Highland English

Highland English

Highland English is the variety of Scottish English spoken by many in the Scottish Highlands, more heavily influenced by Gaelic than most other Scottish English dialects. Island English is the variety spoken as a second language by native Gaelic speakers in the Outer Hebrides. The varieties of English spoken in the Highlands can be divided into five categories:

# Older native speakers of Gaelic, who have acquired local varieties of English as a second language.
# Native Gaelic speakers who have spent extended periods outside the Highlands and acquired some other variety of English.
# Speakers whose first language is English rather than Gaelic, and who have acquired a more-or-less distinctive variety of Highland English from their parents or peers.
# Speakers of Lowland Scots or Scottish English.
# Speakers of English language in England or non-Scottish varieties.

Highland English excludes the last two categories. Not surprisingly there are substantial differences between the dialect of speakers in the first three categories.


The more distinctive varieties of Highland English shows the influence of Gaelic most clearly in pronunciation, but also in grammar. For example, voiceless stops /p/ /t/ /k/ are realised with pre-aspiration, that is as [hp] , [ht] and [hk] or [xk] , whereas voiced consonants tend to be de-voiced. Examples; that "whatever" becomes pronounced as "whateffer" and the English "j" as in "just" sound is often turned into a "tch" sound e.g. "chust". English /z/ may be realised as [s] , giving "chisas" ("Jesus"). Some speakers insert a "sh" sound in English "rst" clusters, so that Eng. "first" gives "firsht". Lack of tolerance of English [w] may mean its realisation as [u] , as in [suansi] ("Swansea"). Similarly, the "svarabhakti" ("helping vowel") that is used in some consonant combinations in Gaelic is used, so that "film" is pronounced "fillum".

Many older speakers employ a very distinctive affirmative or backchannel item taken from Gaelic which involves an ingress of breath with clearly audible friction and whose function to indicate agreement with what a speaker has just said or is saying or to indicate continuing agreement or comprehension. This phenomenon has been termed by some "the Gaelic Gasp". (This linguistic feature is also found in the Faroese, Norwegian and Swedish languages, where it too indicates affirmation.)

The phonology of Highland English also has conservative features. For example, the Wine-whine merger is generally absent.


The grammatical influence of Gaelic syntax is most apparent with verbal constructions, as Scottish Gaelic uses the verb "to be" with the active participle of the verb to indicate a continuous action as in English, but also uses this construction for iterative meanings; therefore "I go to Stornoway on Mondays" becomes "I am going to Stornoway on Mondays". Occasionally older speakers use -ing constructions where Standard English would use a simple verb form, example "I'm seeing you!" [older native Gaelic speaker speaking to baby] meaning "I can see you!". The past tense in Highland English may use the verb "to be" followed by "after" followed by the participle: "I am after buying a newspaper" to mean "I have [just] bought a newspaper", although this construction is more common in Irish English. Some speakers use the simple past in situations where standard English would require "have" plus verb constructions, for example "France? I was never there" rather than "I have never been there".

The diminutive "-ag" is sometimes added to words and names, and is a direct lift from Gaelic, e.g. Johnag, Jeanag. It is still used in Caithness as well. A great variety of distinctive female names are formed using the amazingly productive -ina suffix appended to male names, examples: Murdina ( < Murdo), Dolina, Calumina, Angusina, and Neilina.

Relationship to other languages

Areas in the east of the Highlands often have substantial influence from Lowland Scots.

Discourse markers taken directly from Gaelic are used habitually by some speakers in English, such as ending a narrative with "S(h)in a(g)ad-s' e" or "Sin agad e" (trans. "there you have it" = Std Eng. "So there you are/so that's it", or ending a conversation with "Right, "ma tha" or "Okay "ma tha" /ma ha:/ meaning "then."

Speakers of Highland English, particularly those from areas which remain strongly Gaelic or have a more recent Gaelic speaking history, are often mistaken as being Irish by non-Highland Britons; presumably as a result of the shared Gaelic influence upon the English of both areas. Highland English and Hiberno-English share a similar accent which is quite different from that of the English spoken in Glasgow and other Lowland areas of Scotland.


A list of words that appear in Highland English, although these are sometimes shared with Scottish English in general, as well as Lowland Scots, and to other areas where Highlanders have emigrated in large numbers.

*Bodach - A Gaelic word for an old man.
*Bothan - a hut, often an illegal drinking den.
*Bothy - A mountain refuge.
*Cailleach - A Gaelic word for an old woman.
*Clearances or more commonly The Clearances, referring to the Highland Clearances
*Cèilidh - A 'Social gathering' or, more recently, a formal evening of traditional Scottish Social Dancing.
*Deoch-an-dorus (various spellings), meaning a "drink at the door". Translated as "one for the road", i.e. "one more drink before you leave".
*Fear an taighe an MC (master of ceremonies), Gaelic lit. "the man of the house"
*Firth - an estuary
*Gaidhealtachd - A Gaelic term for the Highlands
*Glen - A river valley, usually deep and narrow, from Gaelic "gleann".
*Inversneckie, a nickname for Inverness. Also "Sneck", "Shneck" or "The Shneck".
*Kyle or Kyles - Straits from Gaelic "Caol" & "Caolais". 'Kyle' is also a nickname for Kyle of Lochalsh.
*Loch - A Gaelic word meaning a lake or a fjord.
*Machair - A Gaelic word referring to a usually sandy coastal plain, usually in the Outer Hebrides ('Links' in Lowland Scotland).
*Mull - a headland.
*Strath - A valley, usually shallow and wide, from Gaelic "srath".
*Tack & Tacksman ("historical") [ [http://www.petestack.com/tacksman.html "Tack and Tacksmen"] petestack.com. Retrieved 11 October 2008.]
*Teuchter - a derogatory term applied mainly to Northern Scots and Highlanders, but also to rural Scots in general. It is sometimes used ironically by the "teuchters" themselves.
*The Wee Frees - A nickname used, generally by outsiders and with some resulting confusion, for more than one Scottish and predominantly Highland church denomination. It has been used for the continuing post-1900 Free Church of Scotland after the union of the majority with the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland to form the United Free Church of Scotland, and for the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland as opposed to the Free Kirk (Free Church of Scotland). Some view its origin as being even older, referring to the "free kirk/wee kirk/auld kirk/cauld kirk" rhyme about the churches after the Disruption of 1843. The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland is sometimes colloquially known as the Wee Wee Frees.
*The Wee Paper - A nickname for the "West Highland Free Press" published in Skye.
*Westie - West Highland Terrier.
*White Settlers - a derogatory term for migrants to the Highlands and Islands, often from England, but also from elsewhere in the UK or Europe. [Watson (2003) p. 11.] [Jedrej and Nuttal (1996) p. 16&ndash;17.]


* Sabban, Annette (1982), "Sprachkontakt: zur Variabilität des Englischen im gälischsprachigen Gebiet Schottlands ; eine empirische Studie", Heidelberg: Groos.
* Jedrej, Charles and Nuttall, Mark (1996) White Settlers: The Impact of Rural Repopulation on Scotland. Routledge.
* Watson, Murray (2003) "Being English in Scotland". Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0748618597


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