The Gaels of Scotland

By gallowglass

Introduction to Gaels and Scots

Although the popular belief is that the Scots and Gaels are very similar peoples, in reality their cultures are very different, and throughout history there have been many clashes between the two, even open warfare. In older times, most Lowland Scots would detest the idea of wearing clan tartan or a kilt, or any Highland apparel whatsoever, and despised the Highland Gaels and their kindred who raided their lands for cattle. On the other hand, the Gaels of the Highlands and Islands would consider their southern neighbours barbaric and intolerant, and retain their clan and kindred traditions against all odds.

There are very few people who know that much about the history of the Gaels, and the true nature of their clothing, culture language, warfare, and clan system.

The origins of the Gaelic races are unclear. Sources suggest either ancient Iberia, including their own legends and modern researchers, or the language arose completely in Ireland, and from there reached Scotland, the Isle of Man, and parts of Wales. If they did arrive from Spain, how they became to be the dominant race in Ireland is unclear, and when exactly their first expedition was led is also veiled by the mists of antiquity. However, like the ancient Iberians, and unlike other Celtic languages existing in the British Isles, the Gaels spoke, and still speak, a q-Celtic language as opposed to a p-Celtic, for example, the Gaelic ceann, and Welsh pen, meaning 'head.' No matter where they came from, however, the Gaels established dominance over their Irish rivals, the Scotii, later the Scots (at this time most of Scotland was held by the mysterious Picts, rumoured to have spoken a language so ancient it was neither Celtic or Proto-Indo-European, and who have left an amazing legacy of standing stones across the northeast of Scotland in particular, some of which feature soldiers who are strangely in Assyrian stances).

The Gaels and Scots were certainly aware of their Pictish neighbours, whose lands were visible on clear days, and legends even say that the Picts asked for Gaelic women to provide them with children; the Gaels only consented on the grounds that the Picts passed on wealth and titles through the maternal line of their families, something that they were indeed known to have done. This was the heroic age of the Gaels in Ireland, with ritualised warfare, sacrifices to more powerful figures, not always outlined as gods and goddesses, such as the mother of their Tuatha de Danann pantheon, Danu (there is also a deity in the Hindu pantheon called Danu, who has more or less the same sphere as the Gaelic Danu, and there may be a very ancient Indo-European origin for her), and the goddess of war and sovereignity, Mòrrìgan, the Great Queen, who transformed herself into a crow and devoured the slain of a battlefield.

The Scots, as Gaelic-speakers, raided Pictland, mostly much of Scotland's west coast, and founded the kingdom of Dal Raida, largely situated around modern Argyll, and with a succession of many kings, the power of the kingdom waxed and waned over centuries, undaunted by the Romans, who the Picts had defeated on countless occasions, and given freedom by the Scots in Ireland.

The most famous king of Dal Raida was Kenneth MacAlpine, a Scot with a claim to the throne of the Picts, and who murdered seven earls to achieve the crown. In keeping with tradition, he was crowned at Scone, and united the Picts, Scots, and Gaels in the Kingdom of Alba (Gaelic for Scotland). At this point much of Pictish culture vanishes from history without a trace, and the Gaels and Scots take the stage. Why the Scots took over their far more powerful neighbour seems not to have an answer, but history indeed performed the same thing again in 1603, when a Scottish king was crowned the King of England.

They fight many, often victorious, wars against the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England, and the country's borders extended well beyond what they are today, with much of Northumbria and then some all Scottish territory. It was during a battle in one of these wars that the background of the saltire flag of Scotland was changed from red to blue. Saint Andrew was martyred on a saltire cross, but before a battle where the Scots were hopelessly outnumbered by the Angles a white cross appeared against a blue sky, and the Scots won a victory that day which was both decisive and resounding. However, one of the kings of Scotland would submit to a unified Saxon colony later, giving birth to England's claims of supremacy, centuries later.

It was barely into the first millennium that the Scots and Gaels began to see things differently. The Canmores married into the family of the Saxon kings of England, and the new English queen began to reform the Scottish court. The country began to speak a version of Anglo-Saxon which survives in most, if not all, of Scotland today, Scots, commonly grossly misunderstood as a variant of English or a simple accent. Although many words in Scots are similar, a great deal are obviously different to English, a mix of old English words and Gaelic (Scots has preserved many words like 'lang,' 'auld,' and 'ye,' which would be English words if the Saxon language wasn't influences by others of Germanic roots throughout the centuries, and have been replaced by 'long,' 'old,' and 'you.' The word 'haggis' is from the old English verb 'haggen,' to slash or chop).

The change in language greatly offended the proud, fiercely independent, clans of the Celtic north, basically semi-independent or independent principalities or states over which few Scottish kings could claim lordship of, due to the fact that the Gaels would follow their chiefs and lords beyond all sanity and sense, the chiefs being the father figure for all clansmen and women, a guardian, a judge, and a representative (if you are wondering how families evolved into great clans numbering thousands less than a few hundred years later: in the small 'clachans,' villages of eight or so families, across the Highlands and Islands, a personal name or patronymic, i.e. macIain, Johnson, in English, would suffice, but if asked his surname a clansman would often say that of his chief out of loyalty or honour, and the name would then stick until they decided to change it again, which was common practice when in a hostile clan's lands).

Gaelic Clan System

For most people, the clan system is a militaristic feudal system, with sentimental images of tartan and claymore swords. In reality, this is far from the truth. Where many people think of life under a chief's thumb as harsh and brutal, the chiefs were in no sense the lords of their people - as much as they owned the clan lands, the clansmen and their families owned it. They were expected to give everything in the interests of their clan's welfare, and quite often did. In traditional Gaelic culture, it was the decision of the chief who should be his heir, as long as they were related.

