Lermontov in Scotland.

As every schoolboy knows, Mikhail Lermontov “was a descendant of a Scottish soldier of fortune, George Learmonth, who settled in Russia in the early 17th century and adapted his name to Lermontov”; I quote a NY Times story by Stephen Castle, which describes his reception in the land of his ancestors, and specifically in the village of Earlston:

On Saturday, a bronze bust of Lermontov, whose verse is considered by many Russians as second only to Aleksandr Pushkin’s, will be unveiled on the tidy village green. There will be Russian and Scottish dancing, poetry readings and Russian guests — including at least one descendant of Lermontov, whose modern-day family has created and officially registered its own tartan. […]

Lermontov’s link to Thomas the Rhymer remained obscure here until 2011. One day, Gwen Hardie, who leads a group in Earlston that promotes awareness of Thomas the Rhymer and who helped organize the installation of the bust, answered her door to two visitors from Russia, one of whom was researching a book on Lermontov.

The next year, Ms. Hardie had another Russian visitor, Maria Koroleva, who is a descendant of Lermontov through her maternal line.

So intrigued was Ms. Koroleva by Lermontov’s Scottish connection that she learned Scottish Gaelic (spoken by about 58,000 people, about 1 percent of Scotland’s population), changed her first name to a Gaelic variant, Màiri Òg, and now teaches the language at Moscow State University.

There can’t be many Russians who learn Scottish Gaelic. (Thanks for the link, Trevor!)


  1. How did the name Erceldoune (the home town of Thomas the Rhymer) get distorted to Earlston? Wikipedia glosses the original name as ‘Prospect Fort’.

  2. Apparently there are quite a few Russians who study Scottish Gaelic.

    Otherwise books like this one would have no market:


  3. By the way, according to the Russian census of 2010, there were 208 people in Russia who were fluent in Irish language.

    Number of Scottish Gaelic speakers is not indicated, but perhaps they are hidden in “other languages” category.

  4. And astonishingly, 7.5 million Russians declared that they were fluent in English.

    I somehow doubt that…

  5. I thought that Lermontov’s Scottish connection was a plausible legend: quite a few Scots (especially Catholics) had served in the Russian army since the reign of Alexei Mikhailovich but the poet’s descent from Learmonth and/or Thomas the Rhymer was still tenuous.

    Lermontov grew up in the era when Walter Scott (in French translations) was all the rage in Russia (and so was Byron, whose mother was Scottish and who spent some of his childhood near Inverness). As an example, in 1822, when Lermontov was still a precocious child of eight, Zhukovsky’s translation of The Eve of St. John appeared. Lermontov would parody it in 1837 – in a relatively harmless way, surprisingly – so I have little doubt he knew it by heart as a child.

  6. Perhaps Russians might find Goidelic languages attractive for the strong palatal/nonpalatal contrast.

  7. I’ve always thought that writing the Goedelic languages phonetically in Cyrillic script would be a huge win. Somewhere floating around there is a page showing what this would look like, but I can’t find it right now; in the mean time, I offer you all Michael Everson’s page showing a parallel passage in native Coptic, Coptic-in-Greek, and Coptic-in-Cyrillic.

  8. J. W. Brewer says

    I’m not inclined to take this Scottish town’s claim to Thomas the Rhymer much more seriously than I take the claims of various U.S. municipalities to Paul Bunyan or John Henry.

  9. Apparently there are a surprising number of people in Israel who are fluent in the Irish language. The explanation for this is that Ireland provided UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon from 1978-2001, and they frequently did radio communication in Irish.

    I bet at least a few of those Russian Gaeilgeoirí have a similar explanation.

    On the other hand there are a few people who learn Irish just because they are big fans of Enya.

  10. Coptic-in-Cyrillic

    Rather confusing is the fact that и and н appear to be switched between Coptic and Cyrillic.

