Friday, 25 December 2009

Nollaig Chrìdheil - 1872

Tha e coltach gu robh bàl Nollaig air a chumail le daoin’-uaisle Uibhist a Deas air 25 Dùbhlachd 1872, ’s dòcha ann an Taigh Mór Àisgeirnis. An cupall a bha a’ fuireachd anns an taigh, bha iad air ùr thighinn dhan eilean a’s t-samhradh: fear Seumas Drever á Arcaibh a bha a-nis ag obair mar bhàillidh na h-oighreachd, eadar Beinn na Faghla agus Barraigh, agus a bhean. Gu mì-fhortanach, chan eil sinn buileach cinnteach fhathast gu dé a b’ ainm dhi. Choisinn Drever deagh chliù bho na h-eileanaich, gu h-àraid an taca ris a’ bhàillidh roimhe, William Birnie a bha ’na chùis-ghràin aig móran de’n tuath.

Am measg muinntir Uibhist a thàinig air chéilidh orra, math dh’ fhaoidte le aon sùil air ‘preusant’ Nollaig bho’n fhear-taighe, bha boireannach bochd á Staoidhligearraidh air an robh Catrìona Nic an Tòisich. Rinn ise òran beag dha na Drevers, a-réir coltais an ìre mhath ás a seasamh – air uaireannan tha briathran, ciall, agus meadrachd a’ dol tarsainn air a chéile – air fonn ‘Càit’ an caidil an rìbhinn a-nochd?’ Bha Alasdair MacGilleMhìcheil an làthair aig a’ bhàl cuideachd, agus sgrìobh e sìos na facail. Feumaidh gu robh e airson na rannan eadar-theangachadh dhan chupall as déidh làimh – ach faodaidh teagamh a bhith againn an robh e buileach cho fosgailte ’s a bha a’ bhana-bhàrd fhéin mu bhòidhchead Bhean-Phòsda Drever. Dh’ fhaodadh e bhith nach robh nòsan na sean bhàrdachd mòlaidh a’ freagairt air modhalachd linn Bhictòria!

A-réir Alasdair: ‘The bard is 40 y[ea]rs and at poetry all that time & she is greatly oblig[ed] to Mrs Dre[ver] for her munificence & kindness’. Tha seo car àraid: ann an da-rìribh, tha e coltach gu robh Catrìona Nic an Toisich a’ teannadh ri 70 bliadhna a dh’ aois aig an àm – chan eil fhios nach robh i a’ tarraing ás a’ ghàidsear air an oidhch’. Co-dhiù, thill Alasdair air ais thuice ann an 1875, agus chruinnich e bhuaipe grunn òrthachan a chaidh a chlò-bhualadh ann an Carmina Gadelica, leabhar far a bheil e a’ cuimhneachadh oirre mar chuideigin aig an robh ‘much occult lore’.

Fàilte dhuibh a chòmhlain thàinig
Faisg a chòmhnaidh:
Mr Drever ’s fhir na mara,
’S an leadaidh àlainn còmhl’ riutha.

’S tric a thug mi treis ’am thàmh
’S a chuir mi dàin an òrdan,
’S gun dèan mi fear do dhan lànail [i.e. lànan]
Òg a tha air pòsadh.

’S nuair ràinig mise taigh a’ bhàla
Far an robh pàirt dha m’ sheòrsa,
Bha’n còmhlan uasal air an ùrlar
’G ùmhlachadh dhan cheòl ann.

Ghléidh iad urram air na Gàidheil,
[?Gach] leadaidh is bean òg ann:
An cas siùbhlach ’s an ceum lùthmhor,
An troigh nach lùbadh feòirnean.

’S nuair a thàinig iad ás an ruidhle
O rinn iad m’ fheòraich
Dh’ fhaighnich iad gu ciùin ’s gu sìobhalt’
An gabhainn fhéin dhaibh òran.

Thuirt mi gur e mise nì siud

Fiosrach cinnteach eòlach.
A’ cheart mhion[aid] rinn mi sguir dheth
Shìn iad ginidh òir dhomh.

Ge brith chall a chuir siud orra
’S bu chuid[eachadh] dhomhs’ e
Gum bu làn a bhios an spòrs
’S gum bu pailt’ an stòras.

[?Tric sibh tarraing iall a chluaise
Toirt rud uaibh gach lò ás]
Gum bu sona saoghal réidh
Bhios sibh fhéin ’nur còmhlan.
’S gum fada bhios an Drever.
’Na bhàillidh aig Iain Gòrdan

A chuile taobh a nì e gluas’d
Beannachd nan uaislean ’na chòmhdhail.
’S ann mar ri beannachdan na tuath'
’S gun robh a’ bhuaidh r’a bheò dha.

O na bheachdnaich mi gu glan
Air do chéile pòsda,
Chan fhaca mi[se] fhéin ’s a bhàl
Leithid bean ur còdaich.

Fàinneachan òir air a meuran
’S deise an t-sìod’ an òrdan
Air a seang shlios fallainn
Gineil banail [slios] mar chanach mòintich.

Cìochan corrach air a brollach
’S broitseachan an òir oirr',
Muineal is gile na’n fhaoileann
No’n sneachd air taobh nam mór-bheann.

A dà ghruaidh cho dearg ris na caorainn
No gàradh chraobh nan ròsan,
A sùil[ean] meala fo’n chaol mhala
Cridhe glan gun mhórchuis.

’S buidh’ an Drever rinn a buannachd
’S e fhuair an stòras
Bean bhanail chiallach a ?dhearbhas
Fiosrachadh is còiread.

Chan iongnadh pròis bhith air a h-athair
’S air a càirdean móra
Bho chionn a’ mheas a ghléidh i dhaibh
O thàinig i air bhòidse.

An leadaidh uasal a bha leibh
Mo dhùrachd i bh’ air pòsadh
’S tha mìle beannachd a’ bhàird chuagaich
A-nis ’s gach uair r’a beò dhuibh.

A song composed by Catherine Mackintosh, Staoidhligearraidh, South Uist, to the wife – unfortunately, we don’t yet know her name – to the recently arrived James Drever, factor to the Long Island Estate, apparently when the young couple were holding a Christmas ball at Àisgeirnis House on 25 December 1872. The poem was preserved by Alexander Carmichael, who must have attended the ball with his wife (and his field notebook!) to be translated for the Drevers later. Carmichael’s translation may not have been so frank concerning Mrs Drever’s physical charms as the poetess, working in the traditional idiom of Gaelic panegyric.

Thanks to Ray Burnett and Angus Macmillan for their kind help and assistance.

Tagairtean
LS CW 106 fos.42–43v.
Ìomhaigh:
Taigh Àisgeirnis

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Cornwall and the Cornish

Going to the most south-western tip of England was a prospect that Alexander Carmichael wrote about with some amount of relish. It was a post that could afford him the opportunity to explore a different but not too unfamiliar area of folklore. His romantic persona shines through his brief note of his impending transfer to Cornwall:

In the early spring of 1862 when it became
known to me that I was coming to Corn-
wall I own that I was much pleased. I
was pleased at the prospect of coming
to the land of the good and gallant
King Arthur pleased at the prospect
of coming to the land of ancient song
and story and above all pleased at
the prospect of learning an additional
language and that language the language
of the ancient South Britons.


What Carmichael did at Wadebridge in Cornwall, other than attend to his duties as an exciseman, remains rather unclear for it seems he collected next to nothing nor does it seem that he ever realised his ambition of learning the Cornish language, something that he had shown so much enthusiasm for before he set out. The two years spent in Cornwall may not have been fruitful but it did allow Carmichael to ‘enjoy’ a distance from his own native culture and from his activity of collecting folklore which allowed him to gain a better perspective for his return north in 1864.

