Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Scottish Gael
Chapter XV
Of the knowledge of letters among the Celts

THAT the Celts, at least the Druids, were acquainted with the use ol
'etters is certain. The roll found in the camp of the Helvetii, contain-
ing the numbers of men, women, and children who composed the expe
dition, is a sufficient proof that they could write, were we possessed of
no other. The principles and practice of the Druidical priesthood were
adverse to literature as the medium of instruction, and they did not trust
their mysteries to writing; but is it to be inferred that so learned a body
were ignorant of this most useful art? The signs or hieroglyphics which
priests and philosophers of all ancient nations used, were of themselves


a sort of language, and must have led to the formation of a regular sys-
tem, by which a mutual communication was established. The Celts,
however, had the use of letters at a very early period; the Turdetani, a
people of Spain, according to Strabo, declared that they could produce
not only traditional poems, but written documents of 6000 years' an-

Lhuyd asserts that the Britons had letters long before the time of Tac-
itus, which they imparted to the Irish; and Leland, Pits, and Bale, give
accounts of many learned men who flourished and wrote about the era
of ledemption and even before; but the early use of writing does not al-
together rest on the biographies of the above authors, whose authority,
I am aware, is often doubtful. The Leccan records of Irish history say,
that Saint Patrick burnt no less than one hundred and eighty Druidical
tracts, and a uniform tradition has been preserved among the bards, that
Colan, or Columba, on his establishment in lona, burnt a heap of books
written by the Britons.* Their historians affirm that a large colony,
who had taken refuge in Britany on the Saxon invasion, carried with
them the archives that had escaped the ravages of those illiterate rovers,
which circumstance Gildas, who wrote in the sixth century, alludes to
with regret.

That national annals and other records did exist is undeniable. Nen-
nius, writing in the middle of the ninth century, says he compiled his
work, among other documents, from the writings of the Scots and En-
glish, which, however, had in frequent wars suffered great mutilation.
Gaimar, a Frenchman, who wrote on the Saxon kings, refers to a work
on British history now lost;| but, in the prefatory chapter, the use of
letters and cultivation of literature by the ancient Celtic inhabitants of
these islands, has been satisfactorily shown.

The Helvetian Roll is said to have been written in Greek characters,
from which it would appear that the Celts understood that language.
The same authority ,J however, informs us, that on one occasion he en-
gaged a Gallic horseman by promise of great rewards, to convey a let-
ter to Cicero, which letter was written in Greek, lest, if it fell into the
hands of the enemy, it might be intelligible, which is so directly in point,
that there is no getting over it.^ We can only suppose that the char-
acters resembled those used by the Grecians, for that the Gauls did not
know Greek, and but few of them Latin, is very certain. Divitiac, the
jEduan, for whom Caesar had a particular friendship, could not converse
with him, but by the assistance of an interpreter. Those Gauls who liv-
ed near Massilia learned the Greek letters from that colony, but this is

* Davies' Celtic Researches. Conla, a Brehon, or Judge, of Connaught, is said to
have written a book against the Druids.

t Ellis's Specimens of Metrical Romances, i. J Csesar.

Ib. et Dio. Yet Greek inscriptions were reported to exist in Germany, (Tacitufc,)
and even in Britain.


a particular case.* Few, or perhaps no remains, it is to be observed,
of the Celtic language, either on monuments or elsewhere, remain to
prove what characters they did use. Origen, in his answer to Celsus,
said it was uncertain whether any writings of either Gauls or Getes
then existed.

