Friday 6 December 2013

‘Gaelic Erotica’: Unveiled At Last

We knew about the article already. No. 1081 of Mary Ferguson and Ann Matheson’s Scottish Gaelic Union Catalogue (Edinburgh, 1984) is the bare entry:
GAELIC erotica. Paris: H. Weiter. 1907. 73p. 16cm. Reprinted from Κρυπτάδια X.

Apparently only one example had been located in a public library in Scotland: a photocopy in the National Library of Scotland.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, the curious no longer need to fight over that single example in Edinburgh. Kryptádia is online.
Kryptádia: Recueil de documents pour servir à l’étude des traditions populaires: the name sounds innocent enough. In fact, for nearly thirty years, between 1883 and 1911, in 12 volumes, editors and scholars connected with the respectable French folklore journal La Tradition carried on an alternative and rather less reputable concern on the side. Kryptádia gave space to erotic folktale, folklore, and folksong collections in a number of languages.
Information about the history of Kryptádia is hard to come by. What we have derives from the remarkable scholar Gershom Legman (1917–99), who, during his early life in the United States, followed by decades of self-enforced exile in France, managed to compile and preserve an extraordinary folklore collection made up of the kind of material that would never appear, at that time at least, in respectable folklore journals.
Kryptádia was edited at first by the South Slavicists Friedrich S. Krauss (1859–1938) and Isidore Kopernicky, with the help of the French and Italian folklorists Henri Gaidoz (1842–1932), Gaston Paris (1839–1903), Giuseppe Pitrè (1841–1916), and Henri Carnoy (1861–1930).
The history of Kryptádia can be divided into two parts. Between 1883 and 1888 four numbers of the journal were printed in Heilbronn, Württemburg, Germany. After a ten-year gap, publication was resumed in Paris in 1898, where a further eight volumes were published in Paris, the last in 1911.  The initial 1883 volume was limited to 210 copies. Even this low number appears to have been overambitious: later German issues numbered only 135 copies, while 175 were printed during the years the journal was published in Paris.

Possibly in response to prevailing anti-German sentiment in France, in 1904 Krauss launched another journal. Although similar in theme, Anthropophyteia was more scholarly and altogether more speculative in tone, concerned with the social history of morality. Ten volumes, with associated Beiwerke, appeared before the journal was suppressed by the authorities in 1913.

‘Gaelic erotica’ was published as a lengthy article in Kryptádia, vol. 10 (1907), pp. 295–367. The piece is structured as a little encyclopaedia, with 103 entries in Gaelic and English, ranging from ‘Aed, fire’ to ‘Water. Wells.’ The terms are illustrated with various usages culled from songs and anecdotes.

As might be expected, the article is entirely anonymous, both regarding writer and informants. To those versed in Scottish Gaelic folklore, however, certain clues in the foreword, and the nature and scope of the material discussed, point to one candidate only. The writer has been ‘[e]ducated as a medical jurist’ [295]; all his material ‘has been collected by persons of education … all being Scottish Highlanders using Gaelic from their childhood upwards’ [295–6]. These hints suggest that the writer of ‘Gaelic erotica’ was none other than the very respectable scion of an Edinburgh medical dynasty, Robert Craig Maclagan (1839–1919).

The son of Sir Douglas Maclagan (1812–1900), Professor of Medical Jurisprudence and Public Health at Edinburgh, Robert Craig Maclagan was educated at the University of Edinburgh, before finishing off his medical training in Berlin and Vienna. Despite his M.D., it appears that Maclagan practised only briefly – perhaps hindered by his growing deafness – before going into business. He would spend over thirty years as chairman of A. B. Fleming & Co., ink and chemical manufacturers, in Granton in the north-west of the city. His work with Flemings, then the biggest ink producers in the world, perhaps explains the interest in traditional dyeing techniques in his folklore collection.

Maclagan’s early interest in traditional lore and material culture is attested by his becoming a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1877, and his membership of the Folklore Society from 1882. An appeal from the latter institution launched him on his career as a folklorist. In 1893 Maclagan, supervising a network of correspondents, began to gather traditional lore from Argyllshire. Over the next decade, this would broaden out into an ambitious project embracing the Highlands and beyond, furnishing material for his important studies The Games & Diversions of Argyleshire (1901) and Evil Eye in the Western Highlands (1902), as well as a plethora of articles, all published under the auspices of the Folklore Society. Today Maclagan’s magnificent collection, numbering more than 9,200 pages, is deposited in the School of Scottish Studies Archives. Its recent cataloguing by Caroline Milligan means that for the first time the full riches of the Robert Craig Maclagan MSS have been unlocked for Gaelic scholarship, and for the communities in which the many thousand items were originally recorded.

