Wednesday 30 September 2009

Oiteagan á Tìr nan Òg

For some time the Carmichael Watson team have been intrigued by a mysterious 152-page manuscript bundle of Gaelic poetry whose author is only described in the catalogue as ‘a North Uist bard’. Julie Fowlis, one of the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig students who visited the project a few weeks ago, herself from North Uist, has kindly informed us that the author is in fact Ruairidh MacAoidh, mac an t-Saighdeir Ruaidh, or Roderick Mackay (1872–1949). In North Uist tradition MacAoidh is better known as Bàrd Iollairigh after the district where he lived, in the north of the island of Baile Sear/Baleshare on the west coast of North Uist. The bard’s work as clerk to the factor of the North Uist estate meant that he was a well-known – and apparently very popular! – figure in the island as he travelled from township to township collecting rent. This reminds us of the tax-gathering duties Alexander Carmichael had to carry out as part of his excise work. However unwelcome his arrival might be to locals, the occupation gave Carmichael an unrivalled opportunity to get to know the people of Uist and Barra, and for them to get to know him.

The bundle in the collection is the bard’s own poetry manuscript, published in Glasgow in 1938 as Oiteagan á Tìr nan Òg [‘Breezes from the Land of Youth’] under the auspices of the Uist and Barra Association. The bard’s original versions were lightly edited for spelling and grammar before publication by Hector MacDougall (1880–1954), the prolific Gaelic author from the Island of Coll. The manuscript came into the possession of Carmichael’s grandson James Carmichael Watson (1910–42), from whom it ended up in the Carmichael Watson Collection where it is catalogued as CW MS 211.

Although the manuscript may not add anything new to what we know of MacAoidh’s work, it draws our attention to a very skilful, vivid, and humane poet gifted with a remarkable command of language and a keen eye for the quirks of his fellow islanders and of island life.

CW MS 211
Ruairidh MacAoidh, Oiteagan á Tìr nan Òg (Glasgow: Alexander MacLaren & Sons, 1938)
Ronald Black (ed.), An Tuil: Anthology of 20th Century Gaelic Verse (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1999), 724–5.
Images: Illeray, North Uist; CW MS 211 and the first song from Oiteagan á Tìr nan Òg

Friday 25 September 2009

Gaelic Proverbs II

As a tribute to his friend and fellow collector, Carmichael penned an elegy for Sheriff Alexander Nicolson (1827–1893), that was published in The Celtic Monthly. A few things may be gleaned from this: the affection that Carmichael felt for a close friend that he lost; that they had become acquainted with one another from around 1865; that Carmichael had a literary bent and, as far is known, was the only piece of original verse ever to be published by him under his own name.

(From a fellow-worker and a friend of twenty-eight years’ standing).
Farewell thou genial bard of Skye,
Who loved her dale and fell;
Who roamed her hoary peak on high,
And eke her eerie dell;
Who loved her people and her tongue,
Her tongue that Ossian knew,
Thou well beloved of classic song,
To thee my fond adieu!
Gone, the cultured and the true,—
The heart that knew no guile,
The eye that looked through heaven’s blur
The spirit pure, were thine.
I sing no amaranthine lay,
No gorgeous bowers I bring:
Mine but the lily of the vale,
The snowdrop of the spring.

