Ogham: The Tree Alphabet

Ogham DCgham (OH-am) is an ancient Celtic alphabet made up of twenty unique symbols. It was mainly used to write primitive and old Irish, but inscriptions have also been found in old Welsh, Pictish, and Latin. There are nearly four hundred surviving Ogham inscriptions on stones found around the British Isles, the earliest dating back to the 4th century. These inscriptions were almost exclusively people’s names, and the stones they were inscribed on were mainly used as territory markers and memorials. 

Lunnasting StoneEach letter in the Ogham alphabet is composed of a centre line, crossed or met by short perpendicular or angled strokes. This form, made up entirely of straight lines, allows the letters to be easily carved, with the edge of the object being carved forming the central stroke. The first letter is always carved at the base of the line and the inscription read from the bottom up. 

Examples of Ogham are split between monumental inscriptions and scholastic inscriptions. The main difference between them lies in the midline: monumental inscriptions exclusively use the edge of an object as the midline whereas scholastic inscriptions typically draw a midline on the surface of the object to be inscribed. Every Pictish inscription discovered to date has been an example of scholastic Ogham.

Whilst the word Ogham refers to the form of the script itself, the collection of twenty symbols, or letters, are known collectively as the Beith-Luis-Nuin, often referred to as the Celtic Tree Alphabet since each of its letters corresponds to the name of a tree or shrub.

beith B Beith (BEH) Birch
luis L Luis (leh-WEESH) Rowan
fearn F Fearn (FAIR-n) Alder
saille S Saille (SAL-yuh) Willow
nuin N Nuin (NEE-un) Ash
huath H Húath (HOO-ah) Hawthorn
duir D Dair (DAW-r) Oak
tinne T Tinne (CHIN-yuh) Holly
coll C Coll (CULL) Hazel
quert Q Ceirt (kah-WAIRT) Apple
muin M Muin (MUN) Blackberry
gort G Gort (GORT) Ivy
ngetal Ng Ngéadal (GWEH-del) Reed
straif Z Straif (STRAF) Blackthorn
ruis R Ruis (ruh-WEESH) Elder
ailm A Ailm (ALM) Pine
onn O Onn (UNN) Gorse
ura U Úr (OO-rah) Heather
eadha E Edad (EH-yoh) Aspen
idho I Idad (EE-yoh) Yew

Interestingly the town closest to the little hamlet where we live is named Beith, the letter B, or birch, in Ogham.