References: CW 463, fo. 17.
Image: Wadebridge, Cornwall.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Losaid na Gaoithe a Tuath – The Trough of the North Wind

A rather intriguing piece of lore that Alexander Carmichael collected when he was, in all likelihood, in Iona concerns Losaid na Gaoithe a Tuath (‘The Trough of the North Wind’). This trough-like red gratite stone, according to oral tradition, was in the door of Iona Cathedral and was used in order to aid a ship in gaining a fair wind through divine intervention by supplicating St Columba (Calum Cille). The maiden - whose ancestors are said to have arrived from Ireland along with the ostracised Irish saint - in question is said have thrown three handfuls of water (presumably of the holy variety) into the stone and then in the name of the Trinity asked for as much wind as she desired:

Losaid Na Gaoth a Tuath =
Sgeip na Goath a tuath. The
Losaid is a stone of red granite of the cathedral
door Iona. The stone has a hollow
this hollow was cleaned out when
a boat was absent by a maiden
of the name of Nic
ille dhuibh daughter of the son of
Black in name of Father and
Son and Spirit the maiden
would get any wind she wished
from Calum-cille. Her progenitor
came over from Eirinn with Calum
cille Hence the claim of a maiden
of the name of Macilledhuibh o’n
Calum cille.
Losaid na Gaoth tuath – Losaid
of the north wind. Losaid, losad, a
trough, a kneading trough a vessel

for holding food, a table
full of food, a rich well laid out feed.
Gheobh maighdeann a Chlann
ic ille dhiubh gaoth air bith a dh iarr-
as i an Calum cille an ainm Athar
agus Mac agus Spioraid ach i a ghlan
adh a mach na losaid – losaid lon
ach na gaoth a tuath – the foodfull
trough of the north wind.
The maiden threw air tri boiseagan
uisge as an losaid in name of the
Trinity Gheobhadh i gaoth air bith
a dh iarraidh i duair a dhean-
amh i seo.

References:
CW 230, fos. 189–90
Image: Cloisters at Iona Cathedral

Friday, 18 December 2009

Duncan Cameron - Policeman and Seanchaidh

Some years after Alexander Carmichael had collected the various material that comprise his fieldwork notebooks, he would, in moments of reflection, take the time to reminisce about the characters from whom he had met and taken down material as well as having had the opportunity to share both their interests in oral tradition. One of Carmichael’s informants was Duncan Cameron, born probably in or near Lochaline, Morven, around 1818. Having spent much of his life as policeman in Tiree and Mull he passed away in Tobermory in 1900, aged around eighty-two. Duncan Cameron’s marriage certificate of 1856 reveals that his father-in-law worked for the Excise just like Carmichael and they may have shared a few anecdotes about illicit stills as they both had the duty of upholding the law.

Duncan Cameron was for over fifty(?) years
a Police Constable. He was a native of Morvern
but spent most of his long life in Mull and
Tiree. He had a distinct talent for
old lore and much he knew of the more valuable of old lore of
the people of Mull and Tiree among whom
he lived so long and was liked so much.
He was a man of quiet kindly tact and heart
and much liked by all. He had much old
lore of much excellence most of which died with
him when he died at Tobermory in 18[ ] at the age of eighty-
[ ] Mr Campbell of Islay mentions
Duncan Cameron. Duncan Cameron had
excellent versions of many things of great excellence
far superior to other versions that I have heard.
His version of the robing of Murdoch, the
son of Brian was much the best and fullest
and most poetic and pictury
version I have ever heard

There are quite a few items that were recorded from him that were later published in Carmina Gadelica: Coisrigeadh an Aodaich (‘The Consecration of the Cloth’) twice; Sian a Bheatha Bhuan (‘Charm of the Lasting life’); An Tuis (‘The Incense’); and a tale set in Mull entitled Mairearad Bhòidheach (‘Beautiful Margaret’).

References:
CW 365, fol. 84r
Carmina Gadelica i, pp. 306–09
Carmina Gadelica ii, pp. 26–31, 186–87
Carmina Gadelica iv, pp. 96–97
Carmina Gadelica v, pp. 360–63
Image: Lochaline, Morvern.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Duan Callain – A Christmas Carol

Now that Christmas is drawing near it would not be inappropriate to mark it with a carol that was sent to the Highlander by Alexander Carmichael. This newspaper, which was produced between 1873 and 1882, was edited by his friend and fellow Gael, John Murdoch (1818–1903) and where Carmichael is described in his article as ‘our Uist Correspondent’. Also the correspondence sent along with the enclosed carol tells us something about what Carmichael thought regarding his contribution: ‘A. A. C. [Carmichael] expresses his regret that the fasts and festivals connected with Christmas have been to such an extent suppressed, that now there are many who do not know the origin of the very name. He thinks it would have been well to preserve those practices, as they led people to reflect upon the great Christmas events, and to benefit by meditation on the lessons inculcated.’ Carmichael wrote down the Christmas Carol from the dictation of Mr Angus Gunn, a pauper aged 85, who resided at Dail fo Thuath, Ness, on the northernmost tip of the isle of Lewis:

DUAN CALLAIN


Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí! Beannaicht E, beannaicht E,
Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí! Beannaicht thainig ’s am.
Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí!
Beannaich an taigh ’s na bheil ann,
Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí!
Eadar chuail ’us clach ’us chrann,
Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí!
Iomairst do Dhia e adar bhrat’ us aodach,
Slainte dhaoine gu’ ro’ ann.


Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí! Beannaicht E, beannaicht E,
Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí! Beannaicht E, beannaicht E,
Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí!
Gu ma buan mu’n tulach sibh,
Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí!
Gu mu slan mu’n teallach sibh,
Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí!
Gu mu slan ceann sguilb ’is taigh,
Daoine slan na bhuntair.


Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí! Beannaicht E, beannaicht E,
Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí! Beannaicht E, beannaicht E,
Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí!
Noc[hd] oi[dh]che Nollaige Moire,
Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí! Beannaicht E, beannaicht E,
Rugadh mac na Moir Oighe,
Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí! Beannaicht E, beannaicht E,
Rainig a bhonnach an Iar,
Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí! Beannaicht E, beannaicht E,
Shoillich Grian na’m beann ard,
Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí! Beannaicht E, beannaicht E,
Shoillich fearann, shoillich fonn,
Chualas an fhonn (am fonn?) eir an traigh.


Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí! Beannaicht E, beannaicht E,
Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí! Beannaicht E, beannaicht E,
Ho-Rí! Ho-Rí!
Beannaicht mo Righ,
Gun toiseach gun chrioch,
Gu sumhuin gu sior,
Gach linn gu brach!

A translation of the above carol, presumably by Carmichael himself, was also appended and which may be given:

Hail to the King! hail to the King!
Blessed is He, blessed is He who is come.
Hail to the King!
Blessed be this dwelling and all therein.
Hail to the King!
With its sticks, and stones, and staves.
Hail to the King!
With its covering and clothing.
And the health and welfare of all herein.


Hail to the King! hail to the King!
Blessed is He! blessed is He!
Hail to the King!
Long around this house be you!
Hail to the King!
Happy round this hearth be ye.
Hail to the King!
Many may the stakes in the roof-tree,
And joyous be all within.


Hail the King! hail to the King!
Blessed is He! blessed is He!
Hail to the King!
This is the eve of the great nativity.
Hail to the King, blessed is He.
Born is the Son of Mary the Virgin–
Hail to the King, bless is He.
The soles of His feet have touched the earth–
Hail to the King, blessed is He.
Shines the sun on mountains high–
Hail to the King, blessed is He.
Shines on the sea and shines on the land,
And loudly sounds the chorus of the strand.


Hail to the King! hail to the King!
Blessed is He, blessed is He1
Hail to the King!
This is the eve is the glorious nativity.
Hail! hail! all hail, O! King to Thee,
Through the limitless hounds of eternity.

The carol was later republished in Carmina Gadelica with only slight variations to the orthography made. Carmichael adds some detail about his informant:

Angus Gunn had been a strong man physically and was still a strong man mentally. He had lived for many years in the island of North Roney, and gave a graphic description of it, and of his life there. He had much oral lore which he told with great dramatic powers.

References:
A[lexander] A[rchibald] C[armichael], ‘Duain Challuin’, The Highlander, vol. II, no. 36 (17 January 1874), p. 3
Carmina Gadelica, i, pp. 126–37.
CW 115, fos. 1v-2r

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

A St Kilda Wedding - III

Who were the serious young couple whose marriage was described by Kenneth Campbell, schoolmaster on St Kilda in 1884–85? In the speech he delivered in December 1886 about his year on Hirt, Campbell says that he was present at two marriages while on the island: this tallies with official records. His description of them as ‘the young couple’ rules out the marriage celebrated on 27 April 1885 between the notorious ‘serial emigrant’ Ewen Gillies, then aged 59, and his second wife Rachel MacQueen (aged 31 according to the certificate, although in fact 33), who were shortly to leave the island for Canada.

