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Gaelic is truly an ancient language. It is related to other languages known as the Celtic languages. It is a cousin of Welsh and Breton, but Scottish Gaelic is closest to the Irish language. When the Gaels arrived from Ireland in the early centuries of the first millennium, they brought their language with them – Gaelic. The the Gaels spread throughout the northern part of Britain, what is now known as Scotland, other languages which were once spoken there became extinct and were replaced by Gaelic. At one time, Gaelic was spoken throughout most of what is now Scotland. There were two or three parts of Scotland where Gaelic was not predominant: Orkney, Shetland, and the Southeast where Lothian and The Borders lie today. As far as we know, Gaelic was not plentiful in part of Caithness as well, as its Gaelic name, which derives from the word for foreigner, belies.
At first, the Gaelic spoken in Ireland and the Gaelic spoken in Scotland were the same language. Over the centuries, however, the languages changed and they split. This took hundreds of years, however, and the poets in Ireland and Scotland were composing in the same language, classical Gaelic, until the seventeenth century. Today, the two languages are still pretty close and if one is fluent in either language, you can usually make out what the speaker of the other language is saying if you are patient and diligent – but it is not easy.
Although Gaelic was spoken throughout most of what is now Scotland at one time, the language began to deteriorate in the eleventh century and the Gaelic speaking area of Scotland retreated to the north and west. In the eighteenth century, when the Gaels began to leave Scotland for the New World, Gaelic was mostly only spoken in the Northwest and the Islands, where it is still spoken today.
When the Gaels left the Scottish Highlands and emigrated to Nova Scotia and Cape Breton in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they took their language and culture with them. For the first one hundred years or so after the Gaels arrived in Cape Breton, the Gaelic language and culture was strong and healthy. Little by little, however, the language began to disappear. Although part of the Gaelic culture is alive and well still, like Scottish fiddling and step dancing, there are not many Gaels left in Cape Breton who speak Gaelic. Although Gaelic is scarce today, those who still speak the language are proud of it and many are trying hard to preserve the language before it disappears completely from the Province.