Monday 26 November 2012

Book Week Scotland: Carmina Gadelica

Book Week Scotland takes place this week, so we thought we'd mark it with excerpts from the extraordinary creation that is Carmina Gadelica. Although its title means 'Gaelic incantations', it is not simply a book of religious or devotional lyrics. Alexander Carmichael and, indeed, the editors of the later volumes were careful to include extra information about each 'incantation' whether it was about the reciters, the characters, the history, the language or the places involved. The plethora of detail makes Carmina Gadelica one of those books in which you will inevitably find something new and intriguing.

This first excerpt is a tale entitled 'The Cow of Blessings' or 'Bò nam Beannachd' which accompanies 'The Charm of the Wild Heifers' 'Òra na Aighean Fiadhaich' and appropriately enough mentions a book.

The Cow of Blessings, collected from Catherine MacNeill, Ceann Tangabhall, Barra.
The reciter said: When Colum Cille was dwelling in the Aoi (Iona), a poor little wretched woman came to put her trouble to him and to ask his advice, for Colum Cille was the world's head of wisdom and the head of healing of the universe.

The poor woman said, 'My man died when he was coming home from the strand of periwinkles, and my son was drowned when he was swimming to the Isle of Women to visit his mother, and I am left with three orphans without pith or power. I have a lovely little heifer, but she will not give milk for the children and she will not take to her calf, and I know not under the white sun what to do or which way to turn.'

Colum Cille said to the poor little woman, 'I have made prattlings of cows and incantations of horses in my day and in my generation. I had them in a skin book, and I had the skin book in the window. The skin book was stolen from me, and I lost the charms for cattle and the incantations for horses, and I have none of them available this day. But I will make a rune for thee, poor little woman, which thou shalt sing to they heifer, and before thou shalt have finished the rune the little heifer shall have taken to her calf. And the name of this rune is "The Charm of the Wild Heifers".' And Colum Cille sang the charm to the poor little woman with the tears streaming down his cheeks.

Colum Cille was the best at speaking and the best at singing and the best at melody that was born of woman.

The Charm of the Wild Heifers
My heifer beloved, be not alone,
Let thy little calf be before thee;
See yon bramble bush a-bending,
And bowing down with brambles.

He ho-li-vó 's a vó ri ag,
Ri ag vó, take to thy calf!

Coax thy pretty one to thyself,
Till thou sendest to the fold a herd;
Columba's tending shall be thine behind them,
He made this lilt for thyself.

Certain is the gentle proverb,
The cow of blessings is the cow of calves;
The cow of curses is the moorland cow,
That has never quenched our thirst.

Often afield is the calfless cow
Seldom within is the calfless cow,
Despised among cattle is the calfless cow, 
Refuse among cattle the calfless cow.

Head to shoulder is the calfless cow,
Foot to mountain is the calfless cow,
At the edge of the fold is the calfless cow,
Cow without profit is the calfless cow.

On crest of hill is the calfless cow,
On floor of glen is the calfless cow,
At the edge of the fold is the calfless cow,
Nor butter nor crowdie from the calfless cow.

In desert glens strays the calfless cow,
Ugly and bristling of shag is the calfless cow,
Leaper of walls is the calfless cow,
Dirt of byre is the calfless cow.

The black heifer is reconciled,
Thou wilt make lowing to thy pretty on;
Thou wilt come home with droves,
Thou will quench the thirst of hundreds.

My little black heifer thou! my little black heifer!
The same lot is mine and thine.
May thy little black calf not be lost to thee;
But mine only son beloved is beneath the sea.

He ho-li-vó 's a vó ri ag,
Ri ag vó 'a vó ri ag,
Ri ag vó 's a vó ri ag,
Ri ag vó, take to thy calf!

Bò nam Beannachd' agus 'Òra na Aighean Fiadhaich' 'sa Ghà­idhlig

References: Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica: Ortha nan Gàidheal, vol IV (Edinburgh, 1971), pp.55-59.
ImageBlack cow and heifer from

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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). [©]