This leaves us with the other marriage held when Campbell was on the island, which took place on 5 August 1884. The bridegroom on this occasion was none other than Finlay MacQueen (1862–1941), the nephew of Rachel MacQueen. By the time of the evacuation in 1930 MacQueen, by then a widower, was the recognised patriarch and best cragsman of the island. Perhaps rather unexpectedly from the glimpse we have of the solemn young man, MacQueen was also the (admittedly often rather cantankerous) guardian of St Kildan traditions.

Finlay’s bride was the slightly older Mary Gillies (1860–1906), of 12 Hirt. Mary Gillies is well-known in St Kilda lore on account of her middle names. The (perhaps slightly enhanced) story goes that her mother had a difficult childbirth, and was assisted by Jemima, the wife of Captain Henry Charles Otter (1807–76) who was there with a deputation, including the Free Church minister of Portree, in his paddle steamer HMS Porcupine. After a successful delivery, the child was christened Mary Jemima Otter Porcupine Gillies.

The new couple took over the croft of the groom’s grandfather John MacDonald (1807–92) at 2 Hirt, and it was there that Finlay MacQueen lived until the final evacuation of the island in August 1930. After an unhappy stay in Ardnarff in Lochalsh – the isolation was ‘worse than Hirta’ – he eventually moved to Tulliallan by Kincardine in Fife, where he lived with his daughter Mary Ann and her husband Neil Ferguson until his death in 1941. MacQueen, who only ever learnt a few words of English, did return to the island with a handful of other St Kildans between May and August 1938, for a holiday, a spot of recreational fowling, an opportunity to sell postcards and souvenirs to day-trippers, and apparently to help to dye and weave St Kilda tweed for the then owner the Earl of Dumfries.

A fortnight before he returned to his old home Finlay MacQueen, along with his fellow Hirteach Neil Gillies, had been presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in the St Kilda Cottage – where ‘St Kilda Tweed’ was heavily advertised – at the ‘An Clachan’ Highland Village exhibit at the opening of the British Empire Exhibition of 1938 in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow. Despite attracting some controversy, the plaster-cast cottages, castle, and cill of An Clachan, occupied by Gaelic speakers mending nets, making creels, and weaving, proved remarkably popular with Highland Gaels and their Lowland expatriate cousins alike, a fact grudgingly admitted by the exhibition manager Captain Sidney Graham: ‘While I have yet to be convinced of the desirability of displaying to the world at large houses of the type in which no human being should be expected to live in the year 1938, there can be no doubt as to the drawing power of the Clachan.’ Among scores of others on the Exhibition General Committee was Alexander Carmichael’s grandson James Carmichael Watson (1910–42). The Clachan’s Highland castle was decorated by mural panels depicting the story of Deirdre, the tale which Alexander Carmichael had been so influential in publicising to a wider Scottish audience.

It is interesting to think that even today a number of Glaswegians of a certain age will have seen, and perhaps even met (though maybe not talked to) the St Kildan Finlay MacQueen, an old man born in the middle of the nineteenth century who had spent the first seventy or so years of his life on ‘an island on the edge of the world’.

References:
CW MS 395 fos.21–25.
Alastair Borthwick, The Empire Exhibition: Fifty Years On (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1988), p. 20.
Bob Crampsey, The Empire Exhibition of 1938: The Last Durbar (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1988), pp. 54, 121.
Empire Exhibition of 1938: Official Catalogue, p. 42.
Empire Exhibition: Official Guide, pp. 121–2.
Bill Lawson, Croft History: Isle of St Kilda (Northton, Harris: Bill Lawson Publications, 1993).
W.R. Mitchell, Finlay MacQueen of St Kilda (Colonsay: House of Lochar, 1999 [1992]).
Michael Robson, St Kilda: Church, Visitors and ‘Natives’ (Port of Ness: Islands Book Trust, 2005), pp. 424–35.

Image: Finlay MacQueen talking to the St Kilda factor John Mackenzie, from Mitchell, Finlay MacQueen.

Friday, 4 December 2009

A St Kilda Wedding - II

Although apparently a native of Gairloch, Kenneth Campbell (1862–1929) was brought up and educated in Oban, before attending the University of Edinburgh as a medical student. Alexander Carmichael thus had plenty of opportunities to get to know him, whether during his own rather unhappy stay in Oban between 1878 and 1880, or else while at his summer house in Taynuilt, or indeed in Edinburgh itself.
Campbell left Skye for St Kilda, where he was to spend a year as a supply teacher, on Tuesday 3 June 1884. He travelled out on the proprietor MacLeod of Dunvegan’s boat the Robert Hadden, ‘a large smack’ (the ornithologist Charles Dixon who was on the same voyage refers to it as a ‘tight little smack of about eighty tons’) ‘with provisions receiving in return all the natives have to give in the way of cloth, oil, feathers, cheese, tallow & dried fish’. Kenneth Campbell’s description of St Kilda is rather unusual compared to most Victorian accounts, given that he spent a considerable amount of time on the island rather than just a few hurried hours, and, unlike most visitors there, he could actually converse with the islanders themselves rather than rely upon a translator. His islanders are much more of a community, more recognisably Gàidhealach, perhaps, than the dour or grasping caricatures sketched out by the tourist day tripper. But they were certainly strongly evangelical: when Campbell asked about religious remains on island, ‘the invariable answer is ‘Papanaich, a ghraidh, droch dhaoine, a ghraidh.’
In June 1884 a yacht party voyaged to St Kilda, among them Alexander Ross, who was helped by Campbell – ‘a very intelligent and obliging young gentleman’ – in gathering geological specimens, and David Whyte, the photographer from Inverness. Whyte took the accompanying photograph of the islanders: Kenneth Campbell is the man in the bowler on the left.
Campbell’s time on the island certainly affected him: his obituary states that he ‘was a delightful raconteur of his reminiscences of that period.’ It is noteworthy that in September 1885, after a catastrophic storm had swept away the islanders’ harvest and one of their boats, young Alexander Ferguson (1872–1960) was moved to write to his old schoolteacher, then working in Uig, Lewis, for help. Rather extraordinarily, the boy’s letter, placed in a wooden ‘St Kilda mail boat’, landed near Àird Uig, reached Campbell, was printed in the Inverness Courier, and, together with two letters of the same tenor from the island minister, caused a public outcry which led to a ‘relief expedition’ sponsored by the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland the following month.
It seems rather probable that it was in fact from his friend Kenneth Campbell that Carmichael heard the account of the last great auk which has already been printed in this blog. Campbell’s interest in the bird may have been spurred by his acting as a translator for the ornithologist Charles Dixon during the latter’s visit to St Kilda. In the late 1890s Campbell appears to have given another speech in which he gave the story of the great auk much as Carmichael scribbled it down. The account was reported in the Westminster Gazette in March 1898, then reprinted throughout the world in newspapers as diverse as the New York Times and the Otago Witness. These years were a time of rocketing prices for surviving great auks’ eggs, mainly thanks to the apparent obsession (or was it canny publicity-seeking?) of H. C. Middlebrook, antiquarian and publican, whose Edinboro’ Castle Inn, Camden – like a number of London pubs at the time – had a free museum of curiosities on the side to attract customers. In all Middlebrook purchased four great auk eggs for vastly inflated prices – possibily fuelling the contemporary debate about the need to protect endangered wildlife.

References:
CW MS 395 fos.4–5, 21–25.
Anon., ‘The late Dr Kenneth Campbell, Oban’, An Gàidheal, xxiv, 7 (Giblein, 1929), pp. 105–6.
Charles Dixon, ‘The Ornithology of St Kilda’, Ibis, 5 (1885), pp. 69–97, 358–62.
John A. Love, A Natural History of St Kilda (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009).
Michael Robson, St Kilda: Church, Visitors and ‘Natives’ (Port of Ness: Islands Book Trust, 2005)
Alexander Ross, ‘A Visit to the Island of St Kilda’, Transactions of the Inverness Scientific Society and Field Club, iii (1883–88), pp. 72–91.
Image: ‘Nurse Ann MacKinlay in a group with some St Kildans and the Schoolmaster of that year – Mr Campbell’: Robson, St Kilda, p. 572.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

John MacLeod – Expert Swordsman

In one of his very last fieldwork notebooks Alexander Carmichael collected a narrative on 31 August 1909 about an expert swordsman called John MacLeod. Unfortunately, no dates are given but it may be assumed that the man commemorated on the tomb was a figure of note and was probably one of the Gaelic élite. It also shows that Carmichael’s tastes were truly eclectic and almost nothing it seems was too trivial not to be noted down.

