19th & 20th Century: The Ossianic Society

 UGC 202_2_1_1 Cairt ballrachd Oiseanach1922-26

The membership cards of Marion Frances ‘Minnie’ Mackay, 1924-26. Minnie was vice-president, 1925-26. Image, reproduced by kind permission of Glasgow University Archives: ©University of Glasgow Archive Services, GB0248, UGC 202/1/1/1-4.

The beginnings of the Ossianic Society (An Comunn Oiseanach)

The Ossianic Society was established in 1831. A group of students at the University of Glasgow met towards the end of that year and set up a constitution. Their aims (in the early years at least) were to meet regularly and have formal debates, usually in Gaelic. They covered a wide range of topics. The first discussion they had was on the burning question of “co dhiu ’s sonadh, an staid phosda no an staid shingilte” (which of these conditions is happier, marriage or remaining single). Alasdair Stewart from Balquhidder, Perthshire was selected as the first ‘runchleireach’ or secretary for the new Society. He kept minutes of An Comunn Oiseanach’s meetings in a nicely written hand and with good clear Gaelic, a little old-fashioned, but still very easy to follow for modern Gaelic speakers. The first minute book which contains the minutes of the meetings of An Comunn Oiseanach, 1831-1849, is kept in the Special Collections department of Glasgow University Library (shelfmark, MS Gen 1363). The notebook has 160 pages. A full transcription (although not a translation) of this minute book is available by clicking the following link to a PDF file. GU SC MS Gen 1363 Comann Oiseanach 1831-1849.

It can be seen here that An Comunn debated a wide range of topics, from the predictable ‘Should the Gael have risen in support of Prince Charles Edward, 1745-6’ (a number of times), to serious matters relating to their own day, ‘the condition of black slaves in the British Indies –  should they all be freed immediately ? (1833), ‘Was Catholic emancipation right’ (1833), ‘should there be a standing army? (1833) and, ‘should guilty people suffer the death penalty?’ (1833). Among one of the first topics discussed, of great importance to young bachelors, was ‘which is best, to remain single or to marry?’ (1831), and, again, ‘is it better to marry young or old?’ (1831).   At least two of the subjects of debate remain topical in our own day. In 1832 An Comunn discussed if it was right that Gaelic orthography should be reformed? An Comunn Oiseanach also debated in 1834 and again in 1836 the question of whether the Union with England was of benefit to Scotland.

An index of subjects discussed (in Gaelic and English) in this first minute book can be found here: GU SC MS Gen 1363 Clar chuspairean (1831-1849).

An alphabetical index of names of those appearing in the minute book, 1831-1849, can be seen here. GU SC MS Gen 1363 Clar ainmean (A-W).

This list of names in the minute book is broken down by year here: GU SC MS Gen 1363 Clar ainmean (bhliadhnail)

The Rev T.M.M. Murchison (alias Tòmas MacCalmain), the well-known cleric and Gaelic scholar was an enthusiastic participant in the proceedings of An Comunn Oiseanach in his youth. He had a brief but valuable article in the first issue of the Society’s magazine, ‘Ossian,’ in 1933. This magazine was put together to commemorate the first centenary of the Society and Murchison’s contribution was a piece talking about some of the highlights he had gleaned from reading the minute books of the first hundred years. A PDF file of Murchison’s article can be seen here: Ossian 1933 Minutes of a century (Murchison) (with thanks to An Comunn Oiseanach for permission to use this here). Murchison’s interest in and connections with An Comunn Oiseanach spanned several decades. While minister in Govan in the late 1960s he still attended meetings and events organised by An Comunn Oiseanach.[1]

Some reports relating to the Ossianic Society / An Comunn Oiseanach were also carried in the newspapers during the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of these, mainly from the Glasgow Herald, can be seen on the press cuttings page at this site.  Gaels at other Universities also met and formed student societies at this time. Indeed, the Celtic Society at the University of St Andrews is the oldest of these associations and this society kept their minutes in Gaelic from 1796 until 1897. The foundation of An Comunn Oiseanach at Glasgow in 1831, however, seemed to act as a catalyst for Highland students at the University of Edinburgh who started a Comunn Oiseanach of their own in 1837. Although the Edinburgh society was short-lived, it was revived in 1851 and students at the University of Aberdeen followed this soon afterwards with the establishment of their own Celtic Society in 1854.  Liam Crouse has published a study of this Edinburgh University Celtic Society which showed that they too, like An Comunn Oiseanach in Glasgow, used their meetings to discuss and debate a wide range of topics. [2]


