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Dr Alexander Cameron
Chapter VI. Celtic Studies

In this chapter only a general account can be given of Mr Cameron’s Celtic scholarship and early enthusiasm for his native tongue, as a more specific presentment of his standpoint and influence in Philology will be given in the second volume. It is interesting to find Dr Mackintosh Mackay, of Dunoon, one of the most accurate Celtic scholars of his time, making the following honourable and encouraging mention of Mr Cameron as far back as 16th December, 1848 :—

“I am very glad to inform you that on examination of the papers given in at the Gaelic competition, I find you entitled to the first of the three prizes of five pounds each. In examining your Gaelic paper, there are several improvements which I could point out to you, though 1 cannot count them as errors. By attention and perseverance you may make yourself very soon perfectly master of Gaelic orthography.”

It is clear from his subsequent career that he acted according to this suggestion, for no sooner was he settled at Renton than he set about acquiring an accurate knowledge of the literature and philology of Gaelic. But this acquisition was devoted to more than merely personal purposes, for thereby he was preparing himself to become a fit instructor of Gaelic-speaking students.

We find from the following reference to this subject in the Gael of June, 1872, that Mr Cameron commenced a Gaelic class in the Free Church College, Glasgow, at least as early as session 1866-7, and that his teaching was very highly appreciated and acknowledged. At a meeting of the Glasgow Free Church Students’ Celtic Society, held on 25th March, 1872,

“Mr John Mackay, M.A., President of the Society, and Mr Alexander Paterson, fourth year divinity student, presented the Rev. Mr Cameron, in name of the members of his Gaelic class, which has been taught for several years in the Free Church College with great success, with a testimonial expressive of their gratitude for his untiring and valuable services, which were gratuitously given during the last five sessions. Mr Cameron expressed his gratitude to the students for their valuable gift, and referred to the importance of an accurate acquaintance with the grammatical structure of the Gaelic language to such as are to be employed in communicating instruction to others through the medium of that language, illustrating his remarks by some amusing examples of mistakes sometimes committed in speaking aud writing Gaelic, and urged upon those present the duty of devoting some portion of their time to the study of their native language, which furnishes the key to those treasures of ancient Celtic lore which are now being studied with so much earnestness by Celtic scholars both in this country and on the Continent. Studies which engaged the attention cf such men as the Chev. Di Nigra, the Ambassador of the King of Italy, recently at the Court of the Tuilleries, and now to the French Republic, they should not regard as beneath their interest. The books selected for the presentation were ‘ Leabhar na h-Uidhri,’ an ancient Gaelic manuscript published by the Royal Irish Academy, and ‘ Sauas Chormaie,’ an ancient Irish Glossary, recently edited for the Irish Archaeological Society by Dr Whitley Stokes.”

In the subsequent October number of the same excellent magazine, there is a lecture on Gaelic Philology by Mr Cameron, who concludes it by indicating what required to be done in regard to modern Gaelic :—

“The Gaelic Scriptures must be purged of the errors and anomalies which escaped the notice of the translators, and also of the revisers of the quarto edition of 1826, so that they may become what they were intended to be—the standard of Gaelic grammar and orthography ; the work of which Dr Alexander Stewart laid the foundation in his ‘Grammar of the Gaelic Language ’ must be completed ; a standard edition of the Gaelic poets must be prepared ; the Bardic and other traditional literature which still exists in the Highlands, but which has not been committed to writing, must be collected and preserved before the present generation shall have passed away; much must yet be done, in addition to what has already been done, to read and interpret the old Gaelic which has come down to us, often much obscured, in the Gaelic names of places; and, especially, a Gaelic Comparative Lexicon must be prepared, which will exhibit the words of which the language is composed, not only in the different forms in which they appear in the different dialects of the Celtic, but also in relation to their cognate words in the other branches of the Aryan family. This last work would certainly be a heavy undertaking, and one which could not have been accomplished when, more than forty years ago, the dictionaries of Armstrong and of the Highland Society were prepared; but the progress which has been made in the study of Celtic philology within the last few years has prepared the way for beginning, and for carrying on to a successful issue, a work of this kind; and if the Highlanders of Scotland should resolve, ‘shoulder to shoulder,’ to help it forward, he promised that it would be undertaken.”

In the November number of The Gael there was an immediate response to this appeal on the part of Mr John Mackay, who wrote :—

“I hail with delight the idea of having a compilation as you shadow forth—a Gaelic Comparative Lexicon. As a Highlander willing to bear a hand, I accept the challenge by offering at once to subscribe a five pound note to begin with, more if found necessary, and take several copies of the work when published.”

Unfortunately, this projected and important work, though begun by Mr Cameron, was not completed, and has not yet seen the light. A Comparative Gaelic Grammar remains to be written. A second revision of the Gaelic Bible is in the hands of the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, and there is at present a proposal to reprint the quarto edition of 1826.

Although it does not appear that Mr Cameron composed any original Poetry, he was very happy and accurate as a translator of popular hymns into Gaelic—M‘Cheyne’s, Cowper’s, Keats’, Watts’ &c. In 1864 Principal Shairp wrote a short poem, “A Cry from Craigellachie,” on paying a visit for the first time on the railway to Inverness. Mr Cameron translated this piece so successfully into Gaelic that many mistook the translation for the original. It was published in leaflet form, and proved very popular. Many of the hymn-translations appeared in The Gael, signed A. C., such as Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life,” “Precious Promises,” “Jehovah Tsidkenu,” Ac. He also contributed several excellent and exquisite translations of hymns to Bratach na Flrinn—“ he Banner of Truth”—in 1872, one being, “Just as I am,” and another, “The New Jerusalem,” the latter having been, it is believed, translated at a time of deep and enduring bereavement in the translator’s life. And there seem to be traces of this pathetic feeling pervading, and echoes of such a mood of mind prolonged in the rendering of this harmonious and beautiful poem. A few stanzas may be given as a specimen of the painstaking and pleasant workmanship:—

“an ierusalem nuadh.

“ 0 mhathair chaomh, Ierusalem !
A d’ ionnsuidh cuin ’tliig mi ?
0 cuin a chriochnaichear mo bhron. %
Is t’ aoibhneas cuin a chi ?
0 thir ’tha taitneach sblasach !
0 chala ait nan saoi !
Cha ’n fhaighear brhn am feasd a’d’ choir,
No curam, saoth’r, no caoidh.