John Macleod
Had been in the war cam[e]
home full of praise and
honour. He had been in the
beinn-sheilg and when
a snow storm came on and
he was smothered beside his
own garden wall close
to his house – He was
a famous swordsman
the most famous in his
day – He could cut the button
from the neck of his opponents
shirt. His tomb is in this
church at Rodail with the
figure of a man as with
sword in full length on
his stone. Hewed in Geo-
Crab Harris


It seems likely that this story forms the background to the tomb of a knight in armour that still can been seen at the southern transept of St Clement’s Church, Rodel, Harris. The tomb is believed to commemorate John MacLeod of Minginish (near Talisker in Skye), clan leader of the MacLeods from 1551 until his death in 1557. If this identification is correct, and there is perhaps no reason to dismiss it, then this John MacLeod was known as Iain a' Chuail Bhàin (John of the Fair Locks) who was embroiled in a leadership struggle for the headship of the MacLeods for the bloodthirsty chief, Iain Dubh MacLeod, massacred Iain a' Chuail Bhàin's descendants. The only one to survive was Norman, a nephew of the last chief, Iain Dubh, who was being fostered at the time in Harris by a cadet of his clan. John MacLeod was succeeded by the representation of the MacLeods of Waternish by his grandson, Norman MacLeod.

References:
CW 117, fol. 17v
Image: Tomb of John MacLeod, St Clement’s Church, Rodel, Harris

Friday, 27 November 2009

A St Kilda Wedding I


The lively reel called ‘The St Kilda Wedding’ has had many outings on record and CD over the years. Judging from a written account preserved in the Carmichael Watson papers, by the late nineteenth century a real-life St Kilda wedding may not have been quite so exhilarating. The following report comes from a speech delivered on 16 December 1886 by Ross-shire man Kenneth Campbell (1862–1929). Campbell had been employed as a schoolmaster on the island for a year during 1884–85 by the Edinburgh Ladies Highland Schools Association.


On a certain morning after ringing the school-bell as usual I awaited the arrival of the children. When they did come one of them ventured the information that a marriage was to take place that afternoon. On casting some doubt upon this statement, the boy replied, ‘Oh yes, they are just now polishing their boots in the house.’ …

About 4 in the afternoon I noticed a party of 4 people pass on their way to church. With bent heads & solemn faces they paced slowly & humbly on their way. Eager to see something more of this serious affair I followed to the church where I was soon joined by some others of the people who having been at work in the fields had thrown down their implements & come to church barefoot as usual. Looking round the church I saw the young couple with their 2 attendants seated in a corner, having their heads resting on the bench in front of them and looking the picture of misery. Now comes the minister who starts a long solemn discourse, admonishing, warning, advising. When he had married them to their own & his satisfaction they marched out of church as solemnly as they had entered, looking neither to the right or left. No handshakings! no congratulations! One could not help wondering what a funeral would be like when a marriage could be so miserable an affair.

Later on Campbell was invited to ‘a bit of a spree’ at the manse by the couple, each of whom had a bundle wrapped up in a handkerchief.

Arrived at the manse, we had tea. Nobody spoke. For my part I was afraid to speak, but at last in desperation I hazarded the question where the married party intended to spend their honeymoon.
At last, whether inspired by the tea I know not, but the bridegroom made a remark about the birds. Looking around the table I saw the bridesmaid busy untying her parcel, while the groomsman was quite as busy with his on the other side. After some tugging and a vigorous use of front teeth, the one brought to light three large oatcakes that had been prepared for the occasion, while the other produced a large piece of mutton & some cheese. The groomsman had to do the carving. With pocket knife in hand he succeeded in cutting [&] passing around a rib with its attachments to each of us. After some more edifying talk about the birds, eggs, feathers, and the weather we went home & heard no more of the marriage.

References:

CW MS 395 fos. 21–25
Michael Robson, St Kilda: Church, Visitors and ‘Natives’ (Port of Ness: Islands Book Trust, 2005), pp. 572–74.
Image:  St Kilda.

Ewen MacLachlan – Dance Master, Catechist and Storyteller II

The tradition bearers of both South Uist and Barra told Calum Maclean of what they had heard about Ewen MacLachlan (c. 1799–1880) when he was collecting in the Southern Hebrides during the 1940s and 50s. For example when Maclean went to a dance in Iochdar, South Uist, he fell into conversation with Iain Ruadh MacLeòid (‘Red-haired John MacLeod’) who told him what he knew of An Dannsair Ciotach (‘the Stumpy-handed Dancer’). This John MacLeod was a good dancer and had learnt his dancing from Gilleasbaig Saor (‘Archibald MacIntyre’), a dance master from Iochdar who had in turn been taught by MacLachlan himself:

Bha mi greis a’ bruidhinn ri Iain Ruadh Mac Leòid agas thug mi tarrainn air an Dannsair Chiotach a thug na sgeulachdan do Chalum Barrach. Thubhairt Iain Ruadh gur h-e Eoghain Mac Lachlainn a b’ ainm dhà. ’S ann ’s a Fhrainng a chuala Iain a bha e ag ionnsachadh a bhith na shagart. Bha seann-duine ’s an Iochdar a dh’ eug o chionn ghoirid agas b’ ann bho Eoghain Mac Lachlainn a dh’ ionnsaich an duine seo. (IFC MS 1300, pp. 80–81)

I was a while conversing with Red-haired John MacLeod and I mentioned the Dannsair Ciotach that plied Calum MacMillan with stories. John MacLeod said that his name was Ewen MacLachlan and John had heard that he had gone to France in order to be educated for the priesthood. There was an old man in Iochdar who died recently he was taught dancing by Ewen MacLachlan.

A Barra tradition of Ewen MacLachlan was collected from Neil Angus MacDonald, a schoolmaster and noted piper:

Dubhairt Niall Aonghus gour chuala seisean a mhàthair a’ cainnt faoi’n “Dannsair Ciotach.” Rinnceóir clúmhar a bhí ann agas bhí sgoil dhamhsa aige i n-Uibhist. Eoghain na Laimhe Bige a thugaidis air. Bhí sé ‘sa Spáinn a’ foghlam de bheith ’n-a shagart agas ní raibh sé oiriúnach le bheith ’n-a shagart mar gheall ar an làmh ghórtach a bhí air. Nuair a d’ fhill sé as an Spáinn thosaigh sé a’ foghlam rinncí agas a’ bailiú sean-sgéalta. Bhí sean-fheari n-Uibhist a d’ fhoghaim rinncí uaidh agas bhí sé féin ‘n-a mhuinteóir rinnce. (IFC MS 1299, pp. 433–34)

Neil Angus heard his mother speak about the Dannsair Ciotach: a great dancer who had a dance school in Uist. He was called Eòghain na Làimhe Bige (‘Ewen of the Shrivelled Hand’) and he had been in Spain training for the priesthood but left due to his disability. After his return from Spain he started to teach dancing and to collect old stories. An old man still alive learnt to dance from this man’s tuition and who subsequently became a dance teacher himself.

Another Barra tradition, this time from the Coddy, or Iain MacPherson, from Northbay, who adds some additional detail to the previous accounts:

Dubhairtan Coddie gur innis Calum Barrach go raibh an Dannsair Ciotach air “bhanais-taighe”, bainfheis tighe, i n-Ormaicleit agas go raibh sé a’ rinnce ann. Mhúch sé an cruisgín (cruisgean) seach n-uaire le n-a chosa leis chomh maith agas bhí cumhacht na gcos. Fuair na rinncéoirí i mBarraidh agas i n-Uibhist na rinncí o’n bhfear seo. Bhí sé le bheith ‘na shagart ach b’ éigin do éirigh as mar gheall ar na làmha aige a bhith giortach. (IFC MS 1299, p. 431)

The Coddy heard from Calum MacMillan about the Dannsair Ciotach and how he had been at a wedding feast in Ormaclete in South Uist and had danced at it. This man was so good at dancing that he managed to snuff out candles with his feet seven times in a row. The dancers in South Uist and Barra were taught dancing by this man. He was going to become a priest but had to give this up because of his injured hand.