Campaigning for Gaelic at the University of Glasgow, 1839

Members of An Comunn Oiseanach attempted to remedy the absence of any provision for Gaelic teaching at University – anywhere – by campaigning for a chair of Gaelic at the University of Glasgow in 1839. They collected signatures and sent a petition to the Home Secretary in London, Lord John Russell,  asking that a chair of Gaelic be established at Glasgow University.   This outlined the many disadvantages that accrued by having no provision for Gaelic anywhere in tertiary education and argued for the benefits that teaching Gaelic at University would bring. They said there was  a great need for a Gaelic chair and that ministers training to serve in Gaidhealtachd areas were being ill-prepared by the current educational system. While divinity students were given a wide range of training to prepare them for their career, they received little to no formal instruction in the language in which they were expected to operate.  The petition maintained that Gaelic was extremely useful in a range of professions within the Gaidhealtachd. They also stressed the loyalty of the Gaels to the British Empire and argued that greater training and education in Gaelic would only serve to strengthen the ties of Gaels with their anglophone neighbours.
NRS GD 45_9_6 Petition 1839 (9)

Petition drawn up by An Comunn Oiseanach, 1839 (NRS, GD 45/9/6). This image, NRS, GD/45/9/6, reproduced here by kind permission of the ‘National Records of Scotland,’ Edinburgh.

They argued that supporting Gaelic education would speed up the rate at which English was being acquired by the people of the Gaidhealtachd.   A full transcript of An Comunn Oiseanach’s petition can be seen by clicking on the following link to a PDF file: NRS GD 45_9_6 (athchuinge nan Oiseanach 1839). This petition to appoint a Gaelic professor at a Scottish University was raised in the House of Commons, London, by Sir James Graham, 1st July 1839, but there is no indication that it made any progress. A further petition was raised, 17th July 1839, by a Mr Mackinnon, representing the London Gaelic community, and a subsequent petition by Mackinnon was lodged, 7th July 1847 (on behalf of James Logan), all hoping to gain parliamentary support for the establishment of Gaelic as a subject of study at Scottish Universities – but all of these pleas were in vain. The possible reason for the lack of support from the British establishment for the Celtic tongues was expressed by veteran parliamentarian Joseph Hume (1777-1855), M.P. for Montrose, in a debate on ‘national’ (i.e. British) education.

‘…that if Wales had been better instructed than she was—if English masters had been sent there a hundred years ago—if the Welsh language had been put an end to years ago as it ought —[Hear, and laughter.]—yes, he said so, because there was very little beneficial to be read in Welsh—he said the same of Gaelic, as well as of the Irish language, because there were not many good books in any of these languages—if facilities had been afforded for instruction in Wales—if the men of Wales had spoken English, if they were fully informed, he was sure they would not have had such disturbances in the country, and they would have found the people themselves more disposed to be obedient to the law…’[3]

While Hume’s view, of course, may not be representative of his fellow members of Parliament, their lack of support for these petitions suggests that they agreed with him.


John Gregorson Campbell, minister and folklorist

033b Iain Gregarach Caimbeul alias JGCAnother member of the Comunn Oiseanach around this time (1855-57), ‘Iain Gregarach Caimbeul, o Apuinn Mhic Iain Stiubhart’, known in English as John Gregorson Campbell (1834-91), went on to become a minister of Tiree and author of Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and Witchcraft and the second sight in the Highlands and Islands, both published posthumously. In the view of John Gregorson Campbell’s most recent editor, Ronald Black, these two works are ‘among the most important folklore collections ever published.’ Campbell, served as the ‘rùn-chleireach’, or secretary of the Ossianic Society and wrote the minutes (in Gaelic) for session 1855-56. He may well have begun collecting these traditions from his fellow Oisianaich during his time in the Society in the mid 1850s.[4]

John Gregorson Campbell, pictured, above. Taken from the frontspiece of ‘Waifs and Strays of Celtic Tradition: Argyllshire series, no. v. Clan Traditions and popular tales of the Western Highlands and Islands collected from oral sources by the late John Gregorson Campbell’ (London, 1895).


Debates and activities, 1850s, 1860s and 1870s

Despite the indifference with which An Comunn’s petition for Gaelic tuition had been met, the desire for Gaelic tertiary education continued to surface as a bone of contention among successive cohorts of students, year on year.  One of the society’s debates, 8th January 1858 recorded the following verdict in their minute book:

“Thugadh breith le 8 an aghaidh 5 gum bu choir do fhear teagasg Gailig bhi air a shonruchadh ann an aon de oilthighen na h-Alba”  (“It was carried by a vote of  8 to 5 that Gaelic teacher should be established in one of the Scottish Universities“). 

