Reference Number237
TitleLeabhar A Theagasc Ainminnin: no, A Nuadhfhocloir Gaoidheilg & Beurla / A Galick and English vocabulary, with an appendix of the terms of divinity in the said language
AuthorMacDonald, Alexander
Date Of Edition1741
Date Of Languagemid 18c
Date Of Language Ed18th c.
DateMacroMid 18th c.
Date Of Language Notes
PublisherRobert Fleming
Place PublishedEdinburgh
LocationNational and academic libraries
Geographical OriginsMoidart/Ardnamurchan
Geographical Origins EdArgyll
GeoMacroArgyll mainland
Geographical Origins Notes
RegisterProse, Technical (Vocabulary)
Register EdEducation, Prose
RatingB (TBC)
The first comprehensive Gaelic dictionary to have been published.
First secular work of Gaelic to have been published.
Many words appear in Scottish Gaelic form for the first time.
Contains a number of coinages and ghost-words.
Reflects the Gaelic dialect of Moidart and environs.
Alternative Author NameAlasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair; Alistair MacDomhnuill
Manuscript Or EditionEd.
Size And Condition19cm x 13.2cm
Short TitleNuadhfhocloir Gaoidheilg & Beurla
Reference DetailsNLS: Cam.1.f.14
Number Of Pagesvi, 194
Gaelic Text ByN/A
Social ContextOn 19 March 1741 Alexander MacDonald (better known as Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair) had the privilege of seeing the first published secular work in Gaelic through the press. His Leabhar a Theagasc Ainminnin was an early proto-dictionary commissioned by the Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) to further their policy of introducing English as a replacement for Gaelic as the vernacular tongue throughout Gaeldom. Formed in Edinburgh in 1709, the Society had the express purpose of “propagating Christian Knowledge especially in the Highlands and Islands where Error, Idolatry, Superstition and Ignorance do most abound.” Exactly a decade later his far more influential work was published, namely Ais-Eiridh na Sean Chánoin Albannaich (1751) [The Resurrection of the Ancient Scottish Tongue].
By 1731 MacDonald’s name appears in the Royal Bounty records as a catechist in Ardnamurchan, and by 1732 he finally received his school in Kilmory, something he’d been asking for since late 1730. Although he had a rather turbulent relationship with the Presbytery of Mull, MacDonald seems to have regained confidence and favour with the SSPCK by the time that he began compiling his dictionary.
As Black concluded in his article about MacDonald’s time in Rannoch: “It would have been made very clear to him by the Society that the change of policy had nothing to do with teaching the graces of the Gaelic language. In disgust, perhaps, he would have found others uses for the manuscript. Exactly six-and-a-half years later he rose in armed rebellion against everything that the SSPCK stood for.”
The book has been described by Black as follows: “The Vocabulary was published on 19 March 1741 and was duly distributed by the SSPCK to its schools in the Highlands. It has a title-page in Gaelic and one in English. That in English says: ‘A Galick and English Vocabulary, with an APPENDIX of the Terms of DIVINITY in the said Language. WRITTEN for the Use of the CHARITY-SCHOOLS, found and endued in the Highlands of Scotland. BY the Honourable, the SOCIETY for propagating CHRISTIAN KNOWLEDGE. By Mr Alexander M’Donald, Schoolmaster at Ardnamurchan in Argyleshire. EDINBURGH: Printed by ROBERT FLEMING, and sold by Mris. Brown in the Parliament-Closs. MDCCXLI.’ It consists of vi + 194 pages, 161 of which contain the basic word-list, divided in McEwing’s 101 sections, each with its own heading.”
In his preface MacDonald “cordially undertook to give his Assistance in order to introduce the English language over the whole Highlands and Islands of Scotland” and expressed the hope that his work would assist Gaelic speakers “in Progress, and spread the English Language thro’ the Country, and make those young Ones more useful the sooner, as Servants at Home, and also when they come Abroad to the Lowlands, and be employed in the Navy, or Army, or in any other Service in the Commonwealth.”
The Vocabulary contains around 7,000 words, arranged according to theme, and many of the words appear for the first time. The suggestion for compilation of the vocabulary came from the SSPCK and MacDonald may well have begun to work on it as early as 1729. As John MacInnes has pointed out: “…if the method was perverse, it can fairly be claimed that even this aspect of Alasdair’s work displays intellectual vigour and creativeness. It was the first extensive vocabulary of Scots Gaelic to be published: although Edward Lhuyd had worked a generation earlier, Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair must be ranked as a founding father of Gaelic lexicography.”