Although not a great deal has been added to our sum knowledge about Ewen MacLachlan other than reinforcing his reputation as being an able dancer, storyteller and teacher, as well as his unrealised ambition of becoming a priest, he was still remembered by some who were but only one remove from those who had actually heard the dance master recite stories or who had been taught how to dance by him.

References:
Calum Maclean’s manuscripts, IFC MSS 1299, 1300.
Image: Dancing Feet

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Ewen MacLachlan – Dance Master, Catechist and Storyteller

There can be little doubt that Ewen MacLachlan has left his mark upon Gaelic oral tradition, particularly of South Uist. When Calum Maclean (1915–1960) was collecting in the Southern Hebrides his name was mentioned more than a few times especially if the topic of dancing was raised. Many of the numerous tales recorded by Maclean from that great storyteller of the twentieth century, Angus Barrach MacMillan (1874–1954), can be traced to Ewen MacLachlan:

In Angus’s family there had been a tradition of story-telling. His father, Calum MacMillan, who died in 1917, was in his day a noted story-teller. Angus maintains that he does not have even a third of the tales his father had. About the year 1850 there arrived in South Uist an itinerant dancing-master named Ewen MacLachlan. He was also a noted story-teller. In South Uist he met Calum MacMillan. When MacLachlan decided to go to Benbecula and hold a dancing-school there, he went to live in MacMillan’s house. Such a guest as an itinerant dancing-master, who as well had a large repertoire of tales, would have been welcome in any house in the Hebrides. In that little house in Griminish, Calum MacMillan learned most of the tales he knew and later passed on to his son. MacLachlan stayed with MacMillan for the greater part of a winter, and in the evenings on his return from the dancing classes told tales well into the night.

So far, so good. But there are many contradictions regarding MacLachalan. He died in 1879 of ‘natural decay’ in Daliburgh, South Uist, aged 80, and where he is described as a dance master and single, which means that he was born around 1799. His father’s name is given as Angus MacLachlan but no mention is made of his mother. Presumably the informant, Neil MacCormick in this instance, simply didn’t know the name of MacLachlan’s mother. And it may well be asked did MacLachlan know himself? But according to another source, MacLachlan was called mac Iseabail Reitealain (son of Isabella of R(h)etland), Retland being a place in South Morar, and, of course, part of the Clanranald territories. Matronymic names in Gaelic society usually indicate illegitimacy but MacLachlan’s death certificate contradicts this. To add further to the mystery, the census returns of 1841 and 1851, indicates that Ewen MacLachan was born in Greenock, Renfrewshire. Could it be then that MacLachlan was born in Greenock, from Highland parents, namely Angus MacLachlan and Isabella (probably a MacDonald) and was perhaps brought up in South Morar? In South Uist and Barra tradition, MacLachlan is referred to as Eòghan na Làimh Bige (‘Ewen of the Shrivelled Hand’) or An Dannsair Ciotach (‘The Stumpy Dancer’) indicating that he had a deformity. It is also related, according to oral tradition, that he travelled to the Continent in order to study for the priesthood but either due to his illegitimacy or his deformity he was barred from ordination. Whether there is a grain of truth to this tradition or not, MacLachlan, like his near contemporary Ruaraidh Ruadh MacCuithein ('Red-haired Roderick MacQueen), was a catechist.

Given that Alexander Carmichael was assiduously collecting oral traditions all around the Uists and that MacLachlan had a reputation of being a good storyteller then why is it that there seems to be no mention of him amongst Carmichael’s papers? It is inconceivable that they did not hear about one another, or, indeed, that they did not meet. Maybe the answer lies in the fact that they did meet but simply did not get on well. Or was MacLachlan just too suspicious of Carmichael because he was an exciseman? It is perhaps doubtful that a definitive answer can ever be reached but other sources elsewhere might flesh out MacLachlan’s career and help to clear up some of the mystery that surrounds such an intriguing character.

References:
Maclean, Calum, 'Hebridean Traditions', Gwerin: Journal of Folk life, vol. 1, no. 1 (1956), pp. 21–33.
Melin, Matts, Hebridean Dancing (1989, 2001) [http://www.matsmelin.com/hebrideandancing.html]
Image: Dancing Feet

Friday, 20 November 2009

The Red-haired Catechist

One of the main sources of oral traditions in the Uists was Ruaraidh Ruadh MacCuithein (‘Red-haired Roderick MacQueen’) who lived from around 1750 to 1830. He was a catechist which afforded him good reason to travel all around the Uists. A catechist was a layman who assisted the clergy by going about teaching the non-literate population the contents of the Catechism, and, once the religious education was over with, then it would be natural enough for the participants at such gatherings to relate songs and tales and, perhaps, even play instrumental music. It seems that whatever religious differences there may have been between a predominantly Protestant North Uist and a predominantly Catholic South Uist held but few barriers for it is remembered that many of the heroic tales known in Catholic South Uist could be traced back to the telling of this Protestant catechist, Ruaraidh Ruadh from North Uist. In a note about him it tells us that an informant’s source for a Fenian lay who ‘heard these duans from Ruairi Mac Cuinn who lived at Malacleit and who had a free piece of land there from the proprietor for his duans.’ An informant, Catherine MacQueen (c. 1799–1871) or Catrìona nic Lachlainn, the catechist’s niece, from Clachan a’ Ghluip, in North Uist, recorded a number of Fenian lays for Alexander Carmichael on 5 October 1865. Carmichael wrote at the time: ‘Her people were noted old-lorists. Her uncle, Ruaraidh Ruadh Maccuithean, was story-teller to Lord Macdonald, from whom he had free lands for his sevices.’ These included a version of Am Bròn Binn, entitled in the notebook as Aisling Righ Breatinn as well as the popular Laoidh Fraoich:

Learnt this from Ruairi Rua[dh]
Ceisteir sa cheanna Tuath
[Do[mh]nallach] more than 50 years
People came from Edin[burgh] for
seanachas na Feinne and
this was the best from whom
this was best got in the High-
lands of Scotland.

She added further that she could also recite Duan an Deirg also learnt from her uncle, which Carmichael later transcribed on 4 May 1869, who had also lived at Scolpaig, on the north-western shore of North Uist, only a short distance from Malacleit:

He was a catechist and used to go about
from house to house. He had eighteen
books written about the Feinne which his
son who turned a F[ree] C[hurch] burnt.


It is somewhat ironic that such religious short-sightedness shown by a convert to the Free Church of Scotland should destroy such a treasure of Gaelic oral traditions collected by a presumably devout catechist. One can only imagine Carmichael’s expression when he heard about such a lamentable loss.

References:
Carmina Gadelica ii, p. 375
CW 105/2 f. 12r, CW 105/5 f. 18v and CW 105/10 f. 25v
For Am Bròn Binn, see Carmina Gadelica v, pp. 86–105
Image: Celtic Cross

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Milk Libation to the Gruagach

Gruagach Stone, Colonsay
A great source of traditions concerns fairy belief and Carmichael managed to gather in a great deal of these. One such story tells of a flagstone named Leac na Gruagaich (‘The Flagstone of the Gruagach’) at Liniclate in Benbecula. An offering of milk was poured into the hollow of the flagstone – a practice that was carried out throughout the Highlands and Islands and elsewhere – in order to appease the Gruagach so that she would not interfere with any livestock. Such a custom was carried out on a daily basis until the arrival of a Skyeman, Peter Nicholson, who refused to continue with such a practice as he saw it as mere superstitious hocus-pocus. He came to regret his decision and had to revert to its use in order to protect his crop from any further damage. At one time, traditions such as these were tenaciously adhered to for they seemed to be beneficial for it was seen to be foolhardy indeed to invoke the wrath of the fairy people.