The only surprise here, perhaps, was that five persons were of the opinion that Gaelic shouldn’t be given University status.  Perhaps this was a reflection on the debating skills of one of the teams rather than the students’ views! (GUL, SP Coll, MS Gen 1365).   Gaels again hoped that there might be a place for the Gaelic Language as a University subject of study when plans were being drawn up in 1868 to leave the old campus and build a new campus at Gilmorehill which was to happen within two years.  This is how the minute book recorded the meeting:  

“Aig Glascho, agus ann an Tigh Seisin Eaglais Chaluim Cille air an 24ead don chiad mhios 1868. …Leubhadh agus ghabhadh riu mionaidean na coinneamh mu dheireadh. Dhearbhadh le aona ghuth a’ Chomainn gum bu choir cathair Ghaelic a shuidheachadh ann an Oilthigh Ur…”  (at Glasgow, in the session house of St Columba’s Kirk, 24th January 1868…  The minutes of the last meeting were read and agreed. It was upheld unanimously by all in the Comunn that a Gaelic chair should be established in the new University…’)

Neither did this pressure abate. The students talked on the topic of, ‘am bu chòir Cathair Ghaelig a bhi san Oilthigh ùr’ (should there be a Gaelic chair at the new University)  on the 2nd of April 1869.  They continued to raise this topic, talking again, in April 1870 on: ‘Am bu choir cathair Ghailig a bhith ann an Oilthigh Ghlaschu 1870’ (should there be a Gaelic chair at the University of Glasgow).  (GUL, Sp. Coll. MS Gen 1366) 

 They continued to debate a wide range of subjects relating to matters of the day. In the early 1860s, the American Civil War provided a fund of topics as did other topical matters such as slavery, prohibition, the extension of the vote to include more adults.  Notable visitors to the society in this period included John F. Campbell of Islay (1822-85), the famous folklore collector (11 Dec 1863) and the prominent Gaelic poet, tailor and nationalist, Uilleam MacDhun-léibhe (1808-1870) who regaled the Comunn, 24 Feb 1865, with a lecture: ‘òraid mu dheidhinn na Lochlannaich ann an Ìle’ (a lecture about the Vikings in Islay) – a subject on which MacDhun-léibhe composed verse (GUL, Sp. Coll., MS Gen 1366. D.S. Thomson, Companion to Gaelic Scotland, 32, 164).

The society also had a lively and  busy schedule, as can be seen from the syllabus for 1869-70, transcribed here from the Society minute book:

GUL Sp Coll MS Gen 1366 Syllabus 1869-70

Some of the topics that the students lectured on and debated such as Warren Hastings (1732-1818), sometime governor of Bengal, poetry, magic, the Lowlands, Robert the Bruce, Donnchadh Bàn, the Reformation and the Russian War are readily recognisable from this list. In other cases the headings remain rather oblique and crytpic.1865_03_25 pg 5 Ossianic annual

However, while they were certainly very earnest campaigners, lecturers and debaters, they also enjoyed an annual soiree.

This image, pictured to the right, is from a report of the Ossianic Society dinner as it appeared in the Glasgow Herald, 25th March 1865 (p. 5). 

A number of reports such as these can be seen in the ‘Press cuttings’ section of this website. These were carried in the Glasgow Herald and also reported in papers such as the Oban Times and the Inverness Courier. One such report in the Inverness Courier,  concerned the publication of a volume of extended verse in Gaelic by John Cameron, Bàrd to the Ossianic Society at the end of April 1863.[5]  Cameron, a native of Ballachulish, was, apparently a well-known poet and well known in Glasgow. His poem touched on the Massacre of Glencoe and traditions relating to the plague in the house of the Cameron laird of Callart. This were published in 1863 and a second edition was published in 1876 which can be seen by clicking here.


A description of the Society, 1872

In the face of official indifference (if not opposition) to provision for Gaelic, Gaels at Glasgow University were left to make do for themselves as best as they could, using An Comunn Oiseanach, to hone their Gaelic debating skills. The magazine, ‘An Gaidheal,’ in 1872 (p. 80) carried a short piece from an individual identified only as “Runasdach” in Glasgow (dated 23rd April 1872) with the heading ‘Litir mu Ghaidheil ann an Glaschu’ (a letter about Gaels in Glasgow). This letter gave a succinct account of the many and varied associations and societies in which Gaels congregated at the time. He had this to say on the Ossianic Society:

”Tha an Comunn so a nis teann mhath air leth-cheud bliadhna a dh’ aois, agus is fìor Chomunn Gàilig a tha ann, oir tha gach gnothach air a ghiùlan air adhart anns a’ Ghàilig. Tha na mionaidean air an sgrìobhadh anns a’ chànan mhilis sin, is tha gach òraid agus deasbaireachd anns a’ cheart chainnt ghaolaich. Tha an Comunn so a’ coinneachadh gach feasgar Di-h-aoine fad seisein an Oilthigh ann an tigh-seisein eaglais Challum Chille, agus is iomadh searmonaiche fileanta, gleusda, an Albainn ‘s an Canada a bheir a bheannachd air a’ Chomunn Oiseanach a’son an chothroim a bhuilich e orra gu eòlas fhaotuinn air a’ Ghàilig.”

