Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Duke of Tarentum in South Uist

Among Alexander Carmichael’s fieldwork notebooks are a few mentions of the Duke of Tarentum. This was none other than Marshal MacDonald (1765–1840) whose father, Neil MacEachen (later MacDonald) of Howbeg, had been born in South Uist. The Marshal was feted by all when he visited Britain and the memories of seeing this dashing French Marshal in the native land of his forebears was not lost on the older Uist folk who would have met him (and perhaps might have even spoken with him) when he came to the Hebrides in 1825. Fortunately for posterity the Marshal left a travel diary recording his visit to Scotland and the Islands which was the subject of a recent publication, The French MacDonald, edited by Jean-Didier Hache (along with a contribution by Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart). One of the overriding reasons for this visit was his search for family roots, a popular reason for many people travelling to Scotland, especially the Highlands and Islands, from where thousands upon thousands emigrated. It is perhaps an historical irony that while the Marshal was visiting the number of people leaving their native land, whether it was forced or voluntary, had yet to reach its peak:

Came to Uist ab[ou]t 46 [years ago]. Left 10£ a year to his
cousin[s] Alast[air] & Isebel each as long as they lived.
His nephew a count along with him. He had 2
sister[s]. Had one son – No English – I cant speak
to you but Ill send you my son. He then got
an English tutor to his son. The son died & the
pro[eeds] claimed by a man fr[om] America.
Raol had a son John [del: who had a son Tonas]
who was a cooper in the Customs In Greenock
who had a son Thomas who went to Quebec.
Probably this was the claimant. he came
to Paris to see the Duke who behaved kindly
to him. Duke sharp – knew his relatives
by sight. He w[ou]ld be ab[ou]t 70 or 75. The late
Angus Fletcher Edin[burgh] corresp[onded] with him.
Angus Macintire & Ken[ne]th Beaton
were taken away from Croic Pheigh[inn].
Paton was put out at Assynt & money
given him to take him home. Macint[ire]
was ?keunpr in France 15 y[ea]rs & came
back to Uist.

Elsewhere Carmichael notes down the physical appearance of the Duke and it is clear from this description that an impression was made which lasted some sixty-six years before being noted down:

Duke [of] Tar[en]t[um] middle sized clear mind[ed]
smart man high sight – Swarthy
complex[ion]. About 5-10 or 5-11.

Perhaps this does not quite chime with his above portrait but it must be remembered that it was painted many years later in faraway France by François Gerard (1770–1837). Only this year – on 30 April 2010 to be precise – a trilingual plaque was unveiled to the memory of the Marshal of France – (Étienne) Jacques (Joseph Alexandre) MacDonald – at Howbeg in South Uist.

CW108, fos. 14r–14v
Hache, Jean-Didier (ed.), The French MacDonald (Port of Ness, Isle of Lewis: The Islands Book Trust, 2007)
Image: Jacques MacDonald, portrait by François Gerard.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The First Earl of Seaforth’s Funeral

An entry made by Alexander Carmichael concerns the funeral ‘celebration’ of Cailean Ruadh MacKenzie (1596/7–1633), the 1st Earl of Seaforth. He was the eldest son of Kenneth MacKenzie, 1st Lord MacKenzie of Kintail by his first wife, Ann, daughter of George Ross of Balnagown. The MacKenzies were a clan from Ross-shire that had risen to prominence in the fifteenth century after the collapse of the Lordship of the Isles.

When Cailein Ruadh Leoghais died
100 sheep 100 pigs 100 hens, 100
geese 100 ducks 100 fat heifers & 100 casks of whisk[y]
were consumed at the funeral which
last[ed] three days & three nights.

Cailean Ruadh throughout his life had been known for his profligacy and would think nothing of spending beyond his means. For instance, he commissioned the building of Brahan Castle in 1611. The Rev. John MacRae (d. 1704) states that he “lived most of his time at Chanonry in great state and very magnificently. He annually imported his wines from the Continent, and kept a store for his wines, beers, and other liquors, from which he replenished his fleet on his voyages round the West Coast and the Lewis, when he made a circular voyage every year or at least every two years round his own estates … It is scarcely credible what allowance was made for his table of Scotch and French wines during these trips amongst his people … I have heard my grandfather, Mr Farquhar MacRa (then Constable of the Castle) say that the Earl never came to his house with less than 300 and sometimes 500 men.” Thus showing in life his boundless extravagence which was later to be reflected in the consummate consumption which was so conspicuous at his funeral. Indeed, his death reflected his life in this very respect.

