Thursday 29 April 2010

Stealing of the Milk Profit

A very common migratory legend concerning witchcraft throughout the Highlands and Islands, and doubtless elsewhere, was the supernatural phenomenon whereby a neighbouring woman, usually an older woman with an uncanny reputation, steals the milk from her neighbour’s cow. There are quite a few variations of this story, such as the witch taking the form of a hare, or where the woman who has had her cattle afflicted seeks advice on how to remedy the situation and so gets her cows back to milking again. In Gaelic the phrase ‘a’ toirt an tòraidh air falbh’ is used to described what may be translated as having the sense of stealing the substance of the milk or taking the milk profit. Alexander Carmichael in one of his later notebooks wrote down such a story (probably around 1904) and, as is common with memorate-type stories, the experience is passed onto a person directly known to the narrator thus giving lie to the story’s alleged credence. Judging by the surname of the informant as well as by the the name of the house in which she resided it would be safe to assume that this story has its background in Badenoch, the cat country of the central Highlands:

Miss Macpherson Phones Villa
Morningside Edinburgh told me this
last night. My mother a woman
of great intelligence and sterling integrity
told me that shortly before she
was married she was milking
a cow in her fathers byre. Just
in the middle a beautiful cow
and a fine milker a reputed witch
passed the door of the byre and stretch
ing her head towards the cow in
side the cow door she called
out Ciamar a tha bho a bleoghan?
Is beag is f[h]eairrd thus co dhiu
orsa mise – How is the cow milking
But little is better of you
at any rate. The word was hardly
out of my mouth when the
milk suddenly stopped. Not a
drop would come although the
cow was not half milked. I patted
and patted and coaxed and coaxed
the cow and sang a [supra: soothing] milking song
to her but not a drop would come

Unusually, perhaps, a solution of getting her cow to milk again depsite her singing a milking is not forthcoming as part of the story. Nevertheless, there were such stories of counter-charms and cures aplenty that will no doubt appear in another blog.

CW 178, fols. 13v–14r
Bruford, Alan, ‘Scottish Gaelic Witch Stories: A Provisional Type-List’, Scottish Studies, vol. 11 (1967), pp. 13–47
MacDonald, Donald Archie, ‘Migratory Legends of the Supernatural in Scotland: A General Survey, Béaloideas, vols., 62–63 (1994–95), pp. 29–78
Image: A Splash of Milk

Monday 26 April 2010

Suimir time

Alexander Carmichael’s manuscripts are a fount of information not just about the oral tradition of the Gàidhealtachd, but its material culture and environment as well. Here, for instance, is a note he wrote on Scottish Gaelic suimir. As Professor Angus Matheson states in the final volume of Carmina Gadelica, we clearly have here a loanword from Scots timmer, English timber. A perhaps suspiciously long and elaborate Dìon Oidhche or ‘Night Blessing’ apparently recorded from Alexander Maclean, Manal, Tiree, has the couplet ‘Eadar sùil agus suimir, / Eadar chas agus cheann’: ‘Both window and timber, / Both foot and head’. If this was indeed recorded by Carmichael himself, it would have been in late September 1887 during what appears to have been his one visit to the island.

Sumaire, in the sense of a big rough piece of wood, is used as an insult about a bagpipe chanter by Niall Mór MacMhuirich in the late sixteenth-century satire Seanchas na Pìob bho thùs. The battle Carmichael refers to is Bruce’s great victory at Brander Pass, probably in 1308. John Barbour refers to the episode in his epic The Bruce: ‘To that brig held thai fast thair way, / And till brek it can fast assay; / Bot thai that chassit, quehn thai thaim saw / Mak thair arest, but dreid or aw / Thai ruschit apon thame hardely, / And discomfit thame vtrely / And held the brig haill, quhill the king, / With all the folk of his leding, / Passit the bryg all at thair ese.’

Suimir, a pole, a rafter, as suimir taighe = house rafter called taobhair – a horizontal beam rafter on the side of a house for the support of the cabers leaning up on the side.

Leac an t-suimir – the flag rock of the suimir, the flag rock of the rafter. This is the name of a flattish rock on the bank of Ab[h]uinn Atha, the river Awe. There had been a foot bridge here in olden times. The bridge was composed of long poles long rafters spanning the river from side to side.
In the battle between Bruce and Macdougall when the latter gave way he tried to cut off the advance of the former by destroying the bridge behind him. Bruce however passed so hard upon the heels of Macdougall that Macdougall failed in accomplishing his purpose enabling Bruce to inflict severe defeat upon Macdougall.