Lucian gives the following curious account of the Gallic Hercules:
The Gauls, in their language, call him Ogmius, and they represent him
as a decrepit old man, bald, with a beard extremely gray, and a wrin-
kled, sunburnt, swarthy skin. But what is most strange is, that he
draws after him a multitude of men all tied by the ears, the cords by
which he does this being five chains, artificially made of gold and elec-
trum, like most beautiful bracelets; and though the men are drawn by
such slender bonds, yet none of them think of breaking loose, but cheer-
fully follow. The right hand being occupied with a club, and the left
with a bow, the painter has fixed the chains in a hole in the tip of the
God's tongue, who turns about smiling on those he leads. I looked
upon these things a great while, but a certain Gaul who stood by, and
who, I believe, was one of the philosophers (Druids) speaking Greek in
perfection, said, " I will explain to you, O stranger, the enigma of this
picture. We, Gauls, do not suppose, as you Greeks, that Mercury is
speech, or eloquence, but we attribute it to Hercules, because he is so
far superior in strength. Do not wonder that he is represented as an
old man, for speech alone loves to show its vigor in old age, if your own
poets speak true; and, finally, as for us, we are of opinion that Her-
cules accomplished all his achievements by speech; and that, having
been a wise man, he conquered mostly by persuasion. We think his
arrows were keen reasons, penetrating the souls of men, whence,
among yourselves, is the expression 'winged words. " : Thus spoke
the Gaul.

Ogmius is here a Celtic word, pronounced and spelled by a Roman, yet
it is sufficiently pure to show its relationship with ogham, or ogum, the
name of that secret alphabet which was used by the Druids and learned
Celts. The Ogham characters were represented by twigs of various
trees, and the figures resembled those called Runic. The Ogham bob-
eleth, and Ogham craobh letters, are well known to the student of Irish
history. In the sister island, as well as in Britain, inscriptions on stones
have been discovered in these characters, which Vallancey was able to
decipher, particularly on one monument, which he says is mentioned in
Scotish Chronicles, as in "the grove of Aongus." It informs us that
there was the sepulchre of that hero. It is not unreasonable to suppose
that different characters were adopted, the knowledge of which it may
have been intended to confine to certain classes. There is a stone at a
place called the Vicar's Cairn, in Armagh, on which are certain char-
acters, consisting of perpendicular lines of unequal length, that do not

* Strabo, iv. p. 181.


appear to be ogham letters. In the isle of Arran, one of the Hebrides,
are several caves, well lighted, which contain places apparently for cook-
ing, &.c. and that have rude lines cut in the wall. In different parts of
Scotlind, and particularly in a certain part of Galloway, are found num-
bers of stones, many of inconsiderable size, which are marked witii vari-
ous figures. Specimens of these stones have been submitted to the
Society of Antiquaries, but their import, I believe, has never been dis-
covered. A remarkable inscription is seen on a stone at Newton, in
Aberdeenshire, which is represented in this work. p. 62. The characters
here used are more conformable to the Gaelic than to the ogham, but
they are so rude, and apparently so ancient, that it is impossible to de-
cipher (he inscription, or assign it a recent date. Vallancey procured a
drawing of this obelisK, and conjectured that the two first words are
Gylf Gommara, Prince Gornmara, but this appears to be mere conjec-
ture. The author, through a respected friend, transmitted a drawing to
the Society of Antiquaries at Paris, by some of whose learned members
the inscription may be elucidated. The stone is beside another of near-
ly similar size, on which are represented a serpent, circles, and those
other figures, which will be presently described, and hence it appears
referable to a remote and unknown era. The inscription is unique,*
and the characters are different from those of the Tree system. Con-
cerning this system we have, indeed, but dark and mysterious intima-
tions, yet sufficiently plain to enable us, I trust, to explain the origin of
certain figures introduced in the sculpture of distant ages, and preserved
in the ornaments of later times.

The Gaelic alphabet consists of eighteen letters, as here shown:

A. Ailm, the elm tree.t L. Luis, the quicken.

B. Beithe, the birch. M. Muin, the vine.

C. Coll, the hazel. N. Nuin, the ash.

D. Duir, the oak. O. Oir, the broom.

E. Eadha, the aspen. P. Feit or pethbhog, dwarf elder. |

F. Fearna, the alder. R. Ruis, the elder.

G. Gort, the ivy. S. Suil, the willow.
H. Uath, the white thorn.* T. Teine, the furze.
I. lodha, the yew. U. Uir, the heath.

