Friday 30 October 2009

Captain Dugald Carmichael FLS

Another famous Carmichael from Lismore was Dugald Carmichael (1772-1827). He was born in Stronacraoibh and educated on the island. At a very young age he took an interest in the island’s flora and fauna which subsequently became his life-long passion. Alexander Carmichael, amongst historical notes about the Carmichaels in Lismore and Appin, gives the captain a brief biographical sketch:

Capt[ain] Dugald Carmichael was a native of Lismore.
His knowledge of Natural History in general was
very extensive. After serving for some time
as Surgeon in the 76d. Regt. he accepted a com=
=mission in the same Regiment, where the he con=
=tinued to distinguish himself until the Conclusion
of the late war (i.e. the Peninsular War). He then re=
turned to his Native Parish, & spent the remain
=der of his Life in the prosecution of his favourite
studies. He died in Appin, and was buried in the
Churchyard of Lismore.

Carmichael notes elsewhere that the original progenitor of the Lismore Carmichaels, from whom both Alexander and Dugald Carmichael were descended, was Am Baran Bàn [the Fair Baron] or Baran Taigh Sgurain [the Baron of Sgurain House] and from whom came the Bishop of Lismore, An t-Easbaig Bàn [The Fair-haired Bishop]. At any rate, Dr Dugald Carmichael was referred to as either Dùghall Bàn or an Dotar Bàn. Carmichael writes that he was known to science as the ‘Father of Marine Botany', and was the intimate friend and correspondent of Sir William Hooker (1785-1865), who called many marine plants after him. One of these plants was Carmichaeliana or New Zealand Broom which is a genus of 24 plant species belonging to Fabaceae or legume family. Further, his nephew, the accomplished Gaelic scholar, the Rev Dr Alexander Clerk of Killmallie (1813-1887), went under the name of Gilleasbaig Bàn [Archibald the Fair]. Although Duglald Carmichael successfully studied classics at the University of Glasgow his real passion lay in science and he went to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine. He then became a qualified surgeon and gained a commission as an ensign with the 72nd Highlanders which offered him the opportunity to travel to foreign climes. He was able to make pioneering botanical collections as far afield as South Africa, Mauritius, India, New Zealand as well as Tristan de Cunha. Dugald Carmichael retired to Appin and took the tenancy of Ardtur Farm at Port Appin lying opposite to Lismore where he continued his research and published his last study Mosses of Lorn. Despite not being in good health, he still managed to make his last field trip to St Kilda. At the age of fifty-five Carmichael passed away and was interred at Clachlan near St Moluag’s cathedral. Despite being relatively unknown today due to his retiring nature, his friendship with the leading botanists of his day, Sir William Hooker and Robert Brown, made sure that his scientific discoveries did not go unnoticed by Charles Darwin.

CW 113, fos. 3v-4r.
Alexander Carmichael, ‘The Barons of Bachuill’, The Celtic Review, vol. 5 (1909), pp. 356-75.
Dugald Carmichael. ‘Some Account of the Island of Tristan da Cunha and of its Natural Productions. By Captain Dugald Carmichael, F.L.S’ Transactions of the Linnean Society, vol. 12, no. 29 (1818), pp. 483-513.
Robert Hay, Lismore: The Great Garden (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009), pp. 166-67
Dòmhnall MacilleDhuibh, Sgeul no Dhà às an Lios / A Tale or Two from Lismore (Glasgow: CADIPSA at the University of Strathclyde for Comann Eachraidh Lios Mòr, 2006), pp. 116-17.
Rev Colin Smith, ‘Biography of the late Dugald Carmichael, Esq. Captain 72d Regiment, Fellow of the Linnean Society’, in The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, vol. 11 (1831), pp. 90-103; vol. 12 (1831-32), pp. 113-22 [This is an extracted biography that originally appeared in William Hooker’s Botanical Miscellany, vol. 2 (1831), pp. 1-59; 258-343.
Carmichaeliana or New Zealand Broom.

