Wednesday 7 March 2012

Prayers, blessings, charms, and incantations: What Carmichael did and didn't print before Carmina Gadelica

From his papers we can calculate that during the time he lived in Uist, between 1864 and 1882, Alexander Carmichael recorded at least 62 charm texts. But in actual fact, Carmichael would print hardly any of this rich corpus under his own name before he published the first two volumes of Carmina Gadelica in 1900. What did appear was a number of prayers and blessings among other ‘old hymns’ included in ‘Grazing and Agrestic Customs of the Outer Hebrides’, Carmichael’s unorthodox contribution to Appendix A of the Napier Commission’s Report into the Condition of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1884), 451–82; these were republished in Lord Archibald Campbell’s Records of Argyll (Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1885), 385–98. Some of these appeared again in the paper Carmichael gave on 24 December 188 about ‘Uist Old Hymns’ to the Gaelic Society of Glasgow, a revised version of a newspaper report of which was printed in the Society’s Transactions, i (1887–91), 34–47.

Now, it seems significant that neither of these pieces, ‘Grazing and Agrestic Customs’ or ‘Uist Old Hymns’, actually contains any item whatsoever which Carmichael would include in the second volume of Carmina Gadelica, the one mostly taken up with Uibe or Incantations. What we do have in these articles are what he was to describe in the first volume of CG as Achaine or Invocations: that is, blessings and prayers. This inevitably brings us to the delicate and problematic distinction between blessings and prayers, and charms and incantations. The Gaelic scholar Alexander Macbain, whom we’ll meet again shortly, anticipates a common, but by no means uncontroversial, modern definition of the latter when he writes:

An incantation consists of a formula of words which is recited to bring about certain physical results to which the meaning of the words has some correspondence more or less direct. [Alexander Macbain, ‘Gaelic incantations’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, xvii (1890–1), 222].

But strict, watertight divisions between the two genres are difficult to uphold. Macbain admits as such a few pages later on:

The exact line of demarcation on the one hand between what is an incantation and what is a prayer or hymn, and on the other hand between an incantation and an ordinary secular song, is often difficult to draw. [ibid., 230]

We can build on Macbain’s suggestion by suggesting that, pragmatically and in general, it was felt that charms tended to focus upon specific ailments or accidents, to ‘bespell’ people, or to protect them against evil eye. Of course prayers could also function to protect or cure; charms, however, often needed to be recited by a specific class of people to be efficacious: the luchd-eòlais, or ‘cunning folk’ in English. Charms were usually more ‘performance pieces’ than prayers, often delivered with the assistance of an object or an amulet, in specific places, at specific times, and under specific conditions of enactment. Most importantly of all, charms had to be kept secret. Often a charm couldn’t be given to just anybody. If it were to retain its efficacy, it had to be handed down under certain restrictions: a woman had to give a charm text to a man or vice versa, for example. Once the charm had been given to somebody else, the original reciter might lose their power to use it. Prayers, on the other hand, were much more portable, and much more public.

In both ‘Grazing and Agrestic Customs’ and ‘Uist Old Hymns’, it’s notable that Carmichael never uses the words ‘charm’ or ‘incantation’. We have ‘hymns’, ‘prayers’, ‘invocations’, ‘croons’, and ‘dedicatory hymns’, but no charms. If anything, Carmichael appears keen to play down the category: although he reprints six pieces from the Napier Commission Report in ‘Uist Old Hymns’, it may be significant that this time he misses out the Beannachadh Buachailleachd (‘Herding Blessing’) and the Rann Buachailleachd (‘Herding Rune’), prayers to protect cows which to our eyes shade suspiciously into charms to be recited by milkmaids and cattle herds. Mention is certainly made in ‘Uist Old Hymns’ of a Eòlas Ceartais, but this piece is described as a prayer rather than a charm for justice, and is not printed in the article. Incidentally, this was probably the Eòlas Ceartais obtained from Catrìona Macintosh, Staoidhligearraidh, on 20 May 1875 (CW87/17 [fos.12v–13]), and printed as Ora Ceartais, no. 20 in CG i, 52–3.

Two questions for the next blog on this subject: Which charms recorded by Alexander Carmichael had been published before Carmina? And why was he apparently so reluctant to see them in print once more?

Alexander Carmichael, ‘Grazing and Agrestic Customs of the Outer Hebrides’, Parliamentary Report into the Condition of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1884), 451–82.
_____. ‘Prayers and hymns of the Hebrides’ in Lord Archibald Campbell (ed.), Records of Argyll (Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1885), 385–98.
_____. ‘Uist old hymns’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Glasgow, i (1887–91), 34–47.
Alexander Macbain, ‘Gaelic incantations’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, xvii (1890–1), 222–66.

Staoiligearraidh, home of Catriona Macintosh

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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). [©]