CW MS 502 fos.96–7.
Carmina Gadelica iii, 362; vi, 133.
John Barbour (ed. Walter W. Skeat), The Bruce (London, 1876), 229.
Brander Pass

Friday 23 April 2010

A Description of a Baptismal Font

Alexander Carmichael took a great interest in material culture, particularly archaeological remains and objects that had either a religious function or resonance. Book-ended, as it were, between two fairly long Fenian narratives, there appears a fairly detailed description, probably written around 1866, of a baptismal font as follows:

Sav[iour] and cross one side. On each side
of this beautiful celtic basketwork. On
another side Virgin and child. Another side
a bishop in full pontifical and
crozier – [del: old font old] and mitre
vestments. Holding crozier in left
hand. Another side A Knig[del: h]t in
kilt and full armour. In right hand
a sword and under sword a shield
in left is a cross. A palm like a
moss rose. Some plant often on
tomb stones. Another rose some
what different from the other. Time of
the Crusades. Inscriptions on two
sides and ro[u]nd the rim. Illigible now
Chirst cross legged and and hands
at right a[n]gles with the body

Unusually Carmichael was rather lax here and he makes no mention of the actual place that he saw this baptismal font. At first, the context is unclear whether he is describing the font from actually seeing it and taking down notes as he made observations; whether he is describing the font from a book illustration; or, indeed, whether he is writing down someone’s recollections of actually seeing the font. It seems, though, that as the detail is so rich that a tentative identification can be made for the description seems to match rather well with a baptismal font from Skye which is called St. Michael’s Font at Eynort in one of St Maelrubha’s Churches. The image of St Michael would seem to fit the description that Carmichael gave as well as fitting in with the rest of the details. There are two churches along the coast at a place called Borline, Eynort, Skye. The larger church is eighteenth-century, the smaller is undated and the baptismal font was discovered here and is thought to date to around the sixteenth-century. There the matter would have rested if it had not been for the fact that Carmichael had written about it and gives an even more precise description of the font which relegates the above description to note-taking perhaps with a view to publication. Interestingly enough, the back-story of how the font came to be in Carmichael’s possession is also provided:

Many years ago, a crew of South Uist fishermen, while on their way to Glasgow with a cargo of fish, were driven into Lochaoineart, Skye. Upon the north-west side, and near the head of Lochaoineart, stand the church and churchyard of St Malrube, the former a roofless ruin, and the latter a deserted wild. Here the fishermen saw an old Font, and deeming it too sacred to be left with the heretic Protestants of Skye, resolved to bring it to their priest, the late Rev. James MacGrigor. They accordingly carried it to their boat, and, the weather moderating, resumed their voyage. But before reaching the island of Canna, the weather again became boisterous, and again forced them back to Lochaoineart. Attributing their misfortune to their removal of the font, a debate arose among the fishermen whether or not they should restore it to its original position; but the wind becoming fair, it was decided by a majority of the crew to make another attempt, which was done accordingly. But the weather again became stormy, so much so, that when south of the Small Isles, they were in imminent danger, and unanimously concluding that the elements were conspiring against them for removing the font, they agreed to return, and replace it. Much angry recrimination now took place. The minority, who were against sailing with the font a second time, abused the majority in no measured terms, and told them that this was what they predicted, and the majority blamed one another. The gale increased, and with it the superstitions fears of the fishermen. Consequently, they returned to Lochaoineart, and, with much care, replaced the font where they found it.
The fishermen reached Glasgow, and disposed of their cargo. On their return voyage, they again called at Lochaoineart. They still cherished the desire to bring the font to Mr MacGrigor, and they accordingly placed it again in their boat, and, after much misgiving, ventured across the Minch, landed at Iocar, and carried the font in triumph to Mr MacGrigor, at Aird-Choinnich. There it lay in a corner of the chapel till a few weeks ago, when it was sent me in a present by my friend, the Rev. Donald Macintosh, the late Mr MacGrigor’s successor.