Clan wars were regular thanks to claims to another clan's lands overlapping, alliances through marriage being dishonoured, and even a single clansman or woman's actions, but rarely with pitched battles, horses, and all the panoply of war, more often man-on-man duels when opposing clans met, or cattle raids in the lands of another clan, cattle being the currency of the Highland clans, money itself being of little use or need when there was a chief who would provide for you and your family.

Of course, when clan chiefs did have to fight large-scale, they wielded unmatched power, and when the fiery cross (to summon the fighting men of the clan to muster) was lit, more often than not thousands would march in defense of home. The Gaels have actually never been defeated when a unified force, and it is easy to see why. Their inherited swordsmanship, with weapons from short blades to brutal hacking claymores, and the unfaltering violence of the legendary Highland charge could rout professional, well-supplied, and well-trained armies in minutes, if not seconds, in later periods with one volley of musket fire before the plaid around the waist (the precursor to the modern kilt) was thrown off, their knee-length léines tied between their legs, and thousands of screaming, half-naked soldiers with fanatical loyalties and heroic leaders bore down on their enemies wildly across the barrels of musket and cannon, shouting war cries which began deep inside them, colliding with their enemies and unleashing a tide of blood.

The clans quite often had no loyalty to the Scottish kings, after all, they had little reason and only the chiefs had the right to give clansmen orders. The Macdonald Lords of the Isles even called themselves 'proud enemies of the realm of Scotland,' and with many such as Donald Dubh (doo) sacking Scottish towns and cities, including Inverness, and being easily the equal in power of Scotland, they kept alive the burning Celtic traits of loyalty to kin and mistrust of governments, and although they were eventually defeated and the title of Lords of the Isles was forfeited, Clan Donald scattered into many different branches, their legend will always persist.

Gaelic Clothing

As mentioned, the léine was lower-class and middle-class Gaelic fashion, along with loose trousers, often worn by soldiers, especially the light cavalry the Gaels used, called trews. The kilt was rarely, if ever, worn by Gaels and all clan tartan and symbols were disdained by the Scots. Instead, the plaid, cloth wrapped around the waist cleverly to provide pockets at the side, was worn, although was heavy and often thrown off before battle. Many complex hairstyles were worn, and in place of a beard the Gaels often sported moustaches, as it was dishonour for a Gaelic man to have no facial hair whatsoever. They preferred a mixture of simple and complex jewellery designs, with both precious and semi-precious stones.

The aristocracy wore artfully decorated robes and crested helmets, the number of colours on the robes, often in beautiful decorations around the sleeves and hem, the more respected and wealthier the noble. These robes were often ankle-length.

Gaelic Weapons

In ancient times, the Gaels used short blades, javelins, and bows as their primary weapons, with axe-armed cavalry their mounted raiders, and special infantry militia called ceitherne recruited specifically for cattle raids. The Scottish claymore kept the design for the guard of other Gaelic swords, the shallow-V with decorated swellings at each end of the guard, and a long hilt, the blade up to sixty inches in length. This blade became a symbol of Scotland, and is a hacking weapon, able to shatter shields and crush armour, tearing off limbs, often legs or sword-arms. The claymore evolved into the shorter, one-handed broadsword, used with the targe, with the invention and use of muskets and hand guns.

The targe was a light shield worn on the arm, often the hand of the shield-arm holding a shorter blade, a dirk, for closer combat than achievable with a broadsword, and could throw off musket bullets. It was often decorated, although could be shattered by a hard strike from a hacking weapon, be it claymore, warhammer, or battle axe.

As for cavalry, the Gaels employed light, unarmed cavalry, hobilars, who were either skilled javelin-throwers from horseback, sometimes skilled enough to ride and throw without stirrups or reins, or could wield axes. The cavalry were often patrols and scouts for the raiders, but were effective at urban raids, if rarely used for such a purpose.

The Gaels, like the Picts, also clung to use of agile, swift chariots with tough native horses and javelin-armed nobles which surprised the Romans, although this was abandoned in place of cavalry before the union of Scots and Picts.

Gaelic Equality

Whilst many other races were powered by religious and gender intolerance, the Gaels were different in many aspects. Although capable of unparalleled barbarism when the situation called for it, and carrying out slave raids well after the Norman conquest of England, their very society was based on equality almost to the point where clansman, clan slave, and clan chief could stand together as one class, and gender equality was similar, with married women allowed to keep their original patronymic, with 'nic' instead of 'mac,' or 'daughter of,' instead of 'son of,' and could rely on their clan for assistance if their marriage broke down.

The females of the Gaelic pantheon seem to have significantly more influence and power than their male equivalents, and it is likely the only reason there were few or no female chiefs is that the chief was a father figure, more or less.

As opposed to arranged marriages in more southern noble families, the Gaelic 'handfasting' equivalent was practised: where two people would be joined together and would live with each other for a year and a day. If a baby had been born or was expected by then, the marriage was confirmed. If not, the two were free elsewhere.


I hope you have learned a lot about both Scots and Gaels, and their cultures. I have amassed this knowledge over almost four years of research and reading for a book I hope to publish, and I can assure you that all facts here I have learned from more than one reliable source.


Scottish Clans and Tartans by Alastair Cunningham
A Concise History - Scotland by Fitzroy Maclean
Celts of the British Isles by David Ross
Pocket Scottish History edited by James Mackay
Everyday Gaelic by Morag Macneill

Slàinte, sonas, agus beairteas (health, wealth, and happiness)