A Brief History of Gaelic in Australia and New Zealand

In Australia

Gaelic has been used in Australia since the First Fleet arrived in 1788 – albeit in the Irish form. Many of the convicts were Irish-speakers, some of them even monolingual Irish-speakers, but their keepers thought it was a “secret” language and that the convicts were planning a plot of some kind.

During the 1850s, Gaelic was so prevalent in Australia that there were many Gaelic-speaking churches, at least one Gàidhlig-language newspaper, and even a Gaelic-language school in Geelong! At that point, Gàidhlig was spoken most in small communities in northern New South Wales. Unfortunately, Gàidhlig didn’t survive in New South Wales much past 1890, and church services were no longer held in Gaelic after the 1890s. In Melbourne, there were quite a lot of Gaelic-speakers (both Scottish and Irish) well into the mid-19th-century. In 1905, the Scottish Gaelic Society of Victoria was formed to maintain Gaelic culture, language, and music. At the time, Scottish and Irish Gaelic speakers comprised the largest language group in Australia after English.

Today, one of the biggest Gàidhlig presences in Australia is the Scottish Gaelic Society, or Comunn Gàidhlig Astràilia. One of the main Gaeilge presences is the Irish Gaelic Association, or Cumann Gaeilge na hAstráile. Around 900 people in Australia are proficient in Scottish Gaelic and 2000 in Irish.

In South Australia

Scottish Gaelic influence can be found in many place-names around Adelaide due to the large number of Scottish settlers and explorers in South Australia, who may or may not have had the Gaelic. Several such place-names are:

-Burnside, from the word “burn” which means “water” or “river”.

-Strathalbyn, which is a combination of the words “srath” which means “wide valley” and “h-Albainn”, which is an old form of “of Scotland”.

-Campbelltown, which comes from the name “Caimbeul” which means “bent mouth”.

Today, there is a (very) small Gàidhlig-speaking community in Adelaide. They can be found once a week at 5-EBI the local ethnic radio station, where they run classes and catch up on Gàidhlig news. They also have a presence at many local Scottish events, such as the Mount Barker Highland Gathering and the Celtica Festival, where they represent the Scottish Radio Hour (Rèidio Albannach).

In New Zealand

Gaelic most probably first arrived in New Zealand with refugees from the later Highland Clearances, as well as the famine around the same time, in the 1840s. Gaelic-speakers were a minority amongst the Scottish settlers in New Zealand – only about three-quarters of Scottish immigrants to New Zealand were Highlanders – but some areas had greater numbers of Gaelic-speakers settle there than others. This can be seen in the name “Dunedin”, a city on the South Island – the Gaelic name for Edinburgh is Dùn Èideann. There were also significant numbers of Irish Gaelic speakers who settled in New Zealand.

In 1854, a group of Gaelic-speakers settled in Waipū, in the far north of New Zealand. They had left Scotland in 1817 and gone to Nova Scotia, but later the entire group moved to New Zealand. After 1854, more Gaelic-speaking Highlanders joined them, both from Nova Scotia and from Scotland.

Throughout the 19th century, Scottish Gaelic was the preferred language in some areas of New Zealand, such as Waipū, Turakina, and Mackenzie. However, schools were in English, and Gaelic-speaking children had to learn English, which caused Gaelic to no longer exist in any significant numbers after the late 1930s. Gaelic-speakers in Dunedin had managed to keep Gaelic alive for that long by using it in church, and sermons were still preached in Gaelic in some Presbyterian churches in the area throughout the 1930s.

Although there were originally many Gaelic societies in New Zealand, with the decline of Gaelic, many become just like any other Scottish or Caledonian society. There are, however, several groups which still promote and teach Gaelic, such as the Wellington Gaelic Club (or Communn Gaidhealach Wellington) and the Auckland Gaelic Society. Around 700 people in New Zealand are proficient in Scottish Gaelic.


If you’re interested in learning more about Gaelic and Gaelic societies and clubs in Australia and New Zealand, here are some links:

Scottish Gaelic Association of Australia (Comunn Gàidhlig Astràilia) – www.ozgaelic.org

Scottish Gaelic Society of Victoria – www.scottish-gaelic.org.au

The Scottish Banner (A’ Bhratach Albannach) – www.scottishbanner.com

Irish Language Association of Australia (Cumann Gaeilge na hAstráile) – www.gaeilgesanastrail.com

Irish Language School of Sydney (Scoil na Gaeilge Sydney) – irishlanguageschoolsydney.org.au

Wellington Gaelic Club (Comunn Gaidhealach Wellington) – www.wellingtongaelicclub.org.nz

The Waipu Caledonian Society – www.waipugames.co.nz

Waipu Museum – www.waipumuseum.com

Te Ara Encyclopedia – www.teara.govt.nz/en/scots

One thought on “A Brief History of Gaelic in Australia and New Zealand

  1. […] A Brief History of Gaelic in Australia and New Zealand (coveredrachel.wordpress.com) […]

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