The script is known as the “tree alphabet”.
When we think of Gaelic we think of the distinctive sound of it being spoken, but we don’t often think about the written form of the this language. There are examples of Gaelic writing all over Ireland, Wales, and Scotland that show how the words were composed. However, many of these examples are at risk of being damaged or destroyed. And so a new project aims to record these ancient artifacts for posterity.
The early written form of Gaelic (used for Scottish Gaelic, modern Irish, and Manx) is called Ogham and is sometimes called the “tree alphabet” since the letters were based on the names for trees. The writing is vertical with branches coming off of a central line. The font bears some resemblances to runes, early Germanic writing, and even ancient Greek lettering.
Estimations of when the written language first arose vary, but the oldest known examples are estimated to have been created in the 4th century. Some believe that the script was created during the Roman empire as a way to communicate in a way that invaders couldn’t understand or as a way for early Christians to avoid persecution.
While the exact reasons for the alphabet creation are still unknown, the examples from antiquity that remain today are mainly found on stone markers that denote either graves or possibly land boundaries. The writing on the stones is indicative of people’s names, though more recent examples cover other topics.
In some areas the stones, usually in the shapes of small monoliths, were regarded as sacred places where people who were ill would circle them in hopes of a cure. One example of the writing from 1849 is a manuscript that records medical “charms” to ward off illness, showing another way the alphabet was used.
There are 640 known Ogham stones in the UK and Ireland and while some are housed in museums, many are exposed to the elements in the places they were first erected. Because they are outdoors there is a risk of them becoming damaged over time.
Now a new, collaborative project between the University of Glasgow, Maynooth University, and several universities and museums is aiming to create 3D images of all the stones for future generations.
An earlier project, Ogham in 3D, was completed in 2015 and this newer work builds upon that research. While the first project focused on examples only in Ireland, this newer work aims to record all of the stones that are known, regardless of location.