Alexander Nicolson was born in 1827 in Husabost, near Dunvegan, son of a farmer and landed proprietor, a tacksman under the MacLeods, on the isle of Skye. After studying theology at Edinburgh University, he gave up his plans to join the Free Church ministry and was working as an editor and journalist when he was appointed examiner for the Lothian District. Nicolson served as examiner for only a few years before leaving to pursue a legal career. He was called to the Scottish Bar in 1860, but obtained little practice as an advocate. He was subsequently appointed Assistant Commissioner for the Scottish Education Commission in 1865, in which capacity he visited and inspected the schools of almost all the inhabited Western Isles. In the very same year that he declined an offer of the chair of Celtic at Edinburgh University, a position which Professor J. S. Blackie had been instrumental in founding, Nicolson, in 1872, accepted an appointment to became sheriff-Substitute, or stewart of the stewarty of Kirkcudbright as it was known then, where he remained until 1885, when appointed sheriff-substitute of Greenock. Only four year later, however, in 1893, on grounds of ill health he was forced to retire. Nicolson never married, and died in Edinburgh of heart disease in 1893. His obituary in the Scotsman portrays him as a popular, genial man with ‘a great fund of humour’, and a keen Gaelic scholar who ‘rejoiced in all Gaelic things’ and was passionate about his homeland of Skye, but who failed to apply himself fully to any branch of industry. Despite that he wrote in a brief autobiographical sketch: “I would rather be remembered as the composer of one good song, than as the writer of many respectable and superfluous books”, Nicolson is chiefly remembered for his revision of the Gaelic Bible (at the behest of the SSPCK) and his collection of Gaelic proverbs and, of course, as the man who gave his name to the highest peak of the Black Cuillin in the isle of Skye: Sgurr Alasdair (‘Alexander’s Peak’) which he first ascended in 1873.

Carmichael, Alexander, ‘Alexander Nicolson, LL.D., Advocate’, The Celtic Monthly, I(7) (1893), p. 111
Fionn [Henry Whyte], ‘Sheriff Nicolson’, The Celtic Monthly, I(6) (1893), p. 85
Nicolson, Alexander, Verses (with ‘Memoir’ by Walter Smith) (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1893), pp. 1–23
The Scotsman (13/01/1893), p. 6
Image: Sgurr Alasdair

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Gaelic Proverbs

“Is obair latha tòiseachadh”
“Beginning is a day’s work”

No doubt Alexander Carmichael was familiar with such a proverb for he collected a great many of them which he generously provided to Sheriff Alexander Nicolson (1827–1893), the compiler of the most extensive collection of Gaelic proverbs. Nicolson, of course, acknowleged Carmichael’s unsolicited assistance, as he wrote in his preface to A Collection of Gaelic Proverbs and Familiar Phrases (1881): “The largest and best collections were received from the Rev. J. G. Campbell of Tiree, and Mr. A. A. Carmichael, North Uist. Both came unasked, and were supplemented, as occasion required, by illustrations out of the rich stores of Gaelic Folk-lore, Poetry, and Tradition, which both these gentlemen are every ready generously to communcation to those interested in them.” Carmichael sent some of his collections of proverbs to Nicolson, who was by then a sheriff in Kirkbudbright, in October 1875. During the intervening years, before the book made its appearance, it would come as no surprise at all if Carmichael continued to supplement the sheriff with even more proverbs. Given his generous nature, Carmichael would have been aware of the proverb: “An làmh a bheir ’s i a gheibh” / “The hand that gives is the hand that gets.”

CW 105
Nicolson, Alexander, A Collection of Gaelic Proverbs and Familiar Phrases (Edinburgh: MacLachan & Stewart; London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1881), pp. xxxii–xxxiii
Fionn [Henry Whyte], ‘Sheriff Nicolson’, The Celtic Monthly, I(6) (1893), p. 85
Image: Sheriff Alexander Nicolson

Friday 18 September 2009

Memorial to John Francis Campbell (2 June 1887)

Leaving Edinburgh on 31 May 1887, Carmichael made his way to Greenock to catch the ferry over to Islay. On the steamer he met Lord Lorne (Lord Archibald Campbell) and found him to be ‘pleasant & friendly’. Carmichael had been invited to the unveiling of a memorial to commemorate John Francis Campbell of Islay, or Iain Òg Ìle, who had passed away in Cannes some two years previously at the age of sixty-four. With characteristic modesty Carmichael wrote: ‘The inauguration of the monument to Iain Og Ile went off yesterday most splendidly. Great concourses of people. Fine dinner handsomely done and good speaking afterwards except by myself. Mine – Celtic Literature – was a bungled affair.’ The other speakers at this event were Lord Lorne, Hector Maclean and a Captain Campbell.
Since volunteering to work on a project that would later see the light of day as Popular Tales of the West Highlands (1860–62), Carmichael had known the late John Francis Campbell for over twenty years.
A subscription by the Islay association raised £300 (worth around £158500 in 2009) and a D. Haggart, a Glasgow sculptor, was commissioned to design the memorial in the form of an obelisk.
On that day the monument was inaugurated on the summit of Cnoc na Dàl, near to Islay House, in Bridgend. Two inscriptions, one in English and the other in Gaelic read:

John Francis Campbell
of Islay
an Eminent Celtic Scholar, Linguist, Scientist and Traveller.
A true and patriotic Highlander.
Loved alike by Peer and Peasant.
By his “Popular Tales of the West Highlands,”
“Leabhar na Feinne,”
and other literary works,
he preserved and rendered classic the
Folk-lore of the Scottish Highlands
He lies buried at Cannes, in France:
his memory lives in the hearts of his countrymen
Born 1821 Died 1885

Iain Og Ile, fìor Ghàidheal, sàr-dhuin’-uasal, agus àrd sgoileir, a choisinn urram agus cliù anns gach cearn. Ged nach do shealbhaich e oighreachd aithrichean, shealbhaich e gràdh nan Ileach, agus bithidh a chuimhne buan-mhaireann am measg Chlanna nan Gàidheal.

“An sòlas togar suas an càrn
Gun deòir gu làr mu chloich nan treun,
Sona an t-òg treun a thriall,
Mu’n cluinnear cliù fo chiar a’ Bhàis.”—Ossian.

A translation of which may be rendered:

Young John of Islay, a true Gael, a real gentleman, and a gifted scholar, who won honour and fame in very clime. Although he did not inherit the estate of his forefathers, he inherited the love of Islaymen, and his memory will be long-lasting among the Gaels.

“With gladness let the cairn be raised,
No tears upon its stone will fall
For happy is the brave now gone,
Whose virtues shine through Death’s dark pall.”

A fitting memorial and dedication for a man who loomed so large not only in Carmichael’s career but also in those of many others.

CW 89, fos. 1r –2r.
The Scotsman (02/06/1887), p. 7.
Image: John Francis Campbell’s Memorial, Islay.

Monday 14 September 2009

Child Prodigy II

In his later life in Edinburgh Alexander Carmichael would often reminisce about the people from whom he had recorded such a treasury of lore and tradition during the years he spent in Uist. He recorded these memories in a number of draft manuscripts: it is difficult to say whether they were originally intended for publication, for reading to an audience, or just for his own pleasure. One touchstone of memory must have been the two days (6–7 April 1869) he spent with Duncan MacDonald of Snaoiseabhal in South Uist and his six-year old grandson Donald, whom we’ve already met in the blog. Carmichael clearly got on well with the old man, whom he describes as ‘a smart little man sorely inflicted with rheumatism. Has a clear blue eye & an intelligent face’. But it was the boy whom he remembered vividly many years after the event.

I took down several versions of the beautiful poem of Fraoch in Argyle and the Outer Isles. They all agree in the main but differ in detail. That, however, which I like best is a version written on the 7th April 1869 from the recitation of a remarkable boy six years of age, Donald Macdonald, son of Alexander Macdonald, crofter, Snaoisval, South Uist. Probably I took down in all from 400 to 500 lines of excellent old poetry from this wonderful child of song modesty and memory.
Among other things was a hymn which the boy called the ‘Hymn of Uist’. This resembles and may actually be a free rendering of the hymn of Saint Bernard entitled [ ]. If it be a free rendering of the Latin of Saint Bernard the Gaelic to my thinking is infinitely superior…
The only difficulty experienced with this boy was childlike, his disposition to gambol about with his companions. There were a kitten, a pup, and a lamb in the house and every now and then these three and the boy rose and had a frolic on the floor together.
The boy’s grandfather Donl mac an taillear, Donald son of the tailor [his actual name was Duncan] – a nice old man sat in a corner enveloped in friendly peat smoke and now and again scolded the boy in a friendly way for not attending to the gentleman.
At last fairly tired and done up these four playful delightful and frolicsome creatures lay down on the floor beside the friendly fire of peat and fell fast asleep. A shaggy little six-horned sheep an equally shaggy symmetrical black calf and a sturdy ragged little foal all by times and sometimes together looked in and sniffed the nestling group beside the fire.

