Significance of Scottish Gaelic archive recognised by UNESCO

The largest collection of Scottish Gaelic manuscripts in the world has been recognised by the The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation for its historical and cultural importance.

Detail from a medical manuscript in the Scottish Gaelic archive

Photograph by: National Library of ScotlandDetail from a medical manuscript in the Scottish Gaelic archive

The manuscripts, dating from between the 14th century and early 18th century, are held by the National Library of Scotland and have now been inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register due to their exceptional historical and linguistic significance

“Only a small number of Gaelic manuscripts with a Scottish connection survive from this early period, and our collection of more than 60 volumes is unparalleled in its scale and coverage,” said Dr Ulrike Hogg, the Library’s Gaelic Manuscripts Curator.

“The Gaels in Ireland and Scotland shared a rich learning and literary tradition, and our collection provides a fascinating Scottish perspective. Passages in Latin and occasional samples of texts in Scots or English also show how actively Gaelic Scots were engaged with multiple European cultures.

“We are delighted to have these manuscripts listed in the Memory of the World Register – it highlights their outstanding historical and cultural value.”

The majority of the manuscripts are written in Gaelic script, and are often attractively decorated. They cover a wide range of topics. Medical manuscripts and poetry collections form particularly strong groups, but there are also historical texts, heroic tales, saints’ lives, prayers, charms, genealogy, and place-name lore.

The Archive contains items of historical importance

Photograph by: National Library of ScotlandThe Archive contains items of historical importance

Most of the scribes used a high-register literary language that was shared by Gaels in Ireland and Scotland over a period of more than 1000 years, which usually concealed the writers’ own dialect.

The National Library holds a notable exception in one of the most important volumes of the collection – the early 16th-century Book of the Dean of Lismore. This is a substantial Gaelic poetry collection written in Older Scots orthography, providing a unique first impression of the sound of a regional Scottish Gaelic dialect.

UNESCO initiated the Memory of the World Register in order to highlight archival and library items of outstanding historical value.

“The manuscripts offer a snapshot of Gaelic life in Scotland which would otherwise have been lost to history,” said Matthew McMurray, Secretary of the UK UNESCO Memory of the World Committee. .

“Its scale and coverage make it the pre-eminent collection for study of the Gaelic culture in Scotland and vitally important for understanding the rich and diverse cultural landscape of the British Isles.”

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