Reference Number193
TitleThe Book of the Dean of Lismore
EditorDuncan MacGregor and James MacGregor (The Dean of Lismore)
Date Of EditionN/A
Date Of Language12c – early 16c
Date Of Language Ed16th c.
Date Of Language Notes
Place PublishedN/A
LocationNational Library of Scotland
Geographical OriginsVarious, including Ireland, but mostly Perthshire and Argyllshire
Geographical Origins EdVarious
Geographical Origins Notes
RegisterLiterature, verse. Also contains a few prose notes
Register EdLiterature, Prose and Verse
MediumProse & Verse
A highly significant text, one of the most important Gaelic manuscripts to survive.
Shows that Irish-Scottish literary contacts were being maintained fduring the last century of the Lordship of the Isles and after its demise. Bardic verse shows the specific parts of Ireland and Scotland in which the compilers of the MS were interested and to which they had ready access.
Some texts have been emended by the compilers in ways which were new to Gaelic and suggest a distinctly post-Medieval interest in transforming a number of versions into a composite ‘best’ text. Not found in Gaelic before 1600. Seems to be an attempt to produce a single text of an eclectic type.
The range of contents cannot be paralleled in any other collection from Scotland or Ireland. Many unique items.
The exemplary quality of the most significant specimens of the various genres suggests that the compilers’ project was a bold and ambitious one. Scribes may have been aware that the Gaelic world was on the cusp of change. There are hints in some literary genres of a pessimistic attitude towards the long-term survival of Gaelic culture.
The adoption of a Scots-based orthography by the compilers of the MS marks an important development in the relationship between Gaelic and Scots language and culture.
Alternative Author NameN/A
Manuscript Or EditionMS
Size And Condition20cm x 14cm. Originally vellum covers. Rebound in dark niger morocco covers in 1911 and provided with paper inlay. Trimming of the outer edges of folios when affixing inlay has removed some letters and, very occasionally, whole words. The acidic content of the paper inlay has caused staining on a number of pages. During the 1980s, the 1911 binding was removed and the folios were separated from the inlay, placed in plastic lamination and inserted in two binders. Fairly good condition, some parts unreadable and some require ultra-violet light for retrieval. Number of totally irretrievable words and letters is comparatively small. In addition to damage caused by rebinding, there is fading on the outer margins of certain folios which has probably been caused by friction and exposure to light. Some outer margins have also lost line-ends of text.
Short TitleBk. Dean Lismore
Reference DetailsNLS Adv. 72.1.37
Number Of PagesMain part consists of 159 paper folios, with two more folios, containing fragments evidently not part of the original manuscript, and three vellum folios, containing Latin material, which once served as covers. While being examined by the Highland Society for its report in 1805 the manuscript was paginated carelessly. Two consecutive pages sometimes carry the same number, while others have no number. However, pagination indicates that the order of the folios has not been disturbed since the early nineteenth century.Dislocation at an earlier date is indicated where different sections of poems are positioned separately in the MS in its present form.
Gaelic Text ByN/A
Social ContextThe manuscript was compiled by a family of MacGregors resident in Fortingall in Perthshire. The main scribe seems to have been Duncan, the brother of James MacGregor, who was titular Dean of Lismore between 1514 and 1551. The earliest and latest dates recorded in the manuscript are 1512 and 1542. The presence of dates from the intervening years suggests that the work of compilation was ongoing throughout that time.

During this time Gaelic language and culture were coming under pressure in parts of the Central and Western Highlands. The forfeiture of Lordship of the Isles in 1493 led to the gradual decline of MacDonald power. At the same time the influence and ambitions of the Campbells expanded in Argyllshire and eastwards into Perthshire. The Fortingall MacGregors were vassals of the Campbells of Glenorchy. The Campbell chiefs at this time had a foot in both Highland and Lowland cultures and operated successfully in both.