Leac na Gruagaich
on the croft of Angus
MacAulay Liniclate
Benbecula, “Rudha –
chuidh Oib”. Cuidh
Oib or Cuidh an Ob
ain was an old cattle
fold for generations im
memorial. Raoghull
MacRuaraidh a
Cuail descendant of
Clanranald was
tacksman of Torlum
& unless some milk
was poured in a
little hollow on
the leachd when
the dairy maid
was done milking
every night the cattle
were sure to be in
the corn before day
break but when there was
no milking cows in
the fold the gruagach
never interfered.
Ronald his son
who built oldtigh
Morchochd na
Monadh followed his
father['s] practice in pouring
a share of the milk to
the gruagach or slender
woman of the
green garbe, When
Peter Nicholson from
Skye got Torlum
under still-bow [steelbow] ten-
ure from ClanRanald
he would not hear
of such sheer nonsense
but sheer necessity
compelled him to them
to the old custom
in giving an evening
contribution to the
gruagach, and he
became a firm be-
liever of the story,
Even sixteen men
failed to keep in
the cattle on one
occasion, The dam
age done to the corn
was great. This took
place about the beginning
of this century.


Carmichael in a long note concerning the gruagach – a supernatural female who presided over cattle – wrote that ‘there is hardly a district in the Highlands which does not possess a ‘leac gruagaich’…whereon the milk libation was poured.’ He then lists islands and districts all over the Scottish Highlands and Islands where he encountered such traditions. Carmichael then continued: ‘All these oblation stones are erratic ice-blocks. Some of them have a slight cavity into which the milk was poured on the stone. In making the oblation the woman intoned a rune –

‘A ghruagach, a ghruagach,
Cum suas mo spreidhe,
Cum sios an Guaigean,
Cum uap an Geige.'
Brownie, brownie
Uphold my herds,
Keep down the ‘Guaigean,’
Keep from them the ‘Geige.’

References:
CW1/57, ff. 22v–24r.
Carmina Gadelica ii, pp. 306–08.
Image: Gruagach stone at Balnahard, Colonsay.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Christ on the Cross

Alexander Carmichael, on one of his very last fieldwork trips, collecting around Ross-shire (between 1907 and 1909), found that he had in no way exhausted the sheer amount of folklore that still survived. It is more than likely that his son-in-law, Professor William James Watson (1865–1948), a born and bred Easter Ross-shire man himself, and who held the chair of Celtic at the University of Edinburgh, provided Carmichael with names and addresses of potential informants so that it would ease his collecting in an area that he had hardly been to previously far less than to have combed this extensive area of the Highlands for oral traditions. Out of the many from whom he recorded material was Catherine Maclean, a crofter, from Nàst/Naast, in Gairloch. Carmichael collected at least three charms and a prayer from her recitation (that were subsequently published in Carmina Gadelica iii and iv). She also told him a brief religious narrative showing that Carmichael was still very interested, even at this late period, in collecting anything relating to Christianity whether they be charms, prayers, invocations or even apocryphal legends.

Christ on the Cross
There was no bellows and the
bana-cheard blew the fire over
her sguird apron and the nails
for the cross were made. Then
C[hrist] said Bis tusa a siubhail
bho linnean na linnean agus
do sheors as do dheigh airson
do ghniomh agus chan fhaigh
thus fois oi[dh]che no tamh la[tha]


In brief, this is a very similar story to a medieval legend known as the Wandering Jew who was cursed by Christ to forever walk the earth until the Second Coming. According to the legend, while Christ was making his way to Golgotha where he would be later crucified, the Jew had taunted him and had thus irked divine retribution. It would appear that the legend originated around the thirteenth century and has since then made quite an impact on European literature, ranging from Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century The Canterbury Tales to Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). A more pertinent tradition is related by a correspondent in a brief unsigned note that appeared an issue of Gypsy Lore: 'I should be pleased to know if you have the tradition in the South [of Scotland], that the tinkers are descendants of the one who made the nails for the Cross, and are condemned to wander continually without rest.' Although it would appear that the correspondent received no answer this tradition was still alive and well in Ross-shire.

References:CW 117/100
Carmina Gadelica iii, pp. 32–33; iv, pp. 194–97; pp. 270–71; pp. 298–99
Gypsy Lore, vol. iii (1892), p. 190
Image:
The Wandering Jew by Gustave Doré

Friday, 30 October 2009

Captain Dugald Carmichael FLS

Another famous Carmichael from Lismore was Dugald Carmichael (1772-1827). He was born in Stronacraoibh and educated on the island. At a very young age he took an interest in the island’s flora and fauna which subsequently became his life-long passion. Alexander Carmichael, amongst historical notes about the Carmichaels in Lismore and Appin, gives the captain a brief biographical sketch:

Capt[ain] Dugald Carmichael was a native of Lismore.
His knowledge of Natural History in general was
very extensive. After serving for some time
as Surgeon in the 76d. Regt. he accepted a com=
=mission in the same Regiment, where the he con=
=tinued to distinguish himself until the Conclusion
of the late war (i.e. the Peninsular War). He then re=
turned to his Native Parish, & spent the remain
=der of his Life in the prosecution of his favourite
studies. He died in Appin, and was buried in the
Churchyard of Lismore.


Carmichael notes elsewhere that the original progenitor of the Lismore Carmichaels, from whom both Alexander and Dugald Carmichael were descended, was Am Baran Bàn [the Fair Baron] or Baran Taigh Sgurain [the Baron of Sgurain House] and from whom came the Bishop of Lismore, An t-Easbaig Bàn [The Fair-haired Bishop]. At any rate, Dr Dugald Carmichael was referred to as either Dùghall Bàn or an Dotar Bàn. Carmichael writes that he was known to science as the ‘Father of Marine Botany', and was the intimate friend and correspondent of Sir William Hooker (1785-1865), who called many marine plants after him. One of these plants was Carmichaeliana or New Zealand Broom which is a genus of 24 plant species belonging to Fabaceae or legume family. Further, his nephew, the accomplished Gaelic scholar, the Rev Dr Alexander Clerk of Killmallie (1813-1887), went under the name of Gilleasbaig Bàn [Archibald the Fair]. Although Duglald Carmichael successfully studied classics at the University of Glasgow his real passion lay in science and he went to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine. He then became a qualified surgeon and gained a commission as an ensign with the 72nd Highlanders which offered him the opportunity to travel to foreign climes. He was able to make pioneering botanical collections as far afield as South Africa, Mauritius, India, New Zealand as well as Tristan de Cunha. Dugald Carmichael retired to Appin and took the tenancy of Ardtur Farm at Port Appin lying opposite to Lismore where he continued his research and published his last study Mosses of Lorn. Despite not being in good health, he still managed to make his last field trip to St Kilda. At the age of fifty-five Carmichael passed away and was interred at Clachlan near St Moluag’s cathedral. Despite being relatively unknown today due to his retiring nature, his friendship with the leading botanists of his day, Sir William Hooker and Robert Brown, made sure that his scientific discoveries did not go unnoticed by Charles Darwin.

References:
CW 113, fos. 3v-4r.
Alexander Carmichael, ‘The Barons of Bachuill’, The Celtic Review, vol. 5 (1909), pp. 356-75.
Dugald Carmichael. ‘Some Account of the Island of Tristan da Cunha and of its Natural Productions. By Captain Dugald Carmichael, F.L.S’ Transactions of the Linnean Society, vol. 12, no. 29 (1818), pp. 483-513.
Robert Hay, Lismore: The Great Garden (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009), pp. 166-67
Dòmhnall MacilleDhuibh, Sgeul no Dhà às an Lios / A Tale or Two from Lismore (Glasgow: CADIPSA at the University of Strathclyde for Comann Eachraidh Lios Mòr, 2006), pp. 116-17.
Rev Colin Smith, ‘Biography of the late Dugald Carmichael, Esq. Captain 72d Regiment, Fellow of the Linnean Society’, in The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, vol. 11 (1831), pp. 90-103; vol. 12 (1831-32), pp. 113-22 [This is an extracted biography that originally appeared in William Hooker’s Botanical Miscellany, vol. 2 (1831), pp. 1-59; 258-343.
Image:
Carmichaeliana or New Zealand Broom.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

The Last Great Auk? II

Carmichael’s is one of a handful of reports concerning the last British great auk, and like the rest of them was recorded long after the event. Even though it appears to be the only account we have written down by a Gaelic speaker, it is rather suspect, especially when compared to the much more circumstantial synthesis of accounts given by Alfred Newton (1829–1907), Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at Cambridge, to his fellow ornithologist – and correspondent of Carmichael – John Alexander Harvie-Brown (1844–1916). Professor Newton drew upon information he had received from the naturalist, sportsman, and St Kilda afficionado Henry Evans (1831–1904) with whom he had visited the island in 1887; Evans himself had recorded the story from Lachlan Mackinnon (Lachlann Eòghainn) (1808–95), a native St Kildan who was one of the party who had caught the bird – on Stac an Àrmainn rather than Stac Lì as Carmichael stated – and indeed claimed to be the very man who advised three days later, after a terrible storm had arisen, that it should be killed for fear it was a witch.