CW 108, fo. 19v
MacKenzie, Alexander, History of the MacKenzies (Inverness: A. & W. MacKenzie, 1894)
Image: Brahan Castle

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Calum Iain Maclean on Carmichael

Fifty years ago Calum Iain Maclean passed away on his adopted isle of South Uist. Over a decade of amassing oral traditions of every type and variety from the people of this island allowed Maclean an insight into Southern Hebridean life and culture afforded to only a few so-called ‘outsiders’, and far more important than that, he also developed a great respect and love for the Uibhistich. Typical of his rather reticent character, Maclean would never take a great deal of credit for the achievement of his work to preserve the fast-dying Gaelic oral traditions of the Southern Hebrides. But such recognition duly came his way with the award of a posthumous degree of LL.D. from the St Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. Maclean, of course, knew that he had been following a fairly well-trodden path when he wrote the following in 1956 about Alexander Carmichael:

Another collector arrived in the Hebrides about the year 1865. He was Alexander Carmichael (1832–1912), a Customs and Excise officer. Carmichael’s work brought him in touch with hundreds of tradition-bearers. He resided permanently in the Hebrides until 1882, and continued his visits there for almost a space of thirty years. He was especially interested in charms, incantations and prayers, of which four volumes, entitled Carmina Gadelica have been published and a fifth volume is in preparation. Carmichael, however, noted down much valuable information about beliefs and festival customs, grazing and tillage customs, agricultural methods, field monuments, legends and tales, and left many notes about story-tellers and tradition-bearers of the last half of the century. In the Hebrides Carmichael and John Francis Campbell met and together visited some of the noted story-tellers. Carmichael has much to say of the practice of story-telling at the ‘ceilidh’. He refers to scores of story-tellers in the Hebrides and on the Scottish mainland. In many cases he speaks of tradition-bearers, ‘whose lore would have filled volumes, but it died with them’.

In a later newspaper article, Maclean again name-checks Carmichael with regard to Alasdair Mòr MacIntyre (c. 1831–1914) who is said to have been recorded by him But there has been, so far, no record of Carmichael having recorded from this famed tradition-bearer; and, even if he did, then it seems that the record is no longer extant. It might, of course, be somewhere in Carmichael’s collection and at some point such a record might well see the light of day. Either way, the amusing anecdote which follows reflects the value of swapping stories in good company in preference to the monotonous grind of manual labour; a triumph of a spiritual rather than a secular exchange of goods, which, it may be assumed, was more to the benefit of the older men rather than the hapless lads who had been placed in a rather delicate predicament.

As has been stated already, the sense of non-utilitarian values is very strong. That has not changed much for generations, as Donald MacIntyre of Loch Eynort, a great storyteller and the son of an even greater one, the late Alasdair Mor MacIntyre illustrates.
Alasdair MacIntyre was a shepherd and lived in a remote place to the east side of Ben More. It was from him that old Angus MacLellan of Frobost learned most of his tales, and old Alasdair used to walk from the back of Ben More to Ormiclate to record tales for the late Dr. Alasdair Carmichael over 70 years ago. Carmichael was immensely proud of one tale he recorded and Donald himself recorded the selfsame tale a fortnight ago.
It is the international tale about the Clever Peasant Girl. No. 94 in the Grimm Collection. It took about an hour to relate, but Donald MacIntyre maintained that in the telling he had nothing like his father’s mastery of ornate, artistic language.
Old Alasdair and Angus MacLellan’s father, Aonghas mac Eachainn, were close friends. One day Alasdair Mor called at the MacLellan home on his way to Lochboisdale. “No one went to bed in their house that night. They all remained by the fire as the two old men went on storytelling,” said Donald.
“Next day old Angus and two or three of the boys went down to Loch Eynort to gather seaweed. They brought Alasdair Mor with them, as it would shorten his way, and they put in at a place where there was a track that would bring him home. Aonghus mac Eachainn got out of the boat also and accompanied Alasdair to see him safely on the track. The two old men sat down on a hillock and began storytelling, while the boys kept the boat afloat on the ebbing tide. The boys continued keeping the boat afloat for a very long time and soon twilight was upon them.
“Go up,” said on of the boys to another, “and separate those two devils or the boat will soon be high and dry.” One of the boys went up and the two old men parted. When Aonghas mac Eachainn came down to the shore, the boys remonstrated with him for having wasted the day and for not having cut any seaweed. Old Aonghus mac Eachainn looked up at the sky: “It will be a fine day tomorrow. We will get plenty seaweed tomorrow.”

