A Plea for Gaelic, pp.315-332.

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And now let me add a word about the Gaelic language. 

It is commonly said, “You have no literature; the language is not worth learning.” 

A writer in the newspapers, who was kind enough to praise me, nevertheless found great fault with the publication of Gaelic. The publishers say, “Gaelic is a dead weight in the trade.” My friends say, “Give us no more Gaelic.” 

The British Museum Library is a national institution, and spends very large sums on books, but such Gaelic books as “Gillies” and “Carswell” were not there in 1861. The Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh has “Gillies,” but no “Carswell,” not even “Reid’s Bibliotheca Scoto Celtica,” which gives a list of Gaelic books. 

What there may be at Oxford and Cambridge I do not know, but I do not believe that the published Gaelic books are to be found together in any one public library. I bought “Gillies” for a few shillings in Glasgow, and the Duke of Argyll has “Carswell,” under lock and key, for it is valuable, and has been lost. I lately attended the lectures of one of the best of modern philologists, chiefly with a view to Gaelic as it relates to Sanscrit. The Celtic tribes were placed by him in the front ranks of the Aryan migration, the names of the most distinguished German scholars were associated with Gaelic learning, but still in lectures addressed to an English audience, of whom a large proportion must have had “Celtic Crania,” and all of whom use Gaelic words in their ordinary speech, there was scarcely a word about the old languages of Great Britain in early days, and yet Gaelic and Sanscrit are allied, and Gaelic throws light on the relationship which exists between Sanscrit and English. 

Compare the form of the verb “to be” in the three languages. The Gaelic verb is an assertion of existence, followed by the name of the person or thing referred to; and if the corresponding English words be taken instead of the verb, and the Gaelic sounds are spelt, the three languages are like each other, and the Gaelic is the simplest form. 

I am 



is me 

thou art 



is thee 

he is 



is he 



Gaelic sound. 

literal translation. 

The past tense of the verb is an assertion of past being BHA, pronounced VA. 

Gaelic is closely related to the classical languages. Pritchard’s Eastern origin of the Celtic nations, and Armstrong’s Gaelic dictionary, and similar works, will shew how much there is of resemblance between Gaelic, Latin, Greek, etc.; and it is generally admitted that a Keltic language is at the foundation of the classical tongues. An eccentric Gaelic schoolmaster is quoted in the West of Scotland Magazine, who used to spout intelligible Gaelic imitations of Latin authors for hours – such as, “Arma virumque cano.” “Airm a’s fir’ se chanum.” The dominie said he was cracked, but there was method to his madness. 

The following words which I have gathered from books and from my friends appear to bear upon Gaelic – 