On investigating the collection, it is clear that at the very least many of the items published in the Kryptádia article have their counterparts in the Maclagan Manuscripts. One of the most prolific and enthusiastic collectors of bawdy material for Maclagan was none other than a Church of Scotland minister, the Rev. Niel Campbell (1850–1904) of Kilchrenan and Dalavich at the north end of Loch Awe, but originally from Foss in Perthshire.

It is interesting that occasionally Maclagan’s informants, including the Rev. Niel Campbell, don’t quite understand the references in the anecdotes and songs they forward to him. They know they’re slightly off-colour, but not entirely sure how. Is this evidence, in an era of sweeping socio-cultural change and new moral perspectives, of how some Gaels were losing their expertise in the indigenous ‘code’ delineating what obscene references actually referred to? Maybe they were no longer dancing to the bawdy puirt á beul or mouth-music of their ancestors; perhaps the need for bawdiness was now being supplied by music-hall songs in English? Or was it ever thus, that certain people – say, for example, respectable literate people likely to volunteer as folklore collectors for an Edinburgh businessman – whether by temperament, moral mind-set, lack of experience, or closeted upbringing, were less au fait with the earthier side of life, and less able or willing to engage with it? In the article Maclagan often fills in the gaps left by his collectors. Usually his surmises are credible – it is possible that he discussed them in person afterwards with his informants – but occasionally they are indubitably mistaken: ‘Gaelic erotica’ should be used with care.

Why Maclagan was so interested in collecting, and printing, ‘Gaelic erotica’ is another matter. References in the article suggest that he subscribed to Kryptádia or at least had studied previous issues. An excellent shot, he was no stranger to all-male social gatherings and the mess room, being an enthusiastic member of the Royal Company of Archers and of the 5th Volunteer Battalion of the Royal Scots, in which he eventually served as honorary Colonel (we should also note that he helped to found the Scottish Association for the Medical Education of Women). But there may be scholarly reasons behind the interest as well. His printed works occasionally suggest a rather open-minded approach to his material, such as when he mentions the bell of St Fillan:

having for its handle a two-headed dolphin, or what is sometimes called a sea-goat, on the summit of the two heads of which are, as already pointed out by the late Bishop of Brechin, distinct phalli… [Maclagan, Scottish Myths, 84]

before going on to spend many jumbled pages on the subject, embracing bowls, fonts, upright stones, generative principles, and supposed Mithraic customs. The poor bell of St Fillan ends up being connected to practises far from saintly in nature. The one thing that might be suggested from Maclagan’s deeply confused methodology is that he is convinced that some bawdry, far from being beneath one’s notice, may contain in its raw, obscene references ancient survivals pointing to primitive beliefs and primal cults in a remote British past. Ernest Gaskell’s remark in a profile of Maclagan he wrote for Leaders of the Lothians in 1912, that he was ‘not a collector of articles de vertu’, may be a tacit allusion to his subject’s clandestine anthology.

‘Gaelic erotica’ was also sold separately as an offprint, for 10 francs. We wonder how many copies made it through the post to arrive here in Scotland.

Other Celtic scholars may find much to investigate in Kryptádia. Welsh material appears in volumes 2, 3, and 4, while Breton is dealt with in 1, 2, 3, 6, and 8. There is unfortunately no Irish material at all, and, perhaps surprisingly, nothing in English either, excepting ‘Some erotic folk-lore from [the north-east of] Scotland’ in vol. 2, excerpts from the 1785 edition of Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, and an extended play by the libertine Earl of Rochester. Did the stalwarts of the Folklore Society know about Kryptádia? Or did they prefer to ignore the Paris journal as coarsely continental and beneath their notice?

Alexander N. Afanasyev, Russian Secret Tales: Bawdy Folktales of Old Russia (Baltimore, 1998 [1965]).
Douglas, Oliver, ‘Highland Games and material diversions: the late Victorian ethnography of Robert Craig Maclagan’, Journal of Museum Ethnography, 22 (2009), 39–62.
Doyle, Derek. ‘The Maclagan family: six generations of service’, Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 40 (2010), 178–84.
Scotsman, 6 April 1900, 7 (Maclagan’s father's obituary)
_____, 15 July 1919, 10 (Maclagan’s obituary).

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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). [©]