Tuesday 30 March 2010

Dòmhnall Brocair and Donnchadh Bàn

While Alexander Carmichael was collecting in and around Appin between the years 1883 and 1887, he recorded much local lore from a retired foxhunter nicknamed Dòmhnall Brocair, Donald MacColl (c. 1793–1886) from Glen Creran. This man remembered meeting and conversing with the great poet Donnchadh Bàn nan Òran, Duncan Ban Macintyre (1724–1812) and his wife Màiri Bhàn Òg, Mary Macintyre (c. 1750–1824) while the couple were touring round the Highlands looking for subscriptions in order to finance a new edition of the poet’s book which first made its way into print in 1768:

Do[mh]n[a]ll Brocair said
Don[nchadh] Bàn nan oran
in Glasdruim & Mairi
Bhan Og. He was ab[ou]t
5-10in[ches] & well made
& good looking. She was
fine handsome woman
Going ab[ou]t for sub[scriptions]
for 2d ed[ition] of his songs.
Donald was speaking to
Don[nchadh] Ban.

Donnchadh Bàn is remembered as a congenial, convivial and friendly character as well as, of course, being an outstanding poet and versifier. Anyone who had the temerity to raise his ire, however, would be mercilessy drubbed by his ready wit. He will be forever remembered for Moladh Beinn Dòbhrain (‘In Praise of Ben Dorain’). After spending around twenty years as a forester/gamekeeper in this part of Argyllshire, he removed himself (and family) to Edinburgh in 1767, where he took up his duties in the city guard. He produced nothing of any great note after this apart from his swan-song Cead Deireannach nam Beann (‘Last Leave-taking of the Bens’). He eventually retired from the city guard in 1806 and, apart from the occasional jaunts to the Highlands, was to remain in the Scottish capital until his death in 1812. A monument marks his grave in Greyfriars Churchyard and a further memorial to his memory was raised in his homeland on Ceann-chaorach, Dalmally, lying to the east of Loch Awe in 1859. MacColl probably misspoke when he mentioned the second edition: he was not even born by then as the book was printed for the second time in 1790. However, the third edition appeared in 1804 and so MacColl would have been aged about eleven when he spoke to Donnchadh Bàn, who was by then eighty years of age.

CW120, fos. 49v–50r
Angus MacLeod (ed.), Òrain Dhonnchaidh Bhàin: The Songs of Duncan Ban Macintyre (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1952)

Image: Donald MacColl, foxhunter, 1866, Crown Copyright 2007 The National Archives of Scotland, GD1/1208/1/49

Thursday 25 March 2010

Don’t Mix Your Drinks!

Of course Alexander Carmichael was not at all averse to picking up amusing little anecdotes as the following story testifies:

Calum Gobha was over
in Bearnary during the storm
of 3 Oct[ober] 1860. The peop[le] were in terror
thinking their last had come.
Ghaoil a Chaluim reach [th]usa suas
& cradh an t uisge coisrigte –
Gheo[bh] [th]u anns a chiste bhig e fhad
sa bhios sin[n]e ga’ail an urnig[h]
The peop[le] were all at their
prayers & Cal[um] went up & in sear[ch]
for the holy wat[er] he found a bot[tle] of whisky
He took a swig out of it & pu[t] to
be sprink[lin]g it over the horr[ified]
peop[le] & cattle This he rep[eated] & the
storm abate[d]. In the morn[in]g bean
Dho[mhn]uil[l] Iain (Macintire) went
to give a dram to Cal[um] her hus[band] & all
the peop[le] aft[er] their fright. The holy
water was there & the whisky was
not. Cal[um] had a sore head & unable
to rise.

One wonders if Calum followed the wisdom of the proverb latha air uisge-beatha, latha air uisge, a day on whisky then a day on water. He may have finished the whisky but there would have been plenty of holy water left in order that he could slake his thirst.