Thursday 29 October 2009

The Last Great Auk? II

Carmichael’s is one of a handful of reports concerning the last British great auk, and like the rest of them was recorded long after the event. Even though it appears to be the only account we have written down by a Gaelic speaker, it is rather suspect, especially when compared to the much more circumstantial synthesis of accounts given by Alfred Newton (1829–1907), Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at Cambridge, to his fellow ornithologist – and correspondent of Carmichael – John Alexander Harvie-Brown (1844–1916). Professor Newton drew upon information he had received from the naturalist, sportsman, and St Kilda afficionado Henry Evans (1831–1904) with whom he had visited the island in 1887; Evans himself had recorded the story from Lachlan Mackinnon (Lachlann Eòghainn) (1808–95), a native St Kildan who was one of the party who had caught the bird – on Stac an Àrmainn rather than Stac Lì as Carmichael stated – and indeed claimed to be the very man who advised three days later, after a terrible storm had arisen, that it should be killed for fear it was a witch.

Carmichael’s account, focusing upon the St Kildans as a community rather than upon the individuals who caught and later killed the bird, demonstrates how the story of the great auk was already being transformed into a folktale by the time he recorded it in the late 1880s. It may nonetheless have preserved some authentic details. Perhaps most interesting for us is the point of the story for contemporaries: the St Kildans were woefully ignorant of the extraordinary value of the bird they had killed. In terms of average earnings, the price Carmichael put in the late 1880s on a single wing of the great auk, £100, would equal more than £50,000 today. With a bounty worth a fortune on each of their heads from museums around the world, it’s hardly surprising that great auks were doomed. Their very rarity was what killed them.

But when exactly did the event take place? Carmichael seems to be quite precise about the date, crossing out 1847 and putting 1848 in its place. This might tally with John Love’s remark in his fascinating new book A Natural History of St Kilda that it is rather curious that there is no mention of the killing in accounts by the several naturalists who visited the island between 1840 and 1847. If it was indeed in 1848 – and there were severe gales on the west coast towards the end of July – then Lachlan Mackinnon and his four companions may have killed the last surviving great auk on the planet.

CW 131B, fos. 356–8
Jeremy Gaskell, Who Killed the Great Auk? (Oxford: OUP, 2000).
Bill Lawson, Croft History: Isle of St Kilda (Northton, Isle of Harris: Bill Lawson Publications, 1999), p. 16.
John A. Love, A Natural History of St Kilda (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009), pp. 121–36.
Scotsman, 26 July 1848, p. 3.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

The Last Great Auk? I

Even before it became extinct, the great auk or gairfowl (Pinguinus impennis) was renowned as one of the most extraordinary seabirds to be found around the Hebrides: a sort of North Atlantic penguin, very rare, large (nearly three feet all), and quite unable to fly. There is some controversy over when the last great auks were killed: we know that a breeding couple (the birds mated for life) was slaughtered on the rocky island of Eldey off the south-west tip of Iceland in early June 1844. Some time in the 1840s, however, in the month of July, a great auk was captured by a party of St Kildans on Stac an Àrmainn, taken back to the village, then killed a few days later. Alexander Carmichael left an account of the event among the many slips of paper he filled with information concerning birds, animals, fish, and plants of the Hebrides.

