Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Gaelic language studies: 'Non-Gaelic spelling systems of the Gaelic world'


Donald E. Meek


It is a great pleasure and a considerable honour for me to have been invited to give the Ned Maddrell lecture here in Douglas in the Isle of Man.   Both the name and the voice of Ned Maddrell have been well known to me since boyhood.  I was brought up in the Inner Hebridean island of Tiree, and for my community, as for many others, Gaelic radio broadcasting was an essential part of life.  It was through that medium that I became familiar with Ned Maddrell.  From time to time Ned would be interviewed by Fred – Fred MacAulay, the Senior Gaelic Producer of BBC Scotland.  For a few minutes I, and no doubt other Scottish Gaelic listeners, would be wrong-footed by the dialect – but, as I imply, my ear soon tuned in, and I was able to appreciate most of the interview.  ‘Ned and Fred’ had obviously gone through the Gaelic ‘dialect barrier’ with style and aplomb, and were perfectly at ease with one another’s dialects.   Of course, it was a phonological challenge to become accustomed to ‘Gàidhlig Eilein Mhanainn’, as we called it, but it was surmounted pretty easily – much more easily than the similar challenge with Irish dialects.  When I go to Ireland, it takes me several days of extensive and intensive exposure to contemporary spoken Irish to be reasonably comfortable, and also minimally communicative, in Irish.  Manx, by contrast, presented few problems at the spoken level.


The problem with Manx began at the written and printed level.  I remember well, in my mid-teens, buying teaching manuals of Manx, and making several gallant attempts at writing the language.   I would persevere for a while, and then lapse in my efforts.  In frustration, I used to wonder why on earth the Manx had chosen such a strange spelling-system, which was, to my mind at that stage, so totally out of step with the orthography that I knew for Scottish Gaelic, and also for Irish.  Later, in my studies at Glasgow University, I became familiar with the rather disparaging views of T.F.O’Rahilly, and I accepted broadly what I was taught, namely that the Manx were basically unforgivable deviants, who had  put themselves outside the Pale of good Gaelic orthographic manners by choosing such a rebarbative spelling-system, apparently based on English spelling conventions of a certain period.   Obviously, I had a clear view of what a Gaelic spelling-system was, and, as the Manx failed to conform to that system, they had somehow disenfranchised themselves from Gaelic citizenship.   They were orthographic pariahs!


By the end of my time at Glasgow University, however, I began to see things slightly differently.  One of the reasons for this was that I was becoming fascinated with the early sixteenth-century Gaelic manuscript, the Book of the Dean of Lismore, which was written in a ‘non-Gaelic spelling system’. It became, in due course, the subject of my research for my PhD, awarded by the University of Glasgow in 1982, and examined (I am proud to say) by the distinguished Manx scholar, Robert L. Thomson.  I will say more about the Book of the Dean of Lismore at a later stage of this lecture.


A more personal moment of truth came when, in the course of some research on Gaelic proverbial lore in 1971, my late father presented me – unexpectedly – with some notebooks containing a rich store of Tiree proverbs and proverbial sayings.  The notebooks had been hidden away in an outhouse, and it was only a ‘chance’ question (‘Has anyone gathered Tiree proverbs?’) that unearthed the treasure.  These proverbs had been collected by great-uncle, Charles MacDonald, who had been a shipwright, a fisherman and a merchant navy sailor in the course of a long and active life.   He had gathered proverbs locally before 1920, and had employed my father, then (in the 1920s) in his teens, as his scribe.  What struck me immediately was how curious the spelling-system was, and the number of ‘mistakes’ it contained, if measured by standard Scottish Gaelic conventions, as taught in school.   This was all the more surprising, as my father was, for most of his life, a meticulous Gaelic writer.  He was a Baptist minister who often wrote out his Gaelic sermons long-hand, before preaching them.  His many notebooks and drafts survive, and show that, in training for the ministry after 1930, he had also learned to write Gaelic strictly according to accepted conventions.  He had become a very precise practitioner of normal Gaelic spelling, and a stickler for grammatical accuracy to boot.   I found the ‘before and after’ scenarios quite fascinating.


As I looked at my father’s juvenile scribal efforts, it became clear that his early system was one which certainly had an awareness of  ‘proper’ Gaelic spelling, but which was ‘inaccurate’ in its representation of the definite article, possessive pronouns and particularly markers of phonological significance, such as preaspiration, palatalisation, diphthongisation and eclipsis – the ‘inaccuracy’ reflecting the local dialect, and thus accurate according to the ear. From time to time, the influence of English spelling conventions was apparent.  I would classify this as ‘demotic’ spelling – one which reflected a personalised approach, reaching out to convention, but compromising in various phonological areas.  A couple of examples will be useful.


Is goarid [goirid] meamhair an amadain  (‘Short is the memory of the fool’)

Is minig a thuairt [thuit] an t-each ceathar casasnach (‘Often has the four-footed horse fallen’)

Is fearr a bhi mall na bhi tuirich [tuilleadh] is clis (‘Better to be slow than to be too precipitate’)


In the case of goarid and thuairt, the young scribe is attempting to reproduce the strong palatalisation which is a feature of the Gaelic dialect of Tiree.  The form thuairt is particularly interesting, in that it shows that scribe has tried to mark strong palatalisation of the final consonant group by thinking of the English word air, and thus producing a hybrid spelling.   In the case of tuirich, the scribe represents very fairly the local pronunciation of the standard Gaelic form tuilleadh, which in Tiree is so strongly palatalised in its medial and final consonants that these are transformed into other phonemes.  In the case of casasnach, the spirant ‘s’ is so strong that it is projected on to another, later consonant.


When I found this remarkable home-produced document, it resonated with what I had begun to perceive in the Book of the Dean of Lismore, and the manner in which the scribes of that book had reproduced their own dialect as they recorded classical Gaelic verse – recording it in a spelling-system based not on mainstream Gaelic conventions, but on Middle and Early Modern Scots.   More generally, however, I began to ‘join the dots’, and it became at least a theory in my head that, since pretty well 1500, and probably long before, there had been a broadly ‘mainstream’ and ‘school-taught’ form of Gaelic spelling, and another, or others, which could be partly linked to the mainstream, but which could deviate from it to various degrees – some to quite astonishing degrees, to the extent of being totally different and self-contained, and others more noticeably linked to the mainstream, but diverging at points of dialectical significance.


This, then, became my working theory.  The Gaelic world, and particularly Eastern Gaelic dialects, which included Scottish Gaelic and Manx, had never been orthographically stable – or, to put things a little less dramatically, they were not stable until a determining hand took hold of spelling practice, and said ‘This is the way; walk ye in it’.  There was a conventional core somewhere, usually protected by, and known to, a scholarly elite, but outside that core lay a great deal of variation.  Sometimes the ‘variation’ became the core of another system, and the conventional, elite-protected form of spelling became ‘deviant’.  This is what, I think, happened in the case of Manx, and perhaps even what happened in Gaelic Scotland.  It depended to some extent on whose hand was on the lever, and what power that hand had, relative to politics, religion and other key matters, such as formal education.  Over many years I have had no reason to jettison this theory.


Let me now draw a couple of comparisons between Scottish Gaelic and Manx, relative to who or what determines a ‘core’ spelling system. 


Top of the list comes the Christian religion.  Instruction in the basic principles of religious knowledge was a most important factor in determining what became the accepted orthographic systems in both Man and Gaelic Scotland.  In Scotland just before the Reformation, there were clearly at least two distinct Gaelic spelling systems in operation – that of the Dean of Lismore and his circle, and that of the classically trained Gaelic scribes.  In guaranteeing the ‘fixing’ of Gaelic scribal conventions as the norm, we surely owe everything to John Carswell's translation of Knox's Book of Common Order.  Appearing as Foirm na nUrrnuidheadh in 1567, Carswell's translation employed the orthography of Classical Common Gaelic, and it had the vital distinction of being the first printed book to be published in Irish or Scottish Gaelic.  Carswell was evidently trained at a bardic school, and his book   guaranteeed that, whatever happened in manuscript or in ‘demotic’ scribal systems, the printed orthography of present day Scottish Gaelic would be based ultimately on that of Classical Common Gaelic.  Had the scribes of the Book of the Dean of Lismore beaten Carswell to the printing-press, we in Gaelic Scotland might well have been writing our Gaelic in a manner not at all dissimilar to your system in Man.


The power of religious instruction in directing the orthographic development of a language is paralleled, though not precisely, and in the opposite direction, in the instance of Manx. Bishop Phillips' translation of the English Prayer Book into Manx, completed c. 1610, adopted an orthography based on that of English.  Although this translation was not, in fact, available in print until the nineteenth century, it evidently set a trend, since the first Manx printed book, a bilingual version of Bishop Wilson's Principles and Duties of Christianity, published in 1707, also adopted an orthography based on English.  While the orthography employed in the translation of Wilson's Principles differed from that of Phillips, and from that of subsequent Manx works, the distinctive nature of Manx orthography was thereby confirmed.  Religious instruction therefore ‘fixed’ the spelling-systems of both Manx and Scottish Gaelic, but ‘fixed’ them in different ways.  What is absolutely fascinating is that Gaelic Scotland was home to both of these ‘ways’ on the eve of the Reformation, and that the ‘official’ balance might have moved one way or the other.  The Reformation settled what was to be the ‘official’ orthographic system.


But what happened at the ‘unofficial’ level?   The balance in Scottish Gaelic did continue to move ‘unofficially’, depending on the scribe, and it did so right down to the early twentieth century, if not later.   Non-Gaelic spelling-systems have appeared in Scottish Gaelic manuscripts long after the Book of the Dean of Lismore.   These include pre-eminently the Fernaig Manuscript of the late seventeenth century, which has not yet been edited or assessed as it ought to be.   Here the spelling-system is based on English.   I am aware of an eighteenth-century specimen of ‘demotic’ Scottish Gaelic spelling, and there may also be examples in the nineteenth century.


A key question which has to be faced at this point is, of course, ‘What is a Gaelic spelling-system?’   The answer, superficially, is easy.  It is the system hallowed by the practice and favour of the majority, and also by historical ancestry as the system that has been in use since writing in Gaelic (of any kind) began.  What it plainly is not, however, is the system that is sanctioned by ‘officialdom’, since this can vary.   Closer reflection on the evidence may also lead us to the conclusion that there is no truly Gaelic spelling-system.  What we at the Scottish and Irish ends of the continuum now recognise as ‘the Gaelic spelling-system’ derives from the Christian Latin tradition of these islands, honed and modified by the bardic schools, and modified again as the vernacular language gained the upper hand over the classical language and its literary conventions.   Here again we encounter the ‘determining hand’.   There may be an accepted ‘Gaelic system’, sanctioned by time and by authority, but that does not necessarily make it ‘Gaelic’, one way or the other.  


In relation to Manx, my point is important.  If we soften the edges of what is, or is not, a ‘Gaelic spelling-system’, we may avoid the need to place Manx within the ‘English league of nations’, so to speak, rather than the ‘Gaelic league of nations’.  Again, if we recognise the variations, as well as the alternative systems of spelling, which existed in Gaelic Scotland as late as the twentieth century, Manx may become less of a ‘Cinderella’ and more of a natural Gael.


The case can be strengthened still further by looking at parallel developments in the literary as well as the linguistic histories of Scottish Gaelic and Manx, and most notably the manner in which both forms of Gaelic have been deeply influenced by the translation from English of Protestant religious texts.   We may even consider a project which would compare, in some detail, the orthographic system of the Book of the Dean of Lismore and that of Manx. 


It will soon become apparent, I am sure, that both Man and Gaelic Scotland were responding, in different but comparable ways, to the challenge of living alongside ‘bossy linguistic neighbours’, namely English in the case of Man, and Scots in the case of Gaelic.    They were responding to pressures, religious, political, social and literary.



Let me therefore turn to consider the Book of the Dean of Lismore, and some of the arguments that I first advanced back in the 1980s.  These summarise what I have said in print elsewhere.  


The greatest difference between the Book of the Dean and most other manuscripts containing Gaelic material lies in its orthography. The basis of the orthography in the Book of the Dean has long been recognised to be that of Middle Scots, the term usually applied to the stage in the development of Scots - the vernacular language of the Scottish Lowlands - which had been attained by c. 1400, and which persisted until c. 1560.   The scribes were evidently not ignorant of normal Gaelic orthography, since characteristics of that orthography are fossilised in certain of their spellings, and entire words occasionally appear in Gaelic form, where it would have been possible for the scribes to produce alternative spellings more in line with the basic patterns of their own method.


The degree of scribal commitment to the Scots-based system is all the more striking when one considers that the manuscript is probably the work of more than one scribe,  that it was compiled over a long period, and that James MacGregor, whose name it bears, must have encountered practitioners of "traditional" Gaelic orthography.  The question of why the scribes utilised this orthography must be asked, since it is integral to our understanding of the manuscript.


Reasons for employing the type of orthography found in the Book of the Dean are suggested by a consideration of the linguistic situation in Scotland and the relative status of the country's two main languages in the period in which the manuscript was compiled.  Gaelic was regressing from the Lowlands, and coming to be identified with Ireland, while Scots was gaining status.  "Inglis", a form of the Northern dialect of Anglo-Saxon, had come to be known by 1494 by the more familiar name of "Scottis".  At the same time, Scottish Gaelic, which had once been known in official documents as "lingua Scotica", had come to be called "lingua Hibernica", or "Erse" in Scots.  From a Lowland viewpoint, therefore, Scottish Gaelic was to be identified with Ireland rather than with Scotland in the fifteenth century, and was mocked in certain Scottish literary circles. 


As far back as 1398, the Scottish parliament had endorsed the status of Inglis by authorising its use as an alternative to Latin when recording Parliamentary business, and it was thus of importance to Lowland central government.  In promoting the use of Scots within the Gaelic-speaking, Highland area, no influence was more potent than that of Lowland central government.  It used clans sympathetic to government policy to promote its interests. The increasing prestige of such clans was underpinned by documentation, principally charters and bonds of manrent.  The Campbells, in particular, were careful to consolidate their position in this way, and their expansion eastwards into Perthshire is witnessed by a substantial body of bonds, dating back to 1488 and continuing well into the sixteenth century.  These bonds were drawn up in Scots, and they are now preserved in the Black Book of Taymouth.


It is of great importance that these bonds contain evidence of the application to Gaelic of a system of spelling which is similar to that in the Book of the Dean.  This system is applied primarily to place-names, personal names and surnames, but it also includes Gaelic epithets.  The practice is maintained throughout this corpus, and it would appear to represent a deliberate policy by the notaries who drew up the documents.  In some respects the system found in the Black Book bonds resembles the orthographic treatment given to the effusions of the "bard owt of Irland" in the Buke of the Howlat of c. 1450.  In the case of the latter, however, the composer desires a comic effect, and he was not himself a Gaelic speaker.  The Black Book bonds, on the other hand, show the application of Scots orthography to Gaelic in official documents, and the notaries may have included men who were themselves Gaelic-speaking.


Equally impressive evidence for the pervasiveness of Scots orthography in a Gaelic context in this period is furnished by West Highland monumental sculpture.  Here too, Gaelic personal names and surnames have often been "Scotticised", with the occasional appearance of epithets in similar form.  Chronologically, the monuments suggest that the method was much in vogue after 1500, but that its beginnings may be traced well into the fifteenth century, if not the fourteenth.  While the Black Book bonds are pre-eminently concerned with Perthshire, stone monuments bearing "Scotticised" forms of Gaelic names occur in the Hebrides and mainland Argyll.  Indeed, the inscriptions most heavily influenced by the conventions of Scots orthography are found at Kilmichael Glassary in Mid Argyll.  The settlement of families of Lowland origins in the Gaelic-speaking area may well have been another important factor in encouraging the extension of Scots orthography to Gaelic.  In mainland Argyll, such settlement is not surprising, given the strong Lowland affiliations of the dominant clan, the Campbells.


The use of "Scotticised" forms of Gaelic names on monumental sculpture is a significant indication of the status of this orthographic trend.  Clearly, such a convention was acceptable to the nobility who commissioned the monuments.  Equally clearly, there existed men of letters who could supply inscriptions of this kind, and who were familiar with the basic principles of the type of orthography found in the Book of the Dean.  This, together with the evidence of the Black Book bonds, is sufficient to suggest that the orthography of the Book of the Dean was not devised by its scribes.  While they may have helped to develop this orthographic style, it is hard to believe that they invented it.


While the orthography of the Book of the Dean is closely related in form to the examples found in the Black Book bonds and on monumental sculpture, the scale on which it is employed in the manuscript is obviously much greater.  Apart from the Book of the Dean itself, we lack evidence which might indicate at what precise time such orthography began to be used extensively in Gaelic writing, or what stimulated such a departure.  Given the misfortunes which have so severely reduced the number of Gaelic manuscripts surviving from the Middle Ages, it would be foolish to emphasise the uniqueness of the Book of the Dean, since other compilations of a similar nature may once have existed.


In stimulating the emergence of a developed orthography based on Scots, such as one finds in the Book of the Dean, it seems likely that the question of linguistic status would have been all-important.


Let me now saw a word or two about the Fernaig Manuscript, which has not been discussed in anything like the same amount of detail as the Book of the Dean of Lismore.  We are in desperate need of a good critical edition of this manuscript.


Whereas the Book of the Dean of Lismore belongs to central Perthshire, the Fernaig Manuscript belongs to Wester Ross, a very different part of Gaelic Scotland.  It was compiled about 1688, by Duncan MacRae of Inverinate.  It consists of two notebooks, and is a very substantial work in itself.  The spelling-system is based on Scots or contemporary Scottish English, but, like the Book of the Dean of Lismore, it shows clearly that the scribe was familiar with the conventional spelling system of Scottish Gaelic, which shows through from time to time.


The Fernaig Manuscript contains a high proportion of religious verse, of a contemplative nature, which reflects much on the vanities of human existence.  It also has some Jacobite verse, and a couple of items translated from English.  Gaelic-English bilingualism is therefore more than apparent.


Some general points of comparison between BDL and FM:


(1) Both texts exist in manuscript and did not reach the printing-press.  It is possible to argue that they were personal manuscripts, and that the personal whim of the scribe  explains the deviant orthography.  But is this all a matter of coincidence?   Was there, in fact, a subliminal understanding that there were other ways of spelling Gaelic, besides that which had become the conventional system?


(2)  BDL belongs to a pre-Reformation Catholic context.  FM belongs to an Episcopal context – Protestant, but not Presbyterian.  Was the influence of Scots and English more powerful in non-Presbyterian contexts? 


Was Presbyterianism, with its strongly book-based biblical and catechetical tradition, more resistant to this kind of orthography?  Perhaps not, in certain contexts.  I am aware of charms which have been written in non-Gaelic orthography in the Kirk Session records of Rothesay, for example.


(3) Neither BDL nor FM is ignorant of what has become conventional Gaelic spelling.  There thus seems to have been an element of choice in each scribe’s decision to use a non-Gaelic spelling system.   The scribes had not simply forgotten how to spell Gaelic, nor were they outside the Gaelic system completely.


Finally, let me draw your attention to some significant examples of non-Gaelic spelling that have come to light in Scotland since I began my research on the Book of the Dean of Lismore.


(1) First, in the early 1980s, my former colleague at Edinburgh, Ronald Black, became a aware of a piece of Gaelic in the manuscript of the Murthly Hours, a thirteenth-century Book of Hours which has recently (2000) been edited splendidly by John Higgitt, and was once at Mount Stuart in the Isle of Bute.  Ronald Black has provided a most interesting edition of this item as Appendix 6 in Higgitt’s published volume.   This is apparently a charm which asks for God’s protective mercy.


The text in the manuscript is very faded and rubbed, but its basic meaning and its Scots-based orthographic system are not in doubt.  It is remarkable that Ronald Black has been able to restore it as effectively as he has.


(2) Second, in 1991, a poem of five quatrains in mixed Gaelic-Scots orthography,  composed by a native of north-east Scotland, James Grant, was discovered in a manuscript which was purchased by the National Library of Scotland from an English dealer.  It begins, ‘Labher rium a mhaiden óg’ (‘Speak to me, young maiden’), and it is on a flyleaf of a notebook of legal ‘practicks’ to be dated c. 1582-91.  As Ronald Black notes, ‘It is followed by a religious poem of four quatrains, Comhar me, (a) Mhic mo Dhe (‘Help me, O Son of my God’), written this time in classical Gaelic script and orthography.’


Once again, we have the curious mixing of Gaelic and Scots, showing itself most evidently in the application of a Scots-based spelling system to Gaelic.  Ronald Black comments further (1994):


‘It is a little premature to say that this further example is evidence of a trend, but what has been happening is clear. “Conventional” Gaelic manuscripts are readily identifiable as such, and it would seem therefore that all that are extant have come to light and been identified.  Gaelic items in non-Gaelic script and orthography, on the other hand, are less easily identified, and it can be expected with some confidence that discoveries will continue to be made as texts in unfamiliar languages are submitted to specialists for examination.  It may even be that we will one day have to revise our view of which tradition should be regarded as “conventional”.  This will depend on three developments: the appearance of still more “unconventional” manuscripts; the codification of the orthographic system of [the Book of the Dean of Lismore]; and the extent to which this spelling code is found to unlock the secrets of other manuscripts.  Even if no such developments were to take place, however, it deserves to be pointed out that the sheer bulk of material in [the Book of the Dean of Lismore], in comparison with the paucity of recognisably Scottish material in other medieval Gaelic sources, entitles the Dean’s orthography to recognition as the principal medium of transmission of the Scottish Gaelic literature of the Middle Ages.’


Having begun in the 1980s, as something of a lone voice, to argue the case for the mainstream Gaelic significance of the Book of the Dean of Lismore, and for the acceptability of its apparently outlandish orthography in terms of wider Scottish practices, I am delighted with Ronald Black’s verdict.


However, it also needs to be said that this, in my view, significantly alters the standard view of the complexion of Gaelic orthography within the Eastern Gaelic sector.  We can no longer say that Manx has a peculiar spelling-system which stands  all on its own, or that it is a despicable ‘deviant’ of some sort.   Manx orthography  may indeed have very specific features which set it apart from other comparable orthographies, but I trust that you will agree with me that it fits within a wider, and paradoxically very Gaelic, pattern of non-Gaelic spelling-systems which is gradually becoming evident – and, I trust, acceptable within scholarly orthodoxy.  

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