Carmichael’s account, focusing upon the St Kildans as a community rather than upon the individuals who caught and later killed the bird, demonstrates how the story of the great auk was already being transformed into a folktale by the time he recorded it in the late 1880s. It may nonetheless have preserved some authentic details. Perhaps most interesting for us is the point of the story for contemporaries: the St Kildans were woefully ignorant of the extraordinary value of the bird they had killed. In terms of average earnings, the price Carmichael put in the late 1880s on a single wing of the great auk, £100, would equal more than £50,000 today. With a bounty worth a fortune on each of their heads from museums around the world, it’s hardly surprising that great auks were doomed. Their very rarity was what killed them.

But when exactly did the event take place? Carmichael seems to be quite precise about the date, crossing out 1847 and putting 1848 in its place. This might tally with John Love’s remark in his fascinating new book A Natural History of St Kilda that it is rather curious that there is no mention of the killing in accounts by the several naturalists who visited the island between 1840 and 1847. If it was indeed in 1848 – and there were severe gales on the west coast towards the end of July – then Lachlan Mackinnon and his four companions may have killed the last surviving great auk on the planet.

References:
CW 131B, fos. 356–8
Jeremy Gaskell, Who Killed the Great Auk? (Oxford: OUP, 2000).
Bill Lawson, Croft History: Isle of St Kilda (Northton, Isle of Harris: Bill Lawson Publications, 1999), p. 16.
John A. Love, A Natural History of St Kilda (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009), pp. 121–36.
Scotsman, 26 July 1848, p. 3.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Last Great Auk? I

Even before it became extinct, the great auk or gairfowl (Pinguinus impennis) was renowned as one of the most extraordinary seabirds to be found around the Hebrides: a sort of North Atlantic penguin, very rare, large (nearly three feet all), and quite unable to fly. There is some controversy over when the last great auks were killed: we know that a breeding couple (the birds mated for life) was slaughtered on the rocky island of Eldey off the south-west tip of Iceland in early June 1844. Some time in the 1840s, however, in the month of July, a great auk was captured by a party of St Kildans on Stac an Àrmainn, taken back to the village, then killed a few days later. Alexander Carmichael left an account of the event among the many slips of paper he filled with information concerning birds, animals, fish, and plants of the Hebrides.

About 40 years ago or so say about 1848 a party of S[t] K[ilda] people found a Gearrabhal on Stac-a-lì, a stack near Borrery. They brought it home but did not know what bird it was, what to do with it nor what to make of the bird. They knew not what to make of it and they came to no decision that night. They tied a strong cord or rope to its leg and fastened a stake to the other end of the rope and fixed this in the ground. Thus they left the bird all night tethered behind the house like one of their cows. ‘Nuair thig la thig comhairle’ ‘When day comes council comes.’ But the bird had his revenge in the noise he made and the sleeplessness he caused. He cried all night long and made night hideous with his noise. He screamed and roared like a creature possessed and the people got no sleep no rest. In the morning the people met as usual in the daily parliament (Comhairle) and among other matters what they were to do with this demoniacal bird-like creature they caught. The parliament which is composed of all the heads of families in the place and which met daily [decided] that this strange bird or bird-like creature must be possessed of a demon and that it was only a demon that could make [the] noise it made all night long. They therefore decreed that the bird must be put to death and so the bird was put to death accordingly. Every man in the community set upon the poor bird with sticks and stones and staves and attacked him till he was dead. And as the bird took a deal of killing the people were the more confirmed that he was possessed of a demon and they belaboured him accordingly. The body of the bird was then thrown to the dogs of the village and torn asunder by dogs and children. Next year when they came to discover their mistake they were searching about for bits of the broken bones of the bird!

[margin: The children of the village tore off its wings and used the wings upon one anothers ears and after they they were used by the women of the village to sweep the muddy floors of their crubas, their old wall bedded houses. Were there ever such costly brooms used in sweeping the floor of a king’s palace. Each of those wings on the bird would probably today realize £100!]


References:
CW 131B, fos. 356–8.
Illustration:
‘Great Auk’ from John James Audobon’s The Birds of America (1840–44).

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Lamartine and Ossian

Lamartine, by Henri Decaisne (Musée de Mâcon).

Just over a century since the Ossianic controversy first raised its ugly head, Alexander Carmichael, like his older contemporary, John Francis Campbell, was still enthralled by tales and poetry about the mythological heroes of the Gaelic world. Carmichael actively collected Ossianic ballads and related material but unlike the more circumspect Campbell was inclined more to believe that they were the genuine article and to dismiss the accusations of literary forgery beset upon the so-called translations that James Macperson (1736-1796) furnished to the literary world. What may be described as literary tittle-tattle was collected by Carmichael from a Roman Catholic Priest, Fr James McGregor, who was serving Ardkenneth, South Uist, at the time the anecdote was collected on 10 January 1865.

Lamertine was at some literary din-
ner in London when the conversation turn-
ed upon Ossian. Some of those present asked
Lamertine his opinion as to whether or not
he thought Ossian’s poems genuine or as
the forgeries of MacPherson. The forgeries
of MacPherson said the great French
scholar Mr Mac Pherson was as capable
of forging the poems of Ossian as he
was of forging the hills and dales of the
Scottish Highlands. No! no! the impress
of the great original is as indelibly stamp
ed on the poems of Ossian as the impress
of the master hand of the Creator is
stamped on the mountains and
rivers of Strathspey.


James McGregor himself had a Lismore connection for he was admitted to the seminary there on the 19th April, 1808. He was for forty years at Ardkenneth in South Uist,  along with, at the same time, the charge of Benbecula. He died on the 15th February, 1867. The man to whom the priest referred to in his anecdote was none other than Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), a French romantic poet and who was, like many others, heavily influenced by Macphersons two ‘great’ works (Fingal and then Temora) that took the literary world by storm when they were first published in the 1760s. His remark from the above anecdote would have placed him well in the camp of Carmichael who was a believer rather than John Francis Campbell who (correctly) was a sceptic.

References:
CW 113, fol. 14r.
Image:
Lamartine, by Henri Decaisne (Musée de Mâcon).

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Handwriting Guide goes live

We are very pleased to announce that a guide to Alexander Carmichael’s handwriting is now available online.

Anyone who has read (or perhaps more correctly tried to read) Carmichael’s hand will inevitably come across difficulties in understanding it, particularly with his field notebooks where notes were written at speed while listening to or engaging with informants. This speed led to poorly formed letters and the need for abbreviations, of which there are many.

Included in the Handwriting Guide is an introduction to his handwriting, a section on handwriting problems and examples of his hand with transcripts. The Guide also contains an extensive selection of letterforms, numbers and symbols, which are demonstrated using digital images taken from his notebooks; and a list of abbreviations, which will be regularly updated as listing and transcription work progresses and more abbreviations are identified.

We hope that this resource will prove invaluable to researchers and we welcome your comments on it.

You can find the Handwriting Guide here: http://www.carmichaelwatson.lib.ed.ac.uk/handwriting.php

Thursday, 15 October 2009

St Kilda II

It was with the express purpose of garnering information from a tradition bearer called Effie MacCrimmon or Oighrig NicCruimein that Carmichael travelled to St Kilda. As things turned out the journey was something of a disappointment for Carmichael although he managed to get some material it was not without a struggle:

… which the writer took down … from Eibhrig Nic Cruimein, Euphemia MacCrimmon, cottar, aged eighty-four years, who had many old songs, stories, and traditions of the island. I would have got more of these had there been peace and quiet to take them down, but his was not to be had among a crowd of naval officers and seamen and St Kilda men, women and children, and, even nosier than these, St Kilda dogs, made with excitement and all barking at once. The aged reciter was much censured for her recital of these stories and poems, and the writer for causing the old woman to stir the recesses of her memory for this lore; for the people of St Kilda have not discarded songs and music, dancing, folklore, and the stories of the foolish past.

