Catalogue of Gaelic Manuscripts in the National Library of Scotland

© Ronald Black, 2011

Adv. MS 72.1.41

(Gaelic MS.XLI). LETTER OF PRESTER JOHN etc.

Mackinnon 62 f., 119 f. Mackechnie 195 f.


15th(?)–17th cent. Vellum. 15 x 10–11 cms. 16 ff. Originally 2 separate manuscripts: (a) ff.1/16, (b) ff.2–15.

Part (a) , a bifolium, is by a single anonymous hand, origin and date unknown. It evidently entered the possession of James Macpherson, for it became no.11 of the 19 items sent to the H.S.S. on 6th Jan. 1803 by Macpherson’s literary executor, John Mackenzie, Secy. of the H.S.L. “London 5th January 1803 / John Mackenzie” appears at ff.1v and 16v. Mackenzie described it as “A small Octavo Vellum Manuscript in Prose, containing two Leaves, signed, London Janry. 5th. 1803 John Mackenzie”. (H.S.S. minutes.) F.1r was marked “No XI” and initialled by John Campbell, Donald Mackintosh and Donald Smith (members of the “Ossian Committee” of the H.S.S.) and by Lewis Gordon (Depute Secy. of of the H.S.S.) when they inspected the manuscripts on arrival in Edinburgh on 10th Jan. 1803. Also on f.1r are the word “Medical”, and the initials of James McHardy, indicating (cf. Adv.MS.72.1.43 infra) that part (a) was in the hands of Ewen MacLachlan at his death in 1822. next to borrow it was the Rev. Mackintosh Mackay, who acted as editor of the H.S.S. Dict. from 1824 until its publication in 1828; his initials appear at f.16v.

Part (b) was written by several hands, one text to each. The main text, the Letter of Prester John, has been dated 16th cent. (Greene, Celtica 2, pp.120 f.) It is written in a large ostentatious script, with leaves pricked for spacing. The scribe is anonymous, but he was writing for a Niall Ó Néill. One of that name, d.1544 (Ann. Conn.), is celebrated in Franciscan MS. A 8 as a patron of the arts (P. de Brún, Cat.; C. Plummer, On the Colophons and Marginalia of Irish Scribes, pp.7 f.). The scribe Maghnus, who identifies himself in the note at f.13v, uses, by contrast, a small, painstaking hand. He seems to have written the poem at f.14r5. The text at f.14v7 appears to be subscribed Niall Mac Iallaigh and dated 1608 (both readings uncertain). (Cf. Niall mac Ialláin, BM Cat.2, p.310) Creatures are drawn in the lower margins of ff.4v and 14v; that at f.14v is like a dog. Early anonymous marginalia: 3r5 “go rithe mainistir(?) dirg”, 12r “Aoíne no corgus no catair / níor congbhus a n-ioc fhola De / ar dhil mo chaland do ciocrus / mh’anmain faraon iocfas he”, 13r portions of text crudely copied, 14r “conuide sin [ ]aomta na h-in—ag nuige so”. Late marginalia appear passim and include the words “Dedalus Kells Benedict” (8v-9r) and the date 17th July 1714 (11r), in what looks like the same hand. Part (b) entered the possession of Dr. John Smith of Campbeltown (1747–1807), and appears to have been one of a number of MSS. sold to the H.S.S. by his widow in 1811. (Ingliston MS. A.i.9.) His nephew (also John Smith; his signature appears at f.2v) describes it in that year as “A duodecimo Parchment M.S. of about 30 pages. It is also written in the Gaelic character…..and can be read without much difficulty. It purports to be a late copy of a letter written by Prêtre John (a personage at one time of no small renown, Sàr Seòn Sagart, King of Abyssinia, as he is styled in the MS) to the Emperor of Rome, giving an account of his dominions and the countries adjacent. All the wonderful stories that the author could collect are here enumerated and applied to Abyssinia, such as the Phoenix, Centaurs, Griffins, &c. &c.” [Ingliston MS. A.iv.24.] At f.15v is “Mr. Smiths M.S. N 5.” “32” appears f.2r marg. sup.

The joining of (a) and (b) may have begun when the H.S.S. MSS. were deposited with the Adv. collection in 1850, as they are not separately listed in Skene’s scroll cat. of 1861. Skene numbered the MS., in correct sequence, as XLVII, but Mackinnon, apparently identifying it with the lost medical quarto described by MacLachlan (Adv.MS.72.3.4, p.121), allotted to it the number XLI and the tag “J. M’Kenzie, No. 5” which rightly belong to the lost MS. “No. 5” is pencilled in at f.1v in a modern hand. In 1915 the two parts were bound together, (a) forming the flyleaves for (b). Pencilled foliation.

f.

1 r Commentary on Aphorisms of Hippocrates (fragments). Beg. aceph. and illegible. 1r27 In exercitantibus ad sumum etc. 1v endstegascaid asa h-aithli sin caindigecht an folmaigthi do thomus 7 adeir. 16r beg. na h-easlainti 7 gabaidh an t-ughdar isin inad so easlainti ger ar son gach uilidhi easlainti continoidighi. 16r29 Tenuibus dietis etc . 16v ends Nod let. corob mo pecaighid na daine easlana isna dietaib seime.

2 r Fragment of Materia Medica? Beg. anfiac 7 [ ]ferdoicc annso amail adeir na feallsamain. 2r9 Colbus .i. anfiach 7 ata sualtaighe i ndan aige. Increasingly illegible towards foot of page.

2 v LETTER OF PRESTER JOHN. Beg. Is si so foirm na litri do chuir rí na hInnia edhon Sar Seon Saccart dochum an impire Romhánaig 7 dochum righ Franc. (Celtica, vol.2, pp.130–9.) Correct order of ff.: 2, 5–12, 15, 3, 4, 13, 14. A different hand has added the following. 13v margg., “Misi Maghnus 7 is amhghar ataim tar eis Neill I Neill 7 is galar comcoitcend [ ] 7 badh ealadhain sin”. 14r marg. sup., “amen”. 14r4, “Oroid ar anaim an fhir dar sgriobhadh an leabharsae .i. Niall O Neilt”. 15v marg. sup ., “cuirrcech ar n-eg a da h-én / da buirrcech [ a aig dreén]” (=ending of a poem at LB 108b attrib. to Dondchad Mór [Ó Dálaigh”], Gaelic Jour. v, p.41). BDH p. 11.14

14 r5 Triar bandrui bhi as tir thoir, 5 qq. Mythological.

14 r14 Donal con re tech an iar, 7 qq. Prognostications from the howling of dogs. (Éigse 14, pp.313–5.)

14 v7 Prophecies beg. Tiucfaidh in calb gairectach. Obscure. Subscribed (?) “Niall Mac Iallaigh. / 1608”.

Two leaves missing from this MS are found at RIA 466 (C iv 2), ff.15 & 24 (conjunct). F.15 contains the portion of the Prester John text missing at p.137 of Greene’s ed. (i.e. from between Adv.MS.72.1.41, ff.15 & 3). F.24 contains Gul mna sithe etc as described in RIA Cat.; the hands of the 3 texts seem to correspond to those of the 3 texts at Adv.MS.72.1.41, f.14. This conjunct forms the outer leaf of a gathering and its relationship to the rest of the RIA MS is uncertain, but there is a good deal on prognostication in the MS generally. The hands do not appear to correspond except as far as stated above.

© Ronald Black, 2011