We saw in the last ‘Carmichaels in the Census’ blog how, after the death of her mother Elizabeth, Alexander’s future wife Mary Urquhart MacBean was ‘adopted’ into the household of the episcopalian minister the Rev. Arthur Ranken (1806–86) of Old Deer, husband of her mother’s sister Anne. Family tradition as retailed by Mary’s grandson James Carmichael Watson tells of another episcopalian clergyman who played a major part in her life:
From the Parsonage of Old Deer, and probably not long after leaving school, she went to be housekeeper and secretary to the revered Bishop Alexander Penrose Forbes [1817–75] at his house of Castlehill, Dundee, and at Burntisland in Fife. Of Dean Ranken and Bishop Forbes, the guardians of her early life, she often spoke with affection and regard, and it was clear that they had exercised a profound influence upon her. [CG iv, pp. xli–xlii]
Mary MacBean may well have spent some time in Alexander Forbes’ household while, as Bishop of Brechin, he was in charge of St Paul’s congregation, Dundee. It is tempting to think that his social conscience, his strong sense of vocation to tend to the poor of the city – ‘an example of slum ministry unique among Anglican bishops in the United Kingdom and rare even among Episcopalian and Anglican clergy’ [Oxford DNB] – might be detected in her later charity work as a ‘ministering angel’ among the poor cottars of Uist, not to mention the unsparing self-abnegation which so impressed and exasperated those close to her. Contemporary written records, however, suggest that it was not so much the bishop himself who influenced Mary MacBean, but rather his no less remarkable brother, the clergyman and scholar the Rev. George Hay Forbes (1821–75).
Although disabled by polio since early childhood, George Hay Forbes, having taken holy orders in 1847, ‘entered on zealous and unremitting clerical work’ [Skene, Memoir, p.44]. Mary Frances might first have met him in 1848, when he was working as a curate, and teaching at the school she apparently attended, in Crieff. The Rev. Forbes was subsequently appointed to supervise a mission in Burntisland, Fife, a task he carried out ‘with great energy and perseverance’, winning over initially hostile townspeople to the extent that he was eventually elected Provost – albeit for a truncated term – in 1869.
In the 1861 census schoolmistress ‘Mary MacBain’, born in Sutherlandshire, is recorded as living at the parsonage in Leven Street with George Hay Forbes and his wife Helen (Eleanor Mary Irby, daughter of Captain Wemyss of the Scots Guards). She may well have been living there for some time. Mrs Forbes was known in the town for her prudence in managing the household, making do with only one servant: in this case, doubtless, Mary MacBean. By the time the census was taken, it is clear that Mary, supposedly only 22, had already quietly subtracted two years from her life; by the time of her marriage in 1868, a further two years would have disappeared. As we shall see, she would follow this economical strategy with her children’s ages as well.
Mary evidently worked as one of the two female schoolteachers in Forbes’ Church school. According to the memoir compiled by Forbes’ cousin Felicia Skene, ‘after the children were dismissed, he always assembled the teachers in his own house for instruction’ [Skene, Memoir, p. 48].
George Hay Forbes is best-known today for the private printing press housed in his parsonage, the Pitsligo Press, named for his great-great-grandmother’s brother Alexander Forbes (1678–1762), the fourth Lord Pitsligo, forfeited for the part he played in the 1745 jacobite Rising. Under Forbes’ painstaking supervision, the Press turned out a eclectic selection of journals, polemical tracts, sermons, and above all high-quality liturgical works, distinguished by outstanding scholarship, free from misprints, and set in a bewildering variety of fonts. Although Forbes employed a man as a printer, he was assisted in his work by several women compositors, as well, it seems, as the older boys and girls of the Church school [Primrose, ‘Pitsligo Press’, p. 59].
Mary Frances Carmichael’s later interest in book design, which comes through so clearly in Carmina Gadelica, must surely have been inspired by her having shared a house for perhaps over a decade with a printing press – there is no question but that she must have been involved in Forbes’ work herself over the years. Again, the religious material itself which Forbes worked on must have influenced her, especially the editions he and his brother prepared of the magnificently illustrated Arbuthnott Missal (1864), the only complete service book known to survive from pre-Reformation Scotland, and the posthumously-printed Drummond Missal (1882), a volume originating in twelfth-century Ireland. It’s significant that Alexander Carmichael would draw rather spurious parallels between Arbuthnott’s patron saint, Ternan, and the Benbecula saint Torranan in a long essay compiled for Carmina Gadelica ii.
