The Ninth Annual Angus Matheson Memorial Lecture: ‘Sgeul na Gàidhlig / Gaelic at the University of Glasgow – The first 450 years (1451-1901)’

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On 9 December 2014, the Ninth Annual Angus Matheson Memorial Lecture was held by Celtic & Gaelic. This year the lecture was delivered by Dr Aonghas MacCoinnich who discussed ‘Sgeul na Gàidhlig / Gaelic at the University of Glasgow – The first 450 years (1451-1901)’. This officially launched the ‘Sgeul na Gàidhlig / Gaelic at the University of Glasgow’ project, for which Dr MacCoinnich has been chief researcher.



This lecture, and the Sgeul na Gàidhlig project as a whole, aims to give a voice to the ‘silent minority’ of Gaels who studied at the University of Glasgow throughout its history. Gaels are often invisible in historical documents, with most of the ‘official trail’ being in English or Scots. However, it is possible to deduce that an individual was a Gael from other evidence, such as their childhood origins. For example, Alasdair (Alexander) MacFarlane, who bequeathed his astronomical instruments to the University in 1755 and thereby founded the study of Astronomy at the institution, was born in Arrochar (still a Gaelic speaking area at the time) and was the brother of the chief of Clan MacFarlane. He made his fortune in the West Indies and had the biggest house in Kingston, Jamaica, but this inevitably meant he owned and traded slaves. William Richardson (1743-1815) was a student and later Professor of Humanities at the University. He was born in Aberfoyle (again a Gaelic speaking area) and was one of the subscribers for Donnchadh Bàn Macintyre’s poetry in 1790.

On 24 January 1901 when Magnus MacLean delivered the first lecture in Gaelic at the University, around 4.5% of the Scottish population spoke the language. Now, only 1% can speak Gaelic. Again in 1901, 10% of the University’s students could speak Gaelic, showing how the language maintained a strong minority. A sculpture found (but often missed!) at 3 University Gardens, displays the four nations which supposedly composed the University’s community: the Clyde region; Ayrshire, Lennox, Argyll and the Isles; north of Stirling; and Lothian. This concept, only abolished in 1977, shows that half of the ‘nations’ touched Gaelic speaking areas: Lennox, Argyll, the Isles, and north of Stirling.

The earliest known Gaelic student of the University was Gilleasbuig (Archibald) Campbell in 1453, who went on to be a priest of Lismore. The Campbells and other Argyll clans like the Lamonts and MacLachlans are the most commonly recorded Gaels in the University records, but members of other prominent clans have also been found. Donations to the University in the seventeenth century record Iain Mòr, chief of the MacLeods of Dunvegan (£100 in 1630), Archibald Campbell, lord Lorne (500 merks in 1635), and Sir Dòmhnall Gorm Òg, chief of the MacDonalds of Sleat (£100 in 1633).

A letter from the Marquess of Argyll, chief of Clan Campbell to Principal Strang of the University of Glasgow, 1643. Link:
A letter from the Marquess of Argyll, chief of Clan Campbell to Principal Strang of the University of Glasgow, 1643.

In the eighteenth century, the University and Glasgow as a whole had a reputation for being ‘inhospitable’ to Jacobites. In 1713, William Carmichael (possibly a Gael) was expelled from the University because he ‘uttered some expressions in favour of the Pretender’. The Principal at the time of the 1745/6 uprising was Niall Campbell from Gleann an Aora. He pledged the ‘inviolable loyalty’ of the University to Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, and in the aftermath of Culloden he presented him with a gold box.

In the nineteenth century there was a ‘cultural revolution’ at the University, as Gaelic began to be spoken and written much more widely. This led to the founding of Comunn Oiseanach (the Ossianic Society) which held lively annual events, such as in January 1833, when Alastair Stiubhart delivered ‘Duanag don Chommun Oisseanach’ (‘Wee song for the Comunn Oiseanach’), which included the final (tongue-in-cheek) lines:

Lionaibh mar a b’ abhaist duibh
Air gloineachan le gairdeachas
Gu aiseiridh na Gaelic
‘S buille bàis na Beurla

Fill as is your wont
Your glasses full of celebration
To the resurrection of the Gaelic
And a death blow to the English language.

In 1893, Rev. Dr Archibald Kelly MacCallum, a Baptist minister, died, and in his will he bequeathed funds towards a series of annual lectures – ‘not fewer than fifteen’ – on the subject of Celtic literature. Among MacCallum’s aims were that Gaelic ‘may be taught in Highland schools so as to render it subsidiary to the acquisition of the best education’.

Dr MacCoinnich’s lecture succeeded in giving voice to the Gaelic students and staff at the University of Glasgow from 1451 to 1901. Other fascinating revelations can already be found at the Sgeul na Gàidhlig website, and many more will surely follow as the project continues its research over the following months.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

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