[Translated here as: ‘This Society is now close to 50 years old and it is a real Gaelic society, as each proceeding is carried out in Gaelic. The minutes are written in that sweet tongue and each lecture and debate is carried out in that same beloved language. This Society meets each Friday afternoon throughout the term in the Session house of St Columba’s Kirk, and manys a skilled, fluent, purveyor of sermons, in both Scotland and Canada, can bless the Ossianic Society for the opportunity it gave them to deepen their knowledge of Gaelic.’ ]


Memories of the Ossianic Society, 1899-1906

An autobiography by Rev. Aonghas MacVicar (1888-1970) from North Uist, a minister for many years at Southend, Kintyre, recalled his time as a student in the Ossianic Society, 1899-1906, with great affection.  MacVicar took an MA in Arts (1903) and studied divinity until 1906, leaving just before Gaelic (Celtic) started as a subject of study at the University. Aonghas MacVicar and many other Gaels at the University delighted in meeting once a week at the Ossianic Society. MacVicar was a secretary of the society and then a President, 1904-05. When he started as a student no females were allowed into the society something that changed during his period of study. Although, while MacVicar was President, 1904-05, the majority of the office bearers in the society was male, the convenor of the committee this year was a woman, Elizabeth MacMillan. A transcript of the Rev. MacVicar’s account can be seen by clicking here: MacVicar & An Comunn Oiseanach 1899-1906A



The students in An Comunn Oiseanach debated a wide and diverse range of topics relating to the wider world and the current affairs of their day.  As Gaels, however, questions relating to the status (or lack of standing) of their own language emerges from time to time. As early as the 1830s some debates were held on the status of Gaelic although little progress, seemingly, was made on this front. Despite the legacy left by the Rev. Dr Archibald Kelly MacCallum to the University in 1894, for the express purpose of setting up Celtic lectureship (through programmes of public lectures) nothing had been done five years later.

1899_12_18 page 6 Univ Court petition anent Celtic (Herald)

Cutting from the Glasgow Herald, 18/12/1899, p. 6. This image reproduced by kind permission of the Herald and Times group.

The Ossianic Society (in conjunction with the Free Church students society) set up a petition in December 1899 to put pressure on the University Court to implement the Kelly MacCallum bequest.

It is not clear if this is what moved the Court to action but just over a year later the scientist, Professor Magnus Maclean, a Skyeman and native speaker of Gaelic with a deep interest in Gaelic language and culture, was engaged to give a programme of lectures, starting 24th January 1901 (GH, 25/01/1901, p. 4). Professor Maclean gave 10 lectures during the first months of 1901 and started giving another course starting in the Autumn of that year. These were the first ever formal Celtic lectures at the University of Glasgow.

Mary Kate Mackinnon wrote a short article for Ossian in 1950, drawing on the Society minute books, that looked back to events in the Comunn Oiseanach at the beginning of the twentieth century and around the time of these first Celtic lecturers. Mary Kate’s account can be seen by clicking on this link: Ossian 1950 – 14-15 MK Mackinnon 50 yrs ago

Professor Magnus Maclean was followed by Professor Kuno Meyer (1903-06), based at the University of Liverpool, who gave a series of lectures on matters Celtic in successive years (six lectures per year). Meyer was also Honorary President of the Glasgow University Ossianic club, 1904-1905 and in 1905-1906. Meyer was supportive of efforts by the Gaelic community to get representation for Celtic and said so in some of his public lectures and called for the establishment of a chair of Celtic (GH, 23/02/1904, p. 10). A lack of funding was one of the stumbling blocks towards the foundation of a chair, or even a more modest full-time lectureship. Funds were raised from bodies such as An Comunn Oiseanach and Comunn Gàidhlig Ghlaschu, with wide support from both within and from outwith the Gaelic community. As a result of these efforts enough had been gathered to employ the first ever full time lecturer of Celtic at the University of Glasgow, Rev. Dr George Henderson, initially for a five year period in October 1906. For the first time students could now take Celtic courses which counted towards an MA degree.

The University calendar around this time contains a brief paragraph from student societies including An Comunn Oiseanach, which gives details of the office holders and names.  This is very concise each year but in 1913 the students added the following statement which was included in the description of the society.

