Following a recent enjoyable visit to Campbeltown (Ceann Loch Chille Chiarain in Gaelic, or Ceann Locha for short), we thought we should have a brief look at some of what Alexander Carmichael recorded during a very brief visit to Kintyre – apparently his only one – in summer 1887.
Carmichael had been visiting the island of Islay for the unveiling of the monument to his friend and mentor John Francis Campbell (1821–85). This took place on Thursday 2 June; the following Saturday and Monday he conducted lengthy interviews about local Islay birdlife and fishes: nearly four thousand words in all. On Thursday 9 June, on his return journey, Carmichael appears to have stopped off at Gigha, the island where his younger colleague the Rev. Kenneth MacLeod would later serve as minister. Clearly tired out by his intensive collecting stint, he only managed to record a single page on this leg of his trip to the west.
He begins by writing down three bird names: firstly, fitheach-uisge [‘water-raven’], a sgart or cormorant, a word clearly related to Dwelly’s fitheach-mara and fitheach-fairge; secondly, Ailean na Gaoith Deas, ‘Allan of the South Wind’, apparently a local nickname for the mor-bhuachaill or muir-bhuachaill, a Great Northern Diver: Carmichael’s informant tells him that Ailean here means ‘ack’, glossed by the writer as ‘auk’; finally, a name for the teal duck: deirg or dearg. This last seems to correspond to Dwelly’s darcan (given as obsolete), probably a version of dearg-cheann, though ruadh might seem to be more appropriate for the teal’s chestnut-coloured head.
A list of place-names on the coast of west Kintyre follows, probably pointed out from Gigha opposite: Taigh a’ Chromain [Taychroman], Beath-meadhanach [Beacmenach], and Cleit, location of the handsome parish church, wrongly positioned as ‘N[orth] of Kil[l]ean’. Carmichael then records a proverb, ‘Posadh thar beinn ’s goisteac[hd] thar fo lingeari’, an apparently misconstrued version of the well-known advice ‘Pòsadh thar na h-innearach is goisteachd thar muir’ [Alexander Nicolson (ed.), A Collection of Gaelic Proverbs (Edinburgh: MacLachlan and Stewart, 1881), 338]: in Lowland Scots, ‘Marriage o’er the midden, sponsorship o’er sea’. An Islay version is ‘Goisteachd thar muir, 's pòsadh thar dùnain’. In other words, marriage sponsors can be chosen from afar, but care should be taken to select a spouse who is a ‘known quantity’! But what’s the meaning of the final term in the Gigha proverb? Carmichael answers this in his next line: ‘Lingearac[hd] = Midden!’ In other words, it’s (seemingly) just the normal ‘inneir’ (‘manure’, ‘dung[heap]’) with what seems to be a rather random initial ‘l’ added.
Carmichael then turns, rather half-heartedly, to a local antiquity:
Dunsgeig vitri[fied] fort
Carradale one also near
sea, One. This is a pen[insula] – nearly
an island (Dunsgaig?)
There is no mention of the various local legends connected with Dun Skeig, its fort, its caves, or the battle supposed to have been fought at its summit – nor, for that matter, are there any stories about Gigha’s most famous resident, or rather neighbour, the Cara Brownie. After a rather strenuous few days in Islay, it rather looks as if Alexander Carmichael was taking a rest.
Image: Eilean Ghiogha/The Isle of Gigha