  11. Lermontov’s Scottish origin is not a legend, it’s pretty well confirmed by documents.

    It goes like this:

    1. Lermontov Mikhail Yurievich (1814-1841), poet, cavalry ensign
    2. Lermontov Yuri Petrovich (1787 – 1831), retired infantry captain
    3. Lermontov Petr Yurievich ( 1762 – 1811), retired artillery lieutenant
    4. Lermontov Yuri Petrovich (not very original with names, these Lermontovs! 1722 – 1778), first lieutenant
    5. Lermontov Petr Evtikhvievich (1698 – 1734), captain
    6. Lermontov Yuri (Evtikhi) Petrovich(d. 1708), stolnik (court title in Muscovy)
    7. Lermontov Petr Yurievich (d.1679), governor of Saransk
    8. Learmonth George (Yuri Andreevich Lermont), ( Balcomie, Fife, Scotland 1596 – 1634, near Smolensk, Russia), cavalry captain, in Russia since 1613 (captured as POW while serving in Polish army and entered Russian service)
    9. Andrew Learmonth (b. circa 1580)
    10. James Learmonth (b.1565 in Dairsie, Fife, Scotland)
    11. Sir James Learmonth of Dairsie (1541-1593)
    12. Sir Patrick Learmonth of Dairsie (1520-1593)
    13. James Provost of St Andrews Learmonth, 1st Earl Of Balcomie (1502-1547)
    14. Sir John David Learmonrth (1480-February 28,1526)
    15. Robert Learmonth (1445, in Clatto House, Fife, Scotland -1482)

    further genealogy becomes doubtful, but most sources agree that this branch of Learmonths is descended from earls of Dunbar, whose genealogy stretches back to 10th century Scotland.

    It is doubtful that Lermontov was descendant of Thomas the Rhymer (aka Thomas Learmonth of Erceldoune, Berwickshire (part of Scotland at the time). There are a couple of Thomas Learmonths in the part of genealogy I omitted who lived approximately at the same time, but they can’t be Thomas the Rhymer, because they lived in Falkirk, which is considerably further north from Berwickshire.

  12. @SFReader: Lermontov was a cavalry ensign for a while but he died an infantry lieutenant. Поручик Тенгинского полка, as every Russian schoolkid is supposed to know (I think); the Tenginsky was an infantry regiment.

    @John Cowan: What is the difference between the first and the fourth fonts, that is, the two non-Greek, non-Cyrillic ones? The first looks like the Old Church Slavonic variety of Cyrillic, so I would suggest unifying OCS Cyrillic with Coptic.

  13. Thanks for clarification. That’s another reason why you should never trust Wikipedia…

  14. —Perhaps Russians might find Goidelic languages attractive for the strong palatal/nonpalatal contrast.

    Some Russians apparently find Gaelic word Sassenach (Anglo-Saxons) simply irresistible…

  15. Berwickshire still is part of Scotland, it’s just not officially called that anymore (swallowed up in the Scottish Borders, along with Peeblesshire, Roxburghshire, and Selkirkshire). The county town was either Greenlaw or Duns! (But then Roxburgh hasn’t existed for about as long as Berwick has been in England – the county town of Roxburghshire was Jedburgh.)

  16. The fourth script on the Coptic page looks like Gothic (plus some Coptic extras).

  17. Yuri Andreevich Lermont

    Now that’s the way to do it! Your name is George and your father was named Andrew? (zap) Your names are now Yuri Andreevich. None of this business of randomly renaming foreigners Afanasy, please.


    Exactly (with the usual necessary additions). All four scripts are essentially offshoots of the evolving Greek alphabet tradition, but Greek proper is oddly the most deviant of them, having received a huge dose of Latin-based reform in the 18C (Cyrillic did too, of course), probably because most printers in Greek were in Western Europe, not in Ottoman-occupied Greece.

  18. I was surprise to find out that in the latest QS rating, the highest subject ranking for the Moscow University (MGU) was in linguistics, followed by physics/astronomy, mathematics, and modern languages. I think it’s safe to assume that at least 200 Russians (out of a population of 140+ million) have taken advanced Irish courses, say over the past 30 years, as prerequisites to degrees in languages, history, or country studies. Celtic languages must also have a special allure for some Russians in a way similar to Tolkien’s writings. On the other hand, Maria Koroleva is not some starry-eyed amateur. She started learning Scottish Gaelic while already a student of linguistics and has invested a good deal of energy in learning and then teaching the language at MGU (she also teaches Sanskrit). One of her students said his primary field of study is the Balkans; he thought the Highlands would be a useful comparison/parallel so he tried to learn Scots Gaelic on his own but did not get far until he joined Koroleva’s seminar.