“Is math lean [i.e. leinn] gu’n gabhar os laimh cuibhrionn chubhaidh de bhur n-obair anns a’ Ghaidhlig. Ullmhaichear gach buaidh an corp’s an conn a chum ratha. Is e seo a thus: rogha dealbh, uirghioll math is deagh labhairt, Is e a’ Chrìoch; an fhirinn fa chomhair an t-saoghail.” (This might be translated as follows: ‘We hope to undertake the greatest portion of our work in Gaelic. The talents of mind and body are prepared towards this goal: the beginning is this: the best design, exact speech and good oratory. The aim is truth before the world.’

This last appears to have been a a phrase lifted from the Welsh “Y Gwir yn erbyn y Byd” (“The Truth against the World”), which was the motto of Iolo Morgannwg (1747-1826), and was thence adopted by the Gorsedd of the Bards who run the Welsh Eisteddfod as their motto. The Gorsedd and the Eisteddfod had become popular by the beginning of the twentieth century in Wales and An Comunn Oiseanach may have been inspired by this Welsh example.[6]


UGC 202_2_1_1 Cairt ballrachd Oiseanach1922-23 (a)

Meetings and debates

The membership cards of An Comunn Oiseanach – the Ossianic Society – preserve details of the membership of the society and also give the itinerary of meetings and debates held by the society each year.  The membership cards of a former student of Gaelic (see Minnie’s picture on the graduations page), Minnie Mackay, are held by the University Archive. Minnie was a member of the society between 1922 and 1926. Her membership card (below and right) from session 1922-23 shows how busy the society was during the term between dances, debates and meetings. One of the people whose name appears on the syllabus of events, below,  was an Miss M.C. MacCallum, who was due to speak at the ‘Ladies Symposium’ of the 17th of November 1922.  Màiri C. MacCallum delivered a lecture to the society on the poetry of Donnchadh Bàn Macintyre, possibly on this occasion.  She kept the script of her lecture (which is undated) and her son, Brigadier Iain MacFarlane, Taynuilt, kindly gave a photocopy of this to Sgeul na Gàidhlig along with some of his mother’s photographs from her time at the University of Glasgow

These images, right and below, of Minnie Mackay’s Ossianic Society membership card, 1922-23, are reproduced by kind permission of Glasgow University Archive Services, GB0248, UGC 202/1/1/1.

UGC 202_2_1_1 Cairt ballrachd Oiseanach1922-23 (b)

Màiri MacCallum graduated in 1923 and she then went to Jordanhill College where she took a teaching qualification. Mary C NicCaluim ball urramach Com Ois 1923 (1)When Màiri, and presumably other members of the society left the University, they were given honorary membership, and granted a certificate saying so. Màiri’s certificate is reproduced, to the right, below.

Sgeul na Gàidhlig is indebted to Brigadier Iain Macfarlane, Taynuilt, for giving us a copy of this image (right) and for permission to reproduce the image of this certificate (right) from 1923.

Màiri MacCallum’s graduation photograph together with a group photo of the Celtic class from her time at University, c.1920-23, can be seen elsewhere in the section of this website which reproduces graduation photographs, together with a photograph of Minnie Mackay whose card is pictured, above.


The campaign for a Celtic chair

The establishment of a full-time Celtic lectureship in 1906, made permanent in 1911, had been a great moment but the next step, more ambitiously, was the establishment of a chair. Students from An Comunn Oiseanach were in the vanguard of efforts to bring this ambition to fruition over the decades to follow, particularly after the arrival of J.C. Watson, in 1935.  Former members and friends of the Ossianic Society had formed an Ossianic Club and this club was in the vanguard of the campaign. Ossian 1957 - 19 Celtic chair appeal (1)Their efforts were reported in the Glasgow Herald, particularly the fundraising appeal they launched in February 1937 aiming to raise the £25,000 necessary for the foundation of a chair (see the ‘Press cuttings’ page on this blog & GH 20/02/1937). Ossian 1957 - 20 Celtic chair appeal (2)This drive was interrupted by the war but continued apace in post war years, with wide support from a wide range of Gaels and non-Gael alike, until, eventually, by 1956 enough monies had been gathered to set up a chair of Celtic. Lecturer, Angus Matheson, was appointed as the first Professor of Celtic at Glasgow University towards the end of 1956 (GH 29/11/1956).

An account of the campaign to raise funds for the Celtic chair can be seen in the images, left and right, from the magazine, ‘Ossian’ (1957). Click on the images to enlarge them.