“ Cha ’n fhaighear tinneas annad fein No creuchd air bith no leon ;
’S cha ’n fhaighear bas no sealladh grand’;
Ach beatha ghnath a’d’ choir.
Neul dorch cha chuir ort sgail’ a chaoidh,
Is oidhch’ cha bhi ni’s mo ;
Ach dealraichidh gach neacli mar ghrein,
An solus Dhe na gloir’.

“ Cha ’n ’eil innt’ sannt no ana-miann,
No farmad fos, no stri ;
Cha ’n ’eil innt’ ocras, tart, no teas,
Ach taitneasan gun dith.
Ierusalem ! Ierusalem !
Mo mhiann bhi annad shuas !
0 b’ fhearr gu ’n criochnaicheadh mo bhron,
’S gu’m faicinn t’ aoibhneas buan ! ”

He also translated several political election addresses—a species of composition very difficult to render accurately into idiomatic Gaelic.

As early as 1862 Mr Cameron’s eminence as a Gaelic scholar was recognised, and he was appointed a member of the Joint-Committee of the Established and Free Churches on the Gaelic Scriptures. His extreme accuracy to the minutest points was admitted by all, but criticised by some on account of the time involved. Rev. Dr Kennedy, Dingwall, wrote thus in 1882:— “I once had an opportunity of comparing the best Gaelic scholars in the Established and Free Churches of Scotland, when acting as a member of a joint-committee for the revision of the Gaelic translation of the Bible. I had, at that time, no hesitation in deciding that, as to exact acquaintance with the structure and roots of the Gaelic language, the copious use of Gaelic terms and phrases, the knowledge of cognate dialects, and the power to explain and establish his opinion regarding any disputed point, there was no member of committee to be compared to the Rev. A. Cameron. He is undoubted^ the best Celtic scholar in Scotland.’ This opinion appears to have been shared by many in the committee ; for we find the following corroborative minute :—

“At Glasgow, the thirty-first day of March, 1864, which day the Sub-Committee of the Established and Free Churches on the Gaelic Scriptures conjointly met. Sederunt—The Rev. Drs Smith, Inverary; and Macdonald, Comrie; and the Rev. Messrs M‘Lachlan, Edinburgh ; and Cameron, Renton. Dr Smith presided, and opened the meeting with prayer. Mr Cameron was appointed Clerk.”

The following estimate of his ability and not ungenial criticism is from the pen of a fellow-member — Rev. Dr Masson, Edinburgh :—

"With the late Dr Cameron I first became acquainted at the meetings of the Joint-Committee of the Established and Free Churches on the Gaelic Scriptures; and my first opinion of him there was that in all things he was too critical. I had heard of him before ; and I knew that in certain influential quarters, and to some highly esteemed Gaelic authorities of that day, he was anything but persona grata. It is not unlikely that what, before meeting him, I was in the way of hearing in these quarters had to some extent prejudiced me against Dr Cameron. But when I came to know him in the Committee I found good reason, growing with the progress of our meetings, to entirely abandon the prepossession. He was critical, indeed, but could always give good grounds for every point of criticism on which he insisted. He was particular about inverted commas, hyphens, accents, and spacing, but you soon came to feel sure that when Dr Cameron wished the insertion of an inverted comma some letter or syllable had been left out which the inverted comma should represent. Some of us were at first inclined to poke fun at him as a worshipper of the inverted comma. We soon, however, came to view’ the matter in a different way. In point of fact, Dr Cameron removed from the Gaelic Bible a great many more inverted commas, which were meaningless, than, with good reason, he wished to insert. His point of view was that every inverted comma, accent, and hyphen on the Gaelic printed page should be distinctly significant. My own point of view has always been different. I have always held that every such typographical excrescence, though, doubtless, having some significance to the student of word-growth and grammatical inflection, is a needless disfigurement of our Gaelic books, and that, moreover, it greatly increases the difficulty of reading Gaelic, while also it burdens the memory and attention of the writer with a multitude of minute technical details which are practically as useless as they are distracting and irritating. In the Joint-Committee my views had little support from either party in the controversies which raged so hotly. But. Dr Cameron met me with the knowledge of a scientific linguist, instead of the traditionary superstition of the empiric, which formed the stock-in trade of his most distinguished opponents.

“Dr Cameron wad not one of the first Free Church contingent to the Joint-Committee. It was understood at the time that he had purposely been kept out of it. And no sooner had he appeared in our midst than it was evident that he was distrusted and greatly disliked by his own brethren. But he was not the man to be unfairly put down or sat upon. Nur was our chairman, the late revered and distinguished Dr Colin Smith, of Inverary, the man to allow it. He and many more of us. alas ! low many, have gone the way of all flesh—Dr Macdonald, of Gomrie, Dr Maclauchlan, Dr Mackay, Dr John Kennedy, and many more. It is an old saying, and wisely charitable, nil <h mortuis nisi Unman. But it is only the barest justice to Dr Cameron now to testify that though from one influential member of the Committee he met with much provocation and with ungenerous and even violent opposition, he never allowed himself to lose his temper. Firmly and with a calm self-possession, which to his opponent was more aggravating than a sharp retort, Dr Cameron held his own and kept the even tenor of his way. Well, well, they have now, both of them, entered that presence where, “beyond these voices there is peace.” I confess I should have liked to witness their first meeting there.

“In private I seldom met Dr Cameron, nor did I even hear him preach but once. That once, however, was a treat to be long remembered. It was a Gaelic sermon, preached not long before his death in the church of his friend, under whose hospitable roof he died, the Rev. Mr Balfour, of Free Holyrood Church. Seldom, indeed, have I listened to an abler sermon. It could never have been preached by a man who was only a student of words and of mere grammatical technicalities. It was full of human interest and richly laden with divine truth—well reasoned, too, and well proportioned, clearly arranged, and touchingly as well as impressively delivered, and that, too, without a shred of “paper.” Every one was deeply affected. For myself, there was yet another pleasure, the last I would have anticipated. Dr Cameron was the last man in whom I would have expected to find the gift of song. But that night in Mr Balfour’s Church he was his own piecentor. He had, I think, but three singings. The first two psalms were sung in plain song, quietly, but with much solemnity. But the last psalm was simply inspiring. It carried me back to the Burn of Ferintosh, full forty years ago. With measured cadence and all the touching simplicity of the true northern modulation, he gave out the line. Then followed strophe and antistrophe, burst on burst of inspiring song, such as carried us off our feet and lifted us up to heaven. I will never forget that night. Save the Benediction, the music of that parting song of praise was the last I heard of the voice that now is hushed for all his friends on earth. Is he singing that song now, and are they singing it with him?- —they, I mean, who vexed him so sorely in the Church below?”

