Scotlands History

Celtic languages

By the 4th century BC people across Britain spoke ‘Celtic’ languages. These are commonly known as ‘Q-Celtic’ or ‘Goidelic’ languages and ‘P-Celtic’ or ‘Brythonic’ languages: 

  • Q-Celtic Goidelic languages included Manx, Scots and Irish Gaelic. The Dál Riatan Gaels spoke a Q-Celtic Goidelic language.

  • P-Celtic Brythonic languages included Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish and Breton. These were the languages of the Picts and the Britons.

The people of the West Coast traded with the Irish across the sea. They spoke similar Q-Celtic Goidelic languages. It was far easier to get across the sea than it was to travel across country. There were only a few miles of water dividing Ireland and Kintyre.

When the Irish St Columba travelled east to meet the Pictish King Brude he needed a translator to be understood, as the Picts spoke an ancient form of P-Celtic Brythonic. In the south the Britons of Strathclyde and the Votadini also spoke P-Celtic Brythonic languages.

This is of course a great simplification. There would have been hundreds of different dialects spoken across the country. Many people would have been multilingual. Loan words were adopted from other languages and ‘pidgin’ versions of languages would have been developed to aid diplomacy and trade. The ancient forms of these languages evolved into modern Celtic languages like Scots Gaelic, Welsh and Manx.

You can still find remnants of Celtic languages in hundreds of place names like Traprain Law, Clackmannan, Lanark and Penicuik.


  • A photograph of an Iron Age village scene at breakfast time

Click on the image to view a larger version.