Tuesday 12 March 2013

Celtic Studies: Glasgow and the Making of Celtic Studies in Scotland



Donald E. Meek


It is a great honour for me to have been invited to give the first Angus Matheson Memorial Lecture here in Glasgow.   Glasgow is my own alma mater, twice over.  When I was a student at the Department of Celtic from 1967 to 1971, I received a splendid grounding in Celtic languages, and particularly in my native Gaelic, which has stood me in excellent stead for the entirety of my academic career.  I did not have the privilege of being taught by Professor Angus Matheson, of course, but I heard much about him.  


In 1967, when I arrived, the department was full of life and vitality.  Professor Derick Thomson held the Chair of Celtic, and his lectures on Gaelic literature will forever remain in my mind as a quite incomparable gateway to the riches of the field.  Professor Thomson’s active engagement with Gaelic literature, as poet, publisher and literary critic, ceaselessly publishing on a variety of themes, became the blueprint for my own academic career. The ‘Thomson model’ of hard work and strong interaction with the subject was irresistible to me.  Professor Thomson was complemented in the department by a very talented team, consisting of Kenneth MacDonald, Donald Howells, James Gleasure and Donald John MacLeod, whose contributions – from Early Welsh language to modern deconstruction, if not destruction, of happily-held literary theories – were immensely stimulating.   It was good to be there, and I am grateful for every minute spent in the company of these scholars.  Later, I was to take up as a research subject an edition of the Gaelic ballads in the perplexingly difficult medieval manuscript, the Book of the Dean of Lismore.  This too was a labour inspired by the teaching of Professor Derick Thomson, but I sometimes think that my enthusiasm has led me into deeper water than I could ever have imagined.  I am still paddling and floundering, trying to reach the farther shore, following the completion of my Glasgow Ph.D. as far back as 1982.[1]  Perhaps, however, there is no farther shore for scholarship, and no end to the ceaseless quest for knowledge, which, when set in motion, engages the mind to the utmost of its capacity, and perhaps a little beyond. 


Between 1973 and 1979 I was Assistant Editor of the Historical Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic here in Glasgow, and then I went east to teach in the Celtic Department at Edinburgh University.   Little did I realise that, in the fulness of time, I, along with Professor William Gillies and Ronald Black, would play a part in shaping the present generation of Celtic scholars at Glasgow.  Professor Gillies was an Edinburgh graduate in Celtic, but Ronald Black, like myself, was trained at Glasgow.  I am absolutely delighted that three of my former students at Edinburgh University presently teach in Glasgow’s Department of Celtic – Professor Thomas Owen Clancy, Dr Sheila Kidd and Dr Michel Byrne.   Professor Rob Ó Maolalaigh likewise studied at Edinburgh, and succeeded me in a lectureship there when I moved to Aberdeen in 1992.   As a consequence of these exchanges, and as a result of the returning tide from Edinburgh, so to speak, the Department of Celtic at Glasgow continues to flourish.


One of the inevitable themes of my lecture today will be the highly creative exchange of scholars and ideas which has taken place between Glasgow and Edinburgh across the years. Anyone who has lived in either city knows that each lives in a healthy state of rivalry with the other, and that it is prudent to look the other way when the virtues of the one are being extolled at the expense of the other.  Being a diplomat, and standing on the sacred soil of Gilmorehill, I will treat them both equally in this lecture, with an occasional dip towards excessive praise for one or the other, but I will leave you to work out which one!  The cold academic truth is that the exchange between the two universities, and between their Celtic scholars, has helped to build and sustain both places.  I suspect that that is true of subjects other than Celtic at both universities.  


In extolling both Glasgow and Edinburgh in true diplomatic form, I must not forget that beautiful campus in the North-east, namely King’s College, Aberdeen, where I was privileged to spend some nine years.  Aberdeen has figured in the academic profiles of several scholars who have served at Glasgow, most notably Professor Derick Thomson and Professor Donald MacAulay, both of whom are graduates of Aberdeen, and who were Readers in Celtic at King’s College.  Professor Cathair Ó Dochartaigh, who succeeded Professor MacAulay in the Glasgow Chair, was a lecturer at Aberdeen earlier in his career.  Aberdeen has also contributed greatly to the making of Edinburgh’s foundational Celtic scholars.


It was, in fact, at Aberdeen, in the second half of the nineteenth century, that there appeared the first Scottish stirrings of the new learning, based on relatively recent theories about Indo-European languages and the place of the Celtic languages in the wider Indo-European family. This led to the creation of the discipline of Celtic Studies, as we would recognise it nowadays.  These new theories were coming principally from Germany, where pioneering scholars such as Franz Bopp and Johann Kaspar Zeuss, in the first half of the century, and Ernst Windisch and Ludwig Christian Stern in the second half of the century, began to blaze a clean trail through a jungle of old and confusing speculation about mind and race and literature.   Much of this earlier scholarship was of a romantic and rather irrational kind, powered perversely by the impact of James Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’ on European thought, and it left an ambiguous legacy which had to be cleared out of the system before the new edifice of ‘scientific’ Celtic scholarship could be constructed.   Its influence lingered in various nooks and crannies, and even in some surprisingly prominent places, until the early twentieth century.[2]


Of all the Scottish universities, however, Glasgow was probably linked most directly to those pioneering scholars of Germany, who were part of what Professor D. Ellis Evans has very justly called ‘the heroic age of Celtic philology’.  This link was made most obviously through the towering figure of Professor Kuno Meyer, who held a lectureship at Glasgow between 1903 and 1906.[3]   Kuno Meyer (1858-1919), who was born in Hamburg, is described by Ellis Evans as being ‘indefatigible as a researcher and lecturer and propagandist working hard for the enrichment and improvement of Celtic Studies’.[4]  Nowadays, Meyer’s contribution to Celtic Studies is seen principally through Irish eyes, very largely because of his immense enthusiasm for the cause of Irish scholarship, and his contribution to the founding of the School of Irish Learning, which he established with the support of an equally able Scottish scholar of the Celtic languages, namely Professor John Strachan, who hailed from Keith, Banffshire, and had graduated from Aberdeen.[5]   As we shall observe later, the connection between Glasgow and Germany was made by way of Dublin, and Glasgow’s Celtic lecturers in later years, right down to Professor Matheson himself, enjoyed very close connections with Ireland, and, a much more recent incumbent at Glasgow, Professor Ó Dochartaigh, hailed from Ireland.  The ‘Celtic continental tour’ of the principal study-centres likewise became almost a sine qua non for holding the fully-fledged Celtic lectureship at Glasgow from Meyer’s time, whereas Edinburgh tended to look more evidently to scholars who combined their Celtic learning with earlier degrees in Classics or Philosophy, from Scottish universities and/or Oxbridge.