In 1867 the Joint-Committee drew up and in 1868 submitted a report to the General Assemblies, containing numerous proposed emendations on the 1826 quarto edition of the Gaelic Bible, against the adoption of which Mr Cameron appeared at the bar of the Free Assembly: and his position may be gathered from the closing part of his statement:—

“Now, I beseech the General Assembly not to adopt a report which unfairly throughout, an I in some clauses inaccurately, represents the proceedings of the Joint-Committee. If you adopt it, what will be the result? You will be inflicting an injury upon some of the most distinguished ministers of this Church—men who have been devoting their time and strength to the work of this Committee, and whose conduct in the discharge of a public duty that report places, undesignedly no doubt, in a light in which I feel that the conduct of the men who formed the majority of the Joint-Committee in January, ought not to be placed before the Church—as if because they refused to proceed to introduce changes into the Scriptures which the Joint-Committee all but unanimously disapproved of, they had hindered the prosecution of the work entrusted to this Committee. You will be inflicting a wrong upon some of the best Gaelic scholars in this country—men who, not being members of this Church, are precluded from appearing here to defend themselves. You will be inflicting a grievous wrong upon the people of the Highlands by indirectly countenancing unjustifiable interference with that version of the Scriptures which the Church has sanctioned, and which for upwards of forty years they have been accustomed to peruse. Our admirable Gaelic translation of the Scriptures was prepared by such scholars as Dr Stewart of Killin, Dr Stewart of Luss, aud Dr Smith of Campbeltown. Dr Stewart of Dingwall afterwards, in conjunction with Dr Stewart of Luss, bestowed much toil upon its revision. Unfortunately they both died before their woi'k was finished, but in the Pentateuch (of 1820) they have left to others a specimen of the manner in which the Scriptures ought to be revised. The last edition which the Church has sanctioned and authorised to be used in her pulpits to the exclusion of other editions—that of 1826 —was prepared by the best scholarship of the time. The name of one distinguished minister of this Church who took a leading part in its prepai’atiou I must mention—the late Dr Macdonald of Ferrintosh. This edition is certainly not perfect, but it is decidedly better than any subsequent edition; and on that account, as well as because it is the edition whose words and phrases are lodged in the memories of the people, any unnecessary and extensive interference with it ought not only to be scrupulously avoided, but resolutely resisted. That is precisely what some members of your Committee have been endeavouring for the last four or five years to do, and to do not merely in the interest of the Gaelic Scriptures, but also in the interest of sound scholarship. I therefore trust that the General Assembly will not, by adopting this report, virtually pass a censure upon us in return for our efforts to preserve uninjured their own Bible to our people.”

This appeal resulted in the following resolution, which was adopted by the Assembly :—

“The Assembly receive the report, record their thanks to the Committee, and especially to the Convener, for the diligence and attention that have been bestowed upon the subject of the report; but in consideration of all the circumstances now under view, the General Assembly resolve to discharge, and hereby do discharge, this Committee. In coming to this resolution the Assembly declare that no difference of opinion has arisen between this Church and the Established Church upon the questions that have been under consideration of the Joint-Committcc; that, on the contrary, there had been the utmost cordiality in the intercourse which has been carried on, and that any ditference of view leading to the discharge of the Assembly’s Committee is a difference among Gaelic scholars, which prevails as much among the members of the Free Church Committee, when taken by itself, as it could among the members of the Joint-Committee when met together. The Assembly, therefore, record their satisfaction with the conferences that have been held on this subject with the Com mittee of the Established Church, and they hereby instruct the clerks to make communications, both to the Assembly of the Established Church and the National Bible Society, to the effect that the discharge of the Assembly’s Committee on the Gaelic Scriptures is to be explained in the manner now indicated.”

Dr Mackintosh Mackay, Rev. Farquhar Macrae, Mr Cameron, and others, about this date came to the conclusion, that whatever might be the defects of the Standard version of 1826, there was little likelihood of its being ever improved, and they add :—

“But if a revision should be deemed expedient, there are many reasons demanding that it should be gone about with much serious deliberation and caution, in such manner as to secure the confidence of our Gaelic-speaking population at home and throughout the world.”

The difference of opinion among Gaelic scholars alluded to above can hardly be touched upon in this rapid review, although a lengthy and learned correspondence ensued, in which Dr Maclauchlan and Rev. Mr (afterwards Dr) Clerk, Kilmallie, on the one hand, and Mr Cameron on the other, were the keen combatants. A few extracts will suffice to show some of the points at issue. Mr Cameron wrote to the Edinburgh Courant of May 23rd, 1870