CW90, fos. 61v–61r

Images: Glass of Whisky

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Carmichael's voice

We are celebrating our fiftieth blog by putting online one of the bigger surprises we’ve met with while working on the life and legacy of Alexander Carmichael: a rather crackly recording of none other than the voice of Alexander Carmichael himself. This precious memento is preserved among the cylinder recordings of composer and cultural entrepreneur Marjory Kennedy-Fraser, best-known today for her three-volume collection Songs of the Hebrides. We are indebted for this to Dr Per Ahlander, who has recently completed a major Ph.D. thesis on Kennedy-Fraser, and to Grant Buttars, Deputy University Archivist.

Marjory Kennedy-Fraser acquired a recording machine in 1907, and used it while on a trip to the Outer Hebrides that summer: remarkably early for recording folk music. The single recording we have of ‘Dr Carmichael’ was made at a session at which the Gaelic scholars Frances Tolmie and Kenneth MacLeod also contributed, as well as Roderick MacLeod, a magnificent singer originally from Elphin in Sutherland but then living in Inverness, and of course Marsaili Mhór nan Òran, Marjory herself. It’s tempting to see this as Kennedy-Fraser testing out her new technology among friends before making her long journey to the Outer Isles. Despite the appalling quality of the recording, the cylinder catalogue suggests that Carmichael is singing Tha mo rùn air a’ ghille, a love song once as well known in the Canadian Maritimes as in Scotland, occasionally interpreted as a jacobite song to Prince Charles. On the cylinder wrapper, Marjory has jotted down that Carmichael heard it as a boy from an old woman in Lismore. A late transcription of the song in Carmichael’s hand is preserved in MS 244 fos.725–6, among a series of texts which may well have been copied from the earlier song collection Carmichael made, drawing upon the help of ‘lady friends in various places’, for Lieutenant Donald Campbell in Greenock in the early 1860s.

Interestingly enough, this is one of the very rare examples of a song for which we have a musical staff transcription in the collection, in MS 379. This transcription was made on 5 September 1905 by Evelyn Benedict, a folksong collector from Boston, Massachusetts who had spent part of the summer recording on Eriskay. It looks as if it was jotted down from the singing of Alexander himself.

The poor quality of the recording is hardly surprising given its age. We can hear, though, that Carmichael, by now nearly 75, couldn’t achieve the voice projection in order to obtain the sustained clarity of some of the other contributors to the session. It’s possible, of course, that the needle of the recording equipment may have lost its sharpness by then. Nevertheless, it may be that we can just make out a Lismore accent there still!

Coll-97/CW244 fos.690, 725–6.

Thanks to Dr Per Ahlander; Grant Buttars; Caroline Milligan at the sound laboratory of the School of Scottish Studies; and Alasdair Carmichael, Alexander’s great-grandson, for giving us permission to make the recording available online.

Monday 22 March 2010

A faculty she would give worlds to be without

On the 27 May 1869 Alexander Carmichael visited, possibly for the first time, a woman with a remarkable store of the tradition of her native Uist: Penelope MacLellan née MacDonald (c. 1795–1873), known as Bean Ormacleit or ‘the wife of Ormacleit’, ‘Ormacleit’ here referring to her husband the tenant farmer John Maclellan. Carmichael would later describe her in Carmina Gadelica as ‘a lady of great beauty, excellence, historical knowledge, and good sense.’ According to reminiscences he wrote down many years later, Penelope was endowed with a another, rather less welcome ability:

