Sunday, 22 June 2014

A Mysterious Light on Hasgeir: The Teine Mór or Big Fire - Part 2

We’ve promised you another article about the ‘mysterious light’ seen on the rocky islet of Hasgeir off North Uist in October 1867. Here it is, as printed in the Inverness Courier, 14 November 1867, on the page directly following the article printed in our last blog. As you can see, it’s quite a length, but we think that, despite the generously upholstered Victorian prose style, it’s so fascinating, taking in everything from gory and, for us today, rather upsetting details concerning local seal-hunting to the intriguing teine mór or big fire, that it’s worth quoting in full.

The Mysterious Light at Hasker –
A Legend Revived.

We have mentioned elsewhere in a paragraph from North Uist that a wreck was supposed to have taken place on the rocky island of Hasker, as a light was seen on one of the headlands. A correspondent refers at greater length to the subject in the following communication: –

   ‘North Uist, Oct. 26, 1867. – The weather must have been bad enough at Nether-Lochaber last fortnight when it suggested to your correspondent in that quarter the woeful picture of Lear and his slender retinue on that fearful night, which ‘pitied neither wise men nor fools,’ when his unnatural daughter turned him away from her door. Here, also, the rains and storms have been foul and furious. Had we never heard of Old Lear, the elements are often fierce enough to draw largely on our fears and sympathies.

   ‘In a former communication I had occasion to mention that on our western shores the water is shallow and dotted over with rocks and shoals. A reference to a chart of these parts, however, will show that the coast of North Uist presents a more formidable array of rocks and rocky islands than any other point of the whole Long Island.

First, there is Monach Island, where a lighthouse has been lately erected, and which has been the scene of many a painful spectacle – where many a noble ship and gallant sailor finished their career for ever. Then, there is St Kilda, which, though standing thirty-five miles out to sea, may still be considered merely as a spur or continuation of the inner rocks; and nearly in a line with St Kilda, and some twelve miles from land, there is another huge rock, or rather a range of rocks, rising sheer up from a great depth to a height of upwards of two hundred feet above the watermark, and forming, as it were, a rampart or outpost for the protection of the throng of low-lying rocks in its rear, and which in its presence hide their diminished heads.

This rock, which is called Hasker, is irregular in shape: three sides present an unbroken line of steep precipitous cliffs, which utterly defy any attempt to scale them even in the finest weather. On one side, however, there is a ledge, where landing can be effected under favourable circumstances. Hasker is the resort of innumerable seals and sea-birds.

Thither, till of late years, the natives of this island have been in the habit of repairing occasionally to shoot, and, apart from its profitable aspect, this was considered a bit of adventure, and a good deal of preparation, excitement, and rivalry where displayed on such occasions. As a rule, the best boats, the fairest weather, and the stoutest men in nerve and limb were selected. They usually arrived at the rock about midnight, and having gone through some preliminary arrangements, inter alia, that of substituting for their boots several pairs of stockings to protect their feet from the mussels, with which every stone is incrusted, they commenced their march noiselessly, in perfect order, and armed with huge clubs, in quest of their intended victims.

About half-way up the rock is a broad, shallow pool, which, under the friendly shelter of tall, overhanging cliffs, and surrounded with smooth ledges, might well have figured in Homer as a favourite resort of Nereids, but which more probably has served the seals as sleeping berths for countless ages. To this spot the storming party bend their steps. The poor unsuspecting seals, roused by this unexpected intrusion, only succeed in getting into the grandest confusion in their frantic efforts to find their way to the sea.

Finding themselves hemmed in on all sides, the instinct of self-preservation inspires them in many instances with sufficient courage to face their assailants. Meanwhile, the wholesale slaughter goes on mercilessly, and, according to all accounts, it requires a firm footing, a steady nerve, and considerable dexterity in wielding the club to hit the grinning monster at the right moment and on the most vulnerable point. But I digress; I will now turn to the weather once more.

   ‘One night last week some keen-sighted persons observed a light at Hasker, as they thought, and next day, with the help of a spying-glass, sure enough three or four men were seen stalking about on the loftiest ridge of the rock. The report spread with electric speed and produced the greatest sensation throughout the country. Many were the manifestations of sympathy and the expressions of anxiety lest the poor castaways should succumb to want and exposure before they could be rescued. But, to support hope, like Whang the miller’s dream, the light was seen again in the same spot for several consecutive nights, though there were, indeed, a few obstinate persons who, from some defect or other in their visual faculties, could not manage to see it at all.