68th Psalm, 4th verse, “Extol him that rideth upon the heavens by his name JAH.”
English.  Sancscrit.  Phonetic Gaelic.  English, &c. 
God  Deva     
shine  Div     
heaven  Dyo  DjeeA. YeeA  God (Vocative) 
    djaw  breadth 
Day  Dyu  an dew  to-day 
    an djay  yesterday 
    djee  day 
    tjays  heat 
    djArs  shine 
    djAlAnAch  lightening 
Light  jwālā  geeAl  white 
    geeAlvAn  fire 
    geeAlAch  moon 
    glAn  clear glancing 
flame  jwala  djAlrAch  shining 
light  heli  Ilês  light, a gleam 
    solus  light 
    soileir  clear 
Sun  heli     
house  Griha  greeAnAn  house, dwelling 
    greeAn  Sun (fæm) 
    grai  love 
heaven  nabhas  nyeav  heaven holy 
smoke  nabholaya  nyêl  a cloud 
    nyeoil  clouds 
moon  kledu     
    klAdAch  tidal shore 
a shore  Tira  tjeer  shore 
water  uda  ooisge  water 
    aigean  ocean 
water  Vár  vArA  (to the) sea 
sea  mīra  mArA  (of the) sea 
    muir  the sea 
an eye  Lochana  Lochan  a pool, also called a trembling eye 
earth  Dhārā  gArt  corn land 
    tAlav  tellus 
agriculture  krishi  troosh  gather 
to plough (ear)  Ar  ArAr  standing corn 
    ei-ir  a boat 
to make  jan  djên  make-do 
man  jana  duine  man 
a man  vīra  fêr  a male individual – one 
I live  jīvā mi  vA mee  I was 
knowledge  jnà  se-nA-gaw  It is known to me, 
    gA-goot  to him, to thee 
knowledge  vid  fees  knowledge 
wise  vidvas  fees-eech-e  soothsayer 
a sage  Buddha  bodach  an old man 
a tree  Dru  dru  an oak 
    druiAch  a conjuror 
    druv  a house, chariot 
king  Rājan  ree  king 
family  kula  coolain  whelp, young of any animal, term of endearment 
    clAn  children 
brother  bhrātri  brAair  brother 
mother  mātri  mar  mêre, mother 
father  Pitri     
    A-air  Father 
    A-ar  heaven, the air 
    Art  a God 
    Art  Arthur, a common name of kings 
horse  As’ va  Each  horse 
    shArrAch  foal 
cow  Go  bo  cow 
dog  s’van  shiunAch  fox 
bitch  sunah1
ram  Urana  rê  ram 
    rê  the moon 
    ro  a circle 
    ree  king 
    ooAn  lamb 
    caora  sheep 
bull  ukshan  ooksa  a large fish 
    aog  a hind 
to eat  ad  eech  eat 
tooth  Danta  djeud  tooth 
soul  ātman  AnAm  soul 
    AnAil  breath 
death  māra  mArAv  dead, kill 
    bAs  death 
night  nis/á  n’ uiche  the night 
thou  yushmad  oosa  thee 
he  Sa  shê  it is he 
    esAn  him 
she  Sá  shee  It is she 
    eeshe  her 
which  ka?  ko?  who, which?
The numeral 1 is UN – like “un” (Fr.) “one.” The numeral 5 coig, I cannot trace in Panchan, though it has a resemblance to cinq and quinque, which are traced in Sanskrit by experts, but 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10 resemble the Sanskrit numerals. The formation of higher numbers up to 20 is on the same principle – one ten, four ten, etc. Thence the Gaelic counts by 20 and the Sanskrit by 10. The Gaelic says ten and two twenties, or half a hundred – the Sanskrit says five tens. 
Any Gaelic scholar may extend this list by a reference to books on philology, but Gaelic ought most to resemble the oldest known Aryan speech, if it be one of the oldest survivors of the Aryan family. There is a likeness, but many surviving European languages are much nearer to Sanskrit. 

A vast number of places out of the Highlands still retain their Gaelic names, and it is interesting to understand them; for example, TINTOCK is the highest mountain in Lanarkshire; and the name has a meaning in Gaelic, “The house of the mist” (Tigh n’ to-ag); and a local rhyme shews that to be the true meaning of the name, which has no English meaning. 

On Tintock tap there is a mist, 
And in the mist there is a kist, 
And in the kist there is a cup, 
And in the cup there is a drap; 
Tak up the cup and drink the drap, 
And set the cup on Tintock tap. 

there was a popular tale about this mountain which I have failed to get; but a cup, with some mysterious drink, is common in Celtic traditions. There are cups taken from the fairies; cups from which all sorts of drinks came; the cup of Fionn which healed diseases; the great cauldron of the Feinne, which is hidden somewhere; the kettle of the “Korrigan” of Brittany; the St. Graal of mediæval romance, for which there is no Scriptural authority; and the Ballan iochshlaint, or vessel of balsam. And when we get back to Sanscrit mythology, a chief object of worship was a drink, the juice of a plant, the “soma,” to which all sorts of virtues are attributed in the Vedas. 