Oddly, Meyer’s exhaustive and (frankly) exhausting biographer, Sean Ó Lúing,[6] is silent on this important Scottish phase of his career, but Meyer’s time in Glasgow deserves to be put on record, as the university and its potential as a centre for Celtic Studies appear to have impressed him.   One wonders if he saw benefits, both ways, in creating a Dublin-Glasgow axis of scholarship.   It is noteworthy that Meyer became an early campaigner for the establishment of Chairs of Celtic at Glasgow and other British universities. As Ó Lúing notes, ‘He was untiring in his appeals for the establishment of Celtic chairs in Glasgow, in Manchester where he called for a Celtic chair for John Strachan, in Cambridge where he hoped a chair would be made for Edmund Cosby Quiggin, and in London where he delivered many important and well attended lectures.’[7]  This desideratum was, of course, realised when Professor Angus Matheson became its first holder in 1956 – fifty years exactly after Meyer had left Glasgow, which can hardly have been the speediest of responses to his characteristically impassioned pleas.  It is, nevertheless, the significance of Professor Matheson’s appointment that brings us here today, and establishes this new series of lectures in his honour.


The creation of Chairs of Celtic at Scotland’s universities was indeed a very long-drawn-out affair, or series of affairs, and we will return to some of the detail of that later.  It suffices for us to note, at present, that the teaching of Gaelic and broadly Celtic subjects in Scotland was initiated in the period of the pioneering German scholars whom I have mentioned.  The second half of the nineteenth century was, in Scotland as elsewhere, the pile-driving phase.   Before the professional Dublin-Germany axis was created, the first stirrings of the new learning began to manifest themselves in the minds of men who were already trained in other subjects, but who were drawn towards Gaelic and Celtic scholarship.   This was true in Germany, too, where the pioneering Celtic scholars (like Ludwig Stern – who did not suffer fools gladly!) were often trained first as Orientalists or Egyptologists or Classicists, and later branched out to the Celtic languages.[8] 


In Scotland, the foundational pattern tended to be ‘theology plus Celtic’. Presbyterian ministers, apparently on their own initiative, began to develop linguistic skills in Celtic, partly as a consequence of reading Johann Kaspar Zeuss’s great work, Grammatica Celtica. They then passed these skills to lay scholars.  I think, first and foremost, of the Rev. Alexander Cameron (1827-88), a graduate of Edinburgh, who began to teach a Gaelic class at the Free Church College, Glasgow, in 1866, and who moved his class to premises in Glasgow University in 1876, in consequence of a dispute over the control of bursaries which he himself had raised for students.  Cameron continued to teach in the university until 1880, when he had a class of no less than seventy students.  Cameron founded the first Celtic academic journal to be published in Scotland, namely The Scottish Celtic Review, which appeared in 1881, and ran to four issues.[9]  This, in Professor Matheson’s words, was intended ‘to provide in Scotland a learned journal comparable in quality to the philological journals of the Continent’.[10]  What we must not say in Edinburgh, however, is that Alexander Cameron was the academic favourite for Edinburgh’s epoch-making Chair of Celtic, which was awarded to Donald MacKinnon, the first Professor of Celtic in Scotland, in 1882. Professor Matheson notes most generously that Cameron ‘would have adorned a University Chair of Celtic’.[11] One wonders if an element of rivalry with Cameron remained subliminally throughout MacKinnon’s tenure of the Chair, since MacKinnon himself became editor, alongside Ella Carmichael, of a scholarly journal, published by Constable’s, and entitled (significantly enough) The Celtic Review.[12]    


Alexander Cameron was not alone in the Celtic fraternity of scholarly ministers.  John Kennedy, another native of Badenoch, had also absorbed the new ‘scientific’ thinking about Celtic languages.  Before becoming a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, John Kennedy had been a schoolmaster at Baldow school in Badenoch, and he appears to have contributed to the scholarly formation of a young fellow called Alexander MacBain.[13]   Dr Alexander MacBain, a graduate of Aberdeen in Mental Philosophy, and self-trained in Celtic, did more than any other scholar of his day to customise the Scottish version of what we now know as Celtic Studies.  As Headmaster of Raining’s School, Inverness, and as a regular speaker at functions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness and a prolific writer in its Transactions, MacBain blasted his way mercilessly through the earlier speculations of the romantic pseudo-scholars.  He applied his sharp tongue to giving the bad boys a thorough verbal whipping, and he applied his equally sharp brain to placing Gaelic among Indo-European languages.  He was interested in every aspect of philology, and he was also an outstanding scholar of place-names; he was, in short, ‘the finest Professor of Celtic that Scotland never had’.[14]  He exerted a powerful influence on the making of Professor William J. Watson, who succeeded Professor Donald MacKinnon as Professor of Celtic at Edinburgh in 1914 – a position that MacBain himself would have occupied with great distinction if it had not been for his early death in 1907.  As we shall see, Professor Watson, in his turn, taught Angus Matheson, and Professor Watson’s son, James Carmichael Watson, also taught at Glasgow.  A kind of apostolic succession, so to speak, was formed, originating with the remarkable Alexander Cameron and the other ‘Badenoch Boys’.   MacBain and Kennedy joined forces in an act of pietas to edit Cameron’s Reliquiae Celticae in two fine volumes which were published in Inverness between 1892 and 1894.[15]  Neither Kennedy nor MacBain taught at Glasgow, but the brilliant Badenoch triumvirate of Cameron, Kennedy and MacBain, seen in all its glory in Reliquiae Celticae, unquestionably laid the foundation of Celtic Studies, German-style, in Scotland.  Neither Glasgow nor Edinburgh would be what they are today without the immense contribution of these pioneering scholars.  They tried to produce the Scottish equivalent of the German Zeitschrifts, but they also provided a new sense of direction for other journals, most notably the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness.   MacBain, in particular, helped to rescue Scotland from the mixed blessing of ‘scholarly’ ministerial intervention in the new discipline. 


