Thursday 18 February 2010

Kilted Excisemen: John Murdoch and Alexander Carmichael

John Murdoch
While in Dublin Alexander Carmichael became firm friends with a fellow Argyllshire Gael John Murdoch, who as his slightly older comtemporary and an exciseman to boot took his newly-found charge under his wing. They became life-long friends and Murdoch’s influence upon Carmichael cannot be underestimated. Many years later, Murdoch visited Carmichael, then staying at Creagorry in Benbecula, and they fell into conversation with a man in nearby Garrynamonie, South Uist. It so transpired that this man had been a tenant in Heisker, an island to the west of North Uist, and his vivid descriptions and engaging narrative were so noteworthy that Murdoch later wrote:

What struck me most were the rich descriptions he gave of the island and of the comfort and character of the people. I was sorry afterwards I had not taken note of his descriptions and I asked Mr Carmichael to get me at his leisure a full account. His answer, though good, was discouraging: ‘If I attempted to take down every eloquent speech that came my way I would never be done.’

John Murdoch (1818–1903), the radical editor of the The Highlander newspaper and political activist for land reform, and Carmichael had shared interests as they were both keen supporters of the Gaelic literature and language that became so entwined with the land league and the revival of fortunes for crofters and cottars. Both men were involved in the movement that would later enter legislation as the Crofting Act of 1886 which led to security of tenure and also, it seems, a much needed confidence boost for the Gaelic language and culture. Murdoch’s influence upon him is clearly palpable for Carmichael became a habitual wearer of the kilt, something that was perhaps rather unusual even then, and reflects something of the romantic persona in Carmichael’s makeup. Murdoch later recalled a visit that he made to the Hebrides around 1873 were he met up with his friend and his wife:

With Mr and Mrs Carmichael I had the best of entertainment, physically and mentally. He was full of Gaelic lore and busy gathering more. For this work, indeed, he had gone there and remained—to the loss of promotion in the excise in which he was much esteemed. He had been in Dublin, where I first met him on his arrival with credentials from Archie Sinclair the First, and after that among my friends in Islay. His first station was Cornwall where he found much to interest him. But he came to the Long Island as the great repository of Celtic traditional lore and he worked the mine as no man ever did before. Not only that but he made friends wherever he went. And unconsciously I reaped a good deal of the result. Wearing the kilt, as we both did, I was many a time taken for him as I approached; and I found that the good impression thus made often stood to me after the discovery was made that I was quite another person.

It is evident that both Murdoch and Carmichael benefited from their mutual aquaintance and both of their legacies have left a lasting impact upon not only upon Scottish culture in general but Gaelic culture in particular.

James Hunter, For the People’s Cause (Edinburgh: HMSO, 1986)
Image: John Murdoch

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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). [©]