The Gaelic dialects of St Kilda, with comments on Gaelic and language in the Outer Hebrides

By Linden Alexander Pentecost, August 2022

About 90 percent of what I have been able to learn about St Kilda Gaelic, comes from the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland. In the dialect surveys, there are three contributors who give words from St Kilda Gaelic, and, all of the words mentioned in this article are from those pronunciations given in the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland, edited by Cathair Ó Dochartaigh. The word forms are marked with a number, e.g. (15), to show the contributor from the dialect surveys in relation to a particular word; but, as with my article about Arran Gaelic, I have adapted the phonetic information given by these speakers into a more Gaelic-based orthography. The orthography used here is thus based upon standard Scottish Gaelic, but with changes to help show the St Kilda pronunciation. Note also that I have only been able to write some of the sound changes in these words, and that I do not include all St Kilda pronunciations of these words included. In some cases where I add for example (14), (15) but not (16), there may be a form from informant (16) which I haven’t included. Note also that informants 14, 15 and 16 are all from the same island in St Kilda, Hirta. There are no informants from Soay or Boreray, which have been largely uninhabited, at least in recent centuries.

St Kilda, June 2014

St Kilda is well known to people in Scotland, and to nature-lovers from the UK in general. But for those who have never heard of St Kilda, St Kilda is a small archapilago, located out to sea, and west of the main Outer Hebrides island chain. This main island chain includes, from north to south, Lewis, Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay and Barra. There are many other smaller islands within this island chain, but these are the islands that people generally refer to as the Outer Hebrides.

Further to the west, is a group of much smaller islands. In English they are known as St Kilda, and in Gaelic as Hiort. The islands of St Kilda are now uninhabited, except for people living there temporarily. The website Tobar an Dualchais has some recordings of Gaelic, spoken by original residents of St Kilda. And from this I have discussed a little about the prosody of the St Kilda Gaelic dialects. As far as I know this topic has not been researched by anyone else, and so I am somewhat in the dark with how much progress I have been able to make, so far, I can just make certain comments about the prosody. For instance, sometimes the prosody of St Kilda Gaelic audible at Tobar an Dualchais sounds a little like Argyll Gaelic prosody to me, but other times, the prosody of St Kilda Gaelic sounds closer to the prosody of some Irish dialects. I have heard a similar ’Irish-like’ prosody in some of the recordings of Wester-Ross Gaelic at Tobar an Dualchais, but from my own research, this seems to be found in the northern, aka Ullapool region of Wester Ross, and not so much in the dialects of Torridon, Lochalsh and Duirinish.

With regards to the similarity to Argyll Gaelic, I have occasionally heard what is almost like a stød sound in St Kilda Gaelic, from the recordings on Tobar an Dualchais. This is not common, and I would not interpret it as a full stød or as a full glottal stop. But more recently I did notice that the word fighe – ’knitting, weaving’ is given with a medial glottal stop for speaker 16 from St Kilda (Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland). This glottal stop is not given as existing in other Outer Hebridean dialects in the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland, but the glottal stop is given for this word in the language of several informants from Argyll.

So essentially, St Kilda Gaelic, in my opinion, shows a range of prosodic structures that can’t be tied to any particular region or origin with ease. The phonemes of St Kilda Gaelic are also clearly audible in the recordings at Tobar an Dualchais, and now I am going to discuss some of those features. I have previously discussed St Kilda Gaelic on my non-commercial website, The Book of Dunbarra, but this article will provide further information and examples.

Broad velarised l to [w] or [u]

In St Kilda Gaelic, the broad velarised l tends to be [w] or a variant of [u] or [ʊ]. The distribution of [l̪ˠw] for the broad velarised l is far more common, and is found in various parts of Argyll and elsewhere. But [w] is quite unique, although it also occurs in Lismore Gaelic for instance, according to people I have spoken to, although the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland (1) tends to give [v] more commonly on Lismore. Below are some examples from St Kilda Gaelic, followed by their spelling in standard Scottish Gaelic.