“The last authorised edition—the 4to of 1826—although containing typographical and other errors which might easily be removed in a -new edition, has always been highly prized by the people, who have been from their childhood familiar with its words and phrases, and, therefore, any extensive interference with it, beyond the removal of obvious errors and anomalies, is much to be deprecated. The alterations introduced by Dr Maclauchlan and Mr Clerk into their edition (1860) are very numerous, and although some of them are corrections, very many of them are either unnecessary or positively erroneous. Having subjected this edition to a minute and careful examination, I am prepared to prove to the satisfaction of any competent Gaelic scholar that the errors and anomalies which have been introduced into it, and which are not to be found in any other edition, may be numbered literally by thousands. Passing by such alterations as *An toiseach chruthaich Dia na neamhan agus an talamh,’ ‘First God created the heavens and the earth] (Gen. i. 1), and ‘An toiseach bha am Focal,’ ‘First was the Word’ (John i. 1), I shall at present give a few specimens of the grammatical errors with which this edition abounds. Some of these errors, it may be noticed, seriously affect the sense of the passages in which they occur.” Then follow twenty specimens of errors such as—“An ceud beo-chreutair,” “ The liundred living-creatures,” for “ An ceud bheo-chreutair,” “ The first living-creature,” Rev. iv. 7. “Feuch bha leth-aoin ’ll a bolg,” “Behold there was the half of one [child] in her [Rebekah’s] womb,” Gen. xxv. 24. “ Longan de Tharsis,” 1 Kings xxii 48, represents Tarshish as the material of which Jehoshaphat made the ships ! Title-page, “chum craobh-sgaoilidh a’ Bhiobuill,” for “chum eraobh-sgaoileadh a’ Bhiobuill.” “This error occurs in the only sentence wholly composed by the editors.” “Thar nan uile thighibh,” for “thar na h-uile thigliibh,” Isa. xxxii. 13. “ Na mile bliadhna,” for “am mile bliadhna,” Rev.
xx. 5, &c. “These specimens taken from a very extensive list of errors discovered in this edition are sufficient to show the evil of interfering rashly with the edition of the Gaelic Scriptures which the Church of Scotland sanctioned, and with which the people of the Highlands have been long familiar. Not a few of Dr Mac-lachlan and Mr Clerk’s corrections on that edition have now been condemned by themselves; while their efforts to correct their own errors, in the last impression of their Bible, have not [infrequently resulted in producing new' errors as awkward as those wdiich they have sought to remove.”

Mr Clerk replied on the 26th May in the same newspaper, admitting typographical errors, for which he endeavoured to account by the disadvantages under which the editors laboured in living far from each other, and from the printer who knew' not a word of the language he was putting in type; and accusing Mr Cameron of making assertions resting entirely on his own authority. A counter-reply from the latter appeared on August 12th, pointing out that Mr A. Sinclair, Glasgow', who possessed an accurate knowledge of Gaelic, had the corrected proofs submitted to him and revised ; but was prevented from interfering with the wish of the editors, after correcting an editorial emendation which represented David, when he feigned madness at Gath, as writing instead of scrabbling on the doors of the gate. And as to assertion, “the specimens of errors which I have produced violate well-known rules of Gaelic grammar, and they exist only in Dr Maclauchlan and Mr Clerk’s edition.” This second letter contains an able and elaborate re-statement and proof of the positions laid down in the first—most of which are now acknowledged as unassailable. A further statement on the same subject, which contained a vindication of the 1826 edition from charges preferred by Mr Clerk is dated from Renton, October 3rd.

Writing to Rev. Dr Clerk in 1881, Mr Cameron pointedly says what may be regarded as amply justifying the somewhat unenviable position as candid critic he occupied :—

“I see from your Reference Bible that you have adopted, but without any acknowledgment, the fruits of my criticism. It is too bad to abuse me for criticising, and then quietly to avail yourselves of the results! Is it not? But while you have appropriated my corrections, you have adhered to nearly all your objectionable orthographical changes. You have even introduced new ones, equally objectionable, which until now had no place in the Scriptures.”

No doubt it would have been a much pleasanter, but far less conscientious course, to curry favour by being less critical and more laudatory, but he never yielded to this temptation. The Monthly Visitor Gaelic tracts he occasionally submitted as exercises to his students, and as examples of how not to translate. In a letter to the Inverness Courier, 17th June, 1869, no fewer than 44 errors occur in a tract of four pages. At the same time I think it may be admitted that, had he devoted as much time to constructive as to critical work, Gaelic philology, and perhaps literature, would have been far more enriched, and Celtic students more highly benefitted than as yet is the case.

The name of Professor Blackie is well and widely known in Celtic circles, and his manifold labours, eventually crowned with complete success, in founding the Celtic chair in Edinburgh University, are universally acknowledged. He is known to have repeatedly stated, as in a letter to a friend in 1876, that Mr Cameron was the best Gaelic scholar he knew. And the Professor was occasionally very candidly criticised by the scholar. The following letter, dated 3rd October, 1882, speaks for itself:—

“In Professor Blackie’s interesting letter, published in the ‘Scotsman’ of Wednesday last, the second part of the compound word Finlarig, in Gaelic Fionnlarig = Fionn-lairig, is identified with larach (a ruin), and the first part, Fin, is represented as pointing to the ancient Feinne. Neither of these comparisons is correct. The word larach, explained in the dictionaries as ‘the site of a building,’ ‘a ruin,’ &c., is a corruption of lathracb (a house-site). Lathrach is a derivative from latliair (presence), and has no connection with lairig, the g of which is always hard. The latter word occurs very frequently in the Gaelic topography of both Scotland and Ireland, with the meaning of ‘ side ’ or ‘slope of a hill,’ and is identical as shown by its Irish form leary (pronounced larg), with the old Gaelic word lerg (a little eminence, a plain, a field, a battle-field). Leargaidh, which occurs so frequently as Largy in place-names, is a derivative from learg — lairig. For the Irish forms Joyce’s Irish Names of Places (1st ser. p. 390) may be consulted.

“If Fin, the first part of Finlarig, were identical with Finn, the name of the famous King of the Feinne, the Gaelic equivalent of Finlarig would not be Fionnlairig but Lairig-Fhinn; but fionn, forming as it does the first term of the compound, must be regarded as the adjective fionn (fair, white), as in Fionnghasg (Fingask), Fionnairidh (Finary), Fionndrnim (Findrum), &c. Fionnlairig, therefore, signifies either the 'wdiite hill-side” or the *white plain ’ or ‘ field.’ The Gaelic adjective fionn (white), in old Gaelic find, is identical with the Welsh adjective gwin (fair, white), and seems connected with Sansk. cvind, cvinddti (to be white), Goth, hveits (white), A.S. hvit, Eng. white.”

In 1872 Mr Cameron commenced to contribute to The Gael a series of able articles on Gaelic Philology, which were continued for three years, and dealt with some five hundred and fifty root words. They were abreast of the philologic science of the time, and claimed only to be on the right lines. They seem to have been much appreciated, one stating they were the only articles in The Gael he read. The origin of these studies is put on record thus :—

“Soon after my settlement at Renton another clergyman in the village and myself agreed to meet for a certain time every week to read Greek and Latin. This we continued for two or three years. It was those readings that first led to myT having taken an interest in Celtic philology, the study of which I have been enabled, by the Grammatica Celtica of Zeuss, and the writings of Stokes, Ebel and others, to prosecute on the right lines. I was first drawn to the study' of ancient Gaelic through having met, quite accidentally', with the copy7 of Dr Stokes’ Goidelica which he presented to the Advocates’ Library. If I have done anything towards promoting among my7 countrymen a more accurate knowledge of Gaelic, it has been chiefly by having succeeded, by the help of the ancient language, in clearing up difficulties in the construction of modern Gaelic which had baffled Dr Stewart and other writers on the grammar of Scottisli Gaelic.”