The campaign for Gaelic broadcasting, 1974-75

The Gaelic community were extremely dissatisfied with the paltry amount of Gaelic broadcast in the early 1970s. The Ossianic Society marched to the BBC headquarters on the 2nd December 1974 and held a protest to complain about plans to restrict Gaelic broadcasting to a base in Inverness, arguing that Gaelic broadcasting should be produced in Glasgow, Skye and Lewis as well as Inverness (Glasgow Herald, 3 December 1974, p. 5).  Further protests were held and a section of the Gaelic community marched in protest on this issue in January 1975.[7] The aim of this seems to have been to pressurise the BBC into increasing their Gaelic output. Another bone of contention was that the BBC had switched their Gaelic programming over onto VHF, a waveband to which large swathes of the Gaidhealtachd had little access. Ailean MacDonald, the Comunn Oiseanach president, wrote a sharp letter to Robert Coulter, the controller of BBC Scotland at the time, stating in clear terms their dissatisfaction with broadcasting provision for Gaelic. Macdonald, and the Society, sent a copy of their letter to the Annan Committee, which sat in London considering broadcasting issues at this time. A transcript of the letter can be seen here.  Litir mu chraoladh 1975 Comunn Oiseanach. (NRS Com 1_194)

Dealbh - iomairt a thaobh craolaidh - 1975
Picture: students from the Department of Celtic, 3rd May 1975 (?), protesting outside the BBC studios, Queen Margaret Drive, Glasgow, demanding more Gaelic broadcasting. Donald Meek (later Professor of Celtic at Aberdeen and Edinburgh) can be seen at the left of the picture and Professor Derick Thomson, of the Celtic Department, Glasgow, can be seen at the right of the picture holding a placard with ‘Stèisean Gaidhlig’ written on it.   

A short news report in the Glasgow Herald (05/05/1975, p.2), related that over 100 people, mainly students, marched again to the BBC’s Queen Margaret Drive studios on the 3rd of May 1975 and protested about the lack of Gaelic broadcasting on both radio and television. This rally was attended by a number of members of Parliament including Dòmhnall Stewart, the MP for the Western Isles.


Campaigns and a sit-in at STV, 1988

Further campaigns have been launched over the years. An Comunn Oiseanach, with support from Professor Derick Thomson, put pressure on the BBC to try to get them to expand the meagre airtime then afforded to Gaelic. Another group of students followed this with a sit-in at the STV studios in 1988, again complaining about the derisory amount of Gaelic on view. An Comunn’s representative, Kay NicLeòid, wrote a letter to the Glasgow Herald (05/05/1989) pouring scorn on the plans the heads of STV had for Gaelic broadcasting and castigating them for being less than fulsome in their support for the language. Kay NicLeòid appears in the papers the following year too (although it is not clear from the report if this was on behalf of An Comunn Oiseanach). This time she had been involved in a petition which had collected 10,000 signatures which called for more rights for Gaelic in May 1989, and was presented to Mrs Thatcher, the British Prime Minister (Observer,  05/05/1989). These are just some examples of initiatives and efforts put forward by An Comunn Oiseanach over the years and doubtless this is a theme which could be greatly expanded.


Irisean / magazines

An Comman Oiseanach has published a number of magazines over the years, the title being ‘Ossian.’ They contain a mixture of articles and stories in Gaelic and English. Images of the covers of each issue follow, below, together with the contents page of the first two issues (with thanks to the committee and ceann-suidhe of An Comunn Oiseanach, 2013-14, for permission to use these images).

Ossian 1933 - 00 comhdach  Ossian 1933 - 01 clar-innse         Ossian 1950 - 00 comhdach Ossian 1950 - 01 clar-innse

                                      Ossian, 1933 & contents page                        Ossian, 1950 & contents page

The covers of the remaining issues of Ossian, 1951-88, can be seen pictured below.

Ossian 1951 - 00 comhdach  Ossian 1957 - 00 comhdach  Ossian 1965 - 00 comhdach  Ossian 1967 - 00 comhdach

Ossian 1968 - 00 comhdach  Ossian 1972 - 00 comhdach Ossian 1973 - 00 comhdach Ossian 1974 - 00 comhdach

  Ossian 1975 - 00 comhdach  Ossian 1980 - 00 comhdach Ossian 1988 - 00 comhdach

The art of Ossian

The artwork on the covers is striking. ‘RR 32’ (whover this was) was responsible for the cover used in the first, centenary, issue in 1933. It looks of its time, art-deco meets Ossian with a Celtic interlace border. This was simply re-used in 1950 with a different colour. It is not clear who was responsible for the 1951 issue, but Mr George Christie, a Glasgow architect drew the wee kilted bodach on the front of the 1957 edition.

A person called ‘DMM’, Dòmhnall M. Moireach, designed the covers of 1965, 1967 and 1968. Dòmhnall Paterson (1972) and Deirdre NicLeòid (1973) produced two striking covers. Raibeart Dòmhnallach not only designed the covers of 1974 & 1975 but also contributed cartoons to these issues. Catrìona Chaimbeul designed the cover of 1980 and it is not immediately obvious who designed the last issue published in 1988.


