Friday 17 February 2012

Who else was collecting Gaelic charms?

Alexander Carmichael was by no means the only Gaelic speaker collecting and publishing charms at the end of the nineteenth century. In the next few blogs we’d like to take a brief look at Carmichael’s contemporaries – all of them men – who took an interest in Gaelic charms and incantations, in order to give readers an idea of what they gathered and how they presented their finds to the public. Carmichael may well have collected the lion’s share of these fascinating items, but there is much more to Gaelic charm collection than Alexander Carmichael alone.

We saw in the previous blog how, in January 1842, the Rev. Norman MacLeod, ‘Caraid nan Gàidheal’, printed a seun or battle charm in the periodical he was then editing, Cuairtear nan Gleann. The article, entitled ‘Saobh-chràbhadh nan Gàidheal anns na lìnntibh a chaidh seachad’ (‘Superstition of the Gaels in ages past’), allowed the minister to have his cake and eat it: both to print an item which he knew would be of great interest to his readers, while at the same time giving him an opportunity to inveigh against the ‘saobh-chràbhadh’ and ‘nithe faoine’ (foolish or vain things) of an earlier generation of supposedly less enlightened Gaels.

‘Caraid nan Gàidheal’ didn’t have long to wait for some feedback. Two issues later he printed a five-page letter from ‘G— C—’, again on ‘Saobh-chràbhadh nan Gàidheal’. I see, stated G. C., that you write that ‘gach ni mu shèun, mu ghisreagan, mu gheasan, agus mu dhruidheachd’ (‘everything about seun, enchantments, spells, and druidism’) has now been forgotten.

Bu ro thaitneach leam so a chluinntinn, nam b’urrainn domh a chreidsinn gu’n robh e fìor; ach tha dearbh-chinnte agam gu’m bheil mòran de na nithean faoin agus peachdach so fathast air an cleachduinn air feadh na Gàidhealtachd, agus gu’m bheil sluagh lionmhor a toirt làn ghéill dhoibh.

I should be very pleased to hear this, if I could believe it were true; but I am absolutely certain that many of these vain and sinful things are still in use throughout the Highlands, and that numerous people believe in them totally.

In his letter, G. C. plays the same game as MacLeod, going into fascinating detail about charms and folk cures for cattle and horses then current – indeed apparently exceptionally common – in the Isle of Skye, as well as giving an example of silver water used to quench bleeding. The final page is devoted to a tirade, not just against practitioners of witchcraft, but against those who pay them:

Tha iadsan, mar an ceudna ag àicheadh freasdail agus maitheas an Tighearna. Tha iad a dol airson còmhnuidh agus dìon chum a nàimhdean. Tha iad a cur an làmh ris gach barail mhearachdaich, bhreugaich, mhì-dhiadhaidh, a tha aig luchd nan gisreagan: agus an aon seadh, ’s iad is coireach ann am peacaidhean na muinntir eile; oir mar biodh iadsan a toirt duais seachad airson upagan a’s eòlais, cha b’fhada gus an sguirte dhaibh. Cha’n eil buidseach ’san dùthaich a bhiodh air an dragh dol troimh cleasan mar faigheadh i pàigheadh air a shon.

They also deny God’s dispensation and mercy. They go to His enemies for help and protection. They add their hand to every mistaken, lying, irreligious opinion held by the charmers: in one way, they are responsible for the sins of the others; for if they didn’t reward charms and incantations, it wouldn’t be long before they’d cease. There isn’t a witch in the country who’d be bothered going through her tricks unless she received payment for it.

G. C. ends the letter by urging MacLeod to continue his campaign in demonstrating the foolishness and sinfulness of these customs.

Who then was G. C.? In a brief but important article in the Review of Scotttish Culture about seuntan entitled ‘Lead hearts and runes of protection’, Professor Hugh Cheape makes the astute suggestion that the writer was Gilleasbaig Cléireach or the Rev. Archibald Clerk (1813–87), none other than the Rev. Norman MacLeod’s son-in-law [Review of Scottish Culture, 18 (2006), 155n.5]. Like MacLeod’s correspondent, Clerk had recently been in the Isle of Skye: he had served as minister of Duirinish between March 1840 and November 1841, and had written a description of the parish for the New Statistical Account. When we compare G. C.’s Gaelic letter in Cuairtear nan Gleann with Clerk’s English report in the NSA about the prevalence of charms in his parish, it’s clear from both tone and subject matter that they were written by the same man.

