The Chronicle of Fortingall

Item date: Compiled in the second half of the 16th century
Grant Value: £5,200 [B H Breslauer Foundation Fund]
Item cost: £26,000
Item date acquired: 2021
Item institution: National Library of Scotland
Town/City: Edinburgh

Dr Ralph McLean, Manuscripts Curator (Long 18th Century Collections), writes:   On 18 May 2021, the National Library of Scotland, with the help of the Friends of the National Libraries and the B.H. Breslauer Foundation, was able to buy at auction the manuscript known as the Chronicle of Fortingall.  This volume, long out of public sight and yet of the greatest significance for the study of Highland history, was our most exciting manuscript acquisition of the year. The purchase of the Chronicle received wide attention in the media and met with a positive, often heartfelt response from many members of the public.

Originating in an area and period from which few informal documents survive, the Chronicle is a rare and important witness to the cultural and political outlook of educated bilingual Gaelic speakers in the mainland Highlands of Scotland.  The manuscript was written between ca. 1550 and 1579 by a circle of scribes based in Fortingall, Highland Perthshire.  It contains annals covering several centuries, which are initially copies of earlier sources but then continued within the writers' own times.  These are complemented by miscellaneous shorter texts in the style of a commonplace book.  Throughout, the language of the manuscript alternates between Scots and Latin, with some text in Gaelic.  The chronicle part focuses on the fortunes of Highland families and deaths of individuals, but it also covers matters of national interest, such as the events surrounding the forced abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots.  Comments on severe weather and the resulting hardship and food shortages are also found in the annals. 

The volume was preserved in the archives of the Campbell Earls of Breadalbane.  While the main Breadalbane archive was gradually transferred to the National Records of Scotland in the course of the 20th century, the Fortingall manuscript remained in private hands in a separate branch of the family.  An edition of the manuscript by Cosmo Innes was published in 1850 and for over a century and a half remained the only accessible version of the text.  It provided a reliable transcription of the contents but rearranged the annals and omitted parts of the miscellany.  With the manuscript now available for study, the complete text can be analysed in its original arrangement.  A digital version is publicly available on our website.

The scribes belonged to a family of MacGregors whose members regularly served as priests in the Fortingall area.  From internal evidence, one of the main scribes can be identified as Dubhghall MacGregor, vicar at Fortingall from 1544.  Dubhghall was the son of James MacGregor, Dean of Lismore, whose collection of Gaelic poetry, known as the Book of the Dean of Lismore, is the Library's single most important Scottish Gaelic manuscript (Adv.MS.72.1.37, first half of the 16th century).  The Chronicle of Fortingall is closely associated with the Book of the Dean of Lismore, showing some overlap in contents as well as the same multilingual scribal competence.  Both volumes make use of a similar, unusual Gaelic spelling system.

Item Provenance
Bought from Lyon & Turnbull, Edinburgh (18 May 2021, Lot 3)