Scottish and Irish researchers to investigate ancient Ogham script

04 August 2021
Digital scanning of Ogham stone, Lugnagappul, Co. Kerry. Nora White, with permission
Academics from Scotland and Ireland are harnessing cutting-edge digital and 3D technologies to protect the inscriptions and transform our understanding of the ancient Celtic Ogham writing system, it was announced today.

What is Ogham?

Ogham was invented over 1500 years ago and is found in the Republic of Ireland and across the four nations of Britain, and the Isle of Man. Ogham is an alphabet that appears on monumental inscriptions and occasionally portable objects dating from the 4th century AD onwards, and in a handful of manuscripts dating from the 9th century onwards. 

The majority of these are from Ireland, but nearly a third are found across England, Wales, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. These inscriptions are the oldest written records in the language ancestral to Modern Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx.

Only 16% of surviving Ogham-carved stone pillar are housed in national museums, with the vast majority remaining locally in churches, heritage centres or remote rural locations exposed to the elements.

Quest to create an Ogham database

Now, a major three-year interdisciplinary project, led by academics from the University of Glasgow and Maynooth University, will create a comprehensive digital online database of all 640 pre-1850 examples of Ogham script which will be easily accessible to scholars and the public alike. 

The project will break new ground in looking at Ogham in all media and all periods, and giving Ogham in Britain due weight alongside Ogham in Ireland. 

It will build on the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) Ogham in 3D project (2012-15), which focused primarily on Ogham pillars in state care in the Republic of Ireland. It was always hoped, not just to complete the corpus of Irish stones, but to collaborate with colleagues in Britain to include Ogham from all areas and on all types of supports. Now, finally, this can be done.

QUICK LINK: Enjoy a whole year of History Scotland magazine for just £20 with our 20th anniversary offer - CLICK HERE

Content continues after advertisements

The project is funded by the joint Arts and Humanities Research Council-Irish Research Council in the Digital Humanities scheme and will look at Ogham from the 4th century up to the present day.

The academics will collaborate with the National Museums of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, the British Museum, Manx National Heritage, Historic Environment Scotland, Wales’s Cadw, Ireland’s National Monuments Service, and the National Library of Scotland – all of whom have examples of Ogham in their care.

They will also work with Ireland’s Discovery Programme to create 3D digital models to enhance access to, understanding of, and engagement with, this unique cultural heritage. The 3D models produced by the project will also provide a baseline against which future weathering can be assessed, contributing to the protection of a unique archaeological resource threatened by climate change.

Professor Katherine Forsyth, Professor of Celtic Studies at the University of Glasgow’s School of Humanities, said: “Everyone’s heard of runes, but not so many people are familiar with Ogham, a highly unusual and amazingly clever writing system unique to these islands. We hope this project will help change that and bring Ogham to the wider attention it deserves.”

As well as providing resources for scholars, the project will also support Ogham in contemporary use offering guidance for writing the script and using Ogham fonts. 

It is hoped that it will help inspire new creative and artistic works which will keep Ogham relevant for the 21st century and digital age. This will include an exciting collaboration between Professor Forsyth and tattoo artists to produce an Ogham Tattoo Handbook for Bradan Press’s popular ‘Think before you ink’ series.

(report courtesy University of Glasgow)