These letters are chiefly according to the Irish pronunciation and ac-
ceptation. We here see that they are all named after trees, but some

* At Fordun, in the county of Kincardine, a stone was discovered under the pulpit
of the church, inscribed with characters somewhat resembling the above. Trans, of
Scots' Antiquaries, ii. pi. 5. Among other sculptures, on the stones of a corridor at
Morbihan, in Britany, are some unknown letters.

t Vallancey calls it the palm ; O'Flaherty, the fir.

J Dr. Molloy does not admit this letter into the original alphabet, and shows that its
introduction was sufficient to alter the dialect. Instead of H, a T was used, as in tul-
loch, a hillock, talla, a hall. Originally the blackberry bush

1| Sometimes called B soft, or rather Beith-beag, little b


of the appellations are now obsolete, as the last, which is consequently
thought to be the iuthar, or yew. Had the Celts derived their alphabet
from the Romans, or from any other people, the names would certainly
have been the same, and the same order would have been preserved,
which is not the case in the Irish Beth-luisnium alphabet, which, it may
be observed, is presumed to be according to the ancient and proper ar-
rangement, and is so termed from its three first letters. It stands thus
B, L, N, F, S, H, D, T, C, M, G, P, R, A, O, U, E, I.

The word aos in Irish, which at first signified a tree, was applied to a
learned person; and feadha, woods, or trees, became the term applied to
prophets or wise men, undoubtedly from their knowledge of the alpha-
bet, or sylvan characters, which were used.*

The " Researches" of Mr. Davies have thrown much light on Celtic
Antiquities, and in his pages will be found several passages from bardic
compositions, which elucidate the tree system of learning. It is well
known that various trees arid shrubs have been symbolical, or used as
tokens, but the learning of the sprigs consisted in arranging, tying, and
intertwining them in various ways, thereby altering their expression or
import. There is a work which Mr. Davies quotes, in which the author
says "he loves the sprigs with their woven tops, tied with a hundred
knots, after the manner of the Celts, which the artists employed about
their mystery." Small branches of different trees were fastened togeth-
er, and being " placed in the tablet of devices, they were read by sages
who were versed in science." The art of tying the sprigs in numerous
and intricate knots was an important part of the mystical ^studies of the
druidical order, and appears to have been known by few. Talliesin,
who gloried in belonging to the profession, boasts of this part of his
knowledge; his acquaintance with every sprig, and the meaning of the
trees, he calls " understanding his institute." We thus see that the
Celts had a method of conveying their knowledge to the initiated by a
sort of hieroglyphic, or symbolical characters, produced by twigs, or
branches of various trees, and the characters which afterwards formed
an alphabet, represented those branches and retained the names of dif-
ferent trees. I shall now draw the reader's attention to the represen-
tations in ancient sculpture of these intricate, but, at one time, sig-
nificant combinations and interlacings, from whence, I conceive, is to
be deduced a style of ornament that was long retained, not only by
the Gael, but by others, without knowing to what origin it was to be

The curious obelisk represented at the beginning of this Chapter is
situated in the churchyard of Dyce, a parish in the county of Aber-
deen. Its position, near a churchyard, will indicate that the Christian
edifice has been planted on a spot previously respected, the appearance
of the cross being no certain proof of a Christian origin, inasmuch as it

* The Hebrew az, or es, has precisely the same acceptations.


is known to have been a pagan symbol, introduced even on sepulchral

The cross appears formed of, or filled with, a tracery produced by the
interlacing of twigs, and this sort of work is common to all such stones,
and appears also, but with more taste, in the monuments known to be
Christian, and denominated, with propriety, stone crosses. This orna-
ment has been, by some writers, considered an imitation of the Roman
fret-work, to which it certainly bears little resemblance. The late Pro-
fessor Stuart, of Marischal College, Aberdeen, speaking of the singular
sculpture on these stones, properly observes that the figures " were not
employed merely as ornaments, but to express some latent meaning, at
that time, probably, well known, though, in the lapse of ages, now total-
ly lost and forgotten. "| The bards understood the meaning of these
figures, as, we learn from their poetical remains, where repeated allu-
sion is made to the " knowledge of the trees," although the secrecy with
which their mysteries were preserved, has left us in ignorance of the