About 40 years ago or so say about 1848 a party of S[t] K[ilda] people found a Gearrabhal on Stac-a-lì, a stack near Borrery. They brought it home but did not know what bird it was, what to do with it nor what to make of the bird. They knew not what to make of it and they came to no decision that night. They tied a strong cord or rope to its leg and fastened a stake to the other end of the rope and fixed this in the ground. Thus they left the bird all night tethered behind the house like one of their cows. ‘Nuair thig la thig comhairle’ ‘When day comes council comes.’ But the bird had his revenge in the noise he made and the sleeplessness he caused. He cried all night long and made night hideous with his noise. He screamed and roared like a creature possessed and the people got no sleep no rest. In the morning the people met as usual in the daily parliament (Comhairle) and among other matters what they were to do with this demoniacal bird-like creature they caught. The parliament which is composed of all the heads of families in the place and which met daily [decided] that this strange bird or bird-like creature must be possessed of a demon and that it was only a demon that could make [the] noise it made all night long. They therefore decreed that the bird must be put to death and so the bird was put to death accordingly. Every man in the community set upon the poor bird with sticks and stones and staves and attacked him till he was dead. And as the bird took a deal of killing the people were the more confirmed that he was possessed of a demon and they belaboured him accordingly. The body of the bird was then thrown to the dogs of the village and torn asunder by dogs and children. Next year when they came to discover their mistake they were searching about for bits of the broken bones of the bird!

[margin: The children of the village tore off its wings and used the wings upon one anothers ears and after they they were used by the women of the village to sweep the muddy floors of their crubas, their old wall bedded houses. Were there ever such costly brooms used in sweeping the floor of a king’s palace. Each of those wings on the bird would probably today realize £100!]

CW 131B, fos. 356–8.
‘Great Auk’ from John James Audobon’s The Birds of America (1840–44).

Thursday 22 October 2009

Lamartine and Ossian

Lamartine, by Henri Decaisne (Musée de Mâcon).

Just over a century since the Ossianic controversy first raised its ugly head, Alexander Carmichael, like his older contemporary, John Francis Campbell, was still enthralled by tales and poetry about the mythological heroes of the Gaelic world. Carmichael actively collected Ossianic ballads and related material but unlike the more circumspect Campbell was inclined more to believe that they were the genuine article and to dismiss the accusations of literary forgery beset upon the so-called translations that James Macperson (1736-1796) furnished to the literary world. What may be described as literary tittle-tattle was collected by Carmichael from a Roman Catholic Priest, Fr James McGregor, who was serving Ardkenneth, South Uist, at the time the anecdote was collected on 10 January 1865.

Lamertine was at some literary din-
ner in London when the conversation turn-
ed upon Ossian. Some of those present asked
Lamertine his opinion as to whether or not
he thought Ossian’s poems genuine or as
the forgeries of MacPherson. The forgeries
of MacPherson said the great French
scholar Mr Mac Pherson was as capable
of forging the poems of Ossian as he
was of forging the hills and dales of the
Scottish Highlands. No! no! the impress
of the great original is as indelibly stamp
ed on the poems of Ossian as the impress
of the master hand of the Creator is
stamped on the mountains and
rivers of Strathspey.

James McGregor himself had a Lismore connection for he was admitted to the seminary there on the 19th April, 1808. He was for forty years at Ardkenneth in South Uist,  along with, at the same time, the charge of Benbecula. He died on the 15th February, 1867. The man to whom the priest referred to in his anecdote was none other than Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), a French romantic poet and who was, like many others, heavily influenced by Macphersons two ‘great’ works (Fingal and then Temora) that took the literary world by storm when they were first published in the 1760s. His remark from the above anecdote would have placed him well in the camp of Carmichael who was a believer rather than John Francis Campbell who (correctly) was a sceptic.

CW 113, fol. 14r.
Lamartine, by Henri Decaisne (Musée de Mâcon).

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Handwriting Guide goes live

We are very pleased to announce that a guide to Alexander Carmichael’s handwriting is now available online.

Anyone who has read (or perhaps more correctly tried to read) Carmichael’s hand will inevitably come across difficulties in understanding it, particularly with his field notebooks where notes were written at speed while listening to or engaging with informants. This speed led to poorly formed letters and the need for abbreviations, of which there are many.

Included in the Handwriting Guide is an introduction to his handwriting, a section on handwriting problems and examples of his hand with transcripts. The Guide also contains an extensive selection of letterforms, numbers and symbols, which are demonstrated using digital images taken from his notebooks; and a list of abbreviations, which will be regularly updated as listing and transcription work progresses and more abbreviations are identified.