This idea is put more strongly by Rev. M. Mackay, LL.D. who says of Mr Cameron :—

“I have met with no individual of the present generation more intimately acquainted with the grammatical structure of the Gaelic language, or with its idioms.”

Perhaps the most convenient way of introducing the difficult subject of the translation into Gaelic of the Queen’s Book is by the subjoined references and extracts. Messrs Edmonston & Douglas, publishers, Princes Street, Edinburgh, wrote on April 2nd, 1872, to Mr Cameron as follows :—

“We have requested our friend, Mr Alex. Nicolson, to edit the late Mr Angus Macpherson’s Translation of Her Majesty’s Journal in the Highlands, and he is willing to do so provided you will give him your aid in revising the MS. now in the printers’ hands. If you will be so kind as to do this, we shall send the MS. to you at once, as there is no time to be lost, and we should be glad to know how many pages a week you can forward the printer, and your probable charge. Did Mr Macpherson talk to you of a preface he had written?

This request was complied with; but the execution of the work was not proceeded with as rapidly as was anticipated, and hence the following note from Mr Cameron on June 12th, 1872:—

“I was obliged to go north to Caithness on Wednesday of last week, and I was not able to return home until last night. This explains why I have not written sooner in reply to yours of the 6th. I bad the printed sheets with me in the north and worked at them as much as I was able. I expect, therefore, that they will be finished by the time I promised. When I saw you in Edinburgh, I undertook to write out on the broad margined sheets the corrections which I had made on the sixteen sheets at the rate of one sheet daily. I told you that I could not undertake more, and that it would not be desirable for the work itself that I should attempt more. That you did not receive the two sheets promised on Monday of last week was no fault of mine, and, therefore, there is no occasion to speak of ‘fallacious promises’ and of promises made only to be broken.’ ”

The corrections on the margined sheets became almost innumerable—at any rate unmanageable within the period fixed, and the difficulties and delays were correspondingly numerous and exasperating. Expostulation was frequent and urgent, and the readiness of response was not always all that could be desired. Whether it was excessive painstaking or a touch of dilatoriness, or both, on the part of the reviser, the publishers were greatly inconvenienced and not a little displeased, as there had appeared several notices of the coming book, and many subscriptions had already been received. The Inverness Courier said :—

“We understand that the Gaelic edition of the Queen’s Journal in the Highlands, translated by Mr Angus Macpherson, Deputy-Secretary of the Highland Society, will be published immediately by Messrs Edmonston k Douglas, Edinburgh. It has been arranged that there shall be two editions of the work, one giving the Gaelic and English in opposite pages and the other giving the Gaelic only. Her Majesty has very kindly supplied a number of sketches and illustrations, not previously published, which will add greatly to the value of the work ; aud besides this new feature, nearly all the illustrations in the two-guinea edition will be reproduced. A special photograph of the Queen spinning her Highland wheel will form the frontispiece . . . Mr Macpherson, the translator of the work, is an excellent Gaelic scholar, and has taken much pains in discharging his honourable and difficult task.”

The controversy already adverted to grew so keen and unfortunate that Mr Cameron declined to continue his revision or permit the publication of the large portion—almost the whole— already printed and revised. This proved a loss to the publishers and a great disappointment to the public. I am unable to give full particulars, and at this distant date, when the matter is beyond recall, it may be as well. Here, however, is a letter from Mr Cameron to Dr F. W. Ramsay, of Inveresk, stating how the matter stood at a later date—August 30ih, 1873—but, sad to say, the translation, though executed and excellent, never saw the light

“The late Mr Angus Macpherson’s translation of the Queen’s Book was put some time ago into my hands that I might revise it, which I have done, and I am now arranging for its publication. From papers which have been sent to me I find that the Highland Society of London promised to take 500 copies, I presume, of the 4s fid edition, or to give a subscription of £100. In arranging with a new publisher, which has been found necessary, it would be of great importance to know whether or not that subscription be still available ; for if it be not available, I am afraid that the idea of publishing the translation must, at least for the present, be abandoned, which would be unfortunate after so much has been written and spoken about it. I shall therefore feel greatly obliged if you can give me any information regarding the Society’s subscription and the condition or conditions on which it was promised.

“I may inform you that I have carefully examined the translation, comparing it, clause by clause, with the original, and that I have also corrected the orthography, so that the MS. is now ready for the press. It is, perhaps, proper to state that the translator’s father has authorised me to write you, and that I wish to get the above information to facilitate the arrangements in regard to the publication, and not for any personal ends, for I do not intend to accept of any remuneration for my work.

“In consequence of the long delay in issuing the volume, it is considered better to publish only one edition—that with Gaelic and English on alternate pages, at 10s 6d; and if the publisher with whom I am arranging shall see his way to take the publication in hand, the volume will be finished in the best style of typography. I take the liberty of sending you a copy of a Gaelic magazine, published in Glasgow (The Gael, March, 1873), which contains an extract from the Inverness Courier in regard to my connection with the translation.” In the extract referred to, Nether Lochaher intimates the prospect of early publication, Cluny Macpherson having taken an interest in the matter, and stated that the work was under the superintendence of Rev. Mr Cameron, Renton, who, it is added, “ perhaps knows more of the genius and grammar of our mountain tongue than anybody else that we can at present think of.”

In 1876 Mr James Macdonald, London, writes to Mr Cameron :—

“I was very interested to read in the newspaper reports an account of a valuable paper which you read at the meeting of the British Association the other day at Glasgow on the etymological affinity of the Gaelic and English languages.”

The Gaelic class continued to be taught with much success in the Free Church College until 1876, when, on August 31st, Professor Candlish, as Clerk of the Senatus, wrote to Mr Cameron:—

“As the Senatus are about to make arrangements for awarding the College bursaries for next session, I write to request that you will give me such information as may enable the Senatus to arrange for awarding these bursaries among the rest.”