Talliesin. in his enthusiasm for a profession, then subjected to ridicule
and persecution, in figurative language exclaims, "I know the intent
of the trees, I know which was decreed praise or disgrace, by the inten-
tion of the memorial trees of the sages, "J and celebrates " the engage-
ment of the sprigs of the trees, or of devices, and their battle with the
learned." He could " delineate the elementary trees and reeds," and
tells us when the sprigs " were marked in the small tablet of devices
they uttered their voice." He -does not, however, divulge the secret of
their meaning, but speaks of " the Alders at the end of the line begin-
ning the arrangement." Trees are to this day used symbolically by the
Welsh and Gael, as, for instance, coll, the hazel wood, being indicative
of loss and misfortune, is presented to a forsaken lover, &c. whence ap-
pears to have arisen the saying that " painful is the smoke of the hazel. "^
Merddyn, or Merlin, the Caledonian, not less devoted to his religion than
the Cambrian bard, laments that " the authority of the sprigs" was be-
ginning to be disregarded. The powers of this vegetable alphabet, or
symbolic system, were fated to yield to those of a different character.
This race, in disusing the trees, as the secret means of preserving a
medium of communicating knowledge, left the ancient system, with as
little elucidation as the hieroglyphics of Egypt, and preserved the recol-
lection of its former existence by little more than the names which they
gave to the letters. The stones of Gwiddon Ganhebon, on which the
arts and sciences of the world were to be read, are mentioned in the Tri-
ads, and are supposed to have been inscribed in the ogham character,

* Keysler, &c. A large cross is formed on the face of a hill, in Buckinghamshire,
by removing the soil from the chalk, in the same manner as the white horses of Wilts
nd Berks are represented. t Trans, of Scots' Ant. ii

t Welsh Archie, i. 34. Owen's Welsh Diet.


and Gwydion ap Don, an astronomer, was buried is Caernarvon under
a stone of enigmas. Whatever these sculptures may have been, it is sin-
gular that in Wales no stones are found similar to those that are to be
seen in so many parts of Scotland, on which are various figures, like
those on the stone at Dyce, as well as some other singular devices else-
where introduced. In the Principality, we, however, do find some
monuments on which is seen the intricate fret-work which I have every
reason to believe, if not the actual resemblance of some of the mysterious
knots of sprigs, is derived from that singular practice. The interlacing
of the rods in the cross had certainly some meaning. The same orna-
ment is often seen by itself, and seems to have been retained when all
knowledge of its signification had been lost. Let the reader compare
this tracery with that on the handle of the bidag, page 216, with
the ornaments on the leathern target, on the brooch, and indeed with
every thing susceptible of embellishment by the old Highlanders; and it
will be impossible from such a similarity, not to perceive that their taste
was at first influenced by some cause. I not only think that their pecu-
liar style of ornament is to be deduced from the art of twisting the sprigs
into significant forms, but that, as the Celts, who were certainly the
most learned people, after the establishment of Christianity, gave to the
letters of their alphabet the names of the trees, they retained a vestige of
their intricate combination by their ancestors, in the fanciful capitals,
which illuminators of manuscripts never failed to introduce. A speci-
men of these from a manuscript version of the poems of Ossian, written
in the eighth century, and now in possession of the Highland Society, is
introduced at the termination of this Chapter; but it must be observed
that it bears less resemblance to the Celtic tracery than may be seen in
many other examples. The tree system in this particular seems to have
influenced the writers of all European countries.

