By the late Rev. Neil MacIntyre *1
Extracted from The Free Presbyterian Magazine, Volume 9 (1904-5), and edited.
(Continued from last month)
Part 6 – The Gaelic Bible
WE have rapidly travelled over the extensive history of Bible translation in the English language. We shall now conclude these lectures by offering a few remarks on our Gaelic translations.
Although several attempts were made at a Gaelic translation of the Bible both in Ireland and in Scotland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, yet down to the beginning of the nineteenth century the Gaelic Bible was almost unknown in the Highlands of Scotland. The practice common both in pulpit and family was to translate from the English Bible. Education was taught in English both in the Parish Schools and in others connected with the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SPCK), and many of the people who had learned to read English were in the habit of translating the Scriptures, as they read, into their own native tongue.
The first attempt at a translation was by the Synod of Argyll. They set about the task of translating the Psalms into Gaelic metre, and finished about fifty of them, which were published in 1659. The Synod did not complete this metrical version of the Psalms until 1694. The first completed edition of the Synod’s version, which was known to Reid of the Bibliotheca Scoto-Celtica, and Dr. Cameron of Brodick, was published in 1702.2 This edition had the third edition of the Shorter Catechism bound up with it. After the edition of 1702 several editions were published one in 1715, another in 1729, and still another in 1738. Mr. Robert Kirke, minister at Balquhidder, executed a version which was published in 1684, but it does not appear to have been much used, for there never was a second edition. The version of the Psalter known as Dr Ross’s is just a slight revision of the Synod of Argyll’s Psalter. This accounts for its Irish idioms and words, and also for its disuse among the people. In 1873 Dr Smith’s version of the Psalms was published.
The Old Testament was translated into Irish Gaelic by William Bedell, Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh, and was published in London in 1685-6. Some 200 copies were sent to Scotland for use in the Highlands. In 1603 the New Testament was published in Irish, and in 1681 a second edition was published,which was prepared by Bishop O’Donnell. In 1690 Bedell’s Old Testament and O’Donnell’s New Testament were published in London, in one volume, in Roman characters (before this they were in Irish characters), for the use of the Highlanders of Scotland. It was through the efforts of Robert Kirke of Balquhidder that this boon was procured for the Highlanders, hence it is called “Kirke’s Bible.” Another edition of the Irish New Testament was published in 1754 by John Orr, bookseller, Glasgow, for the use of the Scottish Highlanders.
The first attempt to give the scriptures in Scottish Gaelic was by the Drs Stewart, father and son, ministers of Killin and Luss. Dr James Stewart of Killin, with the assistance of Dugald Buchanan and others, translated the New Testament in 1767. It was published in Edinburgh. Dugald Buchanan was proof reader, and supervised the work going through the press. This edition was regarded at first to be free from Irish idioms, but in 1832 its Gaelic was regarded to be more Irish than Scottish.
The work of translating the Scriptures into Scottish Gaelic was now taken up by the SPCK.3 The Old Testament was published in four parts, and at different times. Part I, containing the Pentateuch, with vocabulary and also five pages of rules how to read Gaelic, was published in 1783. Part II., containing Joshua to the end of I Chronicles, was published in 1787. Part III, containing II Chronicles to the end of the Song of Solomon, was published in 1801. Part IV, containing the Prophets, with an advertisement stating the use that had been made of English translations, was published in 1786. The first three parts were translated from the Hebrew by Dr John Stewart of Luss, and the fourth part was prepared by Dr John Smith of Campbeltown. Their translations were revised by a committee of Highland ministers. In 1782 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland ordered a collection to be made to defray expenses in connection with the work of translation and printing, which cost £2300. In 1802 the whole Bible in three volumes was published in octavo size by the SPCK. There were 5000 copies of this edition printed.