As far as is known Alexander Carmichael never returned to St Kilda and he may well have been dissuaded from the experience of this trip to try and collect more about St Kilda or from St Kildans. Nonetheless three pieces from St Kildan tradition were published as Iorram Hirteach/St Kilda Lilt, Cha B'e Sgioba na Faiche/It was no Crew of Landsmen and Òran Luathaidh Iortach/ St Kilda Waulking Song all of which had been collected from Effie MacCrimmon. Included is a wonderful piece entitled An Comhradh/The Conversation which was composed by her parents together during their courtship days, an excerpt of which is as follows:

Esan:
Is tu mo smùidein, is tu mo smeòirein,
Is mo chruit chiùil sa mhadainn bhòidhich!
Ise:
M'eudail thusa, mo lur 's mo shealgair,
Thug thu 'n dé dhomh 'n sùl 's an gearrbhall
He:
Thou art my turtle-dove, thou art my mavis,
Thou art my melodious harp in the sweet morning
She:
Thou are my treasure, my lovely one, my huntsman,
Yesterday thou gavest me the gannet and the auk.

References:
Carmina Gadelica, iv, pp. 106-15.
Image:
Euphemia MacCrimmon taken around the mid-1860s.

Friday, 9 October 2009

St Kilda

Alexander Carmichael's first of only two trips to St Kilda took place on 22 May 1865. Leaving Lochmaddy in North Uist at the very early time of 4.30 in the morning, the boat then swung north through the sound of Harris, where Carmichael caught sight of St Clement's church in Rodel. A further six hours into the journey St Kilda appeared at 10.30 am.

Islands look magnificent
rising up of the water in the mist.
Slight breeze on the starboard side.
Arrived at St Kilda about 12 noon. Fine
open bay. Bold rocks and remarkably grand.
Landed in first boat. Was at manse. Poorly
furnished but good house. Cameron the
missionary oldish and common looking.
St Kildans good looking s[t]out fellows
with pale complexions. Woman good
looking and ruddy complexions.
Women high shoulders and crouched figures
and bad ankles and feet. Beautiful
white teeth. Pronunciation peculiar
and lisping. People seem to be spoiled
not polite.


After having jotted down his first impressions of the St Kildans and purchasing some cloth and a bottle of fulmer oil, Carmichael continues his narrative:

Kissed a St Kilda lassie. A little beauty with
dark brown eyes and fresh complexion

about ten or eleven years. Kissed her
so as to have to say that I kissed a
St Kilda lassie. Saw men going on
rocks. Fearful sights. The deep blue
fathomless ocean roaring many
hundred feet beneath them. Took out the
fulmars and some eggs. Birds
vomiting oil – painful sights.


Rather surprisingly Carmichael's recollection of his journey stops there but it was the natives themselves rather than the remote isle itself that seems to have left more of a lasting impression.

Reference:
CW 113, fos. 55r-56v

Image: St Kilda

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Oiteagan á Tìr nan Òg

For some time the Carmichael Watson team have been intrigued by a mysterious 152-page manuscript bundle of Gaelic poetry whose author is only described in the catalogue as ‘a North Uist bard’. Julie Fowlis, one of the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig students who visited the project a few weeks ago, herself from North Uist, has kindly informed us that the author is in fact Ruairidh MacAoidh, mac an t-Saighdeir Ruaidh, or Roderick Mackay (1872–1949). In North Uist tradition MacAoidh is better known as Bàrd Iollairigh after the district where he lived, in the north of the island of Baile Sear/Baleshare on the west coast of North Uist. The bard’s work as clerk to the factor of the North Uist estate meant that he was a well-known – and apparently very popular! – figure in the island as he travelled from township to township collecting rent. This reminds us of the tax-gathering duties Alexander Carmichael had to carry out as part of his excise work. However unwelcome his arrival might be to locals, the occupation gave Carmichael an unrivalled opportunity to get to know the people of Uist and Barra, and for them to get to know him.

The bundle in the collection is the bard’s own poetry manuscript, published in Glasgow in 1938 as Oiteagan á Tìr nan Òg [‘Breezes from the Land of Youth’] under the auspices of the Uist and Barra Association. The bard’s original versions were lightly edited for spelling and grammar before publication by Hector MacDougall (1880–1954), the prolific Gaelic author from the Island of Coll. The manuscript came into the possession of Carmichael’s grandson James Carmichael Watson (1910–42), from whom it ended up in the Carmichael Watson Collection where it is catalogued as CW MS 211.

Although the manuscript may not add anything new to what we know of MacAoidh’s work, it draws our attention to a very skilful, vivid, and humane poet gifted with a remarkable command of language and a keen eye for the quirks of his fellow islanders and of island life.


References:
CW MS 211
Ruairidh MacAoidh, Oiteagan á Tìr nan Òg (Glasgow: Alexander MacLaren & Sons, 1938)
Ronald Black (ed.), An Tuil: Anthology of 20th Century Gaelic Verse (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1999), 724–5.
Images: Illeray, North Uist; CW MS 211 and the first song from Oiteagan á Tìr nan Òg

Friday, 25 September 2009

Gaelic Proverbs II

As a tribute to his friend and fellow collector, Carmichael penned an elegy for Sheriff Alexander Nicolson (1827–1893), that was published in The Celtic Monthly. A few things may be gleaned from this: the affection that Carmichael felt for a close friend that he lost; that they had become acquainted with one another from around 1865; that Carmichael had a literary bent and, as far is known, was the only piece of original verse ever to be published by him under his own name.

ALEXANDER NICOLSON, LL.D.,
ADVOCATE.
(From a fellow-worker and a friend of twenty-eight years’ standing).
Farewell thou genial bard of Skye,
Who loved her dale and fell;
Who roamed her hoary peak on high,
And eke her eerie dell;
Who loved her people and her tongue,
Her tongue that Ossian knew,
Thou well beloved of classic song,
To thee my fond adieu!
Gone, the cultured and the true,—
The heart that knew no guile,
The eye that looked through heaven’s blur
The spirit pure, were thine.
I sing no amaranthine lay,
No gorgeous bowers I bring:
Mine but the lily of the vale,
The snowdrop of the spring.

Alexander Nicolson was born in 1827 in Husabost, near Dunvegan, son of a farmer and landed proprietor, a tacksman under the MacLeods, on the isle of Skye. After studying theology at Edinburgh University, he gave up his plans to join the Free Church ministry and was working as an editor and journalist when he was appointed examiner for the Lothian District. Nicolson served as examiner for only a few years before leaving to pursue a legal career. He was called to the Scottish Bar in 1860, but obtained little practice as an advocate. He was subsequently appointed Assistant Commissioner for the Scottish Education Commission in 1865, in which capacity he visited and inspected the schools of almost all the inhabited Western Isles. In the very same year that he declined an offer of the chair of Celtic at Edinburgh University, a position which Professor J. S. Blackie had been instrumental in founding, Nicolson, in 1872, accepted an appointment to became sheriff-Substitute, or stewart of the stewarty of Kirkcudbright as it was known then, where he remained until 1885, when appointed sheriff-substitute of Greenock. Only four year later, however, in 1893, on grounds of ill health he was forced to retire. Nicolson never married, and died in Edinburgh of heart disease in 1893. His obituary in the Scotsman portrays him as a popular, genial man with ‘a great fund of humour’, and a keen Gaelic scholar who ‘rejoiced in all Gaelic things’ and was passionate about his homeland of Skye, but who failed to apply himself fully to any branch of industry. Despite that he wrote in a brief autobiographical sketch: “I would rather be remembered as the composer of one good song, than as the writer of many respectable and superfluous books”, Nicolson is chiefly remembered for his revision of the Gaelic Bible (at the behest of the SSPCK) and his collection of Gaelic proverbs and, of course, as the man who gave his name to the highest peak of the Black Cuillin in the isle of Skye: Sgurr Alasdair (‘Alexander’s Peak’) which he first ascended in 1873.

References:
Carmichael, Alexander, ‘Alexander Nicolson, LL.D., Advocate’, The Celtic Monthly, I(7) (1893), p. 111
Fionn [Henry Whyte], ‘Sheriff Nicolson’, The Celtic Monthly, I(6) (1893), p. 85
Nicolson, Alexander, Verses (with ‘Memoir’ by Walter Smith) (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1893), pp. 1–23
The Scotsman (13/01/1893), p. 6
Image: Sgurr Alasdair

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). [© carstenflieger.com]