The Gaelic Gasp & The Glottal Stop

Most people have a fixed idea of what a Scottish accent is, thanks to film and television; and, generally it’s sort of Glasgow-ish, with a hint of Edinburgh. This is no coincidence, as nearly two thirds of the Scottish population lives in the Greater Glasgow – Edinburgh corridor, and this kind of accent prevails. That’s a bit simplistic though, as it varies across the area; with socio-economic and class factors playing a large part as well. So, someone from Bearsden in Glasgow’s leafy suburbs is unlikely to share an accent with someone hailing from Rutherglen in the southeast of the city.


From Ayrshire, the land of Robert Burns, across the Central Belt – through Glasgow, Edinburgh and Fife to Dundee – accents are variations on the Lowlands Scots Dialect. There are those who will argue that Scots is a language of its own, separate from English; and while I see this, to me it simply a tongue that developed from the same root and a variation on a theme. Even those who claim to speak it this is not what was taught to them at school. Scotland has her own independent educational system, which is broad-based, and the national curriculum imposes Maths and English as compulsory subjects to the age of 16. The English taught is that of Received Pronunciation or ‘Proper English’ (whatever that might be). Thus, ‘English’ is the written language of Scotland, despite its distinct vernacular.


Lowland Scots has several distinct features both in dialect and accent – the rolling of the Rs, and the famous Glottal Stop: “Scawe-land” rather than Scot-land, “Buh-ur” rather than but-er, and so on. The ‘helpful vowel’ or Svarabhakti is often employed – wur-um and wur-uld for worm and world. These and a large range of words unused elsewhere in the English speaking world (e.g. – ken for know; thrawn for stubborn; drouthy for thirsty; etc.) make the accent instantly recognisable – and account for the stereotype. Outwith the Central Belt, the diversity of the accent becomes even more pronounced, with striking differences in both diction and enunciation.


Perhaps the most striking of Scottish accents is that of the Doric, spoken essentially in Aberdeenshire. The term ‘Doric’ is a reference to the rough speech of the Spartan people (to Athenian ears), and came to mean ‘rustic’ or ‘rural’. One of the most noticeable differences from Lowland Scots is the use of ‘f’ instead of ‘whi’ in words like what, who (pronounced fit and fa’ respectively). Doric speakers share most of the dialectal words used further south, but have plenty others of their own – ‘louns’ for boys, and ‘queans’ for girls being well known examples.


The small village of Auldearn near Nairn is one of Scotland’s linguistic boundaries, where the Doric of the east switches to the lilt and nasal accent of the Inverness area – itself an extension of the Highland dialects of Strathspey, the Great Glen and Easter Ross. The change is not just in phonology, but in grammar and structure. In many ways the language constructs of Highland English mirror that of the Southeast of England, and the Oxbridge world. This is due to the language being first introduced and then forced upon Gaelic speakers over the course of the last 200 years, and more importantly since the Education Act (Scotland) 1872. When a new language enters an area and is systematically taught one generation on another from textbooks, then the formula tends to stick – this is the reason why Inverness is often quoted as having the ‘Best Spoken English in the World’.

As you continue west towards the Hebrides (but also in pockets like Perthshire), where Gaelic is still spoken or was until relatively recently then the English begins to adopt idiosyncrasies from the mother language; which, as a Celtic tongue is arranged in a very different way. As well as more aspiration in the speech, and grammatical constructions which mimic Gaelic, such as “I am after buying a newspaper”, there is the strange phenomenon of the ‘Gaelic Gasp’.


The ‘gasp’ is a sharp intake of breath signifying agreement, often accompanied by an ‘aye’, or a nodding of the head. This breathy acquiescence isn’t restricted to the Highlands, but can be found across the North Atlantic including the Faeroes, Iceland and Norway – which suggests a Viking origin to this linguistic oddity. It also gives us insight to the varieties of English spoken across Scotland: from the sing-song lilt of the islands to the barking gruff of the Lothians. A thousand years ago an Anglo-Saxon (or early English) language was spoken in southeast; Welsh languages dominated both the southwest and central Scotland (Briton and Pictish were part of this family); in the west, beyond the mountains the Picts of Argyll spoke Gaelic; and, in the far north Norse was spoken. Each would contribute to accents and dialects that would emerge in their areas – but why English?


In 1070 King Malcolm III married Margaret Ætheling, an Anglo-Saxon Princess fleeing the conquest of England by William of Normandy. She was a dominant woman, thorough in her religious convictions: establishing abbeys and influencing the Scottish court. She made sure that ‘English’ became the ‘natural’ language of diplomacy. Her son, David I, introduced the feudal system into Scotland – including Royal Burghs (towns with specific trading rights). The linga-franca of these new towns was English: David’s first language. The nobility followed, and by the necessity of trade, so ultimately did the farmers. Formed from a more antiquated Anglo-Saxon, this version of English would evolve into Scots. Words such as ‘kirk’ for a church, or ‘gate’ for a street hint at the older Germanic root; now lost in modern English. This accounts for the origins of the Scots dialect; where the accent differs depends on the level of Celtic/Norse influence beyond adoption.


A second revolution saw the assimilation of ‘Proper English’ – the Reformation of 1560. While a truly Scottish event, the influence of the English Reformation played a part. There, bibles were already printed in English, and while there were significant vocabulary differences, most Scots could read and understand them. The Church of Scotland decided not to bother printing bibles in the vernacular, and so from then on English became the ‘written’ expression of the language. This was cemented in 1603 when James VI of Scotland became the king of England.


In the Highlands, the bible was actually translated into Gaelic, but inroads are long in the making. The decline of Gaelic is well documented and the reasons legion; and the effect on the language remains to this day. The Gaidhealtachd, the Gaelic speaking areas of Scotland, have for a thousand years been receding against the never-ending tsunami of English. There are milestones along the way, and we should be thankful that the language exists far less thrives, in the Hebrides. The Highland line still provides a major boundary, such as Auldearn, or Dunkeld – where the age-old usage of English meets the recently taught variety in the traditional Gaelic lands. Yet, whatever the origin, whatever the accent, the Scottish dialect is vibrant and truly fascinating.


This blog was written by David McNicoll, owner of Highland Experience USA – which specialises in Vacation Packages and Tours of Scotland

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One thought on “The Gaelic Gasp & The Glottal Stop

  1. James

    I don’t think that you cna really say “The English taught is that of Received Pronunciation” because Received Pronunciation is the accent that posh Englsih folk speak. It would be better to just say Standard English.


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