The annual programme

The activities of the Comunn varied from year to year. The papers of Minnie Mackay, in the University of Glasgow Archive, contain her membership cards from the Ossianic Society, 1922-26. Minnie was also a member of the committee. The reverse of these cards contains a printed syllabus for each year which gives some insight into the activities of An Comunn at that time. To see a transcript of these please click on the following link to a PDF file. Clar gnothaich a’ Chomainn 1922-1926 (GUAS UGC 202_2_1_1-4)

The Comunn celebrated their 150th anniversary in 1980-81. They produced a membership booklet rather than a membership card to mark the occasion. This booklet had details of the membership and the syllabus and also included a short history of the Society, in English as well as in Gaelic. One of these membership books was deposited with the University Archive, and images from this are reproduced (below) by kind permission of Glasgow University Archive Services (GUAS, DC 69/1/8).

DC 69_1_8 Com Oisean Cairt ballrachd 1980-81 (1)DC 69_1_8 Com Oisean Cairt ballrachd 1980-81 (2)DC 69_1_8 Com Oisean Cairt ballrachd 1980-81 (3)DC 69_1_8 Com Oisean Cairt ballrachd 1980-81 (4)DC 69_1_8 Com Oisean Cairt ballrachd 1980-81 (5)

 Annual syllabus, 1980-81. ©University of Glasgow Archive Services, GB0248, DC 69/1/8.



The Society papers, deposited in the Glasgow University archive, contain two valuable lists of the names of the treasurers covering most of the Twentieth Century.

DC 69_2 (Com Oiseanach treasurers 1906-1960)

List of the Treasurers of An Comunn Oiseanach, 1906-1960. Reproduced here by kind permission of Glasgow University Archive Services. ©University of Glasgow Archive Services, GB0248, DC 69/2.

Another list of treasurers, from the years 1969-2000, can be seen in another book.

DC 69_2_2 (Com Oiseanach ionmasaran1969-2002) 1

Reproduced here by kind permission of Glasgow University Archive Services. ©University of Glasgow Archive Services, GB0248, DC 69/2/2.


The accounts deposited in the archives offer some insight into student activities. In 1931, for example, the students went on a picnic and seem to have been a sensible bunch, ‘lemonade’ forming one of the main costs.

DC 69_2 (Com Oiseanach accounts 1931)

Reproduced here by kind permission of Glasgow University Archive Services. ©University of Glasgow Archive Services, GB0248, DC 69/2.

This had livened up by 1962-63 – or perhaps the accounts are simply a little fuller. A working draft worked up by the Society treasurer is included (by chance, perhaps) in among the pages of the account book. This gives an impression of a very busy Society with a hectic schedule.

DC 69_2 (Com Oiseanach accounts 1962)

Reproduced here by kind permission of Glasgow University Archive Services. ©University of Glasgow Archive Services, GB0248, DC 69/2.

There were lectures, debates, tattie & herring night, a beauty competition (for which see old issues of ‘Ossian’), excursions out into the countryside and they also paid the expenses of a delegation of students who visited them from Aberdeen. The expenses included payment to a piper, and payments to Ewen Macintosh’s band and also to Fergie Macdonald’s band. Students still sell raffle tickets as they did in 1962-63, but probably don’t put complementary cigarettes on the expenses as they did then!



Although An Comunn Oiseanach has always had a serious side, campaigning for Gaelic causes, they have always liked a good time: this was not an invention of the 1960s! A glance at the newpaper reports of An Comunn Oiseanach in the ‘press cuttings’ section of this blog/website from the nineteenth century shows that Gaels in the Victorian era liked a party and their annual soirees were regularly reported in the press. As early as the 1830s they liked to dress up, sit at formal meals, folowed by piping and dancing. But who now would imagine that any group of Gaels would celebrate their annual dinner in ‘Graham’s temperance hotel’ as they did in 1849 ?! (GH, 26/03/1849). This does seem to have been a blip though and by and most reports of nineteenth century annual gatherings refer to the copious raising of toasts. The ticket and the order of service for the annual dinner of 1879, below, suggest that they knew how to party.

MS Gen 1367 Ticead Dinneir chairdeil 1879
The images above and below were pasted in An Comunn Oiseanach’s minute book by the rùn-chlèireach, for 1879. GUL, Special Collections, MS Gen 1367. Images reproduced by permission of Special Collections, Glasgow University Library.
MS Gen 1367 Deochan Slainte Dinneir chairdeil 1879

As can be seen (above) from the list of toasts given at the Annual dinner in the Maclean Hotel, 1879, it is unlikely if they finished the night in as fresh condition as they started. It also seems, as this dance ticket from 1907 shows, with carriages not being expected until 2.00am, that Oiseanaich of the past knew how to enjoy a dance as well as any of their 21st century successors.

