Col Gordon


22 Mar ‘ 23

Dùthchas - What are we actually talking about?

In recent years throughout Scotland there has been a surge of interest in the Gaelic concept of dùthchas

In recent years throughout Scotland there has been a surge of interest in the Gaelic concept of dùthchas

In recent years throughout Scotland there has been a surge of interest in the Gaelic concept of dùthchas. It’s a word that seems to have entered the national parlance when speaking about land and ways to strive to relate to it. Whilst many people are now using the term and have a feeling for what they think it means, there is very often a lack of clarity as to its meaning. This is understandable. It’s quite complicated. Therefore, this post will be my attempt to offer my understanding of what is meant by dùthchas.

Dwelly’s Gaelic to English dictionary gives multiple definitions to it such as: Place of one’s birth; hereditary right; Of one’s country; native, natural, indigenous; patriotic, fond of one’s native land; etc.[[i]](#_edn1)

If reading these definitions as your starting point to understand what we’re talking about, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. At best they indicate a feeling of pride for the place where someone might come from. At worst this might give a reader the uncomfortable feelings that are often associated with nationalism. Whilst all these definitions are certainly accurate, they don’t really convey a true idea of what is meant.

Crofter and world-renowned knitwear designer Alice Starmore from Lewis described dùthchas as “a feeling of belonging, of where everything is linked, completely linked. Where you belong to the land, and the land belongs to you – there is no distinction. It’s like a hand in a glove. Everything fits in, and your culture is part of that as well, and everything you know that’s around you; every part of life that’s around you is all interlinked and interdependent, and it’s all about ancestry, knowing where you’ve come from and that you are a continuation of all that.” [[ii]](#_edn2)

Whilst being very beautiful and poetic, this definition is also imperfect. It’s open to multiple interpretations which may or may not stray quite far from how others might define it and therefore might add to this fairly blurred idea of what is meant.

With this in mind, I find that it’s easier to begin to get to grips with the word’s full meaning if you don’t see it in isolation by itself, but as part of the family of words within the lexicon, which form a vital part of the Gaelic worldview of cosmology:

or dùth, which is the root of all the words within the family, means “land”. Importantly, it also means what is natural or normal. The natural way of things. This idea of being natural and normal seems to be carried throughout all the dú words. Duine is a person or one who comes from the land. Dùil means “the created order”, or what we might call “nature” and is also the word for “hope”. That the same word is used for both hope and what we refer to as nature is very striking. Your dùthaich is your homeland. It’s the place that you belong to, and dualchas is what you learn about how to live in this place and how to make sense of who you are from those who have come before you. All these different words are necessary in coming to a rounded understanding of dùthchas, which I understand to be the sense of responsibility to look after your homeland and therefore your right to be there and to belong to it.

Throughout the Highland Clearances, Gaels felt that this hereditary right of dúthchas was being violated. Then throughout the Land Wars of the 1880’s it was in defence of this feeling, or customary law, that people were acting and which later led, in 1886, to the formation of the Crofting Laws, which can be seen in many ways as both a treaty and an acknowledgement of a form of native title.

Dùthchas is a critically important word within the Gaelic worldview but I believe it needs to be understood as more than simply a slightly woolly feeling of belonging and interconnectedness, but as a “tangible conduct and action motivated by a sense of ethics, respect, and responsibility for said place and community to maintain ecological balance.”[[iii]](#_edn3) Whilst the feeling of belonging to a place is a key part of the word, just as, if not more vital are the responsibilities to that place that come with it.

[1] Dwelly’s illustrated Gaelic to English Dictionary, Eleventh edition 1994, p. 375
[11] Landed, Farmerama, 2021 -
[111] Paul J. Meighan, 2022, “Dùthchas, a Scottish Gaelic Methodology to Guide Self-Decolonization and Conceptualize a Kincentric and Relational Approach to Community-Led Research
Read all Posts by Col Gordon