The westerly gales which had continued to blow all this time with provoking pertinacity at last calmed down, when several boats set out, amply provided with food and clothing, for the forlorn outcasts. After struggling long and bravely with the Atlantic billows, the party at length arrived at their destination; but what was their disappointment and surprise at discovering no trace of human beings. The question, of course, naturally arose – how to account for the light! Some gently hinted that possibly there was no light, or, if there was, that it may have been more imaginary than real. Others, not much disposed to be sceptical in such a plain case, scouted this heresy, and accounted for it on more reasonable grounds. But the true solution was reserved to a conclave of wise matrons, who declared in the most decided terms that it was the Teine mòr – big fire – and nothing else.

   ‘The history of this singular phenomenon is curious, and as it does not exactly partake of the same character with the other legends and traditional lore of this part of the country, inasmuch as its first appearance, which was connected with a mysterious and rather extraordinary occurrence, is of comparatively recent date, perhaps it may not be much out of place to give a brief account of it.

A narrow strip of land immediately bordering on the west sea-coast consists entirely of sand-banks which abound in madder root. This root was largely used by our great-grandmothers as a dye stuff; but as the holes and burrows formed in digging for it helped materially to perpetuate the non-cultivation of the land, it was in due season prohibited under heavy penalties. As might be expected, the more refractory of these worthy dames did not submit to this curtailment of their liberty with a good grace; but as they could get madder root no more by fair means, they did not scruple to take it under the friendly shades of night.

It was in the island of Benbecula, some fifty years ago, one Sunday night, that a young woman went to dig this root, despite the warm remonstrances of her mother, who, the story says, cursed her daughter as being always a perverse stubborn creature. This young woman was never seen again. A few traces of her, however, were discovered, such as some loose articles of clothing and stray bits of the roots she had been digging, which were found, not in one place, but marking out a line, in the direction of the sea-beach. Not the faintest footprints could be seen along this track, but scratches were observed in the sand, as if a person were dragged along rapidly, and at the same time held aloft, but not so high but that his toes at intervals came in contact with the surface.

It was on the night following this tragic occurrence that the Teine mòr, or, as it was styled in English, Spunkie, put in its first appearance. The mystery was now cleared up to the satisfaction of all sensible persons. It was evident that the adversary of mankind had danced away with the ill-fated woman, and that her spirit was condemned to wander, in this shape visible to mortal eyes, around the scenes of her former misdoings, both as a punishment to herself and a warning to all young women to abstain in future from madder root digging on Sunday nights, and from incurring the curses of their mothers. No wonder, then, that this phenomenon should at all times inspire an uncommon amount of superstitious awe and terror.

At first it confined itself for several years to Benbecula, roving about dark lakes, marshes, and arms of the sea, a fit representative of the disconsolate shades wandering on the slimy banks of the Styx, vainly craving a passage of grim old Charon till the term of their penance had expired. Gaining courage by experience, it subsequently extended its peregrination to the neighbouring islands, and many and various are the stories told of its antics. It often indulged in a mischievous trick of waylaying the wayfarer in the most lonely and out-of-the-way places, such as crossing fords and moors. Of late years, however, it has begun to lose credit and a goodly share of its former terror, on discovering which it made several excursions across the Minch: and the last that was seen of it has been already recorded, when it was enlightening the scarts [cormorants] and seals on the wild rock of Hasker!’

The story of Whang the Miller, from Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World, remained a stalwart of the school curriculum through the Victorian era and beyond.

As many readers will know, spunkie is a widespread dialectal word for the Will o’ the Wisp. In the next blog we’ll present some other accounts of the teine mór: how it first came into this world, what it looked like, where it was seen, and the people it haunted.

Inverness Courier, 14 November 1867, p. 5 [with extra paragraph breaks added for legibility's sake]

Hasgeir from a helicopter (Denise van den Brun)