We hope that this resource will prove invaluable to researchers and we welcome your comments on it.

You can find the Handwriting Guide here:

Thursday 15 October 2009

St Kilda II

It was with the express purpose of garnering information from a tradition bearer called Effie MacCrimmon or Oighrig NicCruimein that Carmichael travelled to St Kilda. As things turned out the journey was something of a disappointment for Carmichael although he managed to get some material it was not without a struggle:

… which the writer took down … from Eibhrig Nic Cruimein, Euphemia MacCrimmon, cottar, aged eighty-four years, who had many old songs, stories, and traditions of the island. I would have got more of these had there been peace and quiet to take them down, but his was not to be had among a crowd of naval officers and seamen and St Kilda men, women and children, and, even nosier than these, St Kilda dogs, made with excitement and all barking at once. The aged reciter was much censured for her recital of these stories and poems, and the writer for causing the old woman to stir the recesses of her memory for this lore; for the people of St Kilda have not discarded songs and music, dancing, folklore, and the stories of the foolish past.

As far as is known Alexander Carmichael never returned to St Kilda and he may well have been dissuaded from the experience of this trip to try and collect more about St Kilda or from St Kildans. Nonetheless three pieces from St Kildan tradition were published as Iorram Hirteach/St Kilda Lilt, Cha B'e Sgioba na Faiche/It was no Crew of Landsmen and Òran Luathaidh Iortach/ St Kilda Waulking Song all of which had been collected from Effie MacCrimmon. Included is a wonderful piece entitled An Comhradh/The Conversation which was composed by her parents together during their courtship days, an excerpt of which is as follows:

Is tu mo smùidein, is tu mo smeòirein,
Is mo chruit chiùil sa mhadainn bhòidhich!
M'eudail thusa, mo lur 's mo shealgair,
Thug thu 'n dé dhomh 'n sùl 's an gearrbhall
Thou art my turtle-dove, thou art my mavis,
Thou art my melodious harp in the sweet morning
Thou are my treasure, my lovely one, my huntsman,
Yesterday thou gavest me the gannet and the auk.

Carmina Gadelica, iv, pp. 106-15.
Euphemia MacCrimmon taken around the mid-1860s.

Friday 9 October 2009

St Kilda

Alexander Carmichael's first of only two trips to St Kilda took place on 22 May 1865. Leaving Lochmaddy in North Uist at the very early time of 4.30 in the morning, the boat then swung north through the sound of Harris, where Carmichael caught sight of St Clement's church in Rodel. A further six hours into the journey St Kilda appeared at 10.30 am.

Islands look magnificent
rising up of the water in the mist.
Slight breeze on the starboard side.
Arrived at St Kilda about 12 noon. Fine
open bay. Bold rocks and remarkably grand.
Landed in first boat. Was at manse. Poorly
furnished but good house. Cameron the
missionary oldish and common looking.
St Kildans good looking s[t]out fellows
with pale complexions. Woman good
looking and ruddy complexions.
Women high shoulders and crouched figures
and bad ankles and feet. Beautiful
white teeth. Pronunciation peculiar
and lisping. People seem to be spoiled
not polite.

After having jotted down his first impressions of the St Kildans and purchasing some cloth and a bottle of fulmer oil, Carmichael continues his narrative:

Kissed a St Kilda lassie. A little beauty with
dark brown eyes and fresh complexion

about ten or eleven years. Kissed her
so as to have to say that I kissed a
St Kilda lassie. Saw men going on
rocks. Fearful sights. The deep blue
fathomless ocean roaring many
hundred feet beneath them. Took out the
fulmars and some eggs. Birds
vomiting oil – painful sights.

Rather surprisingly Carmichael's recollection of his journey stops there but it was the natives themselves rather than the remote isle itself that seems to have left more of a lasting impression.

CW 113, fos. 55r-56v

Image: St Kilda

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). [©]