Scots had become a powerful all-purpose language in the Lowlands and had begun to cross the Highland Line well before 1500, as evidenced by Scots forms of Gaelic names appearing in monumental sculpture. The Scots-based orthography of the Book of the Dean of Lismore indicates at least a limited element of Scots-Gaelic bi-literacy at that time. The scribes’ obvious familiarity with this orthography suggests it was already a stable tradition. Operating on the frontier of Scots and Gaelic, at a time when the relative prestige of Gaelic and Scots was a pressing question, Duncan and James MacGregor may have held the view that the advance of Lowland bureaucracy into the Highlands offered an opportunity to alter the existing orthographic base of Gaelic.
ContentsThe Dean’s Book contains material in Gaelic, Latin and Scots. Gaelic material is primarily syllabic verse with some notes and jottings relating to domestic, personal, scientific and business matters (see, for example, pp. 48, 59b, 74, 92d, 250). Scots material consists of some items of verse and some prose items. Latin material consists of a canonical text on the vellum covers and other miscellaneous items.

The Gaelic poetry covers a remarkably wide range of verse types and subject matter, ranging from the work of highly-trained bards to that of amateurs, and also contains the work of Irish poets. It contains three main types of syllabic verse: bardic, heroic and informal.

The bardic verse includes elegy, eulogy, satire and religious poetry. Irish and Scottish authors are represented, Scottish outnumbering Irish by about 44 to 21. This is composed in the syllabic metres prescribed by the bardic schools. Some are in the strict forms of these metres appropriate for formal court poetry addressed by chief poets to chiefs, while others are in the looser forms used by the lower grades of professional poets and by amateur composers. Most of the court poetry addressed to Scottish chiefs was edited by W. J. Watson (1937). This Scottish bardic verse is addressed to leading members of the following clans and families: MacGregors, MacDonalds, Campbells, MacDougall of Dunollie, MacLeod of Lewis, MacLeod of Harris and Dunvegan, Stewart of Rannoch, MacNeill of Gigha and MacSween of Knapdale.

Heroic verse, narrative or descriptive in form, constitutes the second largest category. There are signs that much of it was transcribed from earlier manuscripts now lost. The heroic verse is composed in the loose form of syllabic metre (ógláchas). Most of the poems were apparently meant for singing or chanting. This material was edited by Neil Ross (1939); a new edition by Donald Meek, founded on his PhD, will soon be available on-line (Meek 1982 and forthcoming).

The occasional poetry includes a range of courtly and satiric verses ascribed to Irish and Scottish authors, some professionals and some amateurs. These poems are of interest as the main, and sometimes the only, source for certain poetic genres in Gaelic. The courtly verse, addressed to an individual, falls within the European tradition of amour courtois, and is clearly related to the somewhat later dánta grádha. A second category, consisting of verses about women in general, displays a hostile attitude towards women. This body of material shares themes, phrases, lines and figures with later examples of misogynist verse found both in Ireland and Scotland. Some poems also exhibit parallels with Middle English and Middle Scots sources, raising the possibility of contact with non-Gaelic literatures. Other poems are directed against evil women and some are short epigrams to women, mostly scurrilous sallies at the expense of local worthies’ wives and daughters. This body of verse reveals several strata of Gaelic, ranging from the literary Early Modern language to vernacular Scottish Gaelic. Comparisons with Irish and Middle Scots literature provide a useful perspective on the consistency of Scottish Gaelic tradition in the Dean of Lismore’s day. A number of these poems have been edited in journals, Festschriften, etc., by William Gillies (overview in Gillies 1977).
SourcesThere is evidence for both manuscript and oral sources lying behind the texts in the Book of the Dean of Lismore. The nature of the scribal emendations found in some texts suggests manuscript exemplars as their likeliest source. These emendations are unique in the Early Modern Gaelic manuscript tradition. Some involve individual words, while others alter phrases and even whole lines. New readings are usually written above the text they replace; it seems safe to assume that they derive from alternative versions of the text. In some instances whole verses are added, usually at the bottom of the page. Emendations which suggest that the scribes were comparing different versions and selecting what they saw as superior readings need to be distinguished from emendations which merely aimed to correct spellings or re-write difficult words.