Thursday, 29 May 2014

A Mysterious Light on Hasgeir: The Teine Mór or Big Fire - Part 1

Following on from our last newspaper column blog, we’re going to print two very different pieces from the Inverness Courier, about the same strange phenomenon: a mysterious light seen on the rocky islet of Hasgeir, eight miles into the Atlantic off the west coast of North Uist. We then hope to print a few accounts of the intriguing teine mór: if you don’t know the story of the ‘big fire’ yet, we can promise that it’ll be worth the wait!
Although the event the articles describe apparently took place some time in October 1867, both of them were printed in the same edition of the Courier, on 14 November. The first one – the more straightforward account – was reprinted in the Dundee Advertiser two days later, while the second was partially copied by the Elgin Courier the next day. To begin with, here’s the first article as it appeared on page 5:
North Uist. – A Mysterious Light. – A light having been seen for several successive nights on the rocks of Hasker, the general opinion prevailing was that a ship’s crew had been cast away there and had lost their boat. The circumstance of a number of fresh deals [planks of fir or pine] being washed ashore on the beach opposite to those rocks increased the current belief to such a degree that a boat should be sent to rescue any lives that might be there. Alexander Mann, and five other fishermen, volunteered to make the attempt. They started from the Bay of Hoglan [Bàgh Hogha Glan, beside Taigh a’ Ghearraidh], and succeeded in landing on the rock. These rocks are difficult of access even in summer, but no trace of any landing on the rocks or of any people having been there lately, was found. Whether the light was an unusual star, or the reflection from the lighthouse on the rocks in Hasker, is not known. The Rev. John. A. Macrae, minister of North Uist; Dr Macdonald, J.P.; and Capt. Macrae, J.P.; have recommended, by a memorial to the Board of Trade, that these hardy fishermen should be rewarded for the risk of their voluntary efforts in proceeding to the rocks, as the service occupied several days, and was performed at great risk. Mr K. Groom of Stornoway, receiver of wrecks for the Long Island, has forwarded the memorial to the proper quarter, after strongly recommending that the prayer of the memorial may be granted.
The boat crew were given a reward for the dangers they underwent: five pounds, ‘to be divided amongst them’, out of the Mercantile Marine Fund. Local genealogists might be interested in their names: according to information in the RCAHMS Canmore site, as well as Alexander Mann there were Roderick Macaulay, A. McLellan, L. McLellan, J. McDouglas, and A. McIsaac. We would be very interested to hear more about them.
In our next blog, we’ll print the second, much longer article that appeared in the Inverness Courier. Although it deals with the same event, it’s rather more colourful...

Inverness Courier, 14 November 1867, 5.

Hasgeir eight miles off Rubha Ghriminis [by Sean Morley,]

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Highland Newspapers online - and an obituary of Father James MacGregor

It’s been a long time coming, but a new age is slowly dawning for Highland history. At long last, Highland newspapers are being digitised and put online – for a price! So far, the British Newspaper Archive has made available a complete run of the Inverness Courier up until the end of the 1860s, and just a single year, 1879, of the Oban Times. When all newspapers from the Highlands (and further afield) are finally digitised and accessible on computer, it will revolutionise our understanding of the history of the region, allowing us to search and browse not only the news being reported in their pages, but also all the fascinating columns, letters, lore, poetry, song, and advertisements they contain: all this without having to travel to libraries and wade through fiddly, noisy, eye-aching reels of microfilm.
There are, of course, problems. Firstly, Optical Character Recognition is still not good enough to allow accurate and comprehensive searches of what we’re looking for: over and over again coarse, irregular newspaper fonts and smudged ink (to say nothing of curled page edges or poor digitised images!) play havoc with our investigations. We can never be sure that we haven’t missed that crucial piece of evidence: in the end, hit-and-miss searches are still no substitute for comprehensive, methodical, page-by-page trawls. When it comes to searching for Gaelic words, of course, these problems multiply exponentially – though, as the language has historically used Roman letters, Scottish Gaelic is not so unsearchable as its Irish cousin (at present, though this may well change).
A more serious problem, one maybe needing to be addressed as soon as possible, relates to different editions of single newspapers. Newspaper runs, of course, have always been altered and adjusted as fresh news comes in during the evening and the night. Again, newspapers have printed and continue to print different editions for different areas. There is no such thing, then, as an official, canonical, single specific issue of, for instance, the Inverness Courier or the Oban Times for a particular day.
A major problem for us in the Highlands is that different newspaper editions might offer local news, local columnists, or local occasional literature (particularly material in Gaelic) that might not have been printed in the ‘main’ edition. As we might expect, such local editions have a particularly low survival rate, and it would be rather catastrophic if old numbers from these runs were to end up in a skip because the main edition of the newspaper was now ostensibly ‘safely online’. In the future we shall still have to consult hard paper copies (no matter how fragile), trawl through microfilms (no matter how exasperating), or browse newspaper cuttings-books (of which we have a plethora, from several different owners, in the Carmichael Watson Project).
Over the next few blogs we’ll print some Carmichael-related material (and maybe some non-Carmichael-related material too) culled from newspapers in the Highlands and beyond. Here, to begin with, is an obituary for Father James MacGregor, Roman Catholic priest at Ardkenneth, an t-Ìochdar, South Uist. The piece was printed in the Inverness Courier for 25 April 1867. Maighstir Seumas had died some time previously, on 15 February, of what appears to have been a painful kidney infection.
Obituaries are fascinating in what they tell us of how contemporaries viewed the deceased, and the little glimpses and hints they give into personalities. As a search for his name in the Carmichael Watson Project, the Calum Maclean Project, or Tobar an Dualchais  demonstrates, Father James MacGregor remained well-known in tradition for well over a century after his death, not just as a local character, but also for his reputation as a healer, occasionally employing somewhat unorthodox methods.
Notes from Uist.

