Gaelic and its legitimisation - who has recently objected to Gaelic placenames being put on street name signs in Kirriemuir, maintaining (and in spite of it being current national policy to encourage Gaelic in Scotland)) that Gaelic in Angus died out in the 12th century. One suspects that he is more concerned with personal protestant anti-Highland, anti-Irish (falsely) sentiments, as representing in his mind some kind subconscious fear of an unwanted Catholic-revival, than with accuracy in ethnicity and legitimacy.
    He forgets, also, that the Gaelic-speakers of Scotland, and especially the Highlands and Islands have had to put up with, for the last century or two, English renderings of Gaelic placenames being foisted on them willy-nilly by officialdom. And he appears also to forget official Victorian / Edwardian Scotland's ethnocidal policy whereby they created a history of monoglot Gaelic-speaking children having being forced, following the Education Acts of the 1870s, to speak English in schools and punished if they so much as dared to speak their mother-tongue within the bounds of their school. Thus it is, for example, that this writer, like most or all his generation in the Highlands, is the second generation to have been rendered, whether we like it or not, monoglot English speakers, all of our grandparents having been fluent Gaelic speakers, with all the associated poetry, song, canntaireachd, literature, folklore, etc, etc, which was being carried forward by their forebears in their many generations in the Gaelic language and from which my generation has been forcibly cut off because of not having heard it used and spoken in the homes in which we grew up.
    And all the Kirriemuir gentleman seems to be bothered about is the addition of a few more words on road-signs!!!!
    Thanks, therefore, again for a magnificent resume of the Gaelic which once was spoken in the ancient shire of Angus (itself a shire-name with an honourable Gaelic pedigree!) - and sufficiently in Kirriemuir for it to have been given the Gaelic name of An Cearamh Mor - the Great Quarter (W. J. Watson, and J. B. Johnson).

    1. Certainly one school of historians of the early Church emphasised the native Pictish/British native character of much of Scotland as a reaction to perceived cultural threat from modern Irish nationalism.

      The interaction between P Celtic and Q Celtic in Angus is likely to be a lot more complex than the piece suggests. Other areas are equally fascination in this sphere: particularly the Cumbric/Anglian/Irish/Viking linguistic cauldron of Galloway.

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