Yet the people generally are unacquainted both with the letter and the spirit of true religion, and there is much superstition, the sure concomitant of ignorance, still lingering among them. Our limits forbid us to enter at any length on this subject, but we may remark, that while it is now rare, though not unknown, to use charms or incantations for curing the diseases of the human frame, these means are daily resorted to for curing the diseases of cattle. ‘Silver water,’ as it is called, ‘fairy arrows,’ and ‘charmed stones,’ are still held to be possessed of much efficacy, and they who have power to call forth their virtues are held in high estimation. [NSA, 14, 348]

Four months later another ‘Saobh-chràbhadh nan Gàidheal’ article appeared in Cuairtear nan Gleann.

This time two charms were printed, a Eòlas nan Sùil [sic], for sore eyes, and a Eòlas an t-Snìomh to be recited by the practitioner while massaging a sprained ankle. The first one, to be recited over a vessel of water (with which to wash the affected eye) containing a silver coin, was obtained:

o sheann duine còir a chleachd e fad iomadh bliadhna, ’sa tha nis a’ tuigsinn nach ’eil ann ach amaideachd pheacach.

from a decent old man who used it for many years, but who now understands it’s nothing but sinful foolishness.

Eòlas nan Sùil.

Obie nan geur shùl,
An obie ’s feàrr fo’n ghréin;
Obie Dhé, an uile-mhòr.
Féile Mhàiri, féile Dhé,
Féile gach sagairt ’s gach cléir;
Féile Mìchael nam feart,
’Chàirich anns a’ ghréin a neart.

The Charm of the Eyes

Charm of the sharp eyes,
The best charm under the sun;
The charm of God, the great.
Feast of Mary, feast of God,
Feast of every priest and every cleric;
Feast of virtuous Michael,
Who laid in the sun his strength.

The second charm is an example of the very common bone-to-bone charm, known throughout Europe and far beyond. The writer, probably once more the Rev. Norman MacLeod, apparently gets the gender of St Brìde wrong!

Eòlas an t-Snìomh

Chaidh Brìde mach
Air maduinn mhoich
Le càraid each.
Bhris fear ac’ a chas.
Chuir e glùn ri glùn,
A’s cnàimh ri cnàimh,
A’s feith ri feith.
Mar leighis esan sin,
Cha leighis mise so.

The Charm of the Sprain

Bride went out
In the early morning
With a pair of horses.
One of them broke his leg.
He put knee to knee,
And bone to bone,
And sinew to sinew.
Unless he healed that,
I shall not heal this.

Thirty years later, on 20 June 1872, these two charms were reprinted in one of the many remarkable columns which the Rev. Alexander Stewart compiled under the pen-name ‘Nether-Lochaber’ for the Inverness Courier. As Alexander Macbain rather acerbically notes in one of his folklore notebooks, Stewart presented ‘these Cuairtear charms cooly as his own, even their errors’ [CW511D, fo.79v]. We can, however, forgive ‘Nether’ his creative pilfering: as a hook to intrigue his readers, it certainly worked. After coming across Stewart’s ‘charms’ column, Alexander Carmichael was inspired to despatch to his friend some similar items which he himself had recently written down in Uist, and then to collect some more: these were the kernel of what was to become, three decades later, Carmina Gadelica i–ii.

Hugh Cheape, ‘Lead hearts and runes of protection’, ROSC: Review of Scottish Culture, 18 (2006), 149–55.
Clerk, Rev. Archibald, ‘Duirinish’, New Statistical Account of Scotland (1834–45), vol. 14, 322–60.
G. C. [‘Gilleasbaig Cléireach’, i.e. Rev. Archibald Clerk], ‘Saobh-chràbhadh nan Gàidheal’, Cuairtear nan Gleann, 25 (1 March 1842), 9–14.
[Rev. Norman MacLeod], ‘Saobh-chràbhadh nan Gàidheal anns na lìnntibh a chaidh seachad’, Cuairtear nan Gleann, 23 (8 January 1842), 309–12, edited and reprinted in Rev. Norman MacLeod, Caraid nan Gàidheal (Glasgow: William MacKenzie, 1867), 338–43.
_____. ‘Saobh-chràbhadh nan Gàidheal’, Cuairtear nan Gleann, 29 (1 July 1842), 137.

For another article about charms and folk cures (despite the reference to himself in the third person, it was probably also written by the Rev. Archibald Clerk), see:
‘Cas air Allaban’, ‘Buidseachd sa’ Ghàidhealtachd’, Cuairtear nan Gleann, 37 (1 March 1843), 13–16.

Duirinish Parish Church, built 1832, where the Rev. Archibald Clerk preached 1840–1.

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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). [©]