Tuesday 7 August 2012

An April Fool gone wrong?

In the national census taken on the 2 April 1871, Alexander Carmichael is recorded as living in Trumaisgearraidh Manse in the north-east of North Uist. Making up the household were his wife Mary Frances; their 7-month old daughter Elizabeth or Ella; Alexander’s 17-year old niece Catherine Carmichael from Lismore, clearly staying with them in order to help with the new baby; their 22-year old domestic servant Catherine MacAulay; and their 18-year old nurse Mary MacInnes, both local girls from North Uist. The Carmichaels’ other child, three-year old Alexander or Alec, was then staying with their good friend John MacDonald (1826–88) at nearby Newton Farmhouse. Recorded separately as head and only member of his own household, but also living in the manse, was the minister, the Rev. Donald Maclean (c. 1835–1914), a bachelor from Tiree.

The Carmichaels had not been living at Trumaisgearraidh for long. The young family had probably moved there from Alexander’s bachelor lodgings in Lochmaddy soon after they had returned from their stay in Lismore, where Ella was born on 9 August 1870. The first mention of Trumaisgearraidh in Carmichael’s papers dates from 21 November 1870: there, in the evening, Carmichael recorded two songs from ‘Mr Ranald Macdonald Taransay Harris’ [CW116/132–3]. Ranald or Ronald MacDonald (c. 1830–1913), sheep farmer, Paible House, had shown Alexander round the island during his visit there earlier that summer.

Less than six months later, however, on the 15 May 1871, Alexander Carmichael is recorded as writing a letter saying that he is preparing to leave Trumaisgearraidh Manse [NRS GD403/90/1]. What has happened in the meantime? A recently discovered note in the Robert Craig Maclagan MSS in the School of Scottish Studies suggests why the Carmichaels might have made such a hasty move.

The note forms part of a detailed, illustrated, and rather idiosyncratic folklore tour through Glen Lonan east of Oban, a beautiful part of Lorn then well-known for its Ossianic connections. The tour was undertaken on 20 May 1895 by the Rev. Niel Campbell (1850–1904), minister of the nearby parish of Kilchrenan and Dalavich, who, between 1893 and 1898 collected lore for the Edinburgh surgeon Robert Craig Maclagan (1839–1919), himself compiling a vast archive of Highland tradition, custom, and belief for the Folklore Society in London.

The Rev. Campbell’s guides at the farm of Torinturk in the glen were ‘two brothers of the name of Morrison from Uist. These are on the point of leaving it. I forget their Christian names but call them A. M. and B. M. respectively’ [Maclagan MS 1260, ‘1’]. After a spell as a sailor, John Morrison (c. 1842–1909) had turned to diamond mining in South Africa, making enough money to take on the lease of the farm of Torinturk with the help of his unmarried brother Donald John (b. c. 1843). On 21 January 1882 John had married Marion MacVicar (b. 1857) from Boraraigh. In addition to a boy who had died in infancy, the couple had six sons when the minister paid his visit: nine-year old John, Alexander or Sandy, Neil, Donald John, and two-year old William.

Among the items Campbell recorded was the following, from ‘B. M.’:

Latha-na-gogarach [Campbell,with his Perthshire Gaelic, has misunderstood gocaireachd here]

This was reciter’s vocable for what we call in Perthshire Latha na cuaig [‘the day of the cuckoo’]. He told a story of Mac-ill-mhìcheil [Carmichael] a folk lore collector who sent a minister to whom he (reciter) was a servant air gnothach na cuaige [‘the cuckoo’s business’] but the story was only to effect that the minister having been sent to [the] factor could never forgive Carmichael. Collector notes it for vocables only.

[marginal note: Reciter thinks minister was fully justified in being irreconcilable.]

[Maclagan MS 1260, ‘16’]

The Morrisons had been brought up in Bhalacuidh or Vallaquie, North Uist, just across the little ford of Faoghail Bhalacuidh from Trumaisgearraidh. Seventeen-year old Donald John is recorded as living there in the 1871 census: he must therefore be Campbell’s ‘B. M.’