In Glasgow, then, in the second half of the nineteenth century, we can see quite clearly how ‘the Celtic additive’ was applied to existing scholarly mixtures.  The recipe for ‘building your own Celtic scholar’ was, of course, very much ad hoc.  It depended on the ingredients available at the time, and on personal interest, and it could find an unlikely bowl in the science laboratory.  There were delicious incongruities.  This is splendidly illustrated in the case of Magnus MacLean, who is regarded as Glasgow’s first official lecturer in Celtic.  In order to produce the first McCallum Lecturer at Glasgow, the mixture on this occasion was poured into the scientific pot, rather than the ministerial one.  MacLean, who hailed from Glendale in Skye, began his career as a teacher, having trained at the Free Church Training College, Glasgow.  Entering Glasgow University in 1881, he became assistant to the great Lord Kelvin in 1884, and went on to become a lecturer in Physics to medical students and in Electricity to engineering students.  In 1899, MacLean was appointed Professor of Electrical Engineering at Glasgow Technical College, now the University of Strathclyde.[16]  As Kelly McCallum Lecturer at Glasgow University in 1900-3, MacLean was charged to give fifteen lectures annually, and from these there came the published works for which he is best known today, namely The Literature of the Celts (1902) and The Literature of the Highlands (1904).  Whereas earlier Celtic lecturers and scholars associated with Glasgow, such as Alexander Cameron, had majored on philology and etymology, MacLean turned his attention to wider vistas, and especially to literature.  His work on The Literature of the Celts provides a remarkably perceptive overview of the early Celtic literatures of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and concludes with a very useful account of nineteenth-century scholarship.  MacLean was evidently an extremely able scholar, who deserves immense credit for his ability to command both Electrical Engineering and Celtic Studies.  He was renowned for his desire to tuck everything into a useful definition – perhaps the hallmark of the scientist.  One must wonder – inevitably – how present-day Professors of Celtic and related subjects would manage if they moved into Electrical Engineering.  I suspect that ‘blackouts’ would become rather regular events!


The use of ‘Celtic additives’ to supplement divinity and engineering, as well as philosophy (in the case of MacKinnon and MacBain), and to produce the first Celtic scholars of the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, is a clear indication that Scotland had not yet begun to produce its own indigenous Celtic academics, trained within the Scottish universities.  The arrival of the German, Kuno Meyer, in Glasgow in 1903, in succession to Magnus MacLean, was still another sign of the same basic lack, but it was a powerful acknowledgement of the ‘wise men in the east’, so to speak.   The world was changing slowly, and Glasgow has the distinction of having appointed the first-ever, purpose-built, home-grown Celtic scholar to hold a position in Scotland.  This was the Rev. Dr George Henderson, who deserves special attention for that reason.   Henderson was a native of Kiltarlity, Inverness-shire, and he became a pupil of Alexander MacBain, the great Celtic scholar, who was Headmaster of Raining’s School.  From Inverness, Henderson proceeded to the University of Edinburgh, where he undertook classes in Celtic with Professor MacKinnon, and gained distinction.  In recognition of the pre-eminence of Celtic scholarship on the Continent, Henderson continued his studies at Berlin, Leipzig and Vienna.  At Vienna, he studied for the Ph.D. degree, and became the first Scottish Celtic scholar to gain this mark of distinction – bona fide, one might add!  (There were others who were reputed to have gained a similar degree, usually the German Dr.Phil., but whose credentials are rather fictitious!)   Henderson also studied at Oxford, and gained the B.Litt. degree with the great Celtic scholar and Principal of Jesus College, Professor Sir John Rhys.[17] 


Henderson, then, had done all the right things in contemporary scholarly formation.  He was ‘state-of-the-art’ in his own eyes, and, at the outset of his career, carried with him a certain air of superiority – a sense of being a cut above the older scholarly ‘gang’ –  which reveals itself at unguarded moments in his surviving papers.   It also shows itself in a self-conscious pedantry and a tangential approach to scholarship, which compelled him to ‘show off’ from time to time.  Even Donald MacKinnon, in a fine obituary on his former pupil, who died prematurely in 1912, passed a rather severe judgement on his ponderous inclinations:


The volumes [published by Henderson] from first to last bear evidence on every page of unwearied industry, wide research and much learning.  And yet, from one’s estimate of the knowledge and capacity of the author, one cannot help the feeling that the best of them might have been better.  The impression remains that Henderson’s judgement and sense of perspective in small things as in great were apt to be dulled by the burden of his learning.[18]


MacKinnon then demonstrates his point with particular reference to Henderson’s curious scholarly hotch-potch, Leabhar nan Gleann: Book of the Glens (1898), with its gathering of ‘foreign and old-world neighbours’ and tendentious over-writing.   Henderson may have felt that he had to prove himself somehow, as the first of the new Scottish breed of home-made Celtic scholars.  He certainly had a clear sense of his calling as a Scottish Celtic and Gaelic scholar, and his profile anticipates that of the Celtic scholar whom we would recognise in Scotland today.   At one end of his spectrum of productivity, we find a rather heavy-handed attempt at philology and historical linguistics, rooted in respect for German scholars such as Heinrich Zimmer; in the middle we find an important book on the impact of the Norse on Gaelic Scotland, which combines an interest in philology with an historical and cultural application close to home; and, at the other end of the spectrum, we find a passionate, though at times diffuse, concern for the gathering of Gaelic folklore, song and poetry.  Henderson’s work on the recovery of the verse of Neil Morison, the Pabbay Bard, is worthy of considerable respect, as is his edition of the religious verse of John Morison, the Harris blacksmith.  These were both labours published in the 1890s. The ground seems firm in these collections, at least as far as the texts are concerned.  Speculation is limited to rather flamboyant and tendentious introductions, which (as MacKinnon was evidently aware) wander off into all sorts of bypaths.  