As a young woman, Mary MacBean worked in a household under a clergyman driven by an obsessive interest in liturgy, spurred by the acrimonious controversy over the Episcopalian Prayer Book then raging between the ‘Scottish’ and ‘English’ wings of the church. This interest was complemented by a fascination about native saints: we might discern the influence of Bishop Forbes here as well, with his research into national hagiography in his Kalendar of Scottish Saints (1872) – referred to directly by Alexander Carmichael in CW MS 120 fo.86 – and his edition of the Lives of S. Ninian and S. Kentigern (1874). Could it be that these interrelated liturgical and hagiographical streams come together in Carmina Gadelica, conceived of as a ‘lost liturgy’ of prayers, blessings, and charms whose fragments Mary’s husband had gathered in the farthest-flung islands of the west?
Finally, we shouldn’t overlook George Hay Forbes’ early interest in Gaelic and the Gaels, stimulated by anxieties that the newly-formed Free Church, victorious, and vigorous in religious controversy, might entice Gaelic-speaking Episcopalians away from the faith of their fathers:
In 1846 he took the lead in establishing the Gaelic Tract Society for the purpose of educating and maintaining Highland churchpeople in fidelity to their Church. A strong committee was formed to carry out the scheme, and on it, no doubt owing to Forbes’ family connections, Lord Forbes, The Macintosh, Lochiel, Irvine of Drum and others served for some time.
In 1847 the Society printed a translation in Gaelic of the Scottish Communion Office, and the Secretary [George Hay Forbes] knew enough Gaelic to correct the proofs, for a copy of the pamphlet lies before me with the corrections quite clearly written in his own hand. He turned his knowledge of Gaelic to good account later in life when he had to deal with Gaelic hymns in some liturgies. [Perry, George Hay Forbes, pp. 29, 31]
In the very first year of his incumbency Mr. Forbes put himself to no small trouble and expense in order to provide a number of devotional works printed in Gaelic, for the use of those to whom that language was the most familiar, and in spite of his infirm state which made it trying for him to walk, he was continually visiting at their houses, instructing, consoling, and sympathising with them in every way that he could. [Skene, Memoir, p. 46]
Given this background, could we suggest that Carmina Gadelica as printed is as much Mary Carmichael’s book as it is her husband’s? Might Carmina have an east coast as well as a west coast origin, Episcopalian as well as Roman Catholic? It may well be that Mary’s interest in early-medieval insular art (not just ‘Celtic Art’), the ‘artistic hand’ which devised the extraordinary illustrated initials in Carmina Gadelica, was first awakened during the years she spent as a young girl in Rosemarkie, home to one of the best collections of Pictish sculptured symbol stones extant (another Pictish stone, incidentally, once stood in the ruins of the abbey at Old Deer).
Might there be one final, personal mark demonstrating the influence of George Hay Forbes’ household? These were the years during which Mary Urquhart MacBean transformed herself into Mary Frances MacBean. Did Mary change her name as a tribute to the gifted, and equally driven, writer and philanthropist, Oxford-based Felicia Mary Frances Skene (1821–99), sister of the historian William Forbes Skene who was subsequently to play such an important rôle in her husband’s life, and biographer-to-be of her close and admired cousins Bishop Alexander Penrose Forbes and the Rev. George Hay Forbes?
Carnie, Robert Hay. ‘The Pitsligo Press of George Hay Forbes: Some Additions and Corrections’, Edinburgh Bibliographical Society Transactions, iv (1955–71), pp. 233–43.
Perry, William. Alexander Penrose Forbes, Bishop of Brechin: The Scottish Pusey (London: SPCK, 1939).
Perry, William. George Hay Forbes: A Romance in Scholarship (London: SPCK, 1927).
Primrose, J. B. ‘The Pitsligo Press of George Hay Forbes’, Edinburgh Bibliographical Society Transactions, iv (1955–71), pp. 53–89.
Skene, Felicia Mary Frances. A Memoir of Alexander, Bishop of Brechin, with a Brief Notice of his Brother the Rev. George Hay Forbes (London: J. Masters and Co., 1876).
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. ‘Forbes, Alexander Penrose’, ‘Forbes, George Hay’, ‘Skene, Felicia Mary Frances’.
Rev. George Hay Forbes