Carmichael certainly knew the family. He recorded a New Year’s Blessing, Beannachadh Bliadhna Ùir, from their mother Ann Morrison née Ross (c. 1811–93) from Skye [Carmina Gadelica i, 158–9], as well as Mo ghaol, mo ghaol, mo ghaol fhéin thu, a praise song to her future husband by Janet MacLeod, second wife of Malcolm MacLeod of Raasay, better known as Baintighearna Dhubh Osgaig, whom Johnson and Boswell met during their 1773 tour of the Hebrides [CW87/37]. This item was recorded on 14 September 1885, when Carmichael was back in Uist and Barra for an autumn visit. Alexander Carmichael must have been deeply moved by the song: he inscribed its first verse on the frontispiece of the copy of Carmina Gadelica he presented to his wife. From Ann’s husband John (b. 1805) he wrote down a little ‘praise-poem’ for a ‘good husbandman, diligent and God-fearing’, Mac Shiamain [CG iv, 320–1]. Carmichael also may have visited his son John in Torinturk itself, maybe during one of his visits to Taynuilt: the very last item in the last volume of Carmina Gadelica is a list of the names the farmer had given his cattle [CG vi, 271]. On the other hand, he may have visited the family in Edinburgh after they had left Torinturk and moved to Newbattle Terrace, Morningside: this may be implied by a piece of oral tradition telling of how John’s son Alexander (1886–1915) showed Carmichael a piece of Ossianic lore he had written down while on holiday at Rucaidh in North Uist.

If the account of ‘B. M.’ is true, Alexander Carmichael had sent the Rev. Donald Maclean on an April Fool’s errand to the factor of North Uist, none other than his friend John MacDonald of Newton, who had occupied the post since 1855 when Sir John Orde purchased the estate. A newcomer to the parish – he had been ordained on 13 May 1869 – Maclean would have been none too happy about being made the butt of a joke by his new lodger, not just in front of the factor but before the entire local community. We might go further and suggest that Maclean could not suffer Carmichael to live in the house with him any longer, and gave him and his family their marching orders. One wonders what Mrs Carmichael, faced with the prospect of homelessness with a young son and a new baby, thought of her husband’s wayward sense of humour. When the census taker visited the household on 2 April, he may have detected a certain froideur in the atmosphere at Trumaisgearraidh Manse.

A final thought: on CG ii, 74–5, is a protective charm, Am Fionn-Faoilidh, ascribed to ‘Peigidh Maclean’, probably Margaret Maclean (b. c. 1794), of Trumaisgearraidh, North Uist. Evidence from the notebooks, however, suggests that the original was obtained, under the title Òra Ceartais or ‘Charm for Justice’, from Mary Stewart (c . 1801–77), ‘Màiri Bhreac’, the dairywoman from Malacleit who, on 19 March 1877, shortly before her death, gave Carmichael eight charms [CW108/6]. In the original ‘blueprints’ for Carmina Gadelica, the charm is also ascribed to Màiri Bhreac [CW124 fos.2,5]. There is no mention of Peigidh Maclean. Could it be that the reascription to an old woman in Trumaisgearraidh of the charm, with its pledge to ‘drain wrath empty’, ‘to preserve to me my fame’, and to come between ‘ill-will or ill-wish in mine enemy’, is a private joke by Carmichael and his family, remembering his own experience nearly three decades earlier at the hands of the unamused local minister?

And two final connections: firstly, working as the nurse for the Morrisons of Torinturk for a year around 1893 was the great traditional singer Marion Campbell (1868–1971), Mòr bean Néill, mother of Bean Eàirdsidh Raghnaill and grandmother of Rona Lightfoot. Donald Archie Macdonald recorded her praising John Morrison of Torinturk (‘’S ann a bha an duine còir’) on SSS SA1967/136.

Secondly, just before Mòr left Torinturk, the Morrisons had another baby son. William (1893–1961) was better known as ‘Shakes’ Morrison, hailed by Chips Channon as the great white hope of the Conservative Party in the early thirties, Speaker of the House of Commons between 1951 and 1959, and Governor-General of Australia for the year until his death. The title chosen by the only Gaelic-speaking Speaker: Viscount Dunrossil of Vallaquie, North Uist.

Image: Trumaisgearraidh Manse and the now roofless Telford Church, last used in 1941. Ar taing dha Iain Eàirdsidh Iain an Dùin a bha cho coibhneil ann a bhith ag innse dhuinn mu eachdraidh na sgìre is sinn air ar cuairt.

Additional Reference: Peter Morrison, ‘Alexander Carmichael and the Morrisons of Rucaidh’ in Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart (ed.), Alexander Carmichael: Life and Legacy (Port of Ness, 2006), 181–2.


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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). [© carstenflieger.com]