The crescent was sacred to Ceredwen, the Welsh Ceres, who hence
appears to have been metaphorically called " the lady of the white bow."
This figure was also the symbol of the moon. The reason of its being
surmounted by the two implements resembling arrows, or javelins, as
shown on the stone, cannot be guessed at, except we believe they were
also sprigs. The zig-zag figure is evidently the same article under a
different form; and both these are frequent on such obelisks, as well as
the figure on which they are placed, the purport of which is equally un-
known. The small object appears to be part of the latter, and is also
often introduced. Sometimes, indeed, it consists of a greater and les-
ser circle, or globe, attached to each other, in which case it precisely
resembles an article which a figure, supposed to be a Druid, on a Gal-
lic monument, carries in his hand.* There are occasionally some other
figures seen on these obelisks, but one of the most usual and most re-
markable is here shown.

* Montfaucon, iii. pi. 51.


This is, by Pennant, supposed to represent the musimon, an animal
now extinct, and other writers have indulged their various conjectures
as to what it is intended for. The Ceres of the Britons was represented
under the figure of " a proud, crested mare," and also as " a crested
hen," in which form it appears on coins, brooches, &c. If the reader
will turn to p. 369, this favorite symbol of the Britons will be seen on
one of their coins, and it will be remarked that the legs have a very sin-
gular termination, both there and in the figure above shown. This god-
dess was regarded, as it were, in an amphibious character, and, per-
haps, the state of the arts, or certain rules, did not permit a nearer
representation of this mystical character. Some Eastern relics have a
resemblance to this figure in the circular formation, or ornament of the
legs; and even in St. Nicholas's Church, Ipswich, is a figure of an ani-
mal, the upper parts of the haunches of which are finished in spirals.
The white bull was much venerated, and where we can only conjecture,
it is worth observation, that the moon was called bull-horned, in the
Orphic hymns, from its crescent form, and the ancient priests of Ceres
termed this planet a bull.* One of the Celtic fragments at Notre Dame,
Paris, represents a beast like a bull in a wood, in which are also birds.
This very much resembles some of the sculptured stones in Scotland that
may have had allusion to hunting, concerning which many curious bar-
dic traditions exist. It has been observed in a criticism on a slight es-
say of mine, published by the Society of Antiquaries of London, that
such figures are indicative " of the acts, habits, or character of the per-
son commemorated." This 1 will readily admit, but the explanation of
the symbols from Glaus Wormius, I conceive, does not apply here.
The wolf is an apt hieroglyphic of tyranny, and the lamb of gentleness
and innocence, &.C., but how will the above singular figures be explain-
ed? The intimations of the bards, dark enough I allow, afford us the
only light by which we can venture to attempt any solution of the mys-
tery, and as they appear in some cases tolerably satisfactory, there may
still be an agreement, for it is probable that if sepulchral, the tracery,
rods, and other insignia, point out the grave of one initiated in the mys-
terious tree system learning of the Celtic priesthood.

That stones were erected to mark the burial places of celebrated men
is not to be disputed, and instances have already been noticed. It was

* Note on Pausanias, from Porphyry.


an ancient practice, and yet survives in the churchyard tombstones. A
circular column, six feet high, but supposed when entire to have been
twelve, at Llangollen, in Wales, was raised in memory of Conceun,
who was defeated at the ba'ttle of Chester in 607, as Lluyd found by an
inscription. Stones were also placed in commemoration of remarkable
events, even to late ages. A rude pillar indicates the place where the
battle of Pentland was fought; and a great block, raised by the High-
landers, marks the spot where the brave Viscount Dundee fell in the
conflict at Renruari.

The ceremony observed in raising astone of memorial is thus describ-
ed in the poem of Colna-dona. " Beneath the voice of the king we

moved to Crona three bards attend with songs. Three bossy

shields were borne before us: for we were to rear the stone in memory
of the past. By Crona's mossy course Fingal had scattered his foes

I took a stone from the stream amid the song of bards. . . .

beneath I placed at intervals, three bosses from the shields of foes, as
rose or fell the sound of Ullin's nightly song. Toscar laid a dagger in
the earth, a mail of sounding steel. We raised the mould around the
stone, and bade it speak to other years."