   A correspondent in the Long Island writes as follows: –
   ‘Two persons have lately died in this quarter who will be much missed – the Rev. Jas. Macgrigor, Roman Catholic priest, South Uist, and Mrs Macdonald, Scolpaig, North Uist. Both died at the age of seventy-seven. Mr Macgrigor was a native of the interior of Perthshire. He studied at the Roman Catholic College of Lismore, Argyllshire, before that seminary was removed to Blair, Aberdeenshire. After leaving Lismore he was appointed to the mission station of Lochaber, where he remained for ten years. Thence he was transferred to Iocar, South Uist, where he laboured for the long period of thirty-nine years. Mr Macgrigor was a man of humour and cheerfulness, and endowed with much sound common sense. He was tolerant towards all, and lived in peace and charity with all men. It was be safely affirmed of him that he was equally beloved and respected by all classes and all denominations. He had a good knowledge of medicine, and the people had great confidence in his skill. Like the noble Fingal of old, of whose son’s poems he was fond to the last, his door was never closed. His greatest delight was to see people at his house, and as far as in his power to administer to their comfort and happiness. If Mr Macgrigor had a predominant weakness, it was land-improving and iron gates. He had tons of iron rails and iron gates about him. On the short approach leading to his house at Aird-Choinnich he had no fewer than three or four ponderous iron gates, each more complex than the other in its construction and fastenings. This, upon one occasion, led to a witty remark from the late Bishop Murdoch, of Glasgow, himself a man of much humour. Upon his coming to Aird-Choinnich on one occasion rather unexpectedly, and experiencing some difficulty in getting through the gates, he remarked that ‘if Father Macgrigor guarded the way to heaven as effectually as that to his house, it would be no easy task effecting an entrance.’ Mr Macgrigor was a man of great integrity, and at heart a thorough gentleman. With the exception, perhaps, of the funeral of the late greatly-beloved and regretted Dr Maclean, of Milton, so large a concourse of people as that which attended Mr Macgrigor’s funeral has not been seen in this quarter for many a day. Protestant widows were there, equally demonstrative in their grief as their Roman Catholic sisters; and Protestant ministers were there, who united with Roman Catholic priests in saying that they had all lost a friend whose equal they were not likely soon to see again. – Mrs Macdonald, Scolpaig, was a native of Skye. She was a lady of a fine presence and personal appearance, and of much culture and intelligence. Although none could escape feeling that he was in the presence of a lady of superior attainments, her unassuming modesty prevented her revealing the rich stores of her mind to any but her intimate friends. Mrs Macdonald was highly respected by all, and greatly beloved by the poor.’

Mrs Macdonald, Scolpaig, was Barbara née Tolmie (1789–1867), daughter of John Tolmie (1742–1823), Seoc Tolm, tacksman of Uiginish in Skye. She was the widow of Captain John Macdonald (d. 1843), tacksman of Scolpaig in North Uist, and mother of John Macdonald of Newton (1824–88), factor of North Uist from 1855 and a close family friend of Alexander Carmichael.

Inverness Courier, 25 April 1867, 7
Mackenzie, Hector Hugh. The Mackenzies of Ballone (Inverness: Northern Chronicle, 1941), 949.

St Michael's, Ardkenneth.

Friday, 6 December 2013

‘Gaelic Erotica’: Unveiled At Last

We knew about the article already. No. 1081 of Mary Ferguson and Ann Matheson’s Scottish Gaelic Union Catalogue (Edinburgh, 1984) is the bare entry:
GAELIC erotica. Paris: H. Weiter. 1907. 73p. 16cm. Reprinted from Κρυπτάδια X.

