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Highland English

Highland English or Highland and Island English[1] is the variety of Scottish English spoken by many in the Scottish Highlands and the Hebrides. It is more strongly influenced by Gaelic than other forms of Scottish English.[2][3]


  • Phonology 1
  • Grammar 2
  • Relationship to other languages 3
  • Vocabulary 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes and references 6


  • The more distinctive varieties of Highland English show the influence of Gaelic most clearly in pronunciation, but also in grammar. For example, voiceless stops /p/ /t/ /k/ are realised with preaspiration, 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").[4] 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 and Scots is sometimes used, so that "film" may be pronounced "fillum".[5]
  • Many older speakers employ a very distinctive affirmative or backchannel item taken from Scottish Gaelic which involves an ingress of breath[6] 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".[7] This linguistic feature is not found in the other Gaelic languages (Irish and Manx), but is present in some Scandinavian languages.[8] (Similarly, in France people often whisper the word "oui" while inhaling.)
  • Lack of the wine–whine merger.
  • H-dropping, not generally found in Scots or Scottish English dialects, has been reported to be a standard speech feature in the Black Isle, near Inverness.[9]


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!" 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 -ina suffix appended to male names, examples: Murdina ( < Murdo), Dolina, Calumina, Angusina, and Neilina.

Relationship to other languages

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-thà" or "Okay ma-thà" /ma haː/ 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 some non-Highland Scots; 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 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.

  • Aye - Meaning 'yes'
  • Bodach - A Gaelic word for an old man.
  • Bothan - a hut, often an illegal drinking den.
  • Bourach - a mess, a muddle, from the Gaelic bùrach
  • 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
  • Gàidhealtachd - A Gaelic term for the Highlands
  • Glen - A 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 related to this meaning and is also the local name for the more specific Kyle of Lochalsh.
  • Loch - A Gaelic word meaning a lake or a fjord.
  • Machair - A Gaelic word referring to a grassy coastal plain, with typical flora, usually in the Outer Hebrides ('Links' in Lowland Scotland).
  • Mach à Seo! - Let's go, literally "out of here!". Pronounced: "Mack-a-shaw" (Gaelic)
  • Mull - a headland.
  • Messages - meaning groceries.
  • Och - Meaning 'oh'. For example 'Och aye' translates to 'oh yes' in English
  • Ochone ochone - An expression of regret or commiseration, from Gaelic.
  • Piece - packed lunch
  • Skimler - A parasite, a scrounge. From the Gaelic Sgimilear.
  • Strath - A wide river valley, usually shallow and wide, from Gaelic srath.
  • Stroupach - A cup of tea.
  • Tack & Tacksman (historical) - A piece of land and its tenant.[1]
  • 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, and in a similar way Wee Piskies can refer to the Episcopal Church and Wee Papes to the Roman Catholic Church.
  • The Wee Paper - A nickname for the West Highland Free Press published in Skye.
  • Westie - West Highland Terrier (now a general term for this dog breed throughout the UK).
  • White Settlers, or Incomers - a derogatory term for migrants to the Highlands and Islands, often from England, but also from elsewhere in the UK or Europe.[10][11]

See also

Other English dialects heavily influenced by Celtic languages

Notes and references

  1. ^ Trudgill, Peter (1984). Language in the British Isles. Cambridge University Press. p. 152. ISBN 978-0-521-28409-7
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ McArthur, Tom (1998). The English Languages. Cambridge University Press. p. 172. ISBN 978-0-521-48582-1
  5. ^ Filppula, Markku et al. (2008). English and Celtic in Contact. Routledge. p. 206. ISBN 978-0-415-26602-4
  6. ^ Robert Eklund (2008): Pulmonic ingressive phonation: Diachronic and synchronic characteristics, distribution and function in animal and human sound production and in human speech, Journal of the International Phonetic Association, vol. 38, no. 3, pp. 235–324.
  7. ^ The Gaelic Gasp* and its North Atlantic Cousins, Eleanor Josette Thom, A study of Ingressive Pulmonic Speech in Scotland. A dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the MA in Linguistics, University College London. September 2005
  8. ^ Trudgill, Peter (1984). Language in the British Isles. Cambridge University Press. p. 321. ISBN 978-0-521-28409-7
  9. ^ Wells, John Christopher (1982). Accents of English 2 : The British Isles Cambridge University Press. p. 412. ISBN 978-0-521-28540-7
  10. ^ Watson (2003) p. 11.
  11. ^ Jedrej and Nuttal (1996) p. 16–17.
  • 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 0-7486-1859-7
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