Wednesday 2 March 2011

A Letter from Carmichael to Fr Allan McDonald

On 13 February 1894, Alexander Carmichael wrote a short letter to Fr Allan McDonald (1859–1905), styled Maighstir Ailein, who has recently been the subject of a biography (Father Allan) written by Roger Hutchinson. Previous to this, John Lorne Campbell carefully researched McDonald’s life and wrote a short account of him entitled Fr Allan McDonald: Priest, Poet and Folklorist (1956), and which, to a remarkable degree, sums up the character and traits of Fr Allan. During research for this booklet and a longer study that later appeared in book format as Strange Things (1968), Campbell would have come across this letter (as well as many others) and so preserved them for future generations in Canna House.

Dear Father Allan,
I am glad that you are going to Eirisga. You will have more time there to do work near your heart.
Why did you pass us? I hope you believe that we would have been – each and all of us – delighted to see you here?
And so good Father Campbell is gone! Good kind man I shall always remember him gratefully for his kindness to me and mine.
Professor Geddes is desirous to get up Celtic lectures in connection with his Universities Extension classes. He has asked me to analyse many for his proposal. We are anxious to bring Celtic to the front and I am sure you will help. Now like a true friend do come to our help. I have mentioned Henderson for Celtic mythology. Mr John Murdoch for the poetry of Ossian; Mr Jolly for the scenery of the Highlands and its effect upon the character of the people &c &c. Professor Geddes is most desirous to bring about a Celtic revival and we must all help. The lectures are in August and I hope you will do us the great pleasure of being our guest.
Let me hear from you soon and say what you do. I must give in my names and their subjects soon. I meant to have written you at length but I am interrupted much.
All here join me in warm love to you an la chi agus nach faic.
Yours very truly,
Alexander Carmichael

After ten years of hard work ministering the parish of Daliburgh in South Uist, sometimes in the most trying of conditions, Fr Allan, who was mentally and physically worn out, had to be transferred to nearby Eriskay for the sake of his health. Carmichael captures news of his impending move well and, so it would turn out, has a prophetic resonance to it.

Those that are name-checked in the letter are Fr Alexander Campbell, a native of South Uist, who died in Daliburgh in 1893. This man was highly influential on Fr Allan for it was he who encouraged his interest in Hebridean folklore. The other is Sir Patrick Geddes (1854–1932), an Aberdeenshire-born polymath of the old school, being as he was a biologist, philanthropist and pioneering town planner. Evidently, his interests were not even circumscribed to those subjects as he was involved in the revival of Celtic Studies as well. At the time of Carmichael writing this letter Geddes was Professor of Botany at University College, Dundee but seems to have maintained close links with his former University of Edinburgh as he had been a lecturer in Zoology during his days there. The three others mentioned by Carmichael are old friends in the shape of George Henderson, John Murdoch and William Jolly, all of whom have been mentioned before in this blog.

Black Ronald, ‘Eriskay Business’, Scottish Book Collector (2004), pp. 7–11 (
Campbell, John Lorne, Fr Allan McDonald of Eriskay, 1859–1905: Priest, Poet and Folklorist (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1956).
Canna House Archives, Letter dated 13 February 1894, from Alexander Carmichael to Fr Allan McDonald.
Hutchinson, Roger, Father Allan (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2010).
MacDonald, Fr. Michael, The Priestly Life of Fr. Allan McDonald (
Image: Patrick Geddes, c. 1886.

Transcription of the letter reproduced with the permission of Canna House Archives.

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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). [©]