Henderson was willing to help others with their editorial labours, and appears to have had more patience in that sphere than either MacBain or MacKinnon.  His greatest contribution as a supportive adviser and sub-editor lay in his work on the first two volumes of Gaelic prayers, charms and incantations known as Carmina Gadelica, edited by Alexander Carmichael, and published in 1900.  Henderson worked behind the scenes, and made a particular contribution to the Notes with which the editions were furnished.  He corrected Carmichael where that was possible, and was even responsible for the final title of the collection, Carmina Gadelica, as we know it today.  The relationship between Carmichael and Henderson was remarkably close, and it would seem that matters of the heart may have been involved somewhere along the line, particularly because of Carmichael’s desire to find an appropriate husband for his daughter, Ella, who was later to marry Professor William John Watson.   When Henderson married another lady after the publication of the first two volumes of Carmina Gadelica, the Carmichaels did not approve, and their relationship with Henderson went cold.  It is telling that Carmichael appears to have lost momentum thereafter; his attempts at creating volumes 3 and 4 of Carmina Gadelica can be seen among his surviving papers, but he was unable to bring them to fruition.[19]  There was no guiding hand, no scholarly adviser to rival Henderson, until the emergence of Alexander Carmichael’s grandson, Professor James Carmichael Watson, who passed the baton to Angus and William Matheson.   In this way, Glasgow came to have a very close connection with that highly controversial compendium.  Ironically, Glasgow was to contribute, in the 1970s, to the final collapse of Alexander Carmichael as the iconic collector of Gaelic folklore.[20]


Henderson’s close alliance with Carmichael was commented on by the Rev. Kenneth MacLeod, a native of Eigg, and nowadays perhaps best known for his rather romantic volume, The Road to the Isles.   MacLeod, who thought that Carmichael and Henderson were like father and son, went on to state:


A thaobh Deòrsa MacEanraig, bha dà dhuine a’ fantainn anns an aon cholainn – fear dhiubh ’na bhàrd is am fear eile ’na sgoilear – agus theirteadh corr uair gu robh an dàrna h-aon a’ milleadh an aoin eile. Is ann a theirinn fhèin gu robh an dàrna h-aon a’ cuideachadh an aoin eile.  Ach biodh sin mar a dh’fhaodas e, is e Gàidheal urramach a bh’ ann Deòrsa MacEanraig – uasal ’na dhòigh, geur ’na inntinn, agus (a dh’aindeoin a chuid fòghlaim) cho iriosal ri leanabh beag.[21]


With regard to George Henderson, there were two people living inside the one body – one of them a poet and the other a scholar – and it would be said from time to time that the one spoilt the other.  I myself would say that the one assisted the other. But be that as it may, George Henderson was an honourable Gael – noble in his manner, sharp in his mind, and (in spite of how educated he was) as unassuming as a little child.


George Henderson came into the Kelly MacCallum Lectureship in 1906, having spent five years as a Church of Scotland minister in Edrachillis, in the west of Sutherland.  Henderson represented the opposite pattern to that of the earlier Scottish pioneers of Celtic Studies, who were ministers first, and scholars second, and he was no doubt biding his time until an appropriate scholarly opportunity appeared.  Tragically, he was not destined for a long tenure in academic office.  He died in 1912, at the early age of forty-seven.  Professor MacKinnon tells us, poignantly, that ‘the [Kelly MacCallum] Lecureship was placed upon a permanent footing only a few months before the distinguished occupant passed away’.[22]  One wonders what might have happened had George Henderson lived a full life, so to speak.  We can see him working his way through the various ‘rites of passage’ that any scholar has to negotiate; we observe his earlier, youthful pomposity shading into gracious maturity; and, then, when he was about to enter what could have been his fullest flowering, and his most influential years, he was cut off.   Back in the 1970s, when I myself was beginning my career in Glasgow, I used to go quietly into the University Library, and find my way to the Henderson Collection.  There I would take out boxes of clippings and cuttings, notes and jottings, all intended for the new edition of Nicolson’s Gaelic Proverbs that George Henderson was in the throes of producing.  To me then, there was something hauntingly sad about seeing so much interesting material lying unused and fragmented, as if the pieces of life’s jigsaw had not come together for the brilliant George who had collected them, despite his most earnest endeavours.