So lowland mythology is explained by Gaelic, and so is lowland topography. “Craignethan” Castle has no meaning; but a similar Gaelic sound means the crag of the rivulet, and correctly describes the site of the ruin of Scott’s castle of “Tillietudlem,” in Lanarkshire. 

CAM, in Cambridge, means the crooked, which is a correct description of the river Cam; Bournmouth means Watermouth, and is situated at the mouth of a “burn” or rivulet; Bannockburn means Cakewater in Gaelic. In short, no history of the English language is complete without its Celtic first chapter; and no one has yet tried to write the Scotch Gaelic part of it. 

Modern English is certainly more Teutonic than Celtic, but it is full of Gaelic words, and they are creeping in still. 

Here are a few words, chiefly written down as they occurred in translating, and which seem to be common to Gaelic and English. Any dictionary will give many more. 



Tuig (understand) 

Gille (lad) 






Mireadh (playing) 


Muir (sea) 

Bùrn (water) 







Sràid (a walk) 







Lìn (lint) 




Sgiath (a wing) 



Sròn (nose) 




Corp (the body) 







Sòlas (joy) 



Feachd (battle array) 



Roimhe’n t-sac 


Sliom (smooth) 

Measan (lap dog) 

Cart (to clear a byre) 

Stoirm (great noise) 

Halla (Talla) 


Cathair (seat, city) 

Dùn (heap, fort) 


Tùr (a journey) 




DrAchk (Phonetic) 



Twig (modern slang). 

Gilly (sportsman’s ditto). 







Mountain moor (mons). 


Burn (modern word). 

Loch (modern word). 

Strath (modern word). 

Glen (modern word). 


Gill, a field. 





Scow or Skiff. 











Snort, snore. 




Corpse (corpus). 








Hist! whist. 





Through the sack. 









London. Dunstable. 



A tower. 

A little bit. 





All Gaelic words ending in ear, which mean a male individual who does something, embody the Gaelic word fear (a man, or a male unit), which word, when combined with another, is spelt fhear, and pronounced as êr or ηρ, if a sheep’s note is properly spelt μη. Thus, 
Muillear  Miller
is a contraction for 






