Who was John Dewar?

John Dewar (1802–72) was a Gaelic-speaking native of Arrochar, a teller of traditional tales who had spent most of his life working as a sawyer and woodsman, but who was ‘discovered’ by John Francis Campbell of Islay when working on his epoch-making Popular Tales of the West Highlands in 1859. As a result, for the last decade of his life Dewar was paid by the duke of Argyll to wander around Argyll, Arran, Perthshire, Lochaber and his native Dunbartonshire, writing down historical tales in Gaelic from the mouths of the people. These stories were gathered into ten manuscripts, seven of which are kept at Inveraray Castle and three in the National Library of Scotland, totalling over 4,000 pages of writing – in effect, the people’s history of the West Highlands, told in their own language.

The subjects range from the wanderings of Robert Bruce in 1306 to the Appin Murder of 1752, taking in countless battles and feuds, the origins of clans and families, and many tales of heroism, especially the heroism of courageous, intelligent women. The collection, though chaotic, is of enormous value to the history of Scotland. Previous publications, such as John Mackechnie’s The Dewar Manuscripts Volume One of 1963, have scarcely scratched its surface.

Extraordinarily, John Dewar had never been to school, but taught himself to write both Gaelic and English, albeit slowly and painfully. Fortunately he had a superb memory. Being a slow writer, he invented a system of Gaelic shorthand to help him in writing down the stories, and he was studying the art of photography when Campbell found him in 1859. Yet curiously, there is no known photograph of him, which is why none appears in this website.

In short, Dewar was a modest man but a genius. We believe that he is one of Scotland’s greatest unsung heroes, and that his work deserves to be made available to the public in all its fascination, colour and glory.

The Dewar Project

The Dewar Project was founded in 2017. Led by Ronald Black and Dr Christopher Dracup, it is an independent group whose aims are simply to transcribe, translate, annotate, organise and publish the Dewar Manuscripts in their entirety.

Using photographs, the work of transcribing Dewar’s 4,338 pages of Gaelic handwriting was carried out by a worldwide team of volunteers who had no special qualifications other than basic computer skills and an interest in the project. Their transcripts were checked as they came in by a well-qualified team consisting of Ronnie Black, Chris Dracup, Sandy Johnstone and Janet Lodge. At the same time the material was translated afresh, mainly by Ronnie Black. This was Phase One of the project.

On 15 August 2023 the six years’ hard work of transcription and translation came to an end, leaving the Dewar Project with a magnificent digitised legacy to be explored and given to the public. By then the next two phases had already begun. Phase Two, which is in the capable hands of Sandy Johnstone, involves joining up the page-files into complete runs of stories, one Gaelic and one English, arranged by geographical area to correspond with the planned books. Phase three involves collecting and identifying the many place-names involved, photographing the key sites, and moving fully into research and publication.

For more information, see the Dewar Project website: http://www.dewarproject.com