Reerences: CW104/27  ff.87v–86r
Carmichael, Alexander, ‘Donation of baptismal font from Chapel of St Maelrube, Lochaoineart, Skye’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries for Scotland, vol. viii (1868–70), pp. 237–39
Image: Detail of St Michael’s Baptismal Font

Thursday 22 April 2010

Fr Allan McDonald’s Note to Alexander Carmichael

The latest discovery on the Carmichael Watson Project came as something of a pleasant surprise – a book sent by the compiler of Comh-chruinneachadh de laoidhean spioradail (Oban: H. Macdonald, 1893), a collection of Gaelic spiritual hymns, along with a dedicatory note to Alexander Carmichael. The compiler of this text was none other than Maighstir Ailein or Fr Allan McDonald (1847–1905) and, in all likelihood he should also be credited for composing some of the material to be found within this book's covers. Both men had been friends for a number of years for Carmichael and McDonald shared many common interests, especially their dedication for perserving Gaelic oral traditions in all their various forms.

8th July 1893
 Dear Mr Carmichael,
I have not been well
of late and have been orderd off
for 3 months by the Doctor. So sorry
about your manuscripts. I could
not aid you much. I tried to get
light thrown on them by consulting
the people, but failed.
What a terrible thunderstorm there
is here at present.

With best wishes,
Your truly
Allan McDonald

Fr. Donald is well
Please give the other copy to Mr Hend-
erson as I forgot his exact address.

As can be seen from the short note enclosed with the copy of the book, Fr McDonald suffered from chronic ill-health and he had been laid up in Moidart for the past three months. He also is also apologetic that he was not able to help his friend with regard to some manuscripts that Carmichael had sent to him. Neverthess, where McDonald could help he would and he is credited by Carmichael for his assistance that he managed to give him when he was compiling Carmina Gadelica:

The Rev. Father Allan Macdonald, Erisgey, South Uist, generously placed at my disposal a collection of religious folk-lore made by himself. For this I am very grateful, though unable to use the manuscript, having so much material of my own.

A letter from Fr McDonald to Carmichael appeared in Carmina Gadelica, vol. iii (140) about Michaelmas customs. Dr John Lorne Campbell wrote thus of the collaborative venture between the two men:

Nevertheless, it is a fact that Fr Allan’s MS. collections of folklore were frequently lent to Carmichael, whose practice seems to have been to dovetail different versions of traditional poems, etc., in order to produce the best possible literary version, and who used frequently to consult Fr Allan about variant readings and the meanings of particular words. The third volume of Carmina Gadelica reproduces part of a letter from Fr Allan on Michaelmas customs (p. 140). The fourth volume contains some anecdotes which bear a very close resemblance to material in Fr Allan’s papers. Alexander Carmichael, whose biography should certainly be written, collected Gaelic folklore on a remarkable scale and over a long period of years. He was helped by many friends and correspondents, and his papers could well form the basis of a Scottish National Folklore Archive.

Thus in no small part Carmichael was assisted by many different people and Fr Allan McDonald was but one of these who, in his short lifetime, managed to gather in much material, most of which still remains unpublished.

Black, Ronald, ‘Eriskay Business’, Scottish Book Collector (2004), 7–11  (
Carmina Gadelica, vols. i & iii.
Campbell, John Lorne, Fr Allan McDonald of Eriskay, 1859–1905, Priest, Poet, and Folklorist (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1956)
MacDonald, Fr. Michael, The Priestly Life of Fr. Allan MacDonald (
Image: Fr. Allan McDonald

Friday 9 April 2010

Eòghan na h-Iteig / Ewen of the Feather

Sometimes an oblique entry, not to mention an unfinished one, noted down by Alexander Carmichael can be just as interesting, if not even more so, than a fuller account for, if nothing else, its piques curiosity. The following four lines of a story concerning Eòghan na h-Iteig (Ewen MacLean), chief of the Ardgour MacLeans is as good an example as any:

Gabhail mhath air a Chudain[nean]
The Macmasters had Air[d]gour
where Eon nan Iteag killed. The
Sionnach was the byname of the

On face value, this fragment does not make a great deal of sense. It may have been a note, an edited highlight, that Carmichael heard in the passing and which he was going to write up about later. It may also have just been all the information, a mere scrap, that the informant had. From this piece of information we have: Gabhail mhath air a' Chudainnean (The cuddies are taking well); that the MacMasters once had the upperhand in Ardgour until Eon nan Iteag (Ewen of the Feathers) had something to say about it; and then there was Sionnach (Fox) which was a nick name for somebody or another. All in all, there is not a great deal to go on from this merest of historical anecdotes. What then was going on here? Tradition relates that Ardgour had at one time been held by the MacMasters but they were dispossessed by the MacLeans. Somerled MacMillan relates the following tale:

One night Donald MacLean and a band of ruffians called at MacMaster's house, loudly demanding food, and when old MacMaster gave them a fiery rebuff they used his refusal as a pretext for murdering him. The Chief's eldest son made his escape from the house to Corran Ferry, but the ferryman named MacGurraclaich was out fishing at the time, and when young MacMaster shouted to him to come ashore and take him to the other side he received this callous reply: "Ta iad gabhail ro-mhath air na cudainnean an nochd" ("The 'cuddies' are taking too well to-night"). Young MacMaster was being hotly pursued and was forced to flee to a recess in the glen, but was soon discovered by the MacLean who murdered him on the spot. A cairn was erected over his grave and is believed to be still standing.

The story continues that MacGurraclaich was also killed by MacLean for his duplicity and disloyalty and was hung using oars used as a temporary scaffold. Now the back story to the enmity of the MacLeans against the MacMasters was due to an insult fired at the latter to MacDonald of the Isles. MacDonald is said to have sent the MacLeans as his henchmen in order to exact revenge and they would receive Ardgour in payment for their services. But the MacLean is usually ascribed to Eòghan na h-Iteig (sometimes Eòghan nan Iteag) from whom the chiefs of the Ardgour MacLeans took their patronymic Mac 'ic Eòghain. So far, so good. But what on earth is the mention of the fox doing here? Well, apparently, this is a veiled reference to the son and heir of the slain MacMaster chief. Perhaps he had the reputation of being rather wily. He is said to have sneaked off and hidden in a nearby wood. Wily or not he was eventually captured by Eòghan na h-Iteig and summarily executed and the spot on which he was buried was known as Càrn an t-Sionnaich ('The Cairn of the Fox'). It is said that the rest of the MacMasters fled across Corran Ferry to Inverlochy, where they can still be found, while their places were filled in Ardgour by the Boyds and Livingstones, who had come from Ireland with MacLean, and to this day several families of their descendants flourish in that district. So this is the traditional story of how the MacLeans tooks over Ardgour from the once powerful MacMasters.

Only one mystery remains, however, and it is why was Ewen MacLean given his nickname Eòghan na h-Iteig ('Ewen of the Feather')? One historian, dating the story back to the time of Harlaw, 1411, also states that that Ewen was the son of the redoubtable MacLean chieftain Hector MacLean, Eachann Ruadh nan Cath ('Red Hector of the Battles'), and his name arose from a time when he was fighting at Dunbarton: "after having killed his opponent, appropriated the head-covering of the dead warrior, which was ornamented by three feathers, he was dubbed by his Highland comrades Eobhan nan iteag ("Ewen of the Feathers")." Whereas the author of Clan Gillean offers an alternative folk etymology as well as a brief sketch of the chief:

Ewen of Ardgour was known as Eoghan na h-Iteige, or Ewen of the feather, an appellation which indicated that he was quick and active in his movements or like a bird flying from place to place. He was laird of Ardgour in 1587. He married a daughter of Stewart of Appin, by whom he had two sons, Allan and John. He was killed in his boat, by the Macdonalds of Keppoch […] He was slain probably about the year 1590. Allan, his elder son, became laird of Ardgour. John had a son named Allan. This Allan was the father of John Maclean, the famous Mull poet, who was known as Iain Mac Ailein Mhic Iain Mhic Eoghain.

But perhaps the best explanation for Ewen's appellation is not that he pilfered another warrior's helmet, or because he was fleet of foot, but rather that he was an expert archer.

CW120, fol. 97r
Somerled MacMillan, Bygone Lochaber: Historical and Traditional (Glasgow, 1971) pp. 99–101
Gary J. McMaster, 'Clan a Mhaighstir of Ardgour', The Scottish Genealogist, vol. 46, no. 2 (1999), pp. 57–70
W. Drummond Norie, Loyal Lochaber, Historical Genealogical and Traditionary (Glasgow, 1898) pp. 32–33
Alexander MacLean Sinclair, The Clan Gillean (Charlottetown, 1899) pp. 307–08
Image: Arrowhead

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). [©]