The Latin word thus seems to be founded upon fhear rather than Vir, though vir is supposed to come from the Sanscrit Vira; but of the Aryan languages (so far as I know) Gaelic alone explains how the V was lost, for Gaelic inflections are often made at the beginning of words. 
Supposing that the word for an archer to be a remnant of the old Keltic of Italy, preserved in Latin, Sagittarius is made up of 
Arrow-man (with termination.) 
And if the g had the value which it has in many languages, the sounds would be almost identical in Latin and Gaelic. 
If this be right, the termination er, and the (now) Gaelic word fhear, appear in most of the Aryan languages of Europe – Eng., Baker; Gaelic, Fuineadair; German, Bäcker; French, Boulanger; Norse, Bager; Spanish, Panadero; Italian, Fornaro; Swedish, Bagare; Latin, Pistor; but Greek άρτοποιòς will not do, though the words am fear, the man, reappear in άνηρ, a man, and aran, bread, in άοτος
It nowhere appears in Lapp, for olmush is the equivalent of Fear, a man, and laibbo is a baker, though hepush, a horse, is like ίππος
Now, any English tradesman may be named by adding er to the proper words, as trader, railway-engine-boiler-riveter. Any Gaelic tradesmen may also be named, in like manner, by adding fhear, or ear, or air, to other words; but neither in Gaelic nor in English will these terminations properly apply to a tradeswoman. In English the proper addition is seamstress, in French it is euse – and here again is Gaelic – Ise is the equivalent of she, and esan of he, and aiche is the termination which is common to both genders, as – 
Ban-fhaughl-aiche  A female seamstress
but in English there are two ways of forming such words. We say horse man, horse woman; but if we say rider, we must add another word to express a female rider; so the termination er, if Keltic, is equivalent to man in horse man, which is Teutonic. 
Any one who knows Gaelic can easily put a meaning on numbers of Italian names. For example, “Monte, Soracte,” Monadh, Sorachan (mountain, pak or hillock), is a small peaked mountain standing alone near Rome. “Monte Appennino,” Monadh na Beinne (the mountain tract of the hill country), is at least as descriptive in Gaelic as Italian, and the sounds are very like still. 
In like manner, the connection between Gaelic and any one of a large class of European languages, can be shewn, but it has no apparent relationship to Lapp. Hence, Gaelic is useful to a Sanscrit scholar, and necessary to the full development of any system which treats of the Aryan family of races and languages; and it is a very useful accomplishment for any student of the Eastern languages, which pave the way to promotion in India. It is also useful to a classical student who wants to go deep into Greek and Latin. 
No Frenchman can fully understand the origin of his own language without knowing Gaelic, for French is still full of words, and especially sounds, which seem to be Gaelic. If French be Latin, it is Latin spoken with a Celtic brogue. 
Du blè, corn, and bleth, to grind, are pronounced in the same way. French sentences, which to the best-taught English tongues, are as hard as this and that, and the other thing, to a Frenchman, are easily pronounced by a Highlander. On dit, qu’un bon garçon gagnait cinq cent, cinquante cinq écus, and such sounds, present little difficulty to a Gaelic peasant; and there are Polish and Russian and Welsh liquids of which the same is true. Puill, holes full of mud, has the same sound as the Russian for dust, and the French Mouillé, wet, which are sore puzzles for a Saxon, but easy for a Celt. Eaa gheal, a white swan, contains a Polish liquid sound, which a Polish lady assured me she had never heard mastered by a foreigner, yet it is one of the commonest sounds in Gaelic. So Gaelic is of the greatest use in learning to speak and pronounce other languages. 
He who can utter the following sentence must have a nimble tongue for liquids – 
“Laogh na laidhe an an lag an lochain air là luain ‘s ag òl leann laidir á ladar.” 
In the specimen of “old Saxon,” given by Latham (p. 46, Handbook of the English Language), a few words which resemble Gaelic can be traced. 
Ehuscalcos (horsegrooms) 

Ueros (men) 

Fehas (cattle) 


Cudean (“show” strength) 

Cunneas (races) 

Firiho (of men) 

Rikiost (noblest) 

Kind (child) 

Louodun (praised) 

Rikea (kingdom) 

Eich (horses). 

Fear (a man). 

Féidh (deer). 

Fior (true). 

Dean (do). 

Cinne (kindred). 

Fir (men). 

Righail (kingly). 

Gin (to beget). 

Laoidh (to laud. A hymn). 

Rioghachd (realm). 

Spoken Gaelic has altered very little in the course of the last three centuries in the islands. 
Dean Monro’s statistical account of the Western Islands was written in Scotch, 1549, and the names are spelt phonetically. The names of the islands and families, as now pronounced, could hardly be better expressed for English ears, “Skibness; Ellan Ew; Lochebrune; McEnzie; the haley isles of Flanayn; Ellan Vic Couil, perteining to McCloyd;” and some hundreds of names are so spelt as to express their present value. Icelandic, which has also been shut up in islands, has altered but little for many centuries. 

To me it appears that a living language of this kind, which certainly is a dialect of “Keltic,” which was spoken in Great Britain and Ireland in the days of Cæsar, and was also spoken in all the outlying corners of Europe, in Spain, and Portugal, France, Jutland, in Italy, Greece, and Asia Minor, and which is now spoken by settlers in America, and Australia, and India, is an interesting study. 

It is peculiarly interesting, for the same reason, that a great auk’s egg is now worth a large sum. Gaelic, like the great auk, will soon have ceased to exist, and the process by which it is extinguished may serve to explain the extinction of languages elsewhere. 

Its very corruptions are lessons in the sacience of language. The manner in which a new word is altered, when it is received into common use, is a practical lesson, which holds good for all human speech, and serves to test the rules laid down for phonetic changes. 