Little is known of the early life of Alexander MacDonald, and we do not know exactly when or where he was born. Thomson suggests a possible date of the early-to-mid 1690s (1996, p. 2) and he appears to have been born in Moidart.
MacDonald may have taken part in the Jacobite rising of 1715, after which, tradition holds, he took up the position of ground officer in Canna. Black notes that ‘he spent the years around 1720 in the service of Lady Penelope MacDonald; he certainly visited Edinburgh a number of times, and it was there that his first book was published. He was married to Jane MacDonald of Dalness, around 1727. MacDonald certainly learnt to read and write in Gaelic and English, and also in the traditional Gaelic script. His poetry shows evidence of a classical education as well as a knowledge of the literary trends of the day.
Most of what we know of MacDonald’s life comes from the period from 1729 to 1745, during which time MacDonald worked as a teacher and catechist for the SSPCK. As Black notes: “This means that Alasdair had to pretend loyalty to the King whose money he was accepting, and to profess sympathy, at least, with the Presbyterian form of church government; indeed tradition tells us quite firmly that he became a Presbyterian and an elder” (1986, p. 16).
At some point before 1745, MacDonald converted to Catholicism and resigned from his position as schoolmaster. MacDonald was now free to give himself fully to the Jacobite cause and to openly embrace Catholicism. He became heavily involved in the run-up to Culloden. His movements after the battle are unclear, although he visited Edinburgh a number of times, and in 1751 he published his Ais-eiridh na Sean Chánoin Albannaich (see Text 171), the first volume of secular Gaelic poetry to be published. At that time he was a bailie in Canna. He later lived for a while in Morar and in Arisaig, where he died around 1770.
MacDonald is generally regarded as the foremost Gaelic poet of the eighteenth century and as Black notes, “his greatness lies in his originality” (2001, p. 425).
ContentsFollowing bilingual title-pages, there is a dedication (pp. iii-vi) to the Most Honourable William, 3rd Marquis of Lothian (c. 1690-1767), the then-President of the SSPCK. The main bulk of the dictionary (pp. 1-129) is then given and is organised according to theme and which is divided into 97 sections and there are over 4,000 entries. Most entries contain one word in Gaelic corresponding to one word in English, though multiple definitions can occasionally occur in either language. These various sections contain a wide variety of subject matter including body parts, elements, geographic features, weather patterns, familial relationships. A section of commonly used adjectives and adverbs is then given (pp. 129-61). An Appendix in alphabetical sequence is then given with the vocabulary of divinity and religion (pp. 162-80), much of it relating to the terminology of sin, and the text ends with an advertisement in which the author excuses himself for the numerous printing errors that occur, as he was unable to see the volume through the press. It is stated that these errors would be corrected in a revised edition, but no such edition ever appeared.
SourcesIt may well be that MacDonald had access to Edward Lhuyd’s Archeologia Britannica (1707) as its influence is discernible. The Vocabulary is based on the translation of a Latin-English vocabulary entitled New Vocabulary for the Use of Schools, printed by James McEwing in 1720, of which no copy has yet been traced.
LanguageCompiled by taking a Latin-English vocabulary, and substituting Gaelic for Latin, then adding adjectives and verbs translated from lists in a Latin grammar, the dictionary contains a number of completely artificial coinages, e.g., muirth eúd, a cable (p. 111), amir-siol each, a manger (p. 85), and cúlearolis sluaigh, a reserve (p. 114). The text contains numerous misprints and errors in punctuation where, for example, t for f often occurs. There are some words that do not appear in any other source, e.g., anradh (p. 4), buiste (p. 5), crann-aruir (p. 93), a nimhnachan (p. 26) and so on. Some entries have clearly been Gaelicised from English, e.g., Cómaid, Plánaid (p. 3), Glaspe (p. 19), Na Hemaródain (p. 27). Inconsistent use of accent occurs, e.g., Béo-ghríosach (p. 3), Piób-uisge (p. 82), and Déúr (p. 100). Doubling of consonants such as bb, dd, tt, is indicative of the orthography of the time, e.g., Sraddog (p. 3), Oittag (p. 4), and Abbaild (p. 108). There is an almost complete disregard for the Gaelic spelling rule of caol ri caol and leathan ri leathan, e.g., Caillach and Naoighanachd (p. 8). Misprints are numerous and include Farbhaly na Súl (p. 14), A Manachan (p. 15), Boonn na Cois (p. 16), Miesg (p. 24). There is a tendency to favour c over g in many spellings, e.g., Scúird (p. 14) and Stoci (p. 18).

