The language of Gaelic has been spoken in Scotland since at least the 10th century and was at one time the country’s main language, widespread in towns and cities across the nation. It is pronounced in English with the soft “a” of words like “father” and is not to be confused with Irish Gaelic, pronounced with the hard “a” of “table”.
Since the union of Scotland and England in the early 18th century, though, it has been in decline. These days you are most likely to find native Gaelic speakers in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, with concerns having been raised about the future of the language.
Now, a new initiative from community cafe and Gaelic cultural centre An Taigh Cèilidh – known to locals in Stornoway on the isle of Lewis as “the Gaelic Cafe” – seeks to turn the tide with the release of the first Gaelic edition of the board game Scrabble, arriving just in time for Christmas.
Produced in collaboration with London-based Tinderbox Games, who manufacture and distribute a range of Scrabble editions, the Gaelic version will contain only the 18 letters found in the Gaelic alphabet (J, K, Q, V, W, X, Y and Z do not feature), and includes the grave accent on vowels À È Ì Ò and Ù. The frequency with which each letter appears has been reconsidered to reflect its usage in Gaelic, and scoring has been reformulated to reflect the respective ease and difficulty of using different letters in the language.
Tinderbox Games already produce a number of language versions including Welsh, Irish, Latin, Icelandic and Faroese, said CEO Jim Harrison, who pointed out that no two versions are the same, due to linguistic differences.
“We worked closely on the development of the new game with the team at An Taigh Cèilidh, who have done a fantastic job of localising the material and ensuring that the game plays really well,” said Harrison. “I hope everyone enjoys playing it as much as we enjoyed making it.”
The game began development when Teàrlach Wilson, the founding director of An Taigh Cèilidh and a Gaelic and Welsh speaker with a PhD in the former, approached Tinderbox Games in 2021.
“As a fluent Welsh speaker, I’ve played many games of the Welsh version of Scrabble so I asked if there was a Gaelic version available and, if not, could An Taigh Cèilidh be involved in bringing it to fruition,” Wilson said. “Academic research has shown that Scrabble is an effective, fun way to teach literacy in any language – so it can help popularise the revitalisation of minority and indigenous languages.”
This is a view shared by Wilson McLeod, emeritus professor of Gaelic at the University of Edinburgh, who pointed out that it can be particularly important for people to develop their linguistic skills in a fun environment.
“It will help people improve their verbal dexterity and the range of their vocabulary in Gaelic,” said Prof McLeod. “In particular, many Gaelic speakers are not very confident with their written Gaelic and Gaelic Scrabble could give them a valuable boost.
“It will be very helpful for Gaelic learners too. Gaelic spelling is very logical once you are familiar with the system, but it does take time to master it.”
Archaeologists recently discovered the site of a 10th-century monastery linked to the first written record of the Scottish Gaelic language. The monastery in Aberdeenshire is thought to be where the ancient Book of Deer was first scribed. A number of monks in Aberdeenshire added Gaelic notes to the manuscript as late as the 12th century, and it became the earliest surviving written record of the language.
The site of the monastery was found next to Deer Abbey in Buchan, which dates to the 13th century.
Scrabble was invented in 1948 and has been a staple in UK homes ever since, with about half of all households owning at least one set. It is sold in more than 120 countries and available in 28 languages and counting.
The Gaelic version, titled Scrabble Gàidhlig, is available for pre-order now from An Taigh Cèilidh’s online store for £35. From early December, the game will retail at £39.99. The game will officially be launched on 9 December at the first Gaelic Scrabble World Championship, hosted by An Taigh Cèilidh. Competing on the day will be Teàrlach Wilson himself, who joked: “I can’t wait to play – but if I win, people will think it’s rigged and if I lose, people will question whether I should have my PhD in Gaelic.”