She had been head dairymaid at Ormacleit for ten or twelve years where she had acquired much knowledge of cattle: cattle diseases, cattle ailments, cattle cures, cattle charms and cattle spells of many kinds. It was interesting to hear the woman describing these ailments and their symptoms their cures and their charms – the shrewd observations and the natural causes the skilful cures and the occult beliefs blending and mingling shading into one another like the tints of the rainbow.
     Penelope Macdonald is endowed with the faculty of the taibhse manadh – second sight or premonition. She has inherited this faculty from her paternal people who possessed the power for more generations than she could count. She says that the gift is unsolicited and undesired and that she would willingly dispense with it were she able. The visions come to her at any moment day or night when least expected and least convenient. These visions are mostly about the dead and the dying the dead being carried to their graves by the living sometimes those nearest and dearest to herself being nearest concerned. She judges of these events from the nearness of the persons to the ‘giùlan – carrying’. She sees bas cinn aghart agus bas cinn uisge – death head pillow and death head water – that is death by dying in bed and death by dying in water. She sees daoine saoghal nam marbh agus daoine saoghal nam beo a measg a cheile – an t-athair marbh agus am mac beo – an nighean beo agus am mathair marbh ann an cuideachd a cheile agus a siubhail seachad air a cheile gun suil gun diu aca do chach a cheile nas mo na bhitheadh aig coigirich an t-saoghail a bhos, agus iomadh rud eile a bhuineas dha’n t-saoghal thall. People of the world of the dead and people of the world of the living – people of the thither world and people of the hither world among one another – the dead father and the living son the living daughter and the dead mother in the society and in the company of one another and walking past one another without looking without heeding one another no more than were they strangers in the world here – and many other things that belong to the world beyond.
     The woman says that she often sees visions but she seldom speaks of them seldom even alludes to them. These visions trouble her much but she keeps her troubles to herself – to speak of them would only cause untimely sorrow and sorrow black sorrow comes betimes to all.
     Whatever the faculty may be there is no reason to doubt the sincere belief of this woman in her own faculty – a faculty which she says she would give worlds to be without. [CW MS 493 fos.141–2]

This piece was written as an introduction to a calving charm from Bean Ormacleit – Bò a’ breith – apparently no longer extant.

Penelope lived beside the ruins of the old mansion house of Ailean Dearg, the Clan Ranald chief who had fallen at the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715.

She had the happiness, a few years before she died, of handing to her chief and relative, Admiral Sir Reginald Macdonald of Clanranald, some jewellery that had been found in the ruins of the castle. The jewellery in all probability had been the property of Penelope Mackenzie, the lady of gallant Clanranald of the ’15, and for whom Penelope Macdonald had been named. [CG ii, 27]

One of her ancestors was the famous Uist hero Dòmhnall mac Iain ’ic Sheumais under whose leadership the MacDonalds destroyed a MacLeod raiding party at the Battle of Càirinis in 1601.

As an opening to the recording session on 27 May 1869, Bean Ormacleit narrated the exploits of her famous ancestor. She then gave Carmichael several songs and more local historical traditions, before rounding off their céilidh, as has happened in many other céilidhs before or since, with a supernatural ghost story. At a further meeting, on 12 April 1870, she gave him much valuable information – some of it apparently not entirely accurate – about the family of the jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald. Some time in April or May 1877, after recording more information about Flora, Carmichael mentions Penelope’s grandfather:

Uistean Ban Chillepheadair came fr[om] N[orth] Uist – His son Donald lived at Dallbrug & was the father of the late Bean Ormacleit (Mrs Maclellan) [CW MS 108 fo.18v]

Ùisdean Bàn Chille Pheadair was the Hugh MacDonald who in August 1800 gave a fascinating overview of the history of the islands to the Committee of the Highland Society of London set up to enquire into the authenticity or otherwise of James Macpherson’s Ossianic epics.

CW MS 108 fo.18v.
CW MS 493 fos.141–3.
Carmina Gadelica ii, 27.
Henry Mackenzie (ed.), Report of the Committee of the Highland Society of Scotland appointed to enquire into the Nature and Authenticity of the Poems of Ossian (Edinburgh, 1805), 38–44.

Thanks to Donald MacIsaac for kindly giving permission to use his photograph of Ormacleit Castle and Farmhouse.

Friday 19 March 2010

The Extinction of the Last Chough in Lismore

Previously in the blog we noted a story about the killing of the last auk in St Kilda. This snippet of information was picked up by Alexander Carmichael but we don’t know from whom he got it, other than presuming it was someone with local knowledge, and he goes into far less detail than his previous story about the auk – as it was far more interesting and perhaps more controversial in any case – and so he notes down the anecdodte as a matter-of-fact event amongst other observations. The event probably took place within living memory but no date of this wanton act of destruction is actually given. The notebook, from which the following extract is taken, was compiled during 1883:

Draithean-beag behind
Salen was a well – Lianai
ach grows on top. Cover-
ed at half flood. Close
to this is Ua[mh] nan cathag
nan casa dearg.
Last of these killed by
a Rankin F[ort] William
Stalagmites & Stalagtites [sic]
in this caves which are
very fine.
Cathagan nan casa
dearg has bill red. ?Et bine?
Larger than crow & very

The cave in which the cathag nan casa dearga (jackdaw of the red legs), or chough, lies near Salen on the west side of the isle of Lismore. They are larger than crows and are quite distint because of their matching red beaks and red legs. According to the RSPB website, the type of habitat favoured by the chough is rocky coats with short grassland. Certainly there is plenty of this around Lismore and its environs. Choughs (pronounced "chuffs") may have been more common then than now and this probably reflected in the fact that the in RSPB have reserves for them in South Stack, Anglesey, Loch Gruinart, Islay, and the Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland.