Script and Appearance
The MS is written in secretary or notary hand, as employed by the literati in Scotland and England from the late fifteenth century, which became the norm in legal, ecclesiastical, personal and literary domains in Lowland Scotland. For poems, the scribes used a ‘set’ form of secretary hand, while for jottings a ‘free’ more cursive form was used. The use of this hand links the Dean’s Book to the wider literary world of Lowland Scotland and England, and sets it apart from the Gaelic tradition in which scribes used the script known as corra-litir, a development of medieval insular book-hand.
Compared with the splendour of some medieval Gaelic manuscripts, the Dean’s Book appears plain and unimposing. Decorated initials are occasionally found, but they correspond rather to what is found in notarial instruments, being decidedly plain and unembellished.
OrthographyThe use of a Scots-based orthographic system appears to have been deliberate. There are hints that the MacGregors were not ignorant of traditional Gaelic orthography, since characteristics of that system are embedded in certain of their spelling practices and entire words occasionally appear in Gaelic form. This commitment to non-Gaelic orthography is all the more striking inasmuch as the MS is the work of more than one scribe and its compilation demonstrably continued over a period of thirty years. There are some indications that Scots-based orthographic systems were used fairly widely in medieval Scotland to represent Gaelic personal names, place-names and similar, particularly in areas where Scots and Gaelic co-existed in a stable bilingual context. It may be that the scribes of the Dean’s Book were familiar with this practice, and merely extended it into the field of Gaelic literature.
In addition to the range of linguistic usage attested in the compositions of Scottish and Irish poets over several centuries, the semi-phonetic text affords priceless glimpses of the contemporary pronunciation of the scribes and their informants. This MS hence provides invaluable evidence for the early sixteenth-century pronunciation of Gaelic in Perthshire and makes a powerful contribution to the history of Gaelic phonology, morphology and syntax.
Other Sources
Further ReadingEditions

As stated above (see Reference Styles), a new, digitised text of all the Gaelic poetry in the Dean’s Book (hereafter B) is envisaged. Because of the multiple difficulties which B presents, it will still be necessary, even with this resource and associated tools, for editors to consult the cumulative scholarship of earlier transcribers and interpreters of B. The following notes describe the published sources which will be found useful for this purpose.

Rev. T. McLauchlan, The Dean of Lismore’s Book. A selection of ancient Gaelic poetry (Edinburgh, 1862). This pioneering work contains, first, English translations of a number of poems from B. Then a new pagination, beginning after p. 161, contains on alternate pages ‘the original Gaelic of the Book of the Dean of Lismore’ and ‘a modern version’. The ‘original Gaelic’ transcription may be found helpful in the relatively small number of cases where no more recent version exists. McLauchlan’s knowledge of the earlier language was insufficient for the task of transliterating and hence translating the poetry in B.
Rev. A. Cameron, Reliquiae Celticae (2 vols, Inverness, 1892-4). Volume 1 (‘Ossianica’) includes versions of most of the heroic ballads and a small selection of other poems from B. The transcriptions are better than McLauchlan’s, though not flawless. The transliterations are competent for the most part.

E.C. Quiggin, Poems from the Book of the Dean of Lismore (Cambridge, 1937). This volume contains transcriptions (without transliteration) of almost all the bardic, religious and miscellaneous poems which had not been published by McLauchlan or Cameron. It also contains a brief catalogue of B and an alphabetical index of all poems in B, together with an indication of which edition(s) each text may be found in. (Quiggin’s transcriptions of all the contents of B, together with his unfinished draft transliterations, are in the National Library of Scotland.) Quiggin’s transcriptions are painstakingly accurate; the very few errors that occur are mostly attributable to wrongly interpreted Middle Scots scribal practices.
W. J. Watson, Scottish verse from the Book of the Dean of Lismore (Edinburgh, 1937). This volume contains transliterations and translations of bardic and other sorts of composition by identifiably Scottish poets. Watson does not provide full transcriptions, but records B’s text where he felt there was doubt about readings or interpretation. Watson was deeply learned in both Early Modern Gaelic and Modern Scottish Gaelic, and his explication of the linguistic strata contributed to B by the authors and scribes marked a new level of engagement with the complexities of B.