Then, in 1807, the British and Foreign Bible Society printed 20,000 copies of the Old and New Testaments in one volume. The Old Testament was printed on blue paper and the New Testament on yellow. The price of each copy was 6s 6d.4 but they were sold to subscribers for half that sum. In the same year the SPCK published 2000 copies of the whole Bible, also in one volume. For the first time, the Gaelic Bible began to be cheap and plentiful in the Highlands of Scotland.5
In 1816 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland received the Report of the Committee it had appointed for the Gaelic translation of the Scriptures. Among other things the Report stated: “Your Committee are further of the opinion that a final revision of the translation, now in use, by means of the acknowledged skill and matured experience of the Rev. Dr Stewart of Luss, and the Rev. Mr Stewart, Dingwall, in order to improve the translation and render it as complete as possible, and the publication of a new edition thereafter, in quarto, the work in which the Society are now engaged, are of great importance, and should receive the countenance, support, andencouragement of the General Assembly.” A full account is given in The Acts of the General Assembly, (Act VI, Sect. 9), May 25, 1816. The Assembly received the report, and appointed the following Committee: the Moderator of the Assembly (Dr Cook, Professor of Divinity, St Andrews), Dr Gordon, Sir H. Moncrieff, Dr Hill, Dr Inglis, Dr MacDougal, Dr Fleming, Mr MacDonnel of Forres, Mr MacGibbon of Inveraray, Mr Campbell of Dunoon, Dr MacLeod, Dr MacLean, Mr D. Campbell of Kilmichael, Mr H. Fraser of Kilmoran, Dr Irvine of Little Dunkeld, Dr Robert Anderson of Edinburgh, Dr Stewart of Strachur, Mr Fraser of Boleskine, Mr Ross of Kilmonivaig, Mr MacLeod of Morven, Mr MacKay of Reay, Mr MacKinnon of Sleat, Mr Munro of Uig, Mr D. Campbell of Kilfinichean, and Dr Campbell, Edinburgh, who acted as the Convener of the Committee.
The Committee drew up an interesting report, which is appended as Appendix IV to the Acts of the General Assembly. In the Report the Committee expressed themselves as peculiarly happy in getting the services of the Rev John MacDonald (afterwards Dr MacDonald). Dr Stewart and Mr. Stewart both died before the work was finished, with the result that the Committee abandoned the idea of a revised and improved version, contenting themselves with a reprint of the last edition. Irish phrases and idioms, occurring chiefly in the prophetical books, were altered, and the whole orthography was conformed to that of the Pentateuch, which had been superintended by Dr Stewart himself.
This report was presented to the General Assembly, and the Assembly stated (in Act IV, Sect. 8, May 26, 1846): “The General Assembly, receiving with the warmest satisfaction the intelligence that the quarto edition of the Gaelic Bible is at last completed, unanimously approve of the report, authorise and ordain this version of the Scriptures in Gaelic, with the versions of the Psalms and Paraphrases now attached to it, and no other version, to be used in the churches and chapels within the bounds of this Church where public worship is conducted in the Gaelic language, and appoint this enactment to be inserted in their printed Acts.”
In 1868, when a report on a new revision of the Gaelic Scriptures was presented to the General Assembly of the Free Church, Dr Cameron of Brodick, stood up in defence of the 1826 version, and again in his controversy with Dr. MacLauchlan and Mr (afterwards Dr) Clerk of Kilmallie, he wrote in the Edinburgh Courant of 22nd May, 1870: “The last authorised edition the quarto of 1826 – although containing typographical and other errors, which might easily be removed in a new edition, has always been highly prized by the people, who have been from their childhood familiar with its words and phrases, and, therefore, any extensive interference with it, beyond the removal of various errors and anomalies, is much to be deprecated.”