The inflections at the beginning of words, which are an essential part of spoken Gaelic, seem to be especially worthy of attention for their singularity. There is no good reason to suppose that “Gaelic,” “Welsh,” or “Dutch,” was the “language of Paradise;” but there is no reason why Gaelic should not contain remnants of some form of speech older than Sanskrit, and this may be one example. But my wish is to call attention to this subject, not to pronounce opinions on questions which require hard study, and knowledge which I do not yet possess. 

In the Highlands generally, I find the language rapidly mixing with English; and striking illustrations of the changes which take place in human speech, phonetic and grammatical, meet me at every step; but they are all changes which tend to decay. I find that lectures are delivered to Sunday-school children to prove that Gaelic is part of a divine curse; and Highland proprietors tell me that it is “a bar to the advancement of the people.” 

Let me endeavour to show that Gaelic is good for something more; it has been shown above that it is good for something. 

First, English is a “bar to the advancement” of proprietors, if they cannot speak to those who pay their rents; and it is the want of English, not the possession of Gaelic, which retards the advance of those who seek employment where English is spoken. So Highland proprietors should learn Gaelic and teach English. 

Gaelic is no bar to advancement. It did not clog the steps of the Lord Justice-General, of his brother the Ambassador, or of the Vice-Chancellor, or of dozens of other men of rank, whose learning included Gaelic. It has not weighed in my slower race through life; and it gave me a stock of sounds which occur in other languages, and which an English tongue can rarely pronounce. It is worth learning, if only to see the pleasure which shines like sun-light through a clouded Highland face, when Gaelic is unexpectedly heard. 

Some time ago I was walking along a lowland road, dressed in the genteel chimney pot, and broad cloth of this age, and as I went, the sound of a plaintive Gaelic song caught me ear. It came from a bevy of girls who were working in a field by the road-side, and singing a lamentable love song over their work. So I called out over the hedge, “’S math sibh fhéin a ghaladan,” “well done, girls.” The whole field was in a pleased commotion directly, for these were people from Skye; and we were friends on the instant, by virtue of a cabalistic word of our common language, and so it has been in thousands of cases. 

Gaelic is the key to a Highlander’s heart; and proprietors and utilitarians should learn it before they condemn it. They would not so easily part with their people if they knew them, and could talk with them. 

If Irish proprietors would try to speak Gaelic to their people they would be better liked. Officers who speak Gaelic to Highland soldiers command their affection. If officers in Highland regiments would try more, they would have more recruits. 

Without printed Gaelic I feel sure that I should now be enjoying the blame of another MacPherson. I submit to my adverse critics that they would not have believed in Gaelic stories without the originals, and that Gaelic as now spoken in various districts was something worth preservation, for they will find it nowhere else. 

Let those who say that there is no Gaelic literature read Professor O’Curry’s Lectures, and they will there find that the best scholars only distinguish between Scotch and Irish Gaelic as between dialects of the same tongue, and that there is a mass of unexplored Gaelic literature still extant. There are two Professors, one at the New Catholic University; a Government Commission is employed about “the Brehon laws,” as they are called, and a Gaelic MS. about “Danish invasions,” forms one of the historical series published under the authority of the Master of the Rolls. All sorts of questions are sure to arise as these documents are brought to light and read; and without Gaelic no scholar can give an opinion of them. Questions relative to early Christianity may turn on words in Gaelic manuscripts, and who is to say what may be found in such an unexplored field? Old Irish prophecies have actually been spread amongst the peasantry for political purposes. If it was important for the interests of the State to found a chair of Sanscrit, which nobody speaks, surely there ought to be some means of learning Gaelic devised for Britain, where a large section of the people speak the language still. Surely the few relics of Scotch Gaelic literature which remain are worthy of more attention. Till rescued from oblivion, and placed in safety by the patriotic exertions of Mr. Skene, their very existence had been forgotten, and some valuable MSS., the property of the Highland Society, have disappeared within the last sixty years. It is surely a mistake to say that there is no literature in a language, and to set about proving it to be true by allowing the little which remains to be destroyed. 