Neil Ross, Heroic poetry from the Book of the Dean of Lismore (Edinburgh, 1939). This volume was intended to complement Watson’s work. Like Watson in Scottish verse, Ross provided standardised versions and translations, though he too recorded B’s readings in cases of doubt. This edition had a number of weaknesses, and a fresh edition of the ballads by Donald Meek, based on his PhD (Glasgow, 1982) is now forthcoming as an on-line publication of the Scottish Gaelic Texts Society.
William Gillies has published a number of editions of the miscellaneous poems in B. In these he attempts to build on Watson’s work by distinguishing a ‘poet’s text’ from ‘the Dean’s text’, where the former is presumed to reflect a consistent linguistic level (whether the ‘Classical Irish’ of the bardic schools or a more relaxed form of Early Modern Scottish Gaelic), while the latter is a literal rendering of the several linguistic strata that many of B’s texts actually present us with, including ‘Modern’ Perthshire Gaelic dialect forms. Details of these editions may be found in A. Guilarte (ed.), Bibliography of Irish Linguistics and Literature, 1972-, for which see

Where transliterated text from one of these editions is to be added to a citation (see Reference Styles above), the following abbreviations should be used:
[McL] = McLauchlan 1862
[C] = Cameron 1892
[Q] = Quiggin 1937
[W] = Watson 1937
[R] = Ross 1939
For textual material from B published by these or other scholars in journals and elsewhere, a conventional author-date reference should be provided, and the source added to the Further Reading for text 193, e.g. aggirsid [Meek 1997.35 acarsaid] as set out above.
NB The summary catalogue and index of poems in B contained in Quiggin 1937, pp. 95-106 and 107-11, will be indispensable until they are superseded by new tools currently in preparation. Also invaluable is T. F. O’Rahilly, ‘Indexes to the Book of the Dean of Lismore’, Scottish Gaelic Studies, 4.1 (1934), pp. 31-56.

In addition to the editions mentioned above, note the following studies:
Gillies, W., ‘Courtly and Satiric Poetry from the Book of the Dean of Lismore’, Scottish Studies, 21 (1977), 35-53.
Gillies, W., ‘The Gaelic Poems of Sir Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy’, SGS, 13.1 (1978), pp. 18-45, 13.2 (1981), pp. 263-88, and 14.1 (1983), pp. 59-82.
Gillies, W., ‘The Book of the Dean of Lismore: the literary perspective’, in Fresche fontanis: studies in the culture of medieval and early modern Scotland, ed. by J. Derrick McClure and Janet Hadley Williams (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2013: Cambridge Scholars Publishing), 179-216.
MacGregor, M.D., ‘The view from Fortingall: the worlds of the Book of the Dean of Lismore’, SGS, 22 (2006), 35-85.
Meek, D.E., ‘The Corpus of Heroic Verse in the Book of the Dean of Lismore’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 1982.
Meek, D.E., ‘The Scots-Gaelic Scribes of Late Medieval Perthshire: An Overview of the Orthography of the Book of the Dean of Lismore’, in Stewart Style 1513-42: Essays on the Court of James V, ed. by Janet Hadley Williams (East Linton, 1996: Tuckwell Press), 254-72.
Meek, D.E., ‘‘Norsemen and Noble Stewards’: The MacSween Poem in the Book of the Dean of Lismore’, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, 34 (1997), 1-50.
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