It was not possible, however, to fix even the number of, much less the amount available for, bursaries beforehand, and this proposal, to have control over what cost so much toil and time to collect, could hardly fail to be regarded by him whose unaided efforts secured the money, as undue interference on the part of those who had no knowledge of the subjects taught, and could not, therefore, well have any voice or vote in the award or distribution of the bursaries. The result was an application for the use of one of the University class-rooms, and the request was immediately and frankly granted. The removal to a more central, accessible and unrestricted sphere proved a great boon, and the attendance at the class was more than doubled. The sums of money given by Sir William Mackinnon, Bart, of Balinakill, and the late Mr Kidston of Ferniegair, along with many other friends of Gaelicspeaking students, by way of encouragement and incitement to become proficient in their native-tongue, amounted some sessions to almost £200. The instruction given was highly appreciated, as the numerous testimonials given at a later date by old students amply testify, and as a more tangible proof of affection indicates —the presentation of a copy of “ The Sculptured Stones of Scotland,” in April, 1878, by the members of the University Gaelic class to Rev. Alex. Cameron, “as a cordial expression of their appreciation of his devotion to Celtic scholarship in general, and especially as a token of their gratitude for his disinterested and invaluable services as teacher of this class.” Some of the students who had hardly any knowledge of Gaelic to begin with acquired a keen interest, not only in modern, but specially in ancient Gaelic. Mr Cameron took great pains in giving very accurate and minute information on many difficult and intricate points of Gaelic construction, and he also took great delight in leading up through the beauties of Ossian to the higher planes of philological thought, from which one could take a wide survey of the history of language, and learn somewhat of the past life and modes of thinking of otherwise forgotten or even unknown people and nations.

In 1880 the attendance of students exceeded 70, and the class was at its best; but the teacher had, on account of severe illness, most reluctantly to give up his much-loved work, and not without pathos part with his attached pupils—he fondly hoped only for a brief period. But communication with Brodick in winter was then only three times a week, and this implied absence from home for several days each week, so that on account of additional congregational and literary work and less strength to meet so many pressing Ceills, he was never again able to resume his teaching.

The following is a brief tribute to tiie teacher’s memory from one of his most distinguished pupils, Rev. Duncan Brown, M.A.:—

“He had the teacher’s prime qualification of enthusiastic devotion to his subject. He was therefore able to impart this enthusiasm to the true student of Celtic. He had the no less necessary qualification of thorough acquaintance with his subject. Any student who sat under him, and who had a mind at all, could not fail to see how great was the store of learning from which he drew constantly his illustrations and examples. As a result of the combination of these two qualities in him, he was suggestive and inspiring in the highest degree. Sitting under him for only one hour a week during a short session, I can yet say that he gave me not only a love for but an insight into, the scientific study of Gaelic as well as of language in general. His influence in this respect, upon myself at least, was as great as that of professors under whom I sat not one hour but five hours in the week. The truest evidence of his power was that he could be all this and yet that there was no show or display in his teaching. It was slow, quiet, unassuming, but powerful in the grasp and force with which it laid hold of the mind.”

The project of starting a periodical which would take up Gaelic scientifically, and give the latest philological researches and results, occupied the mind of Mr Cameron for a long time. It took definite shape in 1878, and was submitted to the well-known collector of Gaelic Tales, J. F. Campbell of Islay, who replied thus :—

“I have the pleasure of knowing that you are a great Gaelic scholar, and feel the compliment of being asked to contribute to a Celtic periodical of which you have sent me the proof prospectus. You ask my opinion and suggestions. My experience leads me to advise caution in starting another Celtic periodical. I know the classes who take an intelligent interest in Gaelic lore, and know them to be poor in purse if rich in mental gifts. Between the poor, who really know and admire and take interest in songs and heroic traditions and popular tales and legends, and the rich who subscribe to support a Gaelic chair, there extends the entire class of book buyers and Gaelic vendors who have never yet made any Gaelic serial pay its way or pay contributors. It is a maxim amongst men of the press who understand their business, that no publication can flourish that does not pay. To the best of my knowledge there exists no Celtic publication that pays contributors or can pay its own way. The writing is done by men who seek a vent for the fire that burns within them, not by men who have found a way to make themselves heard. The class of Celtic scholars is very limited—I mean the set of men who go at a subject from the bare love of it, and work gratis with might and main. The £ Celto-maniacs ’ include Germans, Irish, Scotch, Italians and others who are scattered all over the world. They, if they were got to bring their several lights to a focus, would make a blaze ; but even then they would but enlighten each other. There is no buying public for a Celtic periodical as yet. I have a great pile of Gaelic stuff, but my hope is to live long enough to make some use of my gatherings on my own plan. I shall be glad to hear that you come good speed. I wish you every sort of luck in your venture.”

Mr Cameron’s reply indicates the character and contents of the proposed publication:—

“I am much obliged for your kind letter and for your offering to become a subscriber to the Celtic Review. From the prospectus I sent you, you would see that the Review is intended, if it go on, to occupy ground which has not hitherto been formally taken up by any periodical in this country. It will not, therefore, interfere with any periodical at present in existence. The articles that appear in the Highlander and in the Inverness Celtic Magazine, if I except some Gaelic ballads with airs, would not be suited for the Review, and most of the articles that I would like to see in the Review would not be suitable for those publications, which are intended more for general readers. Any Celtic publication that may appear in this country must for years to come move in the rear of Kiilin’s Beitriige and other similar publications on the Continent; but if the Revieiv be started at all it must go on the same lines so as to reflect to some extent in this country the blaze of Celtic light to which you refer in your letter, and perhaps to increase it by some few sparks of its own kindling. It must therefore more especially at the outset appeal for support to a narrow circle of readers, and to a still narrower circle of contributors. It must also be self-supporting. It is therefore necessary that the subscription price should be higher than the ordinary price of magazines. There can, of course, be no pay for contributors, nor for conducting the periodical : all that must be a labour of love. I may mention that the idea of starting such a publication as the Revieiv is not new. It is now more than seven years since the matter was first talked of, and it has never been entirely lost sight of. If the idea is to be at all realised it seems to me that no more time should be lost. A considerable portion of the necessary expense for the first year is already secured. The prospectus, however, will not be published until a sufficient number, or nearly so, of subscribers has been obtained by means of private effort.”

