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history
Making History
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Listen to this editionTuesday 3.00-3.30 p.m
Sue Cook presents the series that examines listeners' historical queries, exploring avenues of research and uncovering mysteries.
Dr Robert Armstrong (1788-1867) - Gaelic lexicographer

Listener's query

"Can you tell me about Dr Robert Armstrong, who compiled the first Gaelic dictionary? We found some of his papers in a writing-box bought at auction."

Brief summary
The papers were in a secret drawer in an elegant mahogany writing-box which opens diagonally to form a felt-covered slope. In the drawer were documents, letters, books, even a watch. The correspondence was connected with Robert Armstrong and his daughters who clearly owned the box as late as 1890.
Dr Robert Armstrong was born at Kenmore in Perthshire in 1788. He was a classical scholar who, fairly soon after finishing his university career, moved to London to become a schoolmaster. In his spare time he wrote a number of humorous and scientific articles, including one on meteorology, but he made his mark with his magnum opus, a Gaelic dictionary - the first ever published. Ronald Black, the Gaelic editor of The Scotsman newspaper, is in no doubt of his significance.

Armstrong's dictionary took 15 years to compile, and when published it cost 3 guineas. It was bought by subscribers whose names were listed in the front of the book. Most of the subscribers were in the West Indies, in Jamaica, where many middle-class Scotsmen had emigrated.

Dr Armstrong sank what money he had into the dictionary and lost it. His dictionary was in the middle-range niche market. Three years after it was published, the top-of-the-market dictionary produced by the Highland Society appeared, and then a cheaper part-work dictionary ate at his market from the bottom. Armstrong's dictionary, though highly regarded today, was never reprinted.

Robert Armstrong's dictionary brought him recognition in high places. King George IV made him Gaelic Lexicographer in Ordinary, a post with honour but no money. There was a new mood in the 1820s towards Scotland. Moved along by Sir Walter Scott, it was born of guilt over Culloden and the virtual erasure of a culture. The tartan had been illegal, but by the 1820s it was not only legal but fashionable and King George himself paraded through the Edinburgh in tartan. This was at the beginning of the growth of what eventually became "Balmorality" - exaggerated Highlandism - under Queen Victoria.

Armstrong lived on his earnings from his teaching at the South Lambeth Grammar School, and when he retired and moved to Richmond, Lord Palmerston got him a civil list pension of £60. Armstrong died in 1867 and his widow was given an annual pension. However, the family were never free from financial problems - in our listener's writing-box is a copy of letter from his daughters to the Prime Minister, then Lord Salisbury, in 1890:

"We are the daughters and sole surviving children of a distinguished scholar, Robert Archibald Armstrong, author of the first Gaelic dictionary and appointed Gaelic Lexicographer to the Sovereign, King George IV. The book, though the first of its kind and of a high reputation was wholly and entirely a pecuniary loss. Our mother, who was in receipt of a pension of fifty pounds died in December 1889, our only means of subsistence now are our precarious earnings gained by teaching and letting part of our house. We hope that our petition for a small annuity will be sympathetically received."

Supported in their petition by many members of the Scottish nobility, they were successful and were given an annuity of £50 per annum.

Expert consulted
Ronald Black, Gaelic Editor of The Scotsman

Further reading
Michael Newton, Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World (Four Courts Press, 2000)
O. Hainle, editor, Unity in Diversity: Studies in Irish and Scottish Gaelic Language, Literature and History (The School of Irish, Trinity College, Dublin, 2004)


Websites

The Gaelic Language

Scottish Gaelic Information and Gaelic Forum


Please note: the BBC accepts no responsibility for the content of external websites.

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Making History

Vanessa Collingridge
Vanessa CollingridgeVanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald. 

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Making History is a Pier Production for BBC Radio 4 and is produced by Nick Patrick.

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