To conclude: the race, especially in the British Isles, were remarka-
ble for their learning, and, to use the words of a popular writer, for " the
cultivation of letters, that power of imagination which seems in them a
trace of their Celtic origin."* A most remarkable fact in the history of
the Scots is, that from being the most learned people in Europe, they
became less noted' for their literary acquirements than the other Celtic
nations. Yet that they did not entirely neglect literature, is evident
from the manuscripts which still remain, and those which we find for-
merly existed.

There are at present upwards of three millions of people in the British
Isles who speak Celtic, viz. about two millions in Ireland, about 400,000
in Scotland, and about 700,000 in Wales. This latter country began
very early to pay considerable attention to the printing of books in the
native language, and by a catalogue in 1710, there appears to have been
then upwards of seventy. Almanacks, magazines, dictionaries, gram-
mars, religious books, and even several scientific works, have been pub-
lished, and the number is supposed now to exceed 10,000. The first
Welsh bible, a black letter folio, was printed in 1568, the first in Ireland,
I believe, was in 1609. Bishop Kerswell's Liturgy, 1566, appears to
have been the first book printed in Gaelic; the bible and many other
books, among which is not to be forgotten the poems of Ossian, from the
original manuscripts, by the Highland Society, have been since publish-
ed, yet education and literature were certainly less attended to by the
Highlanders than their characteristic thirst of knowledge might have

* Thiery's Norman Conquest.


led us to expect; but the cause is to be found in the unsettled state of
society. Wales is nearly four times richer than Scotland, and supports
seven or eight periodicals, while Scotland has only recently established
one, the Teachdaire Gaelach, or Highland Messenger, which, however,
appears to meet with suitable encouragement.

The want of a Gaelic dictionary was long felt in Scotland, but that of
Mr. Armstrong, published in 1825, was hailed with satisfaction; and
the labors of the gentlemen employed by the Highland Society have
more recently appeared in the " Dictionarium Scoto Celticum," in two
large volumes 4to., which will now preserve this pure and valuable dia-
lect of a language once universal in Europe. It will also fix the orthog-
raphy, which was previously so unsettled. The singularity of this, in
many instances, the reader must have remarked, and it has not escaped
the notice of the learned, who have suggested means of simplifying the
spelling, by getting rid of numerous consonants which are retained with-
out being at all sounded. The Celtic Society of Glasgow have this year,
offered four prizes for the best essays on the subject, but their exertions
have come too late, it is to be feared, to produce any effect. The appa-
rently useless consonants are retained to show the root, or primitive of
a word, and thereby prevent confusion.

The Celtic language has been several times the object of legislative
severity. In Ireland severe enactments were passed against it, as was
the case in Wales, about 1700. Even so late as 1769, a plan was en-
tertained by the bishops to extinguish Cumraeg, by having the church
service performed in the English only; a circumstance that but too often
occurs, it is to be feared, without such a design. In Scotland, I have
often heard it complained, that clergymen were put into a living who
were quite unable to preach to the people in their vernacular tongue.
It was attempted to root out the Gaelic, but as might be expected, the
design was impracticable. I do not know if the French ever thought of
abolishing the Breton language, which, by Lagonidec, is said to be still
spoken by upwards of four millions of people; a trial would have shown
that no measures could accomplish this. The case of the Wends, whose
language it was attempted to repress, shows the impracticability of for-
cibly changing the mother tongue of any people. In 1765, it was thought
expedient to eradicate the Bohemian language, and the design was long
prosecuted, before the impossibility of accomplishing the object was

The nobility and gentry of Ireland continued to speak their native
tongue until" the reign of Elizabeth, or James the First. The Highland-
ers relinquished the practice of writing in Gaelic, before they had ac-
quired any taste for conversation in English. Rory Mor, chief of the
Mac Leeds, is said to have been the last of the Gael who continued to
write in the language of his fathers.



Notwithstanding the important assistance which, in acquiring other
languages, would be derived from a knowledge of this primitive tongue,
there is not a Celtic Professorship in any seminary of learning in the

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus