Nineteenth-Century Sources in Faclair na Gàidhlig – Blog Post by Olga Szczesnowicz

by Olga Szczesnowicz

Faclair na Gàidhlig is going to be the first historical dictionary of Scottish Gaelic. The previous attempt to create a Gaelic dictionary on historical principles dates back to 1966, when Professor Derick S. Thomson established the Historical Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic (HDSG) in the Department of Celtic at the University of Glasgow.

One of the first tasks undertaken by the HDSG was a reading programme, which involved more than 100 volunteer readers excerpting slips from printed sources.[1] The resulting collection of over 500,000 slips is still held at Glasgow and when Faclair na Gàidhlig was formally established in 2003, it provided material for several sample entries that then could be used to start drafting editorial policies and create training materials. At the same time, work was underway to create an electronic corpus which would serve as the textual basis for the dictionary. As a result, the editors and general public are now able to access Corpas na Gàidhlig, which forms part of another project based at the University of Glasgow: Digital Archive of Scottish Gaelic (DASG). Rather than try and digitise all available sources, it was decided that corpus texts should be carefully selected and represent a wide range of genres and dialects as well as all periods of Gaelic literature.

This brings us to the nineteenth-century texts included in Corpas na Gàidhlig and consequently used as sources of evidence for the dictionary entries. Compared to the previous two hundred years, the nineteenth century saw an enormous growth in the number of Gaelic publications; therefore, in most cases, when compiling an entry we have to be careful to balance the amount of evidence from this period against both earlier and later material available to us.

To give you some concrete examples, I am going to use the first draft of the entry on which I am currently working. The headword is dùthchas, a masculine noun, the meanings of which include ‘native place’, ‘hereditary right’, ‘inherited disposition’ and ‘tradition’. Out of 819 results found in the corpus, I chose to excerpt 174 slips, 66 of which date to the nineteenth century. To begin with, the date of the slip is almost irrelevant as we concentrate on the language and choose the quotations that illustrate the meaning of the word in the clearest way. However, eventually it is usually necessary to reduce the amount of evidence that will end up in the final entry. That is when we try to make sure that different periods are well represented.

I will now look at just a few of the slips I excerpted, some of which have made it into the draft entry, but I will focus on their sources to give you a preview of just a few of the nineteenth-century texts in our corpus.

Since dùthchas can refer to ‘one’s place of birth’ and its genitive singular dùthchais is used attributively to mean ‘native’, it is not surprising that in many quotations it appears in the context of emigration. One of the examples in my entry comes from Ceann-iuil an Fhir-imrich do dh’America Mu-thuath; or, the Emigrant’s Guide to North America by Robert MacDougall, who spent three years in Canada before coming back to Scotland and then emigrating to Australia in 1841, the same year his book was published. Our corpus contains more publications aimed at Gaels contemplating emigration, for example Gearr-chunntasan air New Zealand: air son feuma luchd-imrich (‘Accounts of New Zealand: for emigrants’ use’) from 1872 and a poster from 1822 in which an American landowner, Nahum Ward, is inviting Gaels to emigrate to his native Ohio, Eisdibh! Eisdibh! Eisdibh! Rabhadh dhoibh-san d’ am miann a dhol a dh’ Ohio ann America (‘Listen! Listen! Listen! Advice to those who wish to go to Ohio in America’).

It is not possible to discuss nineteenth-century sources without mentioning periodicals so it is little wonder that quite a few of them have been digitised for Corpas na Gàidhlig, including Fear-tathaich nan Beann and An Gaidheal, to name just two. I want to mention An Teachdaire Gaelach in particular, not least because of its editor, the Rev. Dr Norman MacLeod, who became known as Caraid nan Gàidheal (‘The Friend of the Gaels’) in recognition of his work promoting education in the Highlands and his part in organising relief during potato famines of 1836–7 and 1846–7. Together with the Rev. Dr Daniel Dewar, he was the author of A Dictionary of the Gaelic Language published in 1831, which was meant to be more accessible and affordable than the two Gaelic dictionaries published in the 1820s (Robert Armstrong’s Gaelic Dictionary and the Highland Society’s Dictionarium Scoto-Celticum). MacLeod was also a prolific author and it was his intention to create a Gaelic prose style that could be used to write about a variety of subjects that previously were only available through the medium of English. An Teachdaire Gaelach is a perfect example of this as shown by the index of the articles that appeared in the first year of its publication: Boiling Springs of Iceland, British Parliament, Moral Reflections on Harvest, Murders at Edinburgh by Burke and Hare, Natural History of Silk Worm, Planting of Potatoes, Account of Steam Engine, Solar and Lunar Eclipses, and many more.

To continue with periodicals and also indirectly the subject of emigration, one of the longest-running Gaelic periodicals was Mac-Talla, a Gaelic newspaper published in Cape Breton between 1892 and 1904 and circulated not just in Canada but also in parts of the United States, New Zealand and Scotland. Its editor, Jonathan G. McKinnon,was born in Cape Breton and many contributors were also from Canada, but others came from Scotland and probably elsewhere. Some of the content had previously appeared in other publications but it also contained plenty of original material that very often discussed local news and interests; even adverts can be a source of interesting vocabulary.

As might be expected, most periodicals also published songs, hymns, elegies, etc., and poetry makes up a good proportion of our nineteenth-century material. This includes collections of original work but also quite a few anthologies presenting work of major Gaelic poets, such as Sar-Obair nam Bard Gaelach: or, the Beauties of Gaelic Poetry (1841). Its editor, John MacKenzie, like Rev. Dr Norman MacLeod, shared his time between writing, publishing and dictionary-making. He was the author of a history of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 entitled Eachdraidh a’ Phrionnsa, no Bliadhna Thearlaich (1844) and a compiler of An English-Gaelic Dictionary (1847).

Finally, in order to mention just one example of original poetic work in our corpus, I choose another source from which I excerpted for my draft entry: Focail air turus na Ban-rìgh do Bhàideanach (1850). The title song of this short anonymous collection was written to celebrate the visit that Queen Victoria – or Bhictoria, to use the original spelling – made to Badenoch in 1847.

This is only a small sample of the nineteenth-century sources used by Faclair na Gàidhlig. As the work goes on and more entries are compiled, it will be interesting to see which of the texts will be quoted more often than others.

[1] When it comes to historical dictionaries and their reading programmes, the Oxford English Dictionary is one of the most interesting cases to study; it was fascinating to hear Professor Lynda Mugglestone talk at the St Andrews workshop about the subject in her paper ‘Representations: Victorian Readers, Victorian Texts, Victorian OED’.


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