CW 120, fos. 34v–35r
Image: Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)

Wednesday 17 March 2010

The Pipers of Smerclete

A well-known piece of South Uist tradition is the story concerning the pipers of Smerclete. This version picked up by Alexander Carmichael, probably from Duncan Maclellan, a stonemason, from Carnan in South Uist, in April 1872, follows the general gist of other, and sometimes even more detailed, variations of this story:

The Macintires of Smearcleit were
celebrated pipers. Others came to try them.
One of the sons who had never tried the pipes
was coming home & a ban shi met him
& told him that 3 celeb[rated] pipers came to play
against his fath[er] & bro[ther] But said she you[r]
fath[er] & bro[ther] although good enough pipers are
no match against these men. Ach cuir
thusa do mhiar am bhialsa ’s cuiri[dh]
mise ceol ann s cha tig ad a nall
eir faothail s cha tig ad a nall eir
fairge na chuir fath no fiamh ort.
He put his finger in his mouth & he
went home. Cia phiob athar said he cluich mi fhe[in] porst dha
na na daoine coire tha[in]ig dhach[aidh] orm
a so “Us amad[an] dol a bhreith piob
ors athair amad[an] ’us dol a bhre[ith] eir piob
ors a bhrairean ’s nach d rug [th]u eir
piob ria[mh]. But he got hold of a pipe & he played[a]y[e]d so extra well as to astonish the stranger[s]
& to make his fa[ther] & bro[ther] stare with amasement.
The strang[ers] left with[out] divulg[ing] their errand say[ing]
to each other If this fel[low] be the worst ^[supra: piper] of the family
what must the others be […]

Unfortunately, though Carmichael stopped there – it would appear that a few words have been omitted – it could hardly be called a cliff hanger. The ‘celebrated pipers’ are usually namechecked as the MacCrimmons of Skye, the hereditary and famed pipers to the MacLeods of Dunvegan. Not surprisingly the gift of music from a fairy is also attributed to the MacCrimmon dynasty as well as other famous piping families. Such a story has an international resonance as classified by Annti Aarne and Stith Thompson as AT 503 The Gifts of the Little People [and latterly ATU 503]. Such stories inspired Alexander Carmichael’s daughter, Ella, to write an article about it that appeared in the second volume of The Celtic Review and in the same journal a posthumous article appeared from the pen of Father Allan McDonald, or Maighstir Ailein, a noted afficionado of bagpipe music, about the pipers of Smerclete. The story has also inspired a brilliantly animated version called Pìobairean Bhòrnais (2003) that seamlessly interweaves animated drawings with a narrative collected in South Uist as recently as 1975.

CW 90, fol. 36v.
D.M.N.C., ‘Uamh an Oir’, An Ròsarnach (1917), pp. 159–71.
Ella C. Carmichael, ‘“Never was Piping so Sad, and Never was Piping so Gay”’, The Celtic Review, vol. II (1905–06), pp. 76–84
Fr. Allan McDonald, ‘Pìobairean Smearclait (The Pipers of Smerclait)’, The Celtic Review, vol. V (1908–09), pp. 345–47.
Image: Still from Pìobairean Bhòrnais. Many thanks to Catrìona Black www.ambocsa.co.uk for permission to use her image.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

A Charm for a Cataract

In one of his very last fieldwork notebooks that are known to survive, Alexander Carmichael was still noting down charms, a genre that is rightly famous for and also one that had fascinated him since he began to collect them in earnest around thirty years previously. One such example, Eòlas a’ Ghulmain (‘Cataract Charm’) was taken down, on 8 September 1909, from the recitation of Isabell[a] Chisholm née MacKenzie (c. 1845–1932) from Melvaig in Ross and Cromarty:

The Gulmum grows like
a scale of herring.
An t-Eolas Gulmain
I take up water draw[n] the
fiar over the eye thee times
after dipping in the water
uisg as a chaochain stream
let I place this in a bottle
and dip the grass in it and
then draw the grass over the
eyeball three times

A white Glob[e] comes upon the

Carmichael also provides a text along with a translation of the charm said to have been used while the above process was being conducted:

Togam boiseag burn
An ainm nùmh Athar,
An ainm nùmh Mic,
An ainn nùmh Sprioraid,
An ainm nùmh Tiùra
Shuthain chùmha ghlic.

Cinnteach gun dean rium
An rud is dùth domh iarraidh,
An rud ta riair an ruin,
An rud ta dèanamh pianaidh,
An rud is fiù a dhèanamh
Dh’an Triana chùmha cheart.

I am lifting a palmful of water
In the holy name of Father,
In the holy name of Son,
In the holy name of Spirit,
In the holy name of the Three
Everlasting, kindly, wise.

Certain that They will do to me
The thing that it becomes me to ask,
The thing that accords with Their mind,
The thing that is causing pain,
The thing that is worthy to de done
Of the Trinity kindly and just:

CW117, fol. 21v.
Carmina Gadelica iv, pp. 223–25.
Image: Cataract

Friday 5 March 2010

A Hot Poker as a Cure for Jaundice!

Folk medicine and cures are important genres for any collector and Alexander Carmichael was no exception to this general observation as is quite evident for an item, Eòlas na Buidheach (‘Charm for Jaundice’), taken down from the recitation of Angus MacEachen (c. 1810–1890) from Stoneybridge in South Uist. The story come directly from the informant and relates to a time when he was called upon to treat the daughter of a farmer, Roderick MacMillan (c. 1815–1900, in nearby Peninerine, also in South Uist.

Angus, from whom
I had the story and who told it to me with
much quiet humour, came
and solemnly examined the girl.
He then requested more peats
to be put on the fire which was
promptly done. He then put the
poker in the fire and every now
and then made much show
before the girl of seeing that it was
getting hot. When the poker was
red hot and the humurous Angus
took good care that the sick girl
could see that it was red hot
he requested them to turn her back
towards the front of the bed – stoc
na leapa – “stock of the bed” and
asked her mother to turn up her night
dress and lay her back bare and then
to clear out of the room immediately.
Angus then exhorted the girl to be brave
to bear up and fear not, that although
the pain of the operation would be ex-
cruciating for a time yet that it would
not last long. Angus then with much
ceremony and show rushed at the
girl’s bare back with the red hot poker –
na’m b fhior – “as if it were true – ”.
But instead of placing the red hot poker
on the girl’s bare back he placed thereon
a cold piece of iron which he had
in hiding till now. When the un-
sophisticated girl felt the cold iron
clapped against her bare back
she thought it was the red hot poker
of which Angus had been making so
much solemn show and ceremony
and she roared and roared and
screamed causing her mother and
all the people in the house to rush
into the room. Gu de tha agaibh
air a ghraidhean said
Angus ach gun deach i am
feothas sa liun agus an ceann
seacuin gu’n robh an nighean
mhor ruadh a mach feadh nan

Apparently Angus took all the credit for the girl was cured of her ailment as she was out and about by the end of week. Carmichael then adds that the ‘fame of old Angus as an expert in the cure of jaundice was confirmed if that were needed.’ Such a 'cure' would not look out of place of some kind of torture scenario and it was in all probablity a mere coincidence that the girl recovered her health rather than as the result of a cure of doubtful medicinal benefit. In the second volume of Carmina Gadelica Carmichael later printed the above narrative, based upon his fieldwork notebooks, and where the actual charm was printed along with his translation:

Air bhuidhe, air dhuibhe, air arnach,
Air a ghalar-dhearg, air a ghalar-shearg,
Air a ghalar-tholl, air a ghalar-lom,
Air a ghalar-dhonn, air a ghalar-bhonn,
'S air gach galar a dh' fhaodadh
A bhi an aorabh ba
No an sgath gamhna.