George Henderson’s passing was a serious matter for Glasgow.  Where now?  This time Glasgow appointed another minister of the Church of Scotland, George Calder, to its Celtic lectureship.   Calder, a native of Kincardineshire, had trained at Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and the School of Irish Learning in Dublin, and had been parish minister of Strathfillan before his appointment.[23]  It is very interesting to note that the issue of The Celtic Review which carried Professor MacKinnon’s obituary of George Henderson also contained a devastating review of George Calder’s publication, The Gaelic Songs of Duncan MacIntyre, which had just been published by John Grant, Edinburgh.  The reviewer was none other than a certain W. J. Watson, who would become Professor of Celtic at Edinburgh in succession to Donald MacKinnon in 1914.  Having listed a small proportion of Calder’s mistakes and misconceptions in the course of his edition, Watson rounded off with a final torpedo:


The above examples, all, with one exception, taken from two poems, tell their own tale.  The book is strewn with such.  To pursue the subject further would only be wearisome.  In respect of Gaelic scholarship, Mr Calder’s work can only be characterised as profoundly disappointing.   It is one thing to know about Gaelic; it is another thing, and a very different thing, to know Gaelic.  To have to write thus of the work of a highly-placed professed Gaelic scholar is no gracious task.  But protest is necessary, unless, indeed, we are willing to justify the dictum of Dr. Samuel Johnson, that the Gaelic-speaking people are ‘content, as they conceived grossly, to be grossly understood.’[24]


It was not a good beginning for Calder’s academic incumbency, and particularly unfortunate in terms of relations between Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Relations between Watson and Calder were not particularly sweet, and one can but wonder why Glasgow had not, in fact, appointed Watson, rather than Calder, in 1912, and gone the whole hog by creating a Chair for him.  Presumably it was only a matter of job status that stopped Watson.  Watson, who was undoubtedly the outstanding star in the Celtic firmament of Europe at that time, was Rector of the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and that was a higher calling than the humble Kelly MacCallum Lectureship at Glasgow.  In due time, however, with the death of MacKinnon in his native Colonsay, and the consequent vacancy at Edinburgh, Watson found the place and status that suited him best, and he contributed brilliantly to the creation of Celtic Studies in Scotland.  In many respects, Watson was the ‘second edition’ of Alexander MacBain, developing those areas of scholarship that MacBain had pioneered.[25]  Watson had First Class degrees in Classics of Aberdeen and Oxford, a fine knowledge of Gaelic, and a superb brain for philology.  His monumentally splendid work, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, will stand for all time as a high-water mark in Scottish scholarship, to say nothing of his pioneering elucidation of the bardic verse in the Book of the Dean of Lismore.


George Calder did not achieve anything of Watson’s pre-eminence, although he produced important editions of classical Gaelic texts – published by the finest of academic presses, including Cambridge.  He continued his rather eccentric approach to the editing of modern Scottish Gaelic texts with his 1937 edition of the songs of the eighteenth-century Gaelic poet, William Ross, which is distinguished for its tangential scholarship and bizarre, versified translations.  Calder’s teaching style was also known to be somewhat off-putting.  One of his students in the late 1920s was a young man who was set to become one of Scotland’s most prolific Gaelic prose writers, the Rev. Thomas Moffat Murchison (1907-84).  In his autobiography, Mo Là Gu Seo (‘My Day Until Now’), written in 1971, and soon to be published, Murchison gives us a revealing glimpse of Celtic Studies in Glasgow in Calder’s day:


B’ e an t-Ollamh Seòras Calder a bha a’ teagasg clas nan cànainean Ceilteach.  Bha e glè fhiosrach anns an t-seann chànain Eireannaich, ach cha robh mòran eòlais aige air Gàidhlig an là an-diugh.  Gun teagamh, chuir e a-mach leabhar-gràmair Gàidhlig a tha feumail ann am pàirt ach glè mhì-fheumail ann an dòighean eile.  Cha d’fhuair mi de bhuannachd anns a’ chlas aigesan agus a bha dùil agam.  Dh’fhosgladh dhomh ionmhasan litreachas na Beurla agus Laidinn, thugadh dhomh sealladh farsaing air linntean eachdraidh na Roinn Eòrpa, agus tomhas de thuigse air Mathematics os cionn Mathematics na h-àrd-sgoile, ach dh’fhàg mi an clas Ceilteach le glè bheag eòlais thar na fhuair mi anns an àrd-sgoil air mòrachd agus luach litreachas agus beul-aithris na Gàidhlig.[26]


It was Dr George Calder who taught the Celtic languages class.  He was very knowledgeable in the old Irish language, but be did not have much knowledge of contemporary Gaelic.  Undoubtedly, he published a Gaelic grammar that is useful in part, but quite useless in other ways.  I did not get as much benefit in his class as I had expected.  The riches of English and Latin literature were opened to me, I was given a broad perspective of the centuries of European history, and a measure of understanding of Mathematics beyond the Mathematics of the high school, but I left the Celtic class with very little knowledge beyond what I had received in the high school with regard to the majesty and value of Gaelic literature and folklore.


It says much that Murchison, who was a fine Hebrew scholar and prizeman in that subject, with a great brain for theology as well as for Gaelic writing, found nothing to inspire him in Calder’s classes.  Calder’s appointment, as well as Murchison’s unprofitable attendance at his classes, showed how much depended on a single lecturer in those days.   Students were quite simply stuck with what he had to offer, however idiosyncratic that might be – and Calder’s eccentricities became part of Gaelic tradition in their own way – ‘the gentle and learned Calder’, as Sir Hector Hetherington, former Principal of Glasgow University, called him.[27]   The concept of the lectureship in Celtic had been secured at Glasgow, but not the concept of the department, with its several lecturers, nor yet the concept of the Chair of Celtic, which had brought such distinction to Edinburgh.  For stimulation and enjoyment in Gaelic, Tom Murchison went to the Ossianic Society, where he had good fun and rubbed shoulders with such famous ministers as the Rev. Kenneth MacLeod, a ‘mystic Mac’ of Alexander Carmichael’s cast of mind, who was in every respect the polar opposite of the dry-as-dust Rev. George Calder.[28]


George Calder continued in office until his retirement in 1935.   As Calder’s reign of profoundly medieval pedagogy came to an end, Edinburgh was set to take its revenge on its Glasgow rival’s seeming obscurantism.   This came in 1936 in the appointment to the lectureship of the energetic and brilliant scholar, James Carmichael Watson, son of Professor William J. Watson and Ella Carmichael, daughter of Alexander Carmichael.  The young Watson was the second home-grown Scottish scholar of Celtic to arrive in Glasgow.  Trained in Celtic by his father at Edinburgh, he studied subsequently at Bonn and Dublin.[29]  As soon as Watson arrived, Glasgow’s Celtic prospects brightened.   These are well summarised by May Margaret MacMillan, in the issue of Ossian which celebrated Professor Matheson’s appointment to the Chair of Celtic in 1956, twenty years later.  This is what Miss MacMillan wrote, when reviewing the history of the Ossianic Club of the University:


The year 1936 marked a special occasion in the Club’s history when Mr James Carmichael Watson, then lecturer in Celtic in Glasgow University, made an impassioned appeal for a Chair of Celtic supported by a Lectureship in Scottish Gaelic and European Philology.  Many who were present on that occasion must have thought how Mr. Watson himself would have graced such a Chair, bringing it to the highest standards of scholarship and devotion to learning which were his by family tradition, and the integrity and singleness of purpose which were among his own many outstanding qualities.  But it was not to be, and the death on active service of James Watson was an irreparable loss.[30]


James Carmichael Watson was a hard-working man, who packed a great deal into his short life, and was ready to make his views known on matters pertaining to a Chair of Celtic at Glasgow, which he himself would indeed have occupied with brilliance.  Like his father, he had a great gift for producing crystal-clear editions of modern and medieval Gaelic literature, which opened the door to understanding for those who genuinely sought enlightenment.  Indeed, from my own experience, I would go as far as to say that James Carmichael Watson was the originator of the ‘user-friendly’ (as distinct from the standard ‘user-hostile’) edition that modern students so urgently needed in the post-Calder era, and still need today.  I will always remember my very positive encounter with James Carmichael Watson’s 1941 edition of Mesca Ulad (‘The Drunkenness of the Ulstermen’) when I was concluding my Junior Honours year in Glasgow.  It was like going into a room in which all the lights had been switched on, rather than unexpectedly switched off – those Celtic Professors posing as Electrical Engineers again! – as was so often the case with such editions, especially those in the Medieval and Modern Irish Series, which seemed to do all in their (non-electrifying) power to discourage and confuse the students. 


From Glasgow, the young Watson moved back to Edinburgh in 1938 to take the Chair of Celtic in succession to his father, William John Watson, but, tragically, he joined the Royal Navy as a volunteer in 1941, and was killed in action in 1942.[31]   With the untimely death of James Carmichael Watson – much loved by his many friends and respected widely for his immense intelligence – the academic branch of the Watson dynasty, which had held undisputed sway in Scotland for most of the twentieth century, was destined to be snuffed out.  James Carmichael Watson’s quick departure for Edinburgh, his surprising enlistment in the Royal Navy, and his death in naval service, still leave some intriguing questions hanging in the air.[32]


The Watsons’ influence, however, remained potent, and their training of scholarly young Gaels from the Highlands and Islands ensured the future, and indeed the creation, of Glasgow’s modern Department of Celtic.   It could well be said that one of the most salient achievements of the Watsons was that they stimulated the interest of Gaelic speakers, of great academic potential, in their own language and its literature in a way that no previous university teachers had done. They reversed the trend towards the off-putting pedantry associated with George Calder and his kind, which had so disappointed T.M. Murchison.  In the process, they produced scholars.  A steady flow of highly gifted, native-speaking Gaels went to Edinburgh, and came under the sway of the Watsons, for whom they had the highest possible regard.  One such was Angus Matheson, born in Borve, Harris, and who, having graduated with First Class Honours at Edinburgh, took the Celtic road to the continent, and arrived in Glasgow in 1938, in succession to Watson.[33]  As Matheson arrived, Glasgow had begun to attract large classes of students, doubtless because of the young Watson’s pre-eminence, and productive connections were being made with the Highland hinterland.  Life was beginning to look good – but by 1939 Britain was at war once more with Germany.  Soon the young Angus Matheson was using his brain to crack enemy codes at Bletchley Park, like many other scholars of his day.  The reason for this was that, because of his training at Bonn with Rudolf Thurneysen, he had a fine command of German.  Temporary war-time cover was provided by Alexander Nicholson, lecturer at Jordanhill College, and another strong supporter of the case for a Chair of Celtic at Glasgow.


When the Second World War was over, the momentum within what was now a fledgling department was resumed.  The 1950s brought a new sense of purpose, and gifted graduates from Aberdeen, often with Joint Honours degrees – among them Derick Thomson and Donald Macaulay – were emerging.  A lectureship in Welsh was created in Glasgow, and the position was held with distinction by Derick Thomson, and then by a Welshman, Eurys Rowlands.[34] 


The campaign for a Chair of Celtic was renewed in the post-war period, and promoted purposefully in the 1950s, thanks to the vigour of the Ossianic Club, which mounted appeals for funding to endow a Chair.  Then, eventually, in May 1955 the last hurdle was in sight – a mere £12,500 was needed, and the Chair could become a reality.   By the end of 1956, the money was in hand, and Professor Angus Matheson was, appropriately, enthroned in the Chair, to the great rejoicing of his fellow Gaels.[35] With Angus Matheson as Professor of Celtic and Head of Department, Glasgow began to lay a strong foundation for a vibrant unit, seen so evidently in the 1960s and 1970s.  Professor Matheson, with his own unique ways, witty sayings, and teaching patterns which have become the stuff of legend, in effect re-founded Celtic Studies in Scotland in what might be best termed a ‘vernacular-friendly’ way, which gave priority to the Scottish Gaelic language itself as a vehicle for creativity in the present and the future, as well as in the past.


In conclusion, it would seem appropriate to do two things: first, to place Glasgow’s Chair of Celtic in its wider context, and then to review, very briefly, patterns of Glasgow scholarship.   The first Chair of Celtic in Scotland was established at Edinburgh in 1882, after a long campaign, which began in London as far back as the 1780s.   It took, in round terms, a century to arrive at the desired goal, with various special efforts along the way.  Campaigning in Scotland was undertaken by the redoubtable Professor John Stuart Blackie, and the fight was conducted most effectively during the 1870s, when the Highland land agitation was grabbing the headlines.[36]  The circumstances of the Glasgow Chair were somewhat different.  The concept of having a Chair at Glasgow was less closely connected to wider politics, and was based on a growing awareness of the centrality of Glasgow to the West Highlands.  As we have noted, the desirability of a Chair at Glasgow was mooted initially by Kuno Meyer in the early twentieth century, but it took about half a century to achieve the reality.  The campaign proper began in 1936, with the arrival of James Carmichael Watson in Glasgow, and it concluded successfully in 1956.  As was the case in Edinburgh, the crucial consideration was to gather sufficient funds to establish the Chair with an endowment to provide the Professor’s salary, and this was achieved through the goodwill and energy of Glasgow graduates who were members of the Ossianic Club.   Glasgow at that time was an exciting place for Gaels, with a sense of renewal and revival after the Second World War, and with new developments in Gaelic literature and broadcasting.   However, there also seemed to be some menacing threats on the horizon, which added some urgency to the appointment, as one contributor to the magazine Ossian stated:


The establishment of a rocket range on the island of South Uist, one of the last and strongest bastions of the language, is a menace of the first magnitude, and we may very soon learn to our cost that we cannot at the one and same time serve the God of Gaelic culture and the Mammon of English imperialism.  No doubt there will be Chairs of Celtic when Gaelic is dead and gone…[37]


No doubt, indeed.  Nevertheless, it can be said equally clearly that the founding of Chairs of Celtic in Scotland’s universities – the last to date at Aberdeen in 1992, a mere century (plus a decade, for good measure) after the creation of Edinburgh’s Chair – has been a means of enhancing the profile of the Gaelic language, and of protecting its future.


What, then, of Glasgow’s contribution to Celtic scholarship in the period under review?  Two matters strike one immediately.  The first is that Glasgow’s Celtic scholars were remarkably industrious and prolific, particularly in the editing of important medieval Gaelic texts.  From the time of Alexander Cameron, this pattern was evident, but it was sustained most conspicuously by the scholarly contributions of Kuno Meyer, George Henderson and George Calder.  Both Henderson and Calder edited texts for the prestigious Irish Texts Society series, and Calder’s 1922 edition of Togail na Tebe (‘The Destruction of Thebes’) was published by Cambridge University Press, no less.  James Carmichael Watson was likewise a fine editor, perhaps the best of them all, contributing (in 1941) Mesca Ulad to the Medieval and Modern Irish series published by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.  The second point that strikes one, therefore, is the way in which Glasgow interacted with Ireland, and specifically with Dublin, from Kuno Meyer’s time.  Angus Matheson’s scholarship maintained Glasgow’s close link with Ireland, seen most evidently in his succession of articles in the Irish scholarly journal, Eigse.  Edinburgh’s output, on the other hand, was more sharply focused and less varied overall, because it was dominated for most of this period by the long reigns of MacKinnon and Watson, and by long-haul editing jobs on such manuscripts as the Book of the Dean of Lismore.  Edinburgh’s scholars also tended to publish their material in ‘east-coast’ journals, namely The Celtic Review (which only briefly outlived MacKinnon) and Scottish Gaelic Studies, established at Aberdeen in 1926 by John MacDonald.  Glasgow thus tended to look more directly to Ireland – and Germany – than did either Aberdeen or Edinburgh, and its scholarly output reflected both its Irish vista and its German scholarly roots. 


Angus Matheson’s scholarly profile bears this out to the full, as does the brief presence in Glasgow of the notable Irish scholar, David Greene, as an assistant lecturer in 1938.  It is, however, very noticeable also that Angus Matheson began to move the balance of scholarly concern, so to speak, away from medieval Gaelic texts, to a much more specific engagement with Scottish Gaelic literature, language and history, so evident in his major works on More West Highland Tales and on Carmina Gadelica, to say nothing of his many articles on subjects as wide-ranging as Gaelic proverbs and the Appin Murder.  His successor, Professor Derick Thomson, developed this Scottish Gaelic pattern strongly, and with distinction, from 1963 onwards.  Through Thomson, the Aberdeen model of training for aspiring Celtic scholars – shown in the profile of Professor John Fraser, but supremely in that of John MacDonald, who graduated from Aberdeen and then studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge – also began to exert a potent influence in Glasgow.[38]    


Chairs of Celtic, when founded in Scotland, reflect the aspirations of the community that they serve, and they also appear at particular moments when people feel strongly that it is appropriate to act purposefully on behalf of Gaelic.  Their fundamental aim is to enhance not only Celtic scholarship, but also the prestige of Gaelic, in the broader context of the other Celtic languages. That is certainly true of the Chair of Celtic founded at Glasgow in 1956, which was first occupied with distinction by Professor Angus Matheson.  Today we salute his memory, and celebrate his achievement.   We must also note finally that, in creating the Chairs at Edinburgh and Glasgow, the foundational initiative assuredly did not lie with the university authorities, who cannot be described as overwhelmingly enthusiastic in their support of Celtic or Gaelic Chairs over the last century and a half.  Rather, it lay with the Gaelic people themselves, and especially with those who had migrated to London and to Scotland’s cities. They recognised the pre-eminent value of such Chairs much more readily than the host institutions.