Accordingly the first number of the Scottish Celtic Review appeared in March, 1881, and was well received alike by reviewers and readers. This number contained articles—chiefly by the editor—on the place of Celtic in the Indo-European Family; Crimm’s Law; the Laws of Auslaut in Irish- -a translation of a valuable paper by Professor Windisch of Leipzig; a specimen of Old Gaelic—St Patrick's Hymn; a West Highland Tale, contributed by Rev. Mr Campbell of Tyree ; a Gaelic Song ; Notes on Gaelic Grammar; and a Gaelic air—Coire-a’-Cheathaich.

Professor Windisch—than whom there is no higher authority in Celtic philology—gives the following favourable estimate of the work begun :—

“A foreigner like myself naturally finds the Gaelic texts the most interesting, and I observe with peculiar pleasure that yon have also begun to present to your leaders the invaluable ‘Book of the Dean of Lismore.’ Perhaps you will permit me some time to send a short article for your journal, explaining my view of the value of that remarkable manuscript. With your fine knowledge of Gaelic you combine a comprehensive grasp of the principles and methods of comparative philology. You have rightly recognised that a scientific acquaintance with the phonetic laws is before all things essential. This is the A B C of philology and of all grammar. You have done me the honour to translate a treatise of mine and insert it in your journal. I mention this only in order to remark that the correctness of your translation is eminently deserving of recognition. I have not observed a single error, although the German scientific style is none of the easiest. Your grammatical analysis of single portions of texts is certainly calculated to afford assistance to those beginning the study of Gaelic etymology, and to stimulate them to deeper research. I am convinced that your Scottish Celtic Review, and your own work in connection with it, will bear good fruit, first of all in your own country, and will also be prized in other countries.”

Professor Rhys, of Oxford, writes on the same subject in the Academy

“Most of the earlier articles are earnest efforts on the part of the editor to initiate his countrymen into reasonable views on Scotch Gaelic, which they do not, as a rule, like to see connected too closely with Irish, it being, as they have usually thought, a much finer thing to dip at once into Sanskrit or Hebrew, or anything Oriental, than into the source to which history clearly directs them.”

The Northern. Chronicle remarked :—

“Judging from the first number—a large, beautifully printed octavo of eighty pages—the magazine will differ from its Scottish predecessors in the Celtic field, in that it will devote considerable space to philology, and what may be called the higher branches of Celtic literature, while, at the same time, it will not neglect the simpler and more popular subjects connected with the Gaelic language.”

It adds that the editor had devoted more time and attention to the objects thus to be promoted than any other Scotchman, and that he is generally considered to be one of our most erudite and accurate Celtic scholars.

The second number appeared in November, and contained a continuation of former articles, together with new material. There is an interesting note on the “Tuairisgeul” Mor by Mr Alfred Nutt; there is a flowing translation of the “Aged Bard’s Wish” by Dr Hugh Macmillan; and there is also the highly popular air and song- Macriinmon’s Lament.”

The third number appeared in November, 1882, and contained “Eas-Ruaidh,” an Ossianic ballad, from the Dean of Lismore’s book, transcribed and translated by the editor—who was always admirable and accurate in his renderings of ancient or modern poems; a West Highland tale—“How Finn went to the Kingdom of the Big Men,” with translations by Rev. J. G. Campbell; the affinity of the Celtic and Teutonic languages; and studies in Gaelic grammar which account for and Illustrate many difficult and obscure idioms.

The fourth and final number which, on account of pastoral and ecclesiastical anxieties and duties, did not appear until October, though dated July, 1885, contained the “Lay of the Muireartach ” with revised version and translation, Macphie’s “Black Dog,” “Gaelic Orthography,” “Common Mistakes,” “Laws of Auslaut in Irish” concluded, “Studies in Gaelic Grammar,” “Macgrigor of Iioro ” with translations by Principal Shairp, and music of “Macgregor’s Lament.”

Mr Cameron had abundant material at hand to continue the periodical for years, and almost adequate support to carry it on successfully, as will be seen from this reference in 1886 :—

“In regard to the Celtic Review, I may state that the cause of its not appearing more regularly is that most of the articles had to be written by myself, whilst my professional duties, especially during the summer months when Arran is much frequented by strangers, leave me but small fragments of time for other work. I cannot complain of want of encouragement, so far as the number of subscribers is concerned. In a very short time the number reached nearly 500, of whom about 80 subscribed for the large paper edition; and at that time the circulation could easily be extended. I believe that even now, notwithstanding that the successive numbers have been issued at such long intervals, a considerable number of additional subscribers could be got without much difficulty; for I have urgent requests from different quarters to continue the Review, which I would willingly do if I could devote to it more of my time.”

As proof of this wide-spread desire, may be given a very friendly letter from Mr R. A. Neil, M.A., Fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge, who writes on 12th November, 1886

“You may perhaps recollect that I had the pleasure of meeting you in your manse some years ago. This is partly my excuse in writing now to trouble you about a matter in which I take considerable interest, and on which several people have spoken to me lately. It seems to be a very great pity if a periodical publication devoted to Scotch Gaelic should not be kept up and strongly supported : and the Scottish Celtic Revieio has always appeared to me to be the only thing of the kind worthy of the subject. May I ask you what are the chances of its being continued ? I ask this, because, though I fear it has not had the support it has so fully deserved, I do not think it would be difficult to get a considerable number of more subscribers. Without any trouble I think I could get 10 or 15 among my personal acquaintances, and this ought to mean that a good many more could be got through them. If it would be of service I should be very glad to do auything in my power towards furthering such an excellent object as the keeping up of the Review.”

But his hands were full of other and less profitable work in the form of conflict with Church Courts, so that for the remaining three years he was hardly able to buy or consult the books requisite to keep him abreast of the rapid advances of philology on newer lines. One cannot pass from the promise and possibilities patent in these papers without a sigh over all that might have been, to which the world that credits what is done is cold.