Slender r and slender l

In St Kilda Gaelic, slender r and slender l often interchange with one another. I am not sure what is the specific pattern behind these changes. Another possibility is that there might have been another language spoken in St Kilda in ancient times, and so the seemingly random l and r switches could come from that the original language of St Kilda did not possess these as distinct sounds, and so when they adopted the Gaelic language, they did not always repeat these sounds as they are in Gaelic. In terms of what this earlier language might have been, we can talk about Norse.

Some of the island names in St Kilda are of Norse origin, like Soay and Boreray, which I think are likely from Old Norse Sauðurey – ‘sheep island’ or perhaps more likely Sauðey or Souðey in the Norn language, which to some extent was connected Western Scotland as well as being spoken in the Northern Isles; and Borgarey – ‘fort’s island’, although in Old Norse borg, genitive singular borgar can also refer to a ‘castle shaped’ rock formation. In the Norn language Borgarey could be spelled something like Borgharey.

But I would argue that the Norse presence in St Kilda had more to do with navigational naming, i.e. that Norse names were applied to some features because they were navigational to the Norse sailors. Norse names are found throughout the Outer Hebrides, but I think many of them are navigational rather than suggestive that there were actually many Norse speakers on these islands. The Norse language, was I think connected in some way to a much earlier ‘oceanic’ language, and for example, the names Hirta, and also the names of the nearby islands of Harris/Na Hearadh, Lewis/Leòdhas, and Uist/Uibhist may be pre-Celtic and pre-Norse in origin. Below are some examples or slender l and slender r interchanging:

Note: in my spelling of St Kilda Gaelic, I write pre-aspiration, so in lihtil the h represents [h], and in lichcir the ch represents [ç]. Note that gimilich and gimirich likely represent the verb-noun form, e.g. standard Gaelic: ag imlich, St Kilda Gaelic: gimilich – ‘licking, lapping’. Attaching the particle ag onto a verb-noun beginning with a vowel is fairly common in some Gaelic dialects. It also occurs in Manx e.g. ta mee gynsagh, Scottish Gaelic: tha mi ag ionnsachadh.

Note that ï is written for the similarly spelled vowel in this word in the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland, except that in the survey this letter is given with a small hook below. The letter ö is for a sound spelled as a variant of [ø] in the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland. This may be much the same sound as the [ø] sound in Arran Gaelic.

Note: with regards to navigational names, I have used the website to look at how much the sea level would need to drop in order for St Kilda to be connected to the Outer Hebrides. From this website, it seems that the sea level would have to be about 120 metres lower than present day levels for St Kilda to have been connected by a land bridge. Due to glacial rebound, Mesolithic sea levels in Scotland would have been somewhat higher than present day levels, so to go back to a time of earlier sea levels, we would be looking at the Ice Age. But even then, there is a lot of confusion about what the Ice Age

landscape looked like, but I am largely unconvinced that people would have been able to ‘walk’ to St Kilda during this time, even though I am not aware where the ice sheets were in relation to St Kilda.

More notes on consonants

As you will have noticed, the sounds represented as slender t and d in other dialects are often instead c and g in St Kilda Gaelic. This is another change which, from what I can tell, appears to have no obvious pattern, not which I have noticed previously. I am unsure on to what extent these consonants are voiced or voiceless in St Kilda Gaelic, so to make things easier, I write the change from t as c and the change from d as g. Similar changes do take place in other Gaelic dialects, but in St Kilda Gaelic these changes seem far more common place. Note that g and c are pronounced like slender forms of [g] and [k], although the exact degree to which these sounds are unvoiced or voiced is somewhat a matter of debate. Generally speaking [k] occurs with initial aspirated consonants, but this is not by any means a rule across Gaelic dialects. Below are some examples of c and g.

Note that the second vowel in diag, giag is a schwa.