Apparently only one example had been located in a public library in Scotland: a photocopy in the National Library of Scotland.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, the curious no longer need to fight over that single example in Edinburgh. Kryptádia is online.
Kryptádia: Recueil de documents pour servir à l’étude des traditions populaires: the name sounds innocent enough. In fact, for nearly thirty years, between 1883 and 1911, in 12 volumes, editors and scholars connected with the respectable French folklore journal La Tradition carried on an alternative and rather less reputable concern on the side. Kryptádia gave space to erotic folktale, folklore, and folksong collections in a number of languages.
Information about the history of Kryptádia is hard to come by. What we have derives from the remarkable scholar Gershom Legman (1917–99), who, during his early life in the United States, followed by decades of self-enforced exile in France, managed to compile and preserve an extraordinary folklore collection made up of the kind of material that would never appear, at that time at least, in respectable folklore journals.
Kryptádia was edited at first by the South Slavicists Friedrich S. Krauss (1859–1938) and Isidore Kopernicky, with the help of the French and Italian folklorists Henri Gaidoz (1842–1932), Gaston Paris (1839–1903), Giuseppe Pitrè (1841–1916), and Henri Carnoy (1861–1930).
The history of Kryptádia can be divided into two parts. Between 1883 and 1888 four numbers of the journal were printed in Heilbronn, Württemburg, Germany. After a ten-year gap, publication was resumed in Paris in 1898, where a further eight volumes were published in Paris, the last in 1911.  The initial 1883 volume was limited to 210 copies. Even this low number appears to have been overambitious: later German issues numbered only 135 copies, while 175 were printed during the years the journal was published in Paris.

Possibly in response to prevailing anti-German sentiment in France, in 1904 Krauss launched another journal. Although similar in theme, Anthropophyteia was more scholarly and altogether more speculative in tone, concerned with the social history of morality. Ten volumes, with associated Beiwerke, appeared before the journal was suppressed by the authorities in 1913.

‘Gaelic erotica’ was published as a lengthy article in Kryptádia, vol. 10 (1907), pp. 295–367. The piece is structured as a little encyclopaedia, with 103 entries in Gaelic and English, ranging from ‘Aed, fire’ to ‘Water. Wells.’ The terms are illustrated with various usages culled from songs and anecdotes.

As might be expected, the article is entirely anonymous, both regarding writer and informants. To those versed in Scottish Gaelic folklore, however, certain clues in the foreword, and the nature and scope of the material discussed, point to one candidate only. The writer has been ‘[e]ducated as a medical jurist’ [295]; all his material ‘has been collected by persons of education … all being Scottish Highlanders using Gaelic from their childhood upwards’ [295–6]. These hints suggest that the writer of ‘Gaelic erotica’ was none other than the very respectable scion of an Edinburgh medical dynasty, Robert Craig Maclagan (1839–1919).

The son of Sir Douglas Maclagan (1812–1900), Professor of Medical Jurisprudence and Public Health at Edinburgh, Robert Craig Maclagan was educated at the University of Edinburgh, before finishing off his medical training in Berlin and Vienna. Despite his M.D., it appears that Maclagan practised only briefly – perhaps hindered by his growing deafness – before going into business. He would spend over thirty years as chairman of A. B. Fleming & Co., ink and chemical manufacturers, in Granton in the north-west of the city. His work with Flemings, then the biggest ink producers in the world, perhaps explains the interest in traditional dyeing techniques in his folklore collection.

Maclagan’s early interest in traditional lore and material culture is attested by his becoming a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1877, and his membership of the Folklore Society from 1882. An appeal from the latter institution launched him on his career as a folklorist. In 1893 Maclagan, supervising a network of correspondents, began to gather traditional lore from Argyllshire. Over the next decade, this would broaden out into an ambitious project embracing the Highlands and beyond, furnishing material for his important studies The Games & Diversions of Argyleshire (1901) and Evil Eye in the Western Highlands (1902), as well as a plethora of articles, all published under the auspices of the Folklore Society. Today Maclagan’s magnificent collection, numbering more than 9,200 pages, is deposited in the School of Scottish Studies Archives. Its recent cataloguing by Caroline Milligan means that for the first time the full riches of the Robert Craig Maclagan MSS have been unlocked for Gaelic scholarship, and for the communities in which the many thousand items were originally recorded.