In an earlier draft of this reminiscence, Carmichael carries on:

The writer too tired and fatigued drew his cloak over him and stretching himself on the wooden bench Gaelic, Seise, on which he sat, fell fast asleep and slept soundly till the cold awoke him in the grey dawn of the morning. Leaving the house as quietly as he could he washing himself in the first friendly stream, he walked on several miles to the house of one of his innumerable kind and most hospitable friends where he had breakfast.
One of the things obtained from this child was Laoidh Chrisd the Lay or Hymn of Christ, probably one of the finest sacred poems in the Gaelic language. It resembles and may actually be a fine rendering of the famous hymn of S Bearnard…

The field notebooks suggest that Carmichael’s memory of the event may not have been entirely accurate: before leaving their house, he recorded some thirty-two pages of material from the two MacDonalds. Afterwards, he headed down to Tobha Mór/Howmore on the other side of Loch Ròg (perhaps a mile or so away, rather than ‘several’!). There he wrote down several songs from another memorable acquaintance: Peggy MacAulay née Robertson (c.1820–81), ‘Peigidh Sgiathanach’, ‘a tall, straight, comely brunette, with beautiful brown eyes and hair “like a raven’s plumage, smoothed on snow”’ whom he had first recorded about a month previously. As Angus Macmillan has kindly pointed out to us, Peggy lived next door to where Mary Wilson was born and brought up, Mary being the mother of another great storyteller, Angus MacLellan (1869–1966), ‘Aonghas Beag’.

References:The original fieldnotes are to be found in CW MS 107 fos. 36v–56v.
Carmichael’s later reminiscences of the event are recorded in CW MS 172 fos. 1–4. His description of Peigidh Sgiathanach is in Carmina Gadelica ii, p. 213: see also p. 350n.2.
Image: Detail of the Carmichael portrait.

Friday 11 September 2009

Visitors from Skye

This week we were delighted to receive visitors from the Isle of Skye to look at some of the Carmichael Watson papers. Four postgraduate students from Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’s MA in Material Culture spent a few hours with us looking at the resources available to them for their studies and seeing some of the work which we are doing to make these resources more widely available. The visit was arranged by our own Donald William, who is one of the lecturers in Material Culture and who was taking the students around various archives and museums, assisted by his SMO colleague Professor Hugh Cheape.

Pictured from left to right are: Andrew Wiseman, Gordon Cameron, Julie Fowlis, Donald William Stewart, Emily Edwards and Gillebride MacMillan.

Thursday 3 September 2009

Child Prodigy

The term ‘seannachie’ conjures up images of an old man telling ancient stories heard and retold through generations. This week, to the team’s surprise, in one of Carmichael’s field notebooks we came across a young lad, Donald MacDonald, who at only 6 years of age was able to recite lengthy poems and songs, something you would usually expect from an aged seannachie.

Carmichael appears to have spent a few days in the spring of 1869 in Snishival in South Uist collecting songs and poems from Donald and his grandfather, Duncan MacDonald, described then as a ‘smart little man sorly inflicted with rheumatism. Has a clear blue eye and an intelligent face’. Donald told Carmichael that the tales he recited he learned from his grandfather, who in turn had learned them from his father. Amongst those which Donald recited are Laoidh Dhiarmaid, Laoidh Fhraoich and Taladh Iain Mhùideartaich – no mean feat, that’s for sure!

Donald was the son of Duncan’s daughter Catherine and Alexander MacDonald, a relation of the Duke of Tarentum (1765-1840). Sadly, by the time he was 13, in 1875, both of his parents had died and he is shown on census records as living with Duncan and his uncle, also called Donald.

Donald and Duncan were from a long line of seannachies in South Uist which includes Duncan MacDonald, or Donnchadh mac Dhòmhaill 'ic Dhonnchaidh (1882-1954), who is still remembered there. While we know that he worked as an agricultural labourer around Snishival until he was about 29, we don’t know what happened to him after that and whether he continued the family tradition as his cousin did.

CW 107/43 fols. 40r-43v
Image: Duncan MacDonald of South Uist (1883-1954), first cousin of Donald MacDonald, pictured at the Callanish Stones while attending an International Conference held in Stornoway, October, 1953.

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). [©]