For the jaundice, for the spaul, for the bloody flux,
Fro the red disease, for the withernig disease,
For the bot disease, for the skine disease,
For the brown disease, for the foot disease,
And for every disease that might be
In the constitution of the cow
Or adhering to stirk.

CW87, fos. 9v–10r
Carmina Gadelica, ii, pp. 12–13.
Image: Red hot iron poker

Tuesday 2 March 2010

The Year of the Yellow/Black Snow

As Scotland recovers for one of the coldest snaps on record, it may not be inappropriate to remind ourselves that our climate has produced winters that would appear to have lasted even longer and were probably as cold if not far colder. One such year (1829) is remembered in the Highlands and Islands as either Bliadhna na Sneachd Bhuidhe (‘The Year of the Yellow Snow’) or Bliadhna na Sneachd Dhuibh (‘The Year of the Black Snow’) due to the discoloration of the snow as it lay so long on the ground. Alexander Carmichael picked up a story concerning this period from Iain Mòr a’ Chuirig (John MacPhail (c. 1799–1874) from Middlequarter, North Uist). It is said that the winter lasted so long that all the cattle died expect for one and so the population resorted to the teine-èiginn [need-fire] that is, ‘forced’ or friction fire in order to neutralise effects of evil through enchantment (or, in this case, disease) by relighting all the fires from a sacred source after all the other local fires had been extinguished.

“Bliadhna an t Sneac[hd] dhuibh” – Bliadhna an t Sneac[hd]
bhuidhe. The snow lay so long on the ground
that it became black – some say yellow and
lasted till summer. It is said that all
the cows in N[orth] Uist died except one red cow
belonging to an old woman at Biorr-
abhal. This was such a calamity that all
the fires in the island were extinguished and the
tein-eigin produced from the Sail-dharaich.
A bit of the sail-dharaich from which the
tein-eigin was produced is still at Cladh
Sgealoir and is used as a grave-stone by
a tribe called Clann ’ic Illeriabhaich, at Middle
Quarter. It contains auger marks – the fire
being produced by the auger and by “naoin naoiniar
ciad ginealach mhac”. So Iain Mor a chuirig
told me.

The customary time of year for the tein-èigin to be performed was at Beltane or May Day, Latha Buidhe Bealtainn, when cattle were driven between two bonfires. Martin Martin in his A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland c. 1695 says this of the custom: ‘The inhabitants here [North Uist] did also make use of a fire called tin-egin, i.e., a forced fire, or fire of necessity, which they used as an antidote against the plague or murrain in cattle; and it was preformed thus: all the fires in the parish were extinguished, and then eighty-one married men … took two great planks of wood, and nine of them were employed by turns, who by their repeated efforts rubbed one of the planks against the other until they heat thereof produced fire; and from this forced fire each family is supplied with new fire, which his no sooner kindled than a pot full of water is quickly set on it, and afterwards sprinkled upon the people infected with the plague, or upon the cattle that have the murrain. And this they all say they find successful by experience.’ There are some striking resemblances between Martin and Carmichael’s narrative including the number eighty-one: “naoin naoiniar ciad ginealach mhac” – the nine nines of first-begotten sons, which is probably a reference to a sacred number. Carmichael goes on to explain that: ‘‘Sail Dharaich,’ Oak Log, obtained its name from the log of oak for the neid-fire being there. A fragment of this log riddled with auger holes marks a grave in ‘Cladh Sgealoir,’ the burying-ground of ‘Sgealoir,’ in the neighbourhood.’ Clearly Martin and Carmichael’s informant are speaking about similar rituals and perhaps both of them took place in Sollas, North Uist, but it is not possible to say this with any degree of certitude. Elsewhere, Carmichael writes that ‘neid fire was made in North Uist about the year 1829, in Arran about 1820, in Helmsdale about 1818, and in Reay about 1830.’

CW 87, fol. 23r
Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, ii, pp. 340–41.
Thomas Davidson, ‘The Needfire Ritual’, Antiquity, 23(105), pp. 132–36.
Martin Martin, A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland c. 1695 (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1994), p. 175.
Image: Close-up of fire

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]