On investigating the collection, it is clear that at the very least many of the items published in the Kryptádia article have their counterparts in the Maclagan Manuscripts. One of the most prolific and enthusiastic collectors of bawdy material for Maclagan was none other than a Church of Scotland minister, the Rev. Niel Campbell (1850–1904) of Kilchrenan and Dalavich at the north end of Loch Awe, but originally from Foss in Perthshire.

It is interesting that occasionally Maclagan’s informants, including the Rev. Niel Campbell, don’t quite understand the references in the anecdotes and songs they forward to him. They know they’re slightly off-colour, but not entirely sure how. Is this evidence, in an era of sweeping socio-cultural change and new moral perspectives, of how some Gaels were losing their expertise in the indigenous ‘code’ delineating what obscene references actually referred to? Maybe they were no longer dancing to the bawdy puirt á beul or mouth-music of their ancestors; perhaps the need for bawdiness was now being supplied by music-hall songs in English? Or was it ever thus, that certain people – say, for example, respectable literate people likely to volunteer as folklore collectors for an Edinburgh businessman – whether by temperament, moral mind-set, lack of experience, or closeted upbringing, were less au fait with the earthier side of life, and less able or willing to engage with it? In the article Maclagan often fills in the gaps left by his collectors. Usually his surmises are credible – it is possible that he discussed them in person afterwards with his informants – but occasionally they are indubitably mistaken: ‘Gaelic erotica’ should be used with care.

Why Maclagan was so interested in collecting, and printing, ‘Gaelic erotica’ is another matter. References in the article suggest that he subscribed to Kryptádia or at least had studied previous issues. An excellent shot, he was no stranger to all-male social gatherings and the mess room, being an enthusiastic member of the Royal Company of Archers and of the 5th Volunteer Battalion of the Royal Scots, in which he eventually served as honorary Colonel (we should also note that he helped to found the Scottish Association for the Medical Education of Women). But there may be scholarly reasons behind the interest as well. His printed works occasionally suggest a rather open-minded approach to his material, such as when he mentions the bell of St Fillan:

having for its handle a two-headed dolphin, or what is sometimes called a sea-goat, on the summit of the two heads of which are, as already pointed out by the late Bishop of Brechin, distinct phalli… [Maclagan, Scottish Myths, 84]

before going on to spend many jumbled pages on the subject, embracing bowls, fonts, upright stones, generative principles, and supposed Mithraic customs. The poor bell of St Fillan ends up being connected to practises far from saintly in nature. The one thing that might be suggested from Maclagan’s deeply confused methodology is that he is convinced that some bawdry, far from being beneath one’s notice, may contain in its raw, obscene references ancient survivals pointing to primitive beliefs and primal cults in a remote British past. Ernest Gaskell’s remark in a profile of Maclagan he wrote for Leaders of the Lothians in 1912, that he was ‘not a collector of articles de vertu’, may be a tacit allusion to his subject’s clandestine anthology.

‘Gaelic erotica’ was also sold separately as an offprint, for 10 francs. We wonder how many copies made it through the post to arrive here in Scotland.

Other Celtic scholars may find much to investigate in Kryptádia. Welsh material appears in volumes 2, 3, and 4, while Breton is dealt with in 1, 2, 3, 6, and 8. There is unfortunately no Irish material at all, and, perhaps surprisingly, nothing in English either, excepting ‘Some erotic folk-lore from [the north-east of] Scotland’ in vol. 2, excerpts from the 1785 edition of Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, and an extended play by the libertine Earl of Rochester. Did the stalwarts of the Folklore Society know about Kryptádia? Or did they prefer to ignore the Paris journal as coarsely continental and beneath their notice?

Alexander N. Afanasyev, Russian Secret Tales: Bawdy Folktales of Old Russia (Baltimore, 1998 [1965]).
Douglas, Oliver, ‘Highland Games and material diversions: the late Victorian ethnography of Robert Craig Maclagan’, Journal of Museum Ethnography, 22 (2009), 39–62.
Doyle, Derek. ‘The Maclagan family: six generations of service’, Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 40 (2010), 178–84.
Scotsman, 6 April 1900, 7 (Maclagan’s father's obituary)
_____, 15 July 1919, 10 (Maclagan’s obituary).

Monday, 23 September 2013

Objects in Focus: The Bearnarey Obelisk

Bearnarey Obelisk
Over the course of phase IV of the Carmichael Watson Project we were able to link objects from the Carmichael collections to his written work. The following was published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1870 and presents information pertaining to how Carmichael obtained the stone and associated local lore.  