    But surely Old Irish has more Russian fans than Highland Gaelic.

  19. But surely Old Irish has more Russian fans than Highland Gaelic.

    That would be my guess too.

  20. J. W. Brewer says

    It just struck me that Earlston is in the bottom right corner of Scotland (once the northern bit of Northumberland) where Gaelic was never ever the predominant language, making it (rather than e.g. the Borders dialect of Scots) an odd choice for Ms. Koroleva to get in touch with her distant heritage with. Obviously she’s still free to learn it because she thinks its cool, the same way one might think Sanskrit is cool etc.

  21. Now you make me wonder if the Gaelic name of Earlston isn’t a retrofit, like many of the Irish names of the counties.

  22. Now you make me wonder if the Gaelic name of Earlston isn’t a retrofit, like many of the Irish names of the counties.

    There are other Gaelic-derived placenames in the Borders: Melrose and Peebles, for example.

  23. And for some reason I didn’t know that Lermontov came from the family of Learmonth. Thanks!
    There were a lot of Scots kicking around that area over the years. During the invasion of Russia, you had General Barclay on the Russian side – and Marshal Macdonald on the French side. And the court physician to Peter the Great was a Scot: I inherited a wall-hanging that he was given by a visiting Tartar prince.

  24. Archiator Robert Erskine? (known in Russia as Robert Karlovich Areskin)

    He was quite a character – alchemist, Freemason, Jacobite conspirator and one of the top advisors to Peter the Great.

    I wonder what Tatar prince gave him a present.

    Perhaps it was this guy


  25. marie-lucie says

    ajay: During the invasion of Russia, you had … Marshal Macdonald on the French side.

    I did not know about this Marshal and thought that perhaps you were confusing him with Marshal or General MacMahon, but both are listed in Wikipedia.fr.: two French Macdonalds (father and son), and a whole family of Mac( )Mahons. Given their dates, one of each “clan” (probably an irrelevant concept at that point) could have been involved in the Russian campaign.

  26. I believe the Gaelic names in the southeast are a thin superstrate dating from the period of Gaelic dominance in the country as a whole (pre-12th century). In the southwest, spoken Gaelic extended into (then Scottish) Cumbria and didn’t die out completely in Galloway and Carrick till the 17th century.

  27. Perhaps it was this guy

    Very charming account of this diplomat’s travels, ostensibly to assure safe passage of a Kalmyk nobleman returning from a pilgrimage to Lhasa, but really a military-precision intelligence report about Russia’s expansion across Siberia. Made even more charming by the fact that the 1821 English translation mangled the Russian terms, twice phonetically transliterated to Manchu and then to English, almost beyond recognition.

    Like Tilusen reports on distances, terrain, vegetation, and river travel condition in the (presently submerged) Angara Cataracts near the confluence of “Eleem” (Ust’-Ilim) counting such and such number of “Po-lo-ke” and “Si-fi-la” rapids (пороги & шиверы in Russian)

  28. and the list of year 1711 “Po-lo-ke” (matched with XX c. records):
    1) Pohomi-Eurna ~~ Похмельный
    2) Piani ~~ Пьяный
    3) Patun ~~ Падун
    4) Toeur-qui ~~ Долгий
    5) Shamanseke ~~ Шаманский
    6) Opulinseke ~~ Аилинский
    7) Mooeur-suke ~~ Мурский
    8) Setili-loshe ~~ Стрелочный

    Beyond “Po-lo-ke” and “Si-fi-la”, there was a third kind of a river obstacle, “Pe-ke”, which didn’t ring a bell with me at first. It turns out to be a regionalism, “Быки”, part-submerged rocks.

  29. marie-lucie, it must be Étienne-Jacques-Joseph-Alexandre MacDonald, duc de Tarente.

  30. I wonder what Tatar prince gave him a present. Perhaps it was this guy

    Interesting guy, but the dates don’t match – the present was apparently received in around 1698. The doctor was indeed Robert Erskine.

  31. marie-lucie: The MacMahons, presumably, were originally Irish rather than Scottish – MacMahon is a very Irish name. Alexei is correct, it was the duke of Tarentum, who commanded the subsidiary attack against St Petersburg in 1812.

  32. I thought he came to Russia only in 1704.

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