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What is Ogham

What is Ogham?

Other than on our bottle designs, Ogham is an Early Medieval alphabet used primarily to write the early Irish language, and later the Old Irish language. There are roughly 400 surviving orthodox inscriptions on stone monuments throughout Ireland and western Britain, the bulk of which are in southern Munster.


Monumental ogham inscriptions are found in Ireland and Wales, with a few additional specimens found in southwest England (Devon and Cornwall), the Isle of Man, and Scotland, including Shetland and a single example from Silchester in England. They were mainly employed as territorial markers and memorials (grave stones). The stone commemorating Vortiporius, a 6th-century king of Dyfed (originally located in Clynderwen), is the only ogham stone inscription that bears the name of an identifiable individual. The language of the inscriptions is predominantly Primitive Irish; the few inscriptions in Scotland, such as the Lunnasting stone, record fragments of what is probably the Pictish language.

The more ancient examples are standing stones, where the script was carved into the edge (droim or faobhar) of the stone, which formed the stemline against which individual characters are cut. The text of these “Orthodox Ogham” inscriptions is read beginning from the bottom left-hand side of a stone, continuing upward along the edge, across the top and down the right-hand side (in the case of long inscriptions). Roughly 380 inscriptions are known in total (a number, incidentally, very close to the number of known inscriptions in the contemporary Elder Futhark), of which the highest concentration by far is found in the southwestern Irish province of Munster. Over one-third of the total are found in County Kerry alone, most densely in the former kingdom of the Corcu Duibne.

Later inscriptions are known as “scholastic”, and are post 6th century in date. The term ‘scholastic’ derives from the fact that the inscriptions are believed to have been inspired by the manuscript sources, instead of being continuations of the original monument tradition. Unlike orthodox ogham, some medieval inscriptions feature all five Forfeda. Scholastic inscriptions are written on stemlines cut into the face of the stone, instead of along its edge. Ogham was also occasionally used for notes in manuscripts down to the 16th century. A modern ogham inscription is found on a gravestone dating to 1802 in Ahenny, County Tipperary.

In Scotland, a number of inscriptions using the ogham writing system are known, but their language is still the subject of debate. It has been argued by Richard Cox in The Language of Ogham Inscriptions in Scotland (1999) that the language of these is Old Norse, but others remain unconvinced by this analysis, and regard the stones as being Pictish in origin. However, due to the lack of knowledge about the Picts, the inscriptions remain undeciphered, their language possibly being non-Indo-European. The Pictish inscriptions are scholastic, and are believed to have been inspired by the manuscript tradition brought into Scotland by Gaelic settlers.

A rare example of a Christianised (cross-inscribed) Ogham stone can be seen in St. Mary’s Collegiate Church Gowran, County Kilkenny.

The Ogham stone on Gigha

Situated just west of the ruins of Kilchattan Church, is the Cnoc A’Charraidh (Hill of the Pillar) on which stands the inscribed Ogham Stone. This pillar is square in section, standing five feet nine inches from the ground and measuring 3 feet 9 inches in circumference at the foot. Throughout the years it has received a fair amount of knocks, and the weathering on the exposed side has made it difficult to get a perfect transcription of the original sculpturing. However Professor R A S Macalister has given the reading as ‘VICULA MAQ COMGINI’ – FIACAL SON OF COEMGEN – and holds the opinion that it is a Scottish inscription cut under Pictish influence. Although there are other suggestions as to the meaning of the words, it is a gravestone with the conventional type of inscription giving the name of the deceased and that of his father, and probably dates from the earliest settlements of the Scots in Dalriada. 

Gighas Ogham Stone