In the year 1870, the edition of Drs MacLauchlan and Clerk appeared. It begins Genesis and the Gospel of John with “An toiseach,” which is Gaelic for “the first,” instead of “in the beginning,” as Dr Cameron points out. This edition was very severely criticised by Dr Cameron, especially in articles which appeared in The Celtic Review. In the letter referred to above, he mentions twenty grammatical mistakes. For instance, there is “An Ceud beo chreutair” (the 100 living creatures), instead of “An ceud bheo-chreutair” (the first living creature). Again, there is “Feuch bha leth-aoin ‘n a bolg,” (there was half a child in her womb), instead of “leth-aona” (twin child). This edition was prepared for the National Bible Society of Scotland. Since its first publication it has undergone many corrections, in part due to Dr. Cameron’s criticism. In 1880 appeared another edition by the same editors, which contains Scripture references. This edition did not satisfy Dr Cameron either. He points out that the editors did not seem to know the difference between “a’ m’ ionnsuidh” (into me) and “a m’ ionnsuidh (unto me).
In 1887 a revised version of the Gaelic Bible was commenced under the auspices of the SPCK. Nine commissioners were appointed for this arduous undertaking: Rev. Drs Clerk of Kilmallie, MacLachlan of Moy, MacLeod of Inverness, Blair of Edinburgh, and MacLean of Glasgow; and Revs. A.D. MacKenzie of Kilmorack, and Dewar of Kingussie; also Sheriff Nicolson and Professor MacKinnon. Death and resignation reduced their number, and the work devolved latterly on Drs MacLeod, Blair, MacLean, and Mr Dewar. Their labour, which was a disappointment to many, was completed in 1902. No doubt, as far as Gaelic scholarship is concerned, the revisers were men thoroughly competent to carry through the work they undertook. On account of the reception the English Revised Bible received in this and other countries, one would think, and even hope, that our Gaelic reviewers would not have adopted the same text as the English revisers. In this hope many were sadly disappointed, for practically they have followed the same. This, according to Dean Burgon, means that the revised version of the Gaelic Bible is untrustworthy from beginning to end. It means that it differs in over three thousand places from the text on which former translations were made. It means also that the last twelve verses of the Gospel of Mark are not to be held by us any longer as part of the inspired Scriptures, for they (the revisers), like the English revisers, placed them within square brackets, showing that they had grave doubts about their authenticity.
In conclusion, we beg to apologise for how very little light we are able to throw on such an interesting subject. It has been our endeavour, however, to present a condensed but an accurate account of the various English and Gaelic translations.
We are told that in the last days perilous times shall come, and false teachers shall rise up denying the Lord that bought them; also, that the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. These days, in a manner, have overtaken us. It is sad to contemplate the way in which the Scriptures are despised and denied in this generation. We are in danger of being like the Jews of whom Josephus tells us. In their last dreadful ruin, he says, it was common among them to make a jest of divine things, and to deride as so many senseless tales and juggling, the sacred oracles of their prophets, though these oracles were even then being fulfilled before their eyes and upon themselves. Let us therefore hold fast the Word of God.
* See the January issue for a biographical note about the Rev Neil MacIntyre.
1. See the January issue, page 11, for a biographical note about the Rev. Neil MacIntyre.
2. This is a careful statement and is still correct as it satands. However, it is now known that the Synod’s 1694 edition was published in that year, since a copy came to light some 25 years after Mr MacIntyre wrote the above. – E.P.C.G.
3. According to the Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology, the SPCK commisioned Dr James Stewart (or Stuart), mentioned in the preceding paragraph, to undetake the work, in which he was assisted by James Fraser of Alness. – Ed.
4. This amount(about 32 pence) was a typical weekly wages for a labourer at that time. – Ed.
5. It is basically this, the Scottish Gaelic Bible, which is used in our Gaelic congregations. It has undergone several revisions, mainly affecting style and orthography, since 1807, some of which are mentioned in the paragraphs which follow. Further orthographic revision was initiated about 1950, with the intention of producing a modern, clear-type edition. The task was taken over by D.E. Meek and completed in 1992. See the Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology. – Ed.