Mr Cameron had the honour of being a member of the Royal Irish Archaeological Association; and a similar mark of esteem was bestowed upon him when, on 1st December, 1882, it was intimated to him from the Royal Institution, Edinburgh, that he had been elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

On the same date, “within a few days of the expiry of the time appointed for giving in applications,” he offered himself “as a candidate for the Celtic chair recently instituted in the University of Edinburgh,” and submitted testimonials of the highest order proving his fitness for occupying the arduous and honourable position. Perhaps it may suffice in this connection to quote the opinion formed of the whole by Sir Noel Paton, LL.D. :—

“December 9th. — I have carefully read, and herewith return the printed testimonials of your fitness for the very important task of inaugurating the scientific study of Gaelic in Scotland ; and it is with much satisfaction I find so many competent persons bearing witness, on the one hand, to the extent and accuracy of your attainments as a Celtic scholar, and on the other, to the enthusiasm, patience and success with which, for so many years, you have gratuitously taught the subject in Glasgow. You have done original vTork, the value of which has been recognised by scholars at home and abroad, and you have proved your capacity for communicating to others the results of your investigations.”

Referring to the labour involved in conducting the Scottish Celtic Review, “ which would make it necessary to follow the example of the Paris Revue Celtique and other continental publications devoted to special subjects by issuing the successive numbers as they can be made ready,” he states the reason for finally, though very reluctantly, making up his mind to exchange pastoral for literary work :—

“But even under this arrangement I find that it is impossible to carry on my literary work efficiently, and, at the same time, to discharge faithfully my professional duties. It is this consideration mainly that has decided me to become a candidate for the Celtic chair, so that my whole time might, for the future, be devoted to the promotion of Celtic study among my countrymen.”

In the same strain Mr Macbain wrote—“ It would be well for Gaelic literature and philology if Mr Cameron could obtain the comparative leisure of the Celtic Chair to enable him to give to the world the wealth of knowledge he possesses in the language, myth, and literature of the Scottish Celt.” Dr R. C. Jebb, M.P., said—“Mr Cameron is a thorough scientific scholar, who adds to his intimate knowledge of Gaelic as a vernacular the possession of the latest results in comparative philology and a mastery of the most approved methods.” And to add only one other weighty opinion, Rev. H. Macmillan, D.D., LL.D., stated—“I know no one so well qualified in every respect to occupy the chair with honour, and make it useful and stimulating. His Celtic scholarship is both profound, far-extending, and accurate.”

There was thus a general consensus of opinion as to his great, if not unrivalled, claims and fitness for the position, and considerable surprise—not to say disappointment—was elicited when it transpired that he was not the successful candidate. His own view was that, if possible, it would be preferable to secure the services of Professor E. Windisch or of Dr Whitley Stokes, and he repeatedly said that if either of these distinguished linguists could be got to accept the chair, he would be glad to become tutor to their pupils in modern Gaelic, but to those of none else.

On the 23rd February, 1883, he received, written in Gaelic, the diploma of the Edinburgh University Celtic Society, conferring upon him the honour of honorary membership.

In the long-continued controversy as to the authorship of the famous Poems of Ossian, the question that calls for settlement is, whether James Macpherson was, as he professed, the translator, or, as many maintained, substantially the author. Mr Cameron does not appear to have publicly pronounced an opinion, but his attitude on the subject seems to be indicated by a remark made in conversation—“That not a line of the Gaelic originals which we possess exactly corresponds with the old Ossianic ballads.”

The last published literary work in which he was engaged, and the only one for which he received any remuneration, was a contribution of two ballads from the Dean of Lismore’s Book, which appeared, with modern renderings and translations, in the Scottish Review.

His zeal for Celtic matters continued without flagging unto the end; for he had with him on his last journey to Edinburgh MSS. that he hoped to be able to transcribe. He felt handicapped and hindered in his work by distance from the requisite material and by lack of leisure, as this reference shows:—

“I have a considerable quantity of material which might interest a large class of readers and which deserves to be published.

I refer to transcripts of Ossianic and other ballads, chiefly from MSS. in the Advocates’ Library. I have been trying during the last few years to do something whenever I could spend a little time in Edinburgh in the way of transcribing portions of these MSS. I have transcribed a considerable part of the Dean’s Book (including all the Ossianic ballads contained in it), about one-half of the Glen-Massan MS., and portions of others. Besides these MSS. there is now deposited in the Library the large collection of Highland Tales and Ballad Poetry which belonged to the late Mr John F. Campbell of Islay, and which is available for use. From these two sources a large amount of material could be got.”

The excessive pare bestowed upon, and the great accuracy attained in the transcripts made from the MSS., may be shown by a note from Dr Thomas Dickson of the General Register House —a well-known authority on such matters—to whom Mr Cameron was very highly indebted for his great kindness in reading over and comparing the transcripts with the manuscripts : -

“22nd September, 1886.—As this is a bright day I went to the Library and examined again the words of doubtful reading. There is, I think, no room for doubt about ‘demyth.’ The 'li ’ is written on the line and there is nothing after it. Of the other word, the only doubtful letter is that which precedes the £ g,’ and to-day I seemed to perceive more clearly than before that it consists of two parallel strokes, and is in short either 'n’ or 'u.’ I thank you very much for your kind invitation to Arran; but regret that owing to the absence of other officials on holiday I am closely tied to the oar at present.”

As already stated in the preceding chapter, Mr Cameron’s Alma Mater, the University of Edinburgh, conferred upon him the degree of LL.D. on 18th April, 1888. He had fondly hoped to be permitted to do some literary work worthy of the distinguished honour bestowed upon him. He had already translated Professor Windisch’s Irish Grammar, but was anticipated by others in its publication. He had been for half a life-time collecting and cogitating material for a scientific Gaelic Grammar, but, with the exception of notes for his class, he had not begun to reduce it to writing. He had in hand a Gaelic Etymological Dictionary which was long-looked-for, and which all concerned expected would prove his vuigmon ojnis. But diis aliter visum. Six months later he was at rest; and these purposes and plans were not destined to be carried into full effect. And yet it is satisfactory to find that his wish in regard to making public property of the materials he had with such labour and learning accumulated, will be largely realised, and his work continued, though not completed, in the publication of “Reliqune Celticie.”


Caticol, Arran, 8th March, 1892.

You can download his two volumes of

Gaelic Literature and Philology

Volume 1  |  Volume 2

Return to his Memoir Index Page


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