Sunday 6 June 2010

The Death of a Master Celtic Gleaner

As today is the anniversary of the death of Alexander Carmichael almost a century ago it seems appropriate to commemorate his passing by publishing a long, and fulsome, appreciation of his career which appeared in The Oban Times. The name of the author who contributed this article is not given but he knew Carmichael from a personnel perspective thus giving some insight into the character of the man who had spent over fifty years of his life devoted to collecting Gaelic oral traditions in many parts of the Highlands and Islands:


Liom is tim a bhi dol dachaidh,
Do chuirt Chriosd, do shith nam flathas.”
– Carmina Gadelica

We greatly regret to announce the death of Dr. Alexander Carmichael, which took place at his residence in Edinburgh on Thursday last. Dr. Carmichael, who had reached the great age of seventy-nine, bore his years well, and his final illness was of brief duration. His death removes the greatest figure from the field of Celtic gleaning. His services to the Gaelic language and literature, performed modestly and unostentatiously, earned him far-reaching fame. Officially located in the Hebrides, from which he had repeated opportunities of removing at the call of promotion, he devoted himself over a long series of years to gathering up and preserving from extinction the Celtic folklore which, in his day, still survived on the lips of the people in rich abundance, but lingered only within the limits of a narrow circle to which entrance was difficult. Dr. Carmichael reaped a rich harvest, and his self-denying and unceasing labours have laid the whole Celtic world under a lasting debt to his patriotic energy and insight.
Living among the Hebridean islanders, Mr Carmichael cheerfully identified himself with all their interests. In this connection during the crofter agitation he wrote a notable paper for submission to the Napier Commission, which latterly became on oft-quoted document, and had its effect in securing the legislation which followed the Government enquiry.
Mr. Carmichael settled in Edinburgh twenty years ago, but for many years he visited Taynuilt during summer, and was occasionally seen in Oban. His leisure was devoted almost exclusively to the revision of his remarkable collection of folklore, of which the two volumes of “Carmina Gadelica” formed only a part.
In April, 1909, the University of Edinburgh conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. Sir Ludovic Grant, Dean of the Faculty of Laws, presented Mr. Carmichael for the degree, and, in doing so, gave a fine appreciation of his career as a Celtic scholar. He had, he said, made many interesting contributions to philology and archaeology, but none of his achievements was more deserving of commemoration than his work in collecting and recording large portions of the Gaelic folk-lore, which, but for his timely exertions and pious care, must have irretrievably perished. Mr Carmichael was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.
Dr. Carmichael is survived by a widow and a family consisting of a daughter and three sons. His daughter is the wife of Dr. W. J. Watson, rector of the Royal High School of Edinburgh, and she is well known as the editor of the “Celtic Review.”


The first of the Scottish Celtic gleaners was Dean Macgregor of Lismore. His great collection of Gaelic poetry was made in 1512. And now the last of the master gleaners, Dr. A. Carmichael, has passed away, and his dust lies in the soil that bore him, in that same beautiful and historically famous island of Lismore. Celtic literature and the Celtic people owe a great debt to the gleaners, to those few choice spirits who had the heart and the will to sacrifice time and money, and sometimes even worldly advancement to the work of saving the literary and traditional masterpieces of the race from oblivion. The precious treasures of the Irish manuscripts, the contents of “Leabhar na h-Uidhri” and the “Liber Hymnorum,” and many others besides would have been lost to posterity for ever were it nor for the literary enthusiasm and patient industry of the men who transcribed them. And as long as Celtic literature endures, the memory of such collectors as Campbell of Islay and Carmichael will be cherished and honoured. Dr. Carmichael was fortunate in discovering a rich vein of old Celtic hymns and traditional lore in the Hebrides, and to the recording of these he devoted his energies through a long life-time. It is not always their own contemporaries that put the highest value on the work of the collector, but those who come after. Even so Dr. Carmichael’s work in “Carmina Gadelica” and elsewhere will be more and more appreciated by scholars and by the people as the years pass. It was something unique and precious that none could do but himself, and that none can now do, as the old people are gone to the silent land. He was possessed of a love of the people and their literature that never grew cold, and a warm enthusiasm and tireless industry joined with a wise literary and critical that remained active to the very close of his working years that extended over more than half a century.

Personal Qualities

There personnel qualities were of the utmost service to him in his work. He had rare tact and skill in dealing with old people. His kindness and warmth of heart and fine courtesy seldom failed to charm from the folks the old traditions and lore that they hid in their hearts with a sort of shamefacedness from an unappreciative younger generation, careless though the history of their own past and its poetic masterpieces and rich legendary lore were lost for ever. He was possessed of a breadth of sympathy that enabled him to see all that was best in Calvinist or Catholic, and to win the friendship and confidence of men of all classes and creeds. The most striking thing in his personality was his intense love for the Highland people–a love that delighted in and idealised their virtues, and was tender and charitable for their faults. The other side of this love was seen in his indignation and anger when any act of oppression or injustice done to the Highland people came to his knowledge.