The language may represent the Gaelic dialect of Moidart and that of the Clanranald territory in general.
OrthographyThe spelling conforms generally to the orthography of the mid-eighteenth century. With very few exceptions only the acute accent is used. J is used for I and the long f to represent s is also used. No accents appear on capital letters.
EditionFirst edition.
Other Sources
Further ReadingBlack, Ronald, Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair: The Ardnamurchan Years ([Isle of Coll], 1986: Society of West Highland & Island Historical Research).
Black, Ronald, ‘Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair in Rannoch: A Reconstruction’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. LIX (1994-96), 341-419.
Black, Ronald, ‘Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair and the New Gaelic Poetry’, in Stephen W. Brown & Warren MacDougall (eds.), The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, vol. 2: Enlightenment, Britain and Empire (1707-1800) (Edinburgh 2007, Edinburgh University Press), 110-24.
Black, Ronald, ‘Sharing the Honour: Mac Mhgr Alastair and the Lowlands’, in Christopher MacLachlan (ed.), Crossing the Highland Line: Cross-Currents in Eighteenth-century Scottish Writing (Glasgow, 2009), 45-56.
Black, Ronald, ‘Alexander MacDonald’s ‘Ais-Eiridh’, 1751’, Journal of the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society, no. 5 (2010), 45-64.
Black, Ronald, ‘Gaelic Secular Publishing’, in Stephen W. Brown & Warren MacDougall (eds.), The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, vol. 2: Enlightenment and Expansion (1707-1800) (Edinburgh, 2012: Edinburgh University Press), 595-612.
Campbell, John Lorne, ‘Some Notes on the Poems of Alexander MacDonald’, Scottish Gaelic Studies, vol. IV, pt. 1 (1934), 18-23.
Campbell, John Lorne, ‘Alexander MacDonald: Portrait of a Traditionalist’, Scots Magazine, vol. XXIV, no. 1 (1935), 61-76 [reprinted in A Civil People, 150-64].
Campbell, John Lorne, ‘The First Printed Gaelic Vocabulary. [Alexander MacDonald’s] ‘Galick and English Vocabulary’, Scots Magazine, vol. XXVIII (1937), 51-57 [reprinted in A Civil People, 165-73].
Campbell, John Lorne, ‘An Early Scottish Gaelic Vocabulary’, Scottish Gaelic Studies, vol. V (1942), 76-93.
Campbell, John Lorne, ‘Some Words from the Vocabulary of Alexander MacDonald’, Scottish Gaelic Studies, vol. VI (1949), 27-42.
Campbell, John Lorne. 1971. ‘The Expurgating of Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’, Scottish Gaelic Studies, vol. XII, pt. 1, 59-76 [reprinted in A Very Civil People, 174-86].
Campbell, John Lorne, A Very Civil People: Hebridean Folk, History and Tradition, ed. by Hugh Cheape (Edinburgh, 2000: Birlinn), 149-93.
MacilleDhuibh, Raghnall, ‘Compàirteachadh an uarraim: Mac Mghr Alastair ’s a’ Ghalldachd’ in Christopher MacLachlan (ed.), Crossing the Highland Line: Cross-Currents in Eighteenth-century Scottish Writing (Glasgow, 2009), 31-43 [See also Ronald Black].
MacInnes, John, ‘Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair No. 4: Part One’, Rosc, iml. 22, uimh. 8 (Meán Fómhair, 1974), 2-3; ‘Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair No. 4: Part Two’, Rosc, iml. 25, uimh 3 (Márta, 1975), 2-3; iml. 25, uimh 7 (Iúil, 1975), 7-15.
Thomson, Derick S. 1991. ‘Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair: His Political Poetry’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. LVI, 185-213.
Thomson, Derick S, ‘Alexander MacDonald, William Ross and Duncan Macintyre: Gaelic Poetry in the Eighteenth Century’ in Marco Fazzini Alba literaria (Venezia, 2005: Amos) 121-32.
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