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always a rude and illiterate people, and that they never had any written language.
When the druids who spoke the Gaelic language, and to whom writing was familiar,* had been driven from the rest of Britain, a few of them retired to Caledonia, and took up their residence in Iona, afterwards called Icolmkill,† where they founded a college, and lived and taught unmolested, until they
Cæsar's Com. B. VI. c. 13.
+ The original name of Icolmkill, prior to Columba's settling there, was Hy. During Columba's Life, it was called Iona, and after his death, it received the name of Icolmkill, that is, the isle of Columba's chapel, compounded of I, island, colm, Columba, and cill, or kill, chapel, church-yard, or inclosed place.
Mr. Pennant, in his Tour, Vol. I. p. 284, second edition, mentions that the Dean of the Isles, and after him Buchanan, describe the tombs of the kings existing at Icolmkill in the time of the Dean. On one was inscribed Tumulus Regum Scotia: in which were deposited the remains of forty-eight Scottish kings, beginning with Fergus II. and ending with the famous Macbeth. In another was inscribed Tumulus Regum Hibernia: in which were deposited the remains of four Irish monarchs; and in a third, Tumulus Regum Norwegia, were deposited eight Norwegian princes, or more probably vice-roys of the Hebrides, while they were subject to that crown.
That so many crowned heads, from different nations, should prefer this as the place of their interment, is said to be owing to the following ancient Gaelic prophecy :
Seachd blithna roimh 'n bhraa
Thig muir thar EIRIN re aon tra'
'Sthar ILE ghuirm ghlais
Ach snàmhaidh ICHOLUM clairich.
Which is thus literally translated:
"Seven years before the conflagration
The sea at one tide shall cover IRELAND,
And also the green-headed ISLAY,
But the ISLE of COLUMBA of the harp shall swim
(above the flood.)
were dispossessed by St. Columba in the sixth cen tury. For several ages after that period, Iona was one of the most famous seats of learning, of which this or any of the neighbouring kingdoms could boast; and the language in which almost all their learning was retailed and written was the Gaelic.'
Here then is the groundwork of our first position, and it carries with it a degree of conviction as strong as can well be derived from presumption or probability. Whether the ancient Celts borrowed the Greek, or the Greek the Celtic character, it will hardly be asserted that the Celts were strangers to writing, or that the druids, and particularly those of Britain, were not the literati of that nation. Like printing, when once established, the art of writing is not to be lost in any common revolution of human affairs; and such of the druids as took refuge in Iona, must have carried with them the knowledge of that art, and taught it to their disciples. The druids were dispersed on the introduction of Christianity, but not extinguished; they became Culdees and bards. Say, however, that they were cut off root and branch, their successors were Christians under Christian bishops, and we cannot presume that they were unacquainted with writing; the more especially as it is a matter of notoriety, that for ages afterwards Icolmkill continued distinguished for its learning. What language then was the most likely to be committed to writing by Christian divines deputed from another country to convert the inhabitants of Scotland? That these missionaries under
* Dr. John Smith's Hist. of the Druids, p. 68.
stood and might write in Latin need not be denied ; but surely Gaelic, the language of the people, is what they would most frequently have recourse to in propagating their doctrines.* It is not therefore a very violent presumption that some, more industrious than others, committed to writing at a very early period the poetry of their country, which from the moral precepts they contain had given delight to themselves as well as to their progenitors
Dr. Smith, in addition to his sensible reasoning on this subject, adduces the following facts, to prove that the Gaelic was a written language. In the island of Mull, in the neighbourhood of Iona, there has been, from time immemorial till very lately, a succession of Ollas, or graduate doctors, in a family of the name of Maclean, whose writings, to the extent of a large chestfull, were all written in Gaelic. What remained of this treasure was some years ago bought up as a literary curiosity, at the desire of the Duke of Chandos, and is said to have perished in the wreck of that nobleman's fortune. Doctor Smith also mentions having in his own possession a mutilated treatise on physic, and another on anatomy, with part of a calendar, belonging, probably, to some ancient monastery; all in the Gaelic language and character. These pieces, when compared with others of a later date, appear to be several centuries old.
At this day even all the missionary Societies in Europe qualify their eléves, not only in the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages, but in the particular dialect of the distant nations to whom they may have missions for diffusing the light of Christianity.
Lord Kaimes too mentions a Gaelic manuscript of the first four books of Fingal, which Mr. Macpherson, the translator of Ossian, found in the isle of Sky, of as old a date as the year 1403.* The late Mr. Lachlan Macpherson of Strathmashie, who had accompanied Mr. James Macpherson during some part of his journey through the Highlands in search of the poems of Ossian, bears evidence to a similar fact; for in his letter to Dr. Blair, dated the 22d October, 1763,† he says, “Some of the hereditary bards retained by the chiefs, committed very early to writing some of the works of Ossian. One manuscript in particular was written as far back as the year 1410, which I saw in Mr. Macpherson's pos
The late Rev. Andrew Gallie, minister of Kencardine in Ross-shire, who had assisted Mr. Macpherson in arranging his collection, says, in his letter to Charles Mac Intosh, Esq. a member of the committee of the Highland Society of Edinburgh,‡ that on Mr. Macpherson's return from his tour through the Highlands and Islands he produced to Mr. Gallie several volumes, small octavo, or rather large duodecimo, in the Gaelic language and character, of the poems of Ossian and other ancient bards; and that he remembers perfectly that many of those volumes were at the conclusion said to have been collected by Paul Macmhuirich Bard Clanraonuil, and about the
* Lord Kaimes's Sketches of Man, B. I.
+ See Appendix to the Report of the Highland Society, p. 7. See Report of the Highland Society, p. 31.
beginning of the fourteenth century. Every poem had its first letter and its first word most elegantly flourished and gilded, some red, some yellow, some blue and some green: the materials writ on seemed to be a limber, yet coarse and dark, vellum: the volumes were bound in strong parchment; and that Mr. Macpherson had them from Clanranold.
Without recurring to more remote periods, as unnecessary for our present purpose, we have incontestible authority that the use of letters was known in Ireland from St. Patrick's time, and that St. Columba, the founder of Icolmkill, who had his education in the Irish schools, appears, from what remains of his composition, to have written in pure Gaelic. The identity of the Irish and Gaelic language during so many ages, and the constant intercourse between the Irish of Ulster and the Scots of the western Highlands, are circumstances which naturally lead us to draw the just inference, that some one of the disciples of those saints would have committed to writing the compositions of Ossian and other bards: hence various transcripts of scattered fragments might have been handed down from one
Nennius says that the first alphabet was taught in Ireland by St. Patrick: "Sanctus Patricius scripsit Abietoria 365 et es amplius numero." Nen. lix. Sir James Ware, in his Antiquities, says, letters were introduced with Christianity into Ireland; and it appears from Bede's Ecclesiastical History that there were several learned men in Ireland in the seventh century.
+ Dr. John Smith's History of the Druids, p. 68. See also Dr. John Macpherson's Letter to Dr. Blair, of the 27th Nov. 1763, inserted in the Appendix to the Report of the Highland Society, p. 17.