Today, the University of Glasgow is home to what is, without question, Scotland’s most vibrant Department of Celtic.  The university has done exceptionally well to secure two Professors, of Celtic and Gaelic respectively, each distinguished in his own field, and supported by a most able departmental team.[39]  The recent history of the department has not been without its ups and downs, but the team has been able to ‘shoot the rapids’ of university life with remarkable skill, and with institutional support and goodwill at critical moments.  May they long continue to do so.  Professor Angus Matheson would be extremely proud of his successors.[40]



Donald E. Meek, FRHistS, FRSE, is a native of Tiree, and a graduate of the University of Glasgow (MA in Celtic Studies, 1971, Ph.D. 1982, D.Litt. 2011) and Emmanuel College, Cambridge (BA with Distinction in the Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic Tripos, 1973).  Following six years as Assistant Editor of the Historical Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic at Glasgow, he moved to the University of Edinburgh in 1979, where he became successively Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and Reader in Celtic.  He became the first (and so far the only) Professor of Celtic at the University of Aberdeen in 1993.  Returning to Edinburgh in 2002, he held the Chair of Scottish and Gaelic Studies until his retirement in September 2008. To date, he is the only Scot to have held two such Chairs in succession.  He has written numerous books and a multitude of articles on many different aspects of Gaelic language, literature and history, with a special focus on the nineteenth century.  He has also been very active in Gaelic language politics.  In retirement, he is developing what he calls his ‘real interests’.  These lie in maritime matters, including history, art, photography and boat-building.

[1] Donald E. Meek, ‘The Corpus of Heroic Verse in the Book of the Dean of Lismore’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Glasgow, 1982.
[2] For a most important general overview of the founding and development of scholarship in the Celtic languages, see D. Ellis Evans, ‘The Heroic Age of Celtic Philology’, ZCP, Band 54, pp. 1-30.
[3] Angus Matheson, ‘The Department of Celtic in the University of Glasgow’, Ossian: Celtic Chair Inauguration and Ossianic Club Jubilee Celebration Edition (March, 1957), p. 24.
[4] Evans, ‘Heroic Age’, p. 21.
[5] Ibid., pp. 23-24.
[6] Seán Ó Lúing, Kuno Meyer 1858-1919: A Biography, (Geography Publications, Dublin, 1991).
[7] Ibid., p. 230.
[8] Evans, ‘Heroic Age’, p. 13.
[9] Matheson, ‘Department’, p. 23.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] The Celtic Review did not long survive Professor MacKinnon’s passing in 1914.
[13] Donald E. Meek, ‘“Beachdan Ura à Inbhir Nis/New Opinions from Inverness”: Alexander MacBain (1855-1907) and the foundation of Celtic Studies in Scotland’, Rhind Lecture (2000), Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 131 (2001), pp. 22-39.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Reliquiae Celticae: Texts, Papers and Studies in Celtic Literature and Philology left by the Late Rev. Alexander Cameron, LL.D., ed. Alexander MacBain and John Kennedy, 2 vols (Inverness, 1892-1894).
[16] Matheson, ‘Department’, pp. 23-24.
[17] Ibid., p. 24.
[18] The Celtic Review, VIII (January 1913), p. 247.
[19] Donald E. Meek, ‘Alexander Carmichael and “Celtic Christianity”’, in The Life and Legacy of Alexander Carmichael, ed. Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart, pp. 82-95 (Islands Book Trust, Port of Ness, 2008).
[20] Donald E. Meek, ‘Faking the “True Gael”?  Carmina Gadelica and the Beginning of Modern Gaelic Scholarship’, Aiste, 1 (2007), pp. 76-106.
[21] Sgrìobhaidhean Choinnich MhicLeòid: The Gaelic Prose of Kenneth MacLeod, ed. Thomas M. Murchison (Scottish Gaelic Texts Society, Edinburgh, 1988), pp. 60-61.
[22] Celtic Review, VII, p. 246.
[23] Matheson, ‘Department’, pp. 24-25.
[24] Celtic Review, VII, p. 261.
[25] Meek, ‘MacBain’, p. 36.
[26] Mo Là Gu Seo, ed. Dòmhnall Eachann Meek (forthcoming).
[27] Hector Hetherington, ‘Foreword’, Ossian: Celtic Chair.
[28] Meek, ‘Faking the “True Gael”’, discusses MacLeod’s personality and attitudes.
[29] Matheson, ‘Department’, p. 25.
[30] May Margaret MacMillan, ‘The Ossianic Club (1907-1957), p. 18.
[31] Matheson, ‘Department’, p. 26.
[32] Of these, the most pressing remains simply, ‘Why?’.
[33] Farquhar Macintosh, ‘Professor Angus Matheson, M.A.’, Ossian: Celtic Chair, p. 16.
[34] Ibid., p. 26.
[35] William Hume, ‘The Success Story of the Celtic Chair Appeal’, ibid., pp. 19-20
[36] Janice Fairney, ‘Highlanders from Home: The Contribution of the Highland Society and the Gaelic Society of London to Gaelic Culture, 1778-1914’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2005, pp. 63-80.
[37] ‘Folklore and Gaelic’, Ossian: Celtic Chair, p. 27.  Those were the days of ‘Father Rocket’ (otherwise known as Father John Morrison) and vigorous anti-rocket range protest.  The writer of the piece would be interested to learn that, far from being ‘a menace of the first magnitude’, as originally perceived, the rocket range is now (2009) regarded as a major contributor to the local economy, and its proposed closure has been averted, following recent protests on its behalf.  God and Mammon seem to have been reconciled – fifty years later!
[38] Former Glasgow graduates who followed the ‘Cambridge way’ included the late Dr John W. M. Bannerman, Kenneth D. MacDonald and Donald E. Meek.  All proceeded to academic posts in Scotland.
[39] I had the privilege of being Glasgow’s External Assessor in both appointments in 2004.
[40] It was a very special honour for me, as a graduate of the Department of Celtic at the University of Glasgow, to have been invited to give the first Angus Matheson Memorial Lecture.  I wish to record my deep gratitude to the staff at the Department of Celtic, University of Glasgow, for their invitation,  as well as their outstanding courtesy and practical assistance on what was a very happy and memorable occasion, attended by Professor Matheson’s daughter, Mary Yardley, and his son, Murdoch Matheson, and their families.   Many friends, former students and present-day scholars were in the audience.  I am particularly grateful to Professors Clancy and Ó Maolalaigh for providing useful material, including a copy of Ossian (March 1957), which commemorated Professor Matheson’s appointment.  They were also extremely generous hosts.

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