Monday 22 March 2010

A faculty she would give worlds to be without

On the 27 May 1869 Alexander Carmichael visited, possibly for the first time, a woman with a remarkable store of the tradition of her native Uist: Penelope MacLellan née MacDonald (c. 1795–1873), known as Bean Ormacleit or ‘the wife of Ormacleit’, ‘Ormacleit’ here referring to her husband the tenant farmer John Maclellan. Carmichael would later describe her in Carmina Gadelica as ‘a lady of great beauty, excellence, historical knowledge, and good sense.’ According to reminiscences he wrote down many years later, Penelope was endowed with a another, rather less welcome ability:

She had been head dairymaid at Ormacleit for ten or twelve years where she had acquired much knowledge of cattle: cattle diseases, cattle ailments, cattle cures, cattle charms and cattle spells of many kinds. It was interesting to hear the woman describing these ailments and their symptoms their cures and their charms – the shrewd observations and the natural causes the skilful cures and the occult beliefs blending and mingling shading into one another like the tints of the rainbow.
     Penelope Macdonald is endowed with the faculty of the taibhse manadh – second sight or premonition. She has inherited this faculty from her paternal people who possessed the power for more generations than she could count. She says that the gift is unsolicited and undesired and that she would willingly dispense with it were she able. The visions come to her at any moment day or night when least expected and least convenient. These visions are mostly about the dead and the dying the dead being carried to their graves by the living sometimes those nearest and dearest to herself being nearest concerned. She judges of these events from the nearness of the persons to the ‘giùlan – carrying’. She sees bas cinn aghart agus bas cinn uisge – death head pillow and death head water – that is death by dying in bed and death by dying in water. She sees daoine saoghal nam marbh agus daoine saoghal nam beo a measg a cheile – an t-athair marbh agus am mac beo – an nighean beo agus am mathair marbh ann an cuideachd a cheile agus a siubhail seachad air a cheile gun suil gun diu aca do chach a cheile nas mo na bhitheadh aig coigirich an t-saoghail a bhos, agus iomadh rud eile a bhuineas dha’n t-saoghal thall. People of the world of the dead and people of the world of the living – people of the thither world and people of the hither world among one another – the dead father and the living son the living daughter and the dead mother in the society and in the company of one another and walking past one another without looking without heeding one another no more than were they strangers in the world here – and many other things that belong to the world beyond.
     The woman says that she often sees visions but she seldom speaks of them seldom even alludes to them. These visions trouble her much but she keeps her troubles to herself – to speak of them would only cause untimely sorrow and sorrow black sorrow comes betimes to all.
     Whatever the faculty may be there is no reason to doubt the sincere belief of this woman in her own faculty – a faculty which she says she would give worlds to be without. [CW MS 493 fos.141–2]

This piece was written as an introduction to a calving charm from Bean Ormacleit – Bò a’ breith – apparently no longer extant.

Penelope lived beside the ruins of the old mansion house of Ailean Dearg, the Clan Ranald chief who had fallen at the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715.

She had the happiness, a few years before she died, of handing to her chief and relative, Admiral Sir Reginald Macdonald of Clanranald, some jewellery that had been found in the ruins of the castle. The jewellery in all probability had been the property of Penelope Mackenzie, the lady of gallant Clanranald of the ’15, and for whom Penelope Macdonald had been named. [CG ii, 27]

One of her ancestors was the famous Uist hero Dòmhnall mac Iain ’ic Sheumais under whose leadership the MacDonalds destroyed a MacLeod raiding party at the Battle of Càirinis in 1601.

As an opening to the recording session on 27 May 1869, Bean Ormacleit narrated the exploits of her famous ancestor. She then gave Carmichael several songs and more local historical traditions, before rounding off their céilidh, as has happened in many other céilidhs before or since, with a supernatural ghost story. At a further meeting, on 12 April 1870, she gave him much valuable information – some of it apparently not entirely accurate – about the family of the jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald. Some time in April or May 1877, after recording more information about Flora, Carmichael mentions Penelope’s grandfather:

Uistean Ban Chillepheadair came fr[om] N[orth] Uist – His son Donald lived at Dallbrug & was the father of the late Bean Ormacleit (Mrs Maclellan) [CW MS 108 fo.18v]

Ùisdean Bàn Chille Pheadair was the Hugh MacDonald who in August 1800 gave a fascinating overview of the history of the islands to the Committee of the Highland Society of London set up to enquire into the authenticity or otherwise of James Macpherson’s Ossianic epics.

CW MS 108 fo.18v.
CW MS 493 fos.141–3.
Carmina Gadelica ii, 27.
Henry Mackenzie (ed.), Report of the Committee of the Highland Society of Scotland appointed to enquire into the Nature and Authenticity of the Poems of Ossian (Edinburgh, 1805), 38–44.

Thanks to Donald MacIsaac for kindly giving permission to use his photograph of Ormacleit Castle and Farmhouse.

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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). [©]