THE National Library of Scotland will host its first-ever dual-language exhibition this year in celebration of the work of John Francis Campbell – a 19th-century figure who took it upon himself to save Gaelic folktales at risk of dying out.

A keen comparative mythologist, Campbell was inspired by other significant collections such as folktales written during the Islamic Golden Age (often referred to in the English-speaking world as “Arabian Nights”), as well as the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm in Germany.

Convinced Scotland had as rich a resource of folktales owing to its Celtic and Nordic influences, he made it his life’s work to ensure Gaelic tales endured.

Born into a wealthy family and educated at Eton and the University of Edinburgh, Campbell had the means – as well as the inclination – to take the time to engage with Scotland’s Highland communities and ensure local folktales were preserved.

Exhibition curator Dr Ulrike Hogg said: “Coming from an aristocratic background, Campbell was unusual in the sense that he spoke Gaelic, and was immersed in island life as a boy – his childhood was spent living in the care of the family piper in Islay.

“His fluency in the language, together with his deep familiarity with Gaelic culture, meant he was quick to gain the trust of people wherever he went.

“With the help of scribes proficient in written Gaelic, he recorded these tales all over the Highlands and Islands. Many storytellers were happy for him to record and publish their stories – in Gaelic and English – for more people to enjoy.”

The There are a few varieties of folktales in the Gaelic tradition. There are the hero sagas, similar to those which are told in Ireland involving Fionn Mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) and other household names. However, it is the other kind – the more localised folktales involving giants, witches, and dark tales involving malevolent creatures – that Campbell was most concerned with saving. These existed solely in the oral tradition at a time that – for various reasons – the storytelling population was dwindling in parts of Scotland.

Dr Hogg adds: “A number of the stories have close parallels in the story collections from other countries, such as ‘The Frog Prince’ or ‘The Town Musicians of Bremen’ in the Grimms’ tales. Campbell was really pleased to discover these stories and their connections to other parts of the world, so for him, these would have been among the most exciting ones.”

Campbell documented his travels by making many notebooks, but he was also a keen visual artist, and captured the essence of people, communities, sites and landscapes through sketches and paintings. The exhibition will highlight his own personal library (a collection held at the National Library) and the manuscripts and published works of his endeavours. Visitors will also experience Campbell’s work through a range of mixed media – his artworks as well as Gaelic folktales brought to life via new sound recordings specifically made for the exhibition.

Bord na Gaidhlig ceannard Shona MacLennan said: “We are delighted to see this exhibition being available bilingually and celebrating the important work of John Francis Campbell.”Gaelic history and culture enriches the lives of many and it is vitally important that these are represented in Gaelic itself whilst adding to the aims of the National Gaelic Language Plan that Gaelic is used more often, by more people in a wider range of situations. We look forward to this being the first of many bilingual exhibitions.”

The exhibition, Sgeul | Story: Folktales from the Scottish Highlands, will be complemented by a programme of events and learning activities, which will be announced later in the spring. It will open in June 2023 and will run until April 2024. Entry to the National Library’s exhibitions is free.