Wednesday 24 March 2010

Carmichael's voice

We are celebrating our fiftieth blog by putting online one of the bigger surprises we’ve met with while working on the life and legacy of Alexander Carmichael: a rather crackly recording of none other than the voice of Alexander Carmichael himself. This precious memento is preserved among the cylinder recordings of composer and cultural entrepreneur Marjory Kennedy-Fraser, best-known today for her three-volume collection Songs of the Hebrides. We are indebted for this to Dr Per Ahlander, who has recently completed a major Ph.D. thesis on Kennedy-Fraser, and to Grant Buttars, Deputy University Archivist.

Marjory Kennedy-Fraser acquired a recording machine in 1907, and used it while on a trip to the Outer Hebrides that summer: remarkably early for recording folk music. The single recording we have of ‘Dr Carmichael’ was made at a session at which the Gaelic scholars Frances Tolmie and Kenneth MacLeod also contributed, as well as Roderick MacLeod, a magnificent singer originally from Elphin in Sutherland but then living in Inverness, and of course Marsaili Mhór nan Òran, Marjory herself. It’s tempting to see this as Kennedy-Fraser testing out her new technology among friends before making her long journey to the Outer Isles. Despite the appalling quality of the recording, the cylinder catalogue suggests that Carmichael is singing Tha mo rùn air a’ ghille, a love song once as well known in the Canadian Maritimes as in Scotland, occasionally interpreted as a jacobite song to Prince Charles. On the cylinder wrapper, Marjory has jotted down that Carmichael heard it as a boy from an old woman in Lismore. A late transcription of the song in Carmichael’s hand is preserved in MS 244 fos.725–6, among a series of texts which may well have been copied from the earlier song collection Carmichael made, drawing upon the help of ‘lady friends in various places’, for Lieutenant Donald Campbell in Greenock in the early 1860s.

Interestingly enough, this is one of the very rare examples of a song for which we have a musical staff transcription in the collection, in MS 379. This transcription was made on 5 September 1905 by Evelyn Benedict, a folksong collector from Boston, Massachusetts who had spent part of the summer recording on Eriskay. It looks as if it was jotted down from the singing of Alexander himself.

The poor quality of the recording is hardly surprising given its age. We can hear, though, that Carmichael, by now nearly 75, couldn’t achieve the voice projection in order to obtain the sustained clarity of some of the other contributors to the session. It’s possible, of course, that the needle of the recording equipment may have lost its sharpness by then. Nevertheless, it may be that we can just make out a Lismore accent there still!

Coll-97/CW244 fos.690, 725–6.

Thanks to Dr Per Ahlander; Grant Buttars; Caroline Milligan at the sound laboratory of the School of Scottish Studies; and Alasdair Carmichael, Alexander’s great-grandson, for giving us permission to make the recording available online.


  1. surprisingly good quality given the age of the cylinder neil mackinnon

  2. Amazing that it has survived so well!

  3. Shin agad ceol! Sar-sheinnadair gu dearbh. Ceud mile taing!

  4. Are you going to put any of these online? When?

  5. It is being considered but there are no concrete plans for the immediate future. We would require to digitise from the original wax cylinders which is a costly, specialist procedure and one which we are not able to progress at the moment. However it will remain our wish to advance this in the longer term.


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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). [©]