Maclean, Calum I. 1956. ‘Hebridean Traditions’, Gwerin: Journal of Folk life, vol. 1, no. 1: pp. 21–33.
———. 12/08/1959. ‘Uist Keeps Its Own Sense of Values’, The Scotsman: p. 6
Image: Calum Iain Maclean.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Ruairidh an Rùma enjoys a good old cup of tea

Hector Maclean (1818–1893), the Islay schoolteacher then collecting in the Outer Hebrides for his friend and youthful companion, the Victorian polymath that was John Francis Campbell of Islay (1821–1885), wrote him a letter from Castlebay, Barra, on the 30 September 1860. In this fascinating account Maclean describes his recent expedition that had taken him to Mingulay and, most importantly, his meeting with Roderick MacNeil (c. 1790–1875), Ruairidh mac Dhòmhnaill, better known perhaps under his moniker Ruairidh an Rùma ‘from his having found at some time 3 hogsheads of rum on the shore’:

I was over at Minglay last week and saw Roderick McNeill who is so celebrated among the people here as a story teller. I have written several of his tales which appear to me to be remarkable for vivid and pointed dialogue. He is an animated and spirited old man and though crippled to a certain extent by rheumatism his vivacity is not the least damped and the vigorous activity of his mind is not the least impaired 74 and not a trace of dotage. He hobbles about bareheaded and barefooted and is said not to have worn shoes for the last fifty years. He tells his tales with extraordinary effect being a capital natural elocutionist using pause emphasis gesture and inflection of the voice to express passion sentiment and character fully as well as though he had been trained by some of the best actors of the day. His Gaelic is excellent but his style is of the plain simple kind. He has obviously an aversion to anything obscure or mystical and gives a clearness and reality to the greatest extravagance […] He has many tales borrowed from other sources than Highland but he gives them all a Highland form.

Some seven years later on 8 August 1867, Alexander Carmichael also met this famed tradition bearer – although he seems to have aged considerably during the intervening years – and notes down an amusing anecdote about him:

Ruary an Ruma. Strange. The school
servant gave him a cup of tea. He de
clared that once and but once only
did he ever taste tea before. Is there
another man of 88 in Britain who can
say the same? I asked him how did
he like the tea. M anamsa Dhia gu
bheil gle mhath. Ach bu cho mhath
liom an siucar eir uisge teth ris
a so! Nach bu mhath luidh mhic
Righ B[h]reitean seach an seo? Amen.

Although tea was perhaps not so much of a luxury item as it had once been in the Highlands and Islands it appears that it was still relatively scarce in Mingulay. On the other hand perhaps Ruairidh an Rùma may have preferred a tipple of the drink from which he earned his nickname rather than a good old cup of tea.

NLS Adv. MS 50.2.1. fo. 226
CW MS 114, fo. 77r
Image: Cup of tea

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The Old Schoolhouse of Mingulay

While visiting Mingulay in August of 1867, Alexander Carmichael took the opportunity to take a look around the old Schoolhouse. He left a very detailed description of the building’s interior and one may speculate that such an interest was piqued by Carmichael’s curiosity because it may have reminded him of his own far off schoolboy days back in Lismore when he attended Samuel MacColl’s classes. The Schoolhouse was rebuilt by the architect Alexander Ross in 1881 who specialised in the construction of rural buildings. It is not on record but it might be safe to assume that perhaps the Mingulay Schoolhouse was the remotest building that Ross ever undertook to construct. Given the relative isolation of the island – eventually abandoned completely in 1912 – a dozen or so miles south of Barra, it would have been one of his most difficult commissions to carry out. Carmichael’s short account is full of fascinating details and even includes seemingly one oddity given that a Protestant religious work, Confession of Faith, should have found its way into the school. But as the school was established by the Free Church Ladies’ Association then such literature would have been used in order to try and convert the staunchly Roman Catholic population to the Protestant faith. Needless perhaps to say the Mingulay folk held onto their faith but the school was given the nick-name Sgoil nan Leadaidhean.  The schoolhouse is one of only two remaining buildings left on the island – the other is the chapel house – and was recently refurbished to allow a comfortable place for visitors to stay.