The stone of which I send a tracing has been taken from the island of Bernarey, in the Sound of Harris. It formed the upper end of an obelisk which stood in a large semicircle facing the east, near the centre of the island, at a place called Killaisem (Cilleaiseam), St Asaph. Speaking of Bearnarey, Martin, in his "Western Islands," says, - "There are two chappels in this isle, to wit, St Asaph and St Columbus's Chappel. There is a stone erected near the former, which is 8 foot high, and 2 foot thick."

About fifty years ago this obelisk was broken. Boys were in the habit of mounting to the top and swaying it to and fro, till ultimately they broke it at the surface of the ground. When it fell it broke in two pieces near the centre. These were taken away by two crofters, and placed as lintels over the entrance to a cattle-fold (cuthaidh) close at hand. After having been there for some years, they were transferred by the same men to serve a similar purpose in their dwelling-houses. I traced this piece to the house of one of these crofters, a MacKillop (MacPhilip), where it was used as a lintel over his kitchen window. MacKillop was very reluctant to allow the slab to be removed for examination, although I twice offered to replace it at my own expense. Ultimately, however, he consented. But before removing it, I thought proper to inform the proprietor, the Earl of Dunmore, of its existence, and to ask his sanction to its removal from the island. His Lordship immediately wrote his factor to secure the slab, and bring it to Rodail. Upon his Lordship's arrival in Harris he wrote me, expressing his interest in the stone, and giving his permission to make what use of it I pleased. I got the slab removed from Rodail to Lochmaddy, where it now lies. 

It is dark bluish-gray gneiss, and measures 3 feet 8 inches long, 19 inches broad, and 3 inches thick. The upper portion of the carving forming the square is sufficiently distinct to be easily traced, but the lower portion is more defaced, and in some places the surface of the stone is entirely broken. How far the carving extended on the other part of the obelisk there is at present no means of ascertaining. The crofter who had it, feeling some remorse, restored it to the place where he found it. He alleged that a carlin of ugly form and features visited him one night, and entreated and commanded him to return the obelisk of Cillaiseam, St Asaph, otherwise he would suffer here and hereafter. The man went early the following morning, apparently much troubled, and entreated MacKillop to restore his part of the stone. MacKillop replied that his part of the slab was of much use to him; that he had no vision; and that he would defer returning it till the ugly carlin honoured him with a visit. The other man returned his part, and shortly thereafter went to America, where he died. Some other person less scrupulous took away this part of the stone, which I have hitherto failed to trace.

The old people of Bernarey have told me that within their memory the base of the obelisk was surrounded with a heap of small, beautifully white, and variegated pebbles, old coins, bone pins, and bronze needles, the offerings of pilgrims at the shrine of St Asaph.

MacKillop, on whose croft the obelisk stood, told me that in delving the place preparatory to sowing corn, he was in the habit of turning up a number of bones. There is no trace now of the "chappel" mentioned by Martin, nor indeed of any building whatever. The place is in the corner of a field, and has been under cultivation for some years. Close by the side of the obelisk there stood one of those old circular duns so common in the Hebrides. I would have inferred that this was the remains of the "chappel," were it not that MacKillop told me that it contained wall passages and galleries common to these duns. All the stones were carried away for building materials.  

The slab is currently housed in storage with the National Museums of Scotland.

Allen, J. R.and Anderson, J. Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1903) pp.113Carmichael, A. 'Notices of Teampull Michael, Keallun, North Uist, and of Sculptured Stones in Bearnarey, Harris, and in Benbecula; an "Abrach" Quern and Quarry for Querns, Heisgeir, North Uist, &c', Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, VIII, (Edinburgh, 1870) p.281.

Copyright National Museums of Scotland  

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Genesis Chapter 1. In Gaelic. On a Bone.

We had an outing at the end of last week, over to the archives of New College, home of the School of Divinity, to look at a Gaelic text kept there – but this one was a little out of the ordinary. At the beginning of the summer CRC intern Emma Smith had told us of an unusual item she had come across while doing research in Special Collections at New College Library: a piece of bone (we hope that it’s animal in origin). Around the bone, its label stated, was Genesis Chapter 1 written out in classical Irish Gaelic.

Although the text is mostly very faint, two friends from Celtic and Scottish Studies, Abigail Burnyeat and Peadar Ó Muircheartaigh, were able to confirm that the text is indeed Genesis 1, probably copied from an edition of William Bedell's Irish-language Old Testament.