Without a common language men misunderstand each other, and those who are employed in a country should be able to talk to its people. It is a rule of the Danish Government that no official shall hold office in Iceland unless he speaks both Danish and Icelandic, and the rule is good. A philanthropist who cannot speak to the people, and judges from what he sees, must describe the poor of the west as living in squalid hovels, amidst peat-reek; silent, and dull; for they cannot speak to him, and they are very poor, and they are awed into silence by the broad-cloth, and black hat, and gold watch and chain of a government gentleman who suffers from peat-reek. A few specimens of those most mysterious beings, which are found in all classes, men without reason, may lead to the conclusion that the rest are but idiots of a higher grade; but one who understands Gaelic may learn a lesson beneath these lowly roofs. He may hear the story of Cinderella, and of the black, rough-skinned herd; and the “idiots” who all rose to be princes, and the song of the mighty fool who did his duty manfully and succeeded. He may look about him and find that very many historical names have in fact sprung from a cottage, and from such cottages; and if these are turf heaps over which a man can walk, he may be reminded that without Gaelic he can know as little of the better part of those who mouldered beneath the mouldering heaps of a country churchyard. The Registrar-General and the clergyman will prove that those who live in direct contravention of all the “rules of sanitary science” and “common decency,” because they are too poor to live otherwise, are at least as long-lived, chaste, and religious as any class of Her Majesty’s poor. Those who live in such houses claim their descent from, and trace it to the warriors buried under stones, some of which are figured above, and many of them are as proud of their ancestry as the Icelanders, some of whom claim to be related to the Queen of England, and live in similar huts. When they go elsewhere their strongest desire is to return; their bodies are often carried “home” when they die, far away; and history will show that many a distinguished man began life in a black house, and there listened to stories, and to better lessons first heard in Gaelic. 

I have said this much, because there is a vague idea in English-speaking society that a Celt is an inferior animal, and that is a “vulgar error.” An Englishman, say what he will, has a large cross of the Celt in his composition, as the shape of his head proclaims. Many Lowlanders and the people of the midland counties of England are “Celts,” and a Frenchman is not inferior to an Englishman in most things. The purest specimens of Scandinavian blood are to be found in Iceland, and there are no signs of superiority of race there; on the contrary, there is a strong resemblance to the people of the West Highlands, and to many of their peculiarities of temper and manner. I doubt if even the country whence the Anglo Saxons came, can now shew any superiority over the countries where Celt and Saxon, and good feeding, have produced a good cross. In Norway, Iceland, France, Germany, and Italy, a man of five feet ten inches feels himself above the average size. He is below the average size of West Highland gentlemen. Whole families of men above six feet high could be named. I know a Highlander, who is little over six feet, and measures fifty-six inches round the chest, and who in his youth was “as strong as a bull.” Having associated with peasants in every country which I have visited, mixing with all classes on equal terms, so far as I could, I have arrived at the conclusion that a Celt is an average human animal, equally mentally and physically to any other species of the genus homo similarly placed. Much the same can be said of Lapps, though they are a small race, and I am no believer in the natural superiority of any one race over another. It seems to be in the nature of races to dislike and despise each other, and I would willingly “speak up” for the minority, who cannot speak for themselves, “having no English,” and who are apt quietly to despise the Saxon fully as much as he despises them. Both are wrong, as much and as surely as the members and the stomach erred when they fell out. The one cannot suffer but the other must ache.

1  Pritchard, p. 210.

7 thoughts on “A Plea for Gaelic, pp.315-332.

    1. That’s amazing. I’ll admit to not being aware of Tintock’s existence. That’s the first mention of it I believe, from the books uploaded so far. Where have you heard it before?

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