Teacher – Mi[ng]ulay. His house is
about 30f x 13. It was built by the native
sand is most rude and primitive. Ab[out] 18 f[eet] of this
is the schoolroom. The other end is the teacher’s.
The fur[niture] con[sists] of the bed which serves the treble pur[pose]
of a bed a parti[tion] and the top a gener[al] lumber
room. The teach[er’s] trunk which serves as dining table
There is a pri[mitive] overgrown round stool which
seems to have once formed a quern stand and
which now forms all the pur[pose] of a baking table
a wash stand (about 1½ f[eet] high) one and one half
basin one bowl 2 cups & 2 saucers 1 small milki[ng]
jug minus the “lug” 2 pots size pigeons nest
2 large plates & 1 small 2 knives 2 egg spoon[s]
2 tea spoons a small delapitided [sic] 4 gall[on] cask
for holding meal 1 chair 1 stool and 1 course
piece of plank laid on stones at the side
floor in ruts and hollows and roof just
suf[ficiently] high to allow a tall man to stand upright
without touching the centre rafters. Sides of
house about 4½ f[eet] high in x 3½ out. 2 egg cups
Books Dunbars Greek-English Lexi[c]on Con[fession of] Faith
Virgil and Tacitus in the original.

Reference: CW114, fos. 66v–67r
Storey, Lisa, Muinntir Mhiughalaigh (Glaschu: Clàr, 2007)
Images: Mingulay Schoolhouse interior (RCHAMS) and exterior

Monday, 6 September 2010

The Sweet Sorrow – An Arthurian Ballad IV

The last instalment of the famous Arthurian ballad Am Bròn Binn (‘The Sweet Sorrow’) was taken down from Maighread Dhòmhnallach, or Margaret MacDonald, from Malacleit, North Uist. In contrast to the other two versions already given, this seems to be a rendition of the perhaps more familiar ballad rather than a waulking song. Carmichael appends a note to this version saying just that but also lamenting the fact that his busy work schedule prevented him from transcribing any more versions of it. Perhaps this could be described as a blessing in disguise?

Bho, Mai’read (Maireirad) Dhomhnullach (“Mai’read nighean Aonais duinn?” Geari Iain Malachit, 10th Feb., 1870, Aois 83.

Noiche chai Arstar nan sluagh
Go tulach nan ruadh, nam buadh a shealg
Chunnagas a teurnadh o’n mhaogh
Gruagach a bailli cruth no ghrian’
’S cruit an laimh na h-ighinn oig
’S milis pog ’s as geal gne
’S co binn ’s ga na sheinn i chuirt
’S binne na purist a leig i leo
’S ann le fuaim a teudun binn
A chaidil an Righ na throm seimh. . . .
Mu’n ghruagach a sheinn an ceol
Nach faca i beo no mairbh
Thuirst Righ Sola ri Righ Fial. . . .
Le ’m long bhriagh bhreid gheal bhain.
Far an ga ’adh mo long gu tir
Chunnagas an oiteal dhe ’n chuan
Clach fhuar a fioclairean gorm. . . .
Far am bu lionar cuach agus cuirn
An aisighalla (? Bha Sior Ghallabha) na bhun
’S bha slaurai dhugh as a nuas
Sin an t-slaurai nach do gha crith
’S thog i casan na ruith suas
Bheil fear na creaige so slan
An d’ idir e cas no truas?
Cuis is fhaide liom nach lig
No corag dhianainn ris gu luath. . . .
Cuiremid ani thu sin. . . . .
Cha loisg teine e ’s cha dearg arm eir an fhear
Ach a chlai geur geala-ghlan fhein.
Goid thus an clai dhe ’n fhear
’S ann a bheir thu dheth an ceann
’S carpet sioda fo da bhonn
’S na bheannaich a Ni thu fhir (i.e., Ni-math)
’S trom an cion thug thu eir tuinn
Chunnagas an deigh ti’nn o’n mhuir
Oganach eir ghuin le airm
Bha spuir eil eir a chois dheis
’S bu leoir a dheiseac ’sa dhealbh
’S bha spuir eir eir a chois chli
Do dh-airgiod righ no dh-or feall
Thug mi leum a chum na spuir
De ma thug cha bu mhath a chiall
Thug easun glacadh eir arm
’S e ’m fear marbh a bhi na niall (vicinity)
’S ann agam a nist tha bhean
Is deirge leac
Na ’S ann fotham a bhios an t-each
Is luaith a chuir a chas eir feill (? feur)
’S ann mu ’m chois a bhios an cu
Is luath a chuir a shuil an sealg.
Sann liom dh-falbhas an long,
Is luaith a chuireadh tonn as a deigh,
Marcrac na fairge gu dian,
Falaireac+ an droim a chuain
Bhan ’n triuir braithse mu cheann na mne
Sin mar a mharcraich mi n t-each
Bu luaithe ’s bu reacar ceum
Nach ruig sibh Corra-ri-clach
Far am fuigh sibh beac mo sgeul,
Gu sli’un nam briara cearst
Far nach ga’tar cearst truas
Siod a cheist a chuirinn orst.
Brath do shloine no co d ainm,
Mis an currai nach do gha cosg,
Achiad mhac a bh aig Righ Fraing,
Liom a thiuteas clann Rig Greuig,
O mharbh ’ad fhein an treas fear,
Mus mail leat mise thorist leat
Treachaid leac chlann Righ Greuig,
Sin ’nuair a threachaid mi ’n leac,
Gle fharsuin mar b’ail le ’fein
Cladhaich an uaigh as a dil.
O si obair fir gu’n cheil,
Thug ise leum as an lic,
’S i bhean ghlic bu ro-ghlan snua.
’S leum an t-anam as a corp
Ochadan a noc gur truagh,
Nam biodh agams an sing leigh,
Gu’n cuirinn e fu feum san uair
Dhianainn t-abheothachadh triuir,
Cha ’n fhagainn ma run sna uaigh,
’S i nighean Righ Cholla ghrinn (2),
A chinnich leinn ’s bu mhor am beud
Mis an currai nach do gha cosg,
A chiad mhac a bh’ aig Righ Fraing (1),
Sin deire mo sgeoil,
S mar a sheinn ’ad am Bron Binn.