The Old Hymns and Poems

The old hymns, breathing a simple, warm piety, with little elaborate dogma, were literature according to his own heart. Many of them have probably come down with little change from the primitive Celtic Church of St. Columba’s day. Still, no man had a deeper appreciation for the best passages in the noble religious poetry of such writers as Morrison of Harris, a Celtic poet of another school and a later time. He was a charming conversationalist, and could tell entrancing stories of days and nights spent with Campbell of Islay by peat fires in Barra, of strange wanderings and adventures when on the quest of old place-names, stories, hymns, or weird incantations that were hardly lawful to utter. But he was at his very best when the privileged visitor to his home saw him open his cabinets and recite choice old Gaelic poems from the immense manuscript store at his hand. Then it was the one felt the power of the man, the burning love for his people, and that spiritual expression of themselves in their old literature which was the passion of his life. He would read or chant these poems on into the small hours until oftentimes his emotion became overmastering and tears would begin to flow.

His Literary Labours

The editing of his manuscripts for the press was a labour of love, but it demanded much time and toil. To collate perhaps a score of versions of one traditional song, to translate the form finally adapted as best, and to write notes on obscure points demanded great literary skill and expert knowledge. His own literary style alike in English and Gaelic was of the finest quality. Had he chosen to write largely in Gaelic prose he could have rivalled Norman Macleod. His introduction and notes in English to “Carmina Gadelica” are models of finished and felicitous diction full of distinction and individuality. Some of his power in English may have been unconsciously gained from his life-long study of old Gaelic masterpieces, a literature that shows a wonderful native artistry in words and delicate feelings for music and fitness in style. There is never a word too much or a word too little, and all his work, original or translated, is transfused with a Celtic glamour and grace.
His great work, when published, was received with enthusiasm throughout the English-speaking world. By the power and truth of his interpretature he evoked a new respect for the Scottish Celt, and in many cases changed indifference or prejudice into warm and intelligent interest in the Celtic movement and Celtic studies. One of the chiefs of the English Education Department, after reading Dr. Carmichael’s translation of “Ora nam Buadh,” expressed his astonishment that such noble literature was found in the remote Hebrides, and went so far as to say that it that was the literature of the people were being educated out of–long might they remain uneducated! He referred to that false conception of education which presupposes the extinction of the old Highland culture as a necessary preliminary to progress.
Dr. Carmichael’s last piece of work was a visit paid to the Oban district about a month ago in order to seek from the old people some additional local matter required for the new edition of “Deirdre.” This classic Gaelic tale in, in the opinion of Mr. Nutt of London, quite equal in intrinsic merit to any of the tales in the mythologies of Greece or Rome.
Perhaps the last sheaves of the master gleaner was collected at Barachander, Taynuilt, where he and the writer spent a delightful summer day with Mr Charles Macdonald, whose stores of memory regarding local history and traditions are so copious and accurate.
The Celtic world is poorer to-day by the loss of a most lovable personality, a great Celtic humanist, with a deep hidden fountain of piety and tenderness, a man of distinct genius, and first Gaelic folk-lorist of his age.
The call came suddenly at the last, but the long day’s work had been done, and well done. His last thoughts and desires would, we think, be well expressed in the verse from one of his loved old hymns:

Tha mi sgith ’s mi air m’ aineol
Trioraich mi do thir nan aingeal
Liom is tim a bhi dol dachaidh,
Do chuirt Chriosd, do shith nam flathas.”

There remains unpublished still a great deal of Dr. Carmichael’s manuscript material. His talented daughter, Mrs. Watson, and her husband, Dr. Watson, who have done so much for Celtic studies by their own research and by their power to stimulate interest and enthusiasm in new workers in the Celtic field, may be trusted to give to the world at some future time which remains unpublished of Dr. Carmichael’s work. Much sympathy is extended to them and to the other members of the bereaved family, and especially to Mrs Carmichael, whose loving co-operation and sympathy made it possible for her late husband to achieve so much.

Over the next few blogs we shall publish more items that appeared in various Highland and Gaelic-related newspapers printed shortly after the demise of Alexander Carmichael on St Columba’s day, the 6th of June, 1912.

Anon., ‘The Late Mr Alexander Carmichael, LL.D.: A Master Celtic Gleaner,’ The Oban Times, no. 3003 (15 Jun., 1912), p. 5, c. 2–4
Image: A picture portrait of Alexander Carmichael on receiving his honorary Doctor of Laws in recognition of his work on behalf of Gaelic folklore.

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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). [©]