Thursday 29 August 2013

Genesis Chapter 1. In Gaelic. On a Bone.

We had an outing at the end of last week, over to the archives of New College, home of the School of Divinity, to look at a Gaelic text kept there – but this one was a little out of the ordinary. At the beginning of the summer CRC intern Emma Smith had told us of an unusual item she had come across while doing research in Special Collections at New College Library: a piece of bone (we hope that it’s animal in origin). Around the bone, its label stated, was Genesis Chapter 1 written out in classical Irish Gaelic.

Although the text is mostly very faint, two friends from Celtic and Scottish Studies, Abigail Burnyeat and Peadar Ó Muircheartaigh, were able to confirm that the text is indeed Genesis 1, probably copied from an edition of William Bedell's Irish-language Old Testament.

So far, however, we don’t have any clues about where the bone came from, other than an intriguing statement on its label that a similar bone was gifted to Queen Victoria as a present on her Coronation. Victoria was crowned in 1838, and we think it likely that our bone was written on or around about this time. The bone is surely Irish in origin, and its neat handwriting is that of a good scribe. But why transcribe Genesis chapter 1 on a bone? Was it a demonstration of piety by the writer? Or was it deliberately created as an ethnological curiosity? Why present one to Queen Victoria? And how and why did our bone end up among hundreds of other religious texts in New College? We’d be very grateful for any ideas or information you might have about the New College Gaelic Genesis bone.

Our thanks to the staff of New College Library for their kindness and forebearance; to Abigail and Peadar for their expertise; and especially to Em who told us about the bone in the first place.

Update: here are some extra photographs, of the bone, of its label, and of Abigail and Peadar examining it.

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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]