So far, however, we don’t have any clues about where the bone came from, other than an intriguing statement on its label that a similar bone was gifted to Queen Victoria as a present on her Coronation. Victoria was crowned in 1838, and we think it likely that our bone was written on or around about this time. The bone is surely Irish in origin, and its neat handwriting is that of a good scribe. But why transcribe Genesis chapter 1 on a bone? Was it a demonstration of piety by the writer? Or was it deliberately created as an ethnological curiosity? Why present one to Queen Victoria? And how and why did our bone end up among hundreds of other religious texts in New College? We’d be very grateful for any ideas or information you might have about the New College Gaelic Genesis bone.

Our thanks to the staff of New College Library for their kindness and forebearance; to Abigail and Peadar for their expertise; and especially to Em who told us about the bone in the first place.

Update: here are some extra photographs, of the bone, of its label, and of Abigail and Peadar examining it.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Objects in Focus: Querns

Quern stones were popularly used throughout Scotland, to grind and mill cereals, into the twentieth century. A complete rotary quern consists of an upper and lower quern stone that were used simultaneously. Within the Carmichael Collection there are two quern stones, not a pair, that were donated to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Carmichael's notes on one of the quern stones in the collection at the National Museums of Scotland are available to read here
X.BB 24 Upper stone from a granite disc quern

An early form of the tool was the saddle quern and comprised of a large stone to place the grain on and a rubbing stone to do the grinding. The consistent grinding created a characteristic depression on the main stone. The Romans introduced the rotary quern to Britain, This variation of the tool was less labour intensive. These rotary querns stones are disc-shape and the upper stones always has a central hole and either a hollow or smaller hole. To grind down the cereal the grain was fed in through the central hole of the upper quern stone. Rotation was done by hand with a handle that was positioned in a hollow on the upper stone while the lower stone remained stationary.  Grain was crushed between the two stones, pushed to the edge of the stone and caught on a cloth or table under the quern. The result was a mixture of flour, grains and husk that was often processed two or three times to achieve the required fineness.

A hard type of stone, for example granite, was necessary for the quern because the constant grinding would erode softer stone types. The upper face of the top stone is often decorated with concentric grooves and chiselled lines. 
X.BB 25 Rotary quern stone, underside
A definition by Dwelly of the Muileann-brà [quern]:
The quern was formerly the only mill for corn-grinding used in the Gàidhealtachd. It is still in use in many parts of northern Europe and in Asia, and the "two women finding at the mill" (quern) may be seen to-day in Nazareth exactly as they were in the days of Christ. The implement consists of two stones, the lower being about two feet in diameter, and commonly hollowed to the depth of about six inches. This hollow is of equal depth and diameter. Within this is placed horizontally, a smooth round flag about four inches thick, and so fitted to the cavity that it can just revolve with ease. Through the centre of this revolving flat there is bored a hole for conveying the grain. In the lower stone, in the centre of its cavity, there is fixed a wooden pin on which the upper stone is placed in such exact equiponderance, that, though there be some friction from their contact, a little force applied will make the upper stone revolve for several times, when there is no grain underneath. On the surface of the upper stone, and near the edge, are two or three holes, just deep enough to hold in its placed the stick by which it is turned round.  The working of the quern is left to the women, two of whom, when the grain is properly dried, sit squatting on the ground, with the quern between them and singing loudly an appropriate song, perform their work, one turning round the stone with the handle placed in one of the holes, and the other dropping the corn in through the large hole. The law of Scotland attempted in vain to discourage the use of the quern. In the year 1248 it was enacted "that no man shall presume to grind quheit, maisloch or rye, with hand mylnes, except he be compelled by storm, and be in lack of mylnes quhilk should grind the samen; and in this case, if a man grinds at hand-mylnes, he shall give the threttein measure as multer; and gif any man contravein this our prohibitions, he sall tyne his hand-mylnes perpetuallie."

X.BB 25 Rotary quern stone, upperside
As noted in the dictionary definition, women performed the task of grinding the grains and sang during the process. In the notebooks there are numerous references to quern-related songs collected by Carmichael: a quern song, a fairy quern song overheard in Berneray and a song collected from Catherine MacFarlane while she was grinding the quern. The fairies are regularly associated with querns and the spindle whorls used in spinning wool were often referred to as fairy querns. 

Dwelly, E. The Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary (Glasgow, 1994)
©National Museums Scotland (

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]