Notes on St Kilda Gaelic vowels

Sometimes the quality of vowels and the diphthongs is quite different in St Kilda Gaelic. Standard Gaelic donn – ‘brown’ has frequent diphthongisation of the [o], but in St Kilda Gaelic this diphthong is given as [œ̇ʊ] in the Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland for informant sixteen’s pronunciation of donn, which I would write as dœun in St Kilda Gaelic. Note that in this article I have also written some of the other diphthongs, including those before ’n’, which would not normally be written in Gaelic, e.g. ciaunntadh.

The distinction between broad and slender consonants in St Kilda Gaelic seems rather different with regards to the slender s and slender d in some cases. From recordings at Tobar an Dualchais, the St Kilda Gaelic slender s sounds to me more like a palatalised [s] rather than [ʃ], at least in some instances. The Survey of the Gaelic dialects of Scotland gives the word deoch – ‘a drink’, in the language of informants 14 and 15 this word is pronounced without the d being palatalised or becoming a variant [tʃ] or [tʒ], instead, the slender vowel e in this word is pronounced as a separate vowel, with the vowel sound in this word being written as [ɛɔ]. This is quite unusual in this word. Even though some Gaelic speakers will include two vowels in a sequence for this word, it is very unusual I think for there to be no palatalisation or ‘slender marking’ present.

Many other vowels in St Kilda Gaelic are the same as they are in most other Hebridean Islands, for example the sound represented by ao in St Kilda Gaelic is often [ɯː].

In the language of informant 16, there is palatalisation or slenderisation in the two forms of this word given by this speaker; these could be written as dioch and geoch.

The wider context of ancient language in St Kilda and the Outer Hebrides

When it comes to looking for possibly pre-Celtic and pre-Norse cultures, there are a couple of things that come to mind. Firstly, the Gaelic language on Lewis is quite distinctive from other dialects, one of the noteable distinctions being that the slender r is often a sound close to [ð]. This also occurs in parts of the Uists. Connected to the Isle of Lewis are legends of the ciuthach giants, which on Lewis are associated with brochs. I discovered this when reading Further Remarks on the Ciuthach by David MacRitchie, The Celtic Review Vol. 9, No. 36 (Apr., 1914), pp. 344-346. Brochs are archaeologically speaking ‘Pictish’ structures, but I very much doubt that this broch-culture on Lewis was speaking the same language as the P-Celtic language found in the heart of Pictland, i.e. Fife, Aberdeenshire etc.

A culture of unknown identity existed in South Uist during the Bronze Age. Some aspects of this culture are similar to cultural innovations often associated with Celtic languages, for example, round houses. But other aspects of this culture, known only from Cladh Hallan, Cladh Hàlainn on South Uist, are definitely foreign to what we know of Celtic culture. One of these practices was mummification, Cladh Hallan being the only known site in the UK where deliberate mummification took place. Not only did the people at Cladh Hallan mummify their dead, but these mummies may have been physical deities and ancestors, as they kept adding new parts onto the mummies. In fact, one of the mummies discovered was made from three different individuals, spanning many hundreds of years. Perhaps these mummies can be thought of as collective ancestral gods in a sense, maintaining a physical connection to the tribe and community over time.

Trying to put any accurate interpretation on Cladh Hallan is impossible at this stage, but what is for sure, is that the historical cultures of the Outer Hebrides hold a lot more mysteries than I used to believe. For many of us, is may be quite strange to think that such practices existed in ancient Scotland, yet in one way or another, these islands seem to have been considered as incredibly sacred places throughout human history. In their own unique way, I feel that the people of Cladh Hallan recognised this, just as the early Christians recognised it in their own way.

Written in honour of the ancestors of St Kilda and the Hebrides, and in honour of their descendants. I am also grateful to Cathair Ó Dochartaigh and to all individuals who helped to contribute to the dialect survey.

Articles by Linden Pentecost


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