DC 69_3_1_ (Comann Oiseanach dance ticket 1907)

Comunn Oiseanach Annual dance ticket, 1907. Reproduced here by kind permission of Glasgow University Archive Services. ©University of Glasgow Archive Services, GB0248, DC 69/3/1.


The present

This blog is very much focused on history and on the past but it is worth noting that An Comunn Oiseanach (2013-14) committee pictured below are very much still with us and in good form, having recently completed another busy year.

2013-2014 Comataidh An Comann Oiseanach (2)

Comataidh a’ Chomuinn, 2013-2014. Left to right: Anndra Grace, Catrìona Gibb, Màiri Nic’IlleChiar, Robaidh MacLeòid, Abigail Lightfoot, Ruairidh Mac an t-Saoir, Karen Oakley, Georgina Durie, Calum Dòmhnallach.

The membership and the committee continue to to meet regularly and raise the profile of Gaelic. The Society staged, with the assistance of University Gaelic Officer, Fiona Dunn, a number of well-attended and successful events over the course of 2013-14. The posters, below, from some of these events give an idea of the scope of their activities.

2013 Co-fharpais Litreachais 2013 postair Cèilidh  2014 An Deasboireachd Ghaidhlig2013 Farpais piobaireachd

Comann Oiseanach - toiseach teirm 2014-15These images of tickets, posters and the committee (above) are reproduced here by kind permission of An Comunn Oiseanach, 2013-2014. Links can be seen here, below, to the facebook page of An Comunn Oiseanach.

And as a reminder that the Comunn is still going strong at the time of writing, a photograph can be seen here of Fiona Dunn (Gaelic officer) and Karen Oakley (President, 2014-15) at a stall ready to sign up new members at the start of term.


…and another link here to the page for information on Gaelic at the University of Glasgow: http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/humanities/gaelic/







[1] D.E. Meek, ‘Preacher, prose-writer, politician, journalist and scholar. The very Rev. Dr Thomas Moffat Murchison (1907-84)’, in Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 36 (2006), 5-27, at 7-8.

[2]  L. A. Crouse, ‘The establishment of Celtic Societies’, in History Scotland, 13/5 (Sept/Oct, 2013), 24-31. Papers relating to Aberdeen University Celtic Society, 1854-1911, 1945-59 and 1975-99, are deposited in Aberdeen University Library Special Collections, AUL, MSU 297 & MSU 1338. Papers relating to the Celtic Society of St Andrews University, 1796-2001, are deposited in the Special Collections section of St Andrews University Library, UYUY911.

[3] Hansard, HC Deb 01 July 1839 vol 48 c1060. HC Deb 17 July 1839 vol 49 c408. HC Deb 07 July 1847 vol 94 c1. HC Deb 25 July 1843 vol 70 cc1329-50. With thanks to Dr Sheila Kidd for these references. Accessed via the internet at: <http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1843/jul/25/national-education#column_1348>

[4] R. Black, ed., The Gaelic Otherworld. John Gregorson Campbell’s superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands (Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2008), xix, 616-619. GUL Sp. Coll. MS Gen 1364 & MS Gen 1365.

[5]The report on  ‘Highland Story – A Gaelic poem’ by Cameron, appears in the Inverness Courier, 30th April 1863, p. 3.  Reports on the Ossianic annuals appear were also carried by this paper, 24 April 1856 (p.8) and also 12 April 1860 (p.6) and it is likely that there will be further reports of this nature in this paper. Sgeul na Gàidhlig is grateful to Dr Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart, University of Edinburgh & University of the Highlands and Islands for very kindly sharing references in the Inverness Courier with us.

[6] This Gaelic phrase appears in the Glasgow University Calendar, 1913-14, p. 620. (held at Glasgow University Archive Services, Sen 10/55). Sgeul na Gàidhlig is grateful to Professor Thomas Clancy for drawing our attention to the Welsh connection. For further information see the following websites on Lolo Morganwg by clicking here and a page at the National Museum of Wales by clicking here. See also the entry on Lolo Morganwg in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, P. Morgan, ‘Williams, Edward [pseud. lolo Morganwg] (1747-1826), Welsh-language poet and literary forger’, ODNB, article 29498.

[7] Four photographs can be seen on the SCRAN website of a march in the city centre made by Gaels protesting about the lack of Gaelic broadcasting and demanding action to remedy this in January 1975. Another photograph can be seen on the same website showing students from Glasgow University engaged in a sit down protest outside the BBC building, Queen Margaret Drive, May 1975. These can be seen at the following web links (copied and pasted here 17/09/2014). Alternatively enter ‘Gaelic’ and ‘protest’ in the SRAN search engine: <http://www.scran.ac.uk/> – this should produce the same result.






[A.M. 03/03/2016]

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