Goidelic-speakers ("Scots") from northeastern Ireland began colonising the northwestern coast of Britain in the 5th-6th centuries CE, establishing their language and culture in the kingdom of D‡lriada (present-day Argyll), the nucleus of what would become, after absorbing the surrounding Pictish and British-speaking states, the Kingdom of Scotland. For the first thousand years of Scottish history, Scotland and Ireland shared the same written language -- the standard that had been developed by the intellectual elite in Irish monasteries (Scottish scholars now often refer to it as "Old/Middle Common Gaelic" rather than "Old/Middle Irish"). Scottish particularisms in speech may have begun to appear at an early date, but they would not have been reflected in the literary language.


Although Gaelic was the official language of the Scottish court and administration in the early Middle Ages, it soon became marginalized. By the 12th century, increasing ethnic-English influence on the government (and an influx of English noble refugees in the Scottish Lowlands, fleeing the Norman invasion of England) brought the country within European feudal norms and made it look southward and across to the Continent for its cultural and political models, rather than to its native traditions. The quasi-independent Lordship of the Isles maintained a Gaelic-speaking entity in the west of Scotland until the end of the 14th century and beyond, but little by little it was forced back under the control of the centralized Scottish kingdom. A major cultural divide appeared between the Gaelic-speaking Highlands and the Lallans-(ie, dialectal-English) speaking Lowlands.


In the 16th century the Protestant Reformation, taking root in the Lowlands, brought about a decisive rift between the ruling classes of Scotland and the country's Gaelic past. Gaelic culture was identified with the rejected Catholic establishment, and vast numbers of Gaelic manuscripts were destroyed. As a result, almost nothing remains of the mediaeval Gaelic literature of Scotland. The one exception is the Book of the Dean of Lismore, which contains the work of poets from the 14th to the 16th centuries.


The breakdown in relations between Scotland and Ireland led to a divergence in Gaelic usage in the two countries. Instead of retaining the literary standard that 17th-century Irish writers used, Gaelic writers in the Highlands began to use the vernacular forms of the language as it was actually spoken in Scotland. Several generations of brilliant poets flourished in the 17th and especially the early 18th centuries, praising the chieftains of their clans and commenting on the tumultuous political situation of the time. Unfortunately, the situation resolved itself tragically for the Highlands and their culture: Scotland lost its independence in 1707, the Jacobite dream of restoring a Scotland where the Gaels would play a respected role was destroyed forever at Culloden in 1746, active persecution of Gaelic culture followed, and eventually even the clan chieftains turned on their own people, expropriating them from their lands to make room for large-scale sheep-farming projects. The Highland Clearances, as these events are now called, depopulated Gaelic-speaking areas and further weakened the status of the language in Scotland. Many of the exiles went to Canada, where some of them continued to speak their native tongue, especially in Nova Scotia: a Gaelic-speaking community survives on Cape Breton; after a long decline, it is showing signs of revival.


Luckily, even as the traditionally Gaelic areas were being uprooted and much of their heritage was on the brink of being forgotten, two folklorists did much work to preserve it. Alexander Carmichael compiled _Ortha nan Gaidheal/Carmina Gadelica_, a collection of prayers and folk charms that retained a unique mixture of pre-Christian and Celtic Christian traits. J.F. Campbell gathered folktales -- many of them mythological in nature, featuring the deeds of the Fianna -- and published them as _Popular Tales of the West Highlands_.


By the end of the 19th century a reaction was setting in among educated Gaelic-speakers, who demanded a greater role for the language in both education and publishing. During the 20th century, despite a further shrinking of Gaelic communities, many of their efforts met with success, as Gaelic was taught in schools and new works were published by Gaelic-language presses. Gaelic literature has flourished over the last hundred years: in Sorley McLean (Somhairle Mac 'ill-Eathain) it has a poet of international standing. There is also a lively short-story tradition. Although the situation of the language remains precarious, native Gaelic-speakers are becoming more confident in their cultural identity -- a telling sign of this is the creation of Sabhal M˜r Ostaig, the Gaelic-medium business college on the isle of Skye.

In centuries past the prestige dialect of Gaelic was the dialect of Perthshire (e.g., in the Gaelic translation of the Bible), but with the disappearance of Gaelic from much of the Scottish mainland the dialect of Stornoway (Lewis) is probably closer to being the modern norm. Although Gaelic survives in some mainland areas like the Ardnamurchan peninsula, its speakers are now concentrated in the Outer Isles. There are two main dialect groups, each with its peculiarities of pronunciation and idiom: a northern one centered on Lewis and Harris; and a southern one centered on Skye, Barra and South Uist. Gaelic spelling (which is still based on Irish orthography) is essentially phonetic, which facilitates learning.