Note.—This seems to me a veritable Arthurian ballad, and, like other precious gems, ought, I think, to be prized for its rarity. But, I think, it has also the merit of being good besides being rare. There are several other versions, snatches, and expressions, which I would have transcribed had I time. But I am very busy just now, although with work less congenial than this.

The version with the chorus is sung by women while pulling cloth; the other is sung by men. These two versions seem to me to differ so considerably as to look like two separate ballads upon the same subject, rather than two separate versions of the same ballad.
1. Righ Fraing. Which is meant, King Francis or the Ling of France?—the last, I think.
2. Righ Cholla Ghrinn—King Colla.
Old King Coll was a jolly old soul,
Neither read nor write could he;
For to read or to write he thought useless quite,
For he kept a secretarie.—Old Song.

Campbell, J. F., ‘Am Bron Binn’, The Highlander, no. 148 (11 Mar. 1876), p. 3.
Carmichael, Alexander, ‘Na h-Iollaireann’, The Highlander, no. 148 (18 Mar., 1876), p. 3, cc. 1–3.
Carmichael, Alexander, ‘Na h-Iollaireann’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. IX (1879–1880), pp. 67–74.
Carmina Gadelica, v, pp. 86–105.
Gillies, William, ‘Arthur in Gaelic Tradition. Part I: Folktales and Ballads’, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, vol. 2 (Winter, 1981), pp. 47–72; ‘Arthur in Gaelic Tradition. Part II: Romances and Learned Lore’, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, vol. 3 (Summer, 1982), pp. 41–75.
Gowans, Linda, Am Bròn Binn: An Arthurian Ballad in Scottish Gaelic (Eastbourne: privately printed, 1992).
Image: King Arthur

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Snakes On A Plain

In June 1877, Alexander Carmichael was spending time with Donald MacMhuirich, an Islay crofter, gathering information about birds. Donald was a fund of information on seabirds, shore-birds and land birds, their habitats, breeding seasons and migration patterns. Indeed, from the notes we find in notebook CW89, he was fond of imitating bird calls – ‘Hing hingadale, drig drig hingadale’ says the bru-dearg [robin] – and he was able to give Carmichael the Islay Gaelic names for many birds. However, amidst this wealth of Islay birdlore, he tells a story about his grandfather and snakes.

One summer, while away with the milking cows at the sheiling in Bolsa on the north of Islay, Donald’s grandfather noticed that there was something wrong with the milk. He ‘watched and saw a serpent’s trail’ and then ‘saw a serpent coiled on a hillock’*. When the serpent ‘heard some noise she raised her head, he fired two bullets in his gun and killed her’. According to Donald ‘They never saw a [snake] so big as she was 9 ft long.’ Presumably with the snake dead, the milk improved although this is not recorded. Donald then describes how in the last year (1876) seven score snakes had been killed while the year before that, the total had been nearly 180.

I’m not sure I’ve done the story justice as amongst all the ornithological information, it did seem quite dramatic. I had no idea that Islay had so many snakes although if as many were killed every year as Donald said, it’s possible that numbers have declined considerably since then.

References: CW89/23 (folio 7r)
Image: An adder on Jura, taken by Armin Grewe, 2007.
*Technically not a plain but needs must when puns are required. Ed.

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). [©]