At an early period vocabularies of Gaelic
words began to be compiled for the benefit of readers of the language. The first of these
appears attached to Mr Kirk’s edition of Bedell’s Irish Bible, to which
reference has been made already. The list of words is not very extensive, and as has been
said, the equivalents of the words given are in many cases as difficult to understand as
the words themselves. Mr Kirk’s object in his vocabulary is to explain Irish words in
Bedell’s Bible to Scottish readers.
Lhuyd’s ArchŠologia Britannica appeared. It contains a grammar of the
Iberno-Scottish Gaelic, and a vocabulary which is in large measure a vocabulary of the
Gaelic of Scotland. All that this learned writer did was done in a manner worthy of a
scholar. His vocabulary, although defective, is accurate so far as it goes, and presents
us with a very interesting and instructive view of the state of the language in his day.
Lhuyd’s volume is one which should be carefully studied by every Celtic scholar.
In 1738 the Rev. David Malcolm, minister at Duddingstone,
published an essay on the antiquities of Great Britain and Ireland, with the view of
showing the affinity betwixt "the languages of the ancient Britons and the Americans
of the Isthmus of Darien." In this essay there is a list of Gaelic words beginning
with the letter A, extending to sixteen pages, and a list of English words with their
Gaelic equivalents, extending to eight pages. Mr Malcolm brought the project of compiling
a Gaelic dictionary before the gneeral Assembly of the Scottish Church, and he seems to
have had many conferences with Highland ministers friendly to his object. The Assembly
appointed a committee on the subject, and they reported most favourably of Mr
Malcolm’s design. Still the work never seems to have gone father; and beyond the
lists referred to, we have no fruits of Mr Malcolm’s labours. Mr Malcolm calls the
language Irish, as was uniformly done by English writers at the time, and spells the words
after the Irish manner.
Three years after the publication of Mr Malcolm’s
essay in the year 1741, the first attempt at a complete vocabulary of the Gaelic language
appeared. The compiler was Alexander M’Donald, at the time schoolmaster of
Ardnamurchan, known throughout the Highlands as Mac Mhaighistir Alasdair, and a bard of
high reputation. The compilation was made at the suggestion of the Society for Propagating
Christian Knowledge, in whose service M’Donald was at the time. The Society submitted
the matter to the Presbytery of Mull and the Presbytery committed the matter to
M’Donald as the most likely man within their bounds to execute the work in a
satisfactory manner. M’Donald’s book is dedicated to the Society, and he
professes a zeal for Protestantism, although he turned over to the Church of Rome himself
on the landing of Charles Edward in the Highlands in 1745. The vocabulary is arranged
under the heads of subjects, and not according to the letters of the alphabet. It begins
with words referring to God, and so on through every subject that might suggest itself. It
is upon the whole well executed, seeing that the author was the pioneer of Gaelic
lexicographers but the publishers found themselves obliged to insert a caveat in the an
advertisement at the close of the volume, in which they say that "all or most of the
verbs in this vocabulary from page 143 to page 162 are expressed in the Gaelic by single
words, though our author generally expresses them by a needless circumlocution."
M’Donald’s orthography is a near approach to that of modern Gaelic writing.
In 1780 the Rev. Mr Shaw, the author of the Gaelic grammar
already referred to, published a dictionary of the Gaelic language in two volumes, the one
volume being Gaelic-English, and the other English-Gaelic. this work did not assume a high
place among scholars.
Following upon Shaw’s work was that of Robert
M’Farlane in 1795. This vocabulary is of little value to the student.
Robert M’Farlane’s volume was followed in 1815 by
that of Peter M’Farlane, a well known translator of religious works. The collection
of words is pretty full, and the work upon the whole is a creditable one.
Notwithstanding all these efforts at providing a dictionary
of the Gaelic language, it was felt by scholars that the want had not been really
supplied. In those circumstances Mr R.A.Armstrong, parish schoolmaster of Kenmore, devoted
his time and talents to the production of a work that might be satisfactory. The Gaelic
language was not Mr Armstrong’s mother tongue, and he had the great labour to undergo
of acquiring it. Indefatigable energy, with the genius of a true scholar, helped him over
all his difficulties, and, after years of toil, he produced a work of the highest merit,
and one whose authority is second to none as an exposition of the Scoto-Celtic tongue.
Mr Armstrong’s dictionary was succeeded by that of the
Highland Society of Scotland, which was published in two quarto volumes in 1828. A portion
of the labour of this great work was borne by Mr Ewen Maclachlan of Aberdeen, the most
eminent Celtic scholar of his day. Mr Maclachlan brought the most ample accomplishments to
the carrying out of the undertaking; a remarkable acquaintance with the classical
languages, which he could write with facility, a very extensive knowledge of the Celtic
tongues, and a mind of remarkable acuteness to discern distinctions and analogies in
comparative philology. But he died ere the work was far advanced, and other scholars had
to carry it through. The chief of these was the Rev. Dr M’Leod of Dundonald, aided by
the Rev. Dr Irvine of Little Dunkeld, and the whole was completed and edited under the
superintendence of the Rev. Dr Mackay, afterwards of Dunoon, to whose skill and care much
of the value of the work is due.
In 1831 an octavo dictionary by the Rev. Dr Macleod of
Glasgow, and the Rev. D. Dewar, afterwards Principal Dewar of Aberdeen, appeared. It is
drawn largely from the dictionary of the Highland Society, and is an exceedingly good and
There is a still later dictionary by Mr Neil M’Alpine,
schoolmaster in Islay. It is an excellent vocabulary of the Islay dialect, with some
features peculiar to itself, especially directions as to the pronouncing of words, which,
from the peculiar orthography of the Gaelic, the learner requires.
It will be seen from the above list that there is no lack
of Gaelic dictionaries any more than of Gaelic grammars, and that some of the dictionaries
are highly meritorious. And yet there is room for improvement still if competent hands
could be found. The student of Scottish topography meets with innumerable words which he
feels assured are of the Scoto-Celtic stock. He applies to his dictionaries, and he almost
uniformly finds that the words which puzzle him are absent. There seems to have been an
entire ignoring of this source for words on the part of all the Gaelic lexicographers, and
from the number of obsolete words found in it, but which an acquaintance with ancient M.S.
literature helps to explain, a large supply, and a supply of the deepest interest, might
be found. Irish dictionaries afford considerable aid in searching this field, but Gaelic
dictionaries furnish very little. At the same time it must be remembered that topography
is itself a recent study, and that men’s minds have only latterly been more closely
directed to these words.
We have thus given a general view of the literature of the
Scottish Gael. It is not extensive, but it is full of interest. That the language was at
one time subjected to cultivation cannot be doubted by any man acquainted with the
literary history of the Celtic race. The MSS. which exist are enough to demonstrate the
fact, of which no rational doubt can exist, that an immense number of such MSS. have
perished. An old Gaelic MS. was once seen in the Hebrides cut down by a tailor to form
measuring tapes for the persons of his customers. These MSS. treated of various subjects.
Philology, theology, and science found a place among Celtic scholars, while poetry was
largely cultivated. The order of bards ensured this, an order peculiar to the Celts.
Johnson’s estimate of the extent of the ancient Celtic culture was an entirely
mistaken one, and shows how far prejudice may operate towards the perversion of truth,
even in the case of great and good men.
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