Monday 28 June 2010

Neither Reads nor Writes

Last month we looked at what we know of the life of Malcolm MacRae, the shepherd from Abhainn Suidhe in Harris, one of the men from whom Carmichael wrote down a version of the famous – and famously long – tale Sgeulachd Chois Ó Céin, the Healing of O’Kane’s Leg. The other seanchaidh from whom Carmichael recorded the story is rather better documented – and this blog about him is therefore rather longer than usual!

Peter or Patrick Smith, crofter, was born in South Uist around 1796; his full patronymic was Pàdra mac Aonghais ’ic Dhòmhnaill ’ic Phàdraig. Patrick’s parents were Angus Smith, crofter, and Christina née Currie, descended from the learned MacMhuirich bardic family. It’s likely that much of Patrick’s rich store of tales was derived from his mother’s side of the family. Patrick Smith married Marion Campbell (b. c. 1796). Between 1829 and 1845 they are recorded as having had nine children. Marion had presumably died by the 1851 census, when Patrick is recorded as living with six of their children: John, Christina or Christy, Angus, Mary, and Marion.

By the time the Islay schoolteacher Hector Maclean arrived in South Uist on his first collecting expedition on behalf of John Francis Campbell at the end of July 1859, Patrick Smith, living on a four-acre croft in Leth Meadhanach, was known as one of the finest storytellers in the island: his name heads the list of men and women with lore which Maclean sent Campbell the following February: ‘a Catholic: neither reads nor writes’. Maclean recorded from him at least three stories, Mac a’ Bhreabadair, Mac an t-Seòladair and Am Marsanta a Chuir an t-Sùil à Mac an Duine Eile. On 3 September 1859, John Francis Campbell himself visited Smith. He was rather astonished by the story he was told: Am Marsanta…, the same tale Patrick Smith had recited to Maclean a few weeks earlier. This illiterate crofter from the Outer Hebrides had just recited for him a story which was clearly related to one in the Arabian Nights! On 17 September 1860 Hector Maclean once more visited Patrick Smith, recording from him the Fenian story A’ Mhuileartach, the Fenian lay Laoidh Oscair, and probably also the tale Macabh Mòr mac Rìgh na Sorcha.

Later in life, Carmichael wrote about Patrick Smith that, along with Campbell and Maclean, he ‘took down many pieces of prose and of poetry from him’. It’s rather striking, however, that the gauger doesn’t appear to have visited Smith until he had been more than four years in Uist. Perhaps he thought that Maclean had recorded the seanchaidh’s best stories already; more likely, Patrick Smith’s house in Leth Meadhanach, towards the southern end of South Uist, was somewhat out of the way for the exciseman as he travelled up and down the Long Island.

As far as we can see from his notebooks, Carmichael first visited Smith on 24 April 1869, when he was collecting Fenian ballads for the Rev. Archibald Clerk’s new edition of Macpherson’s ‘Ossianic’ epics. That day Smith recited for his visitor Laoidh na h-Inghinne and Laoidh Oscair. He had heard the first lay:

42 years ago [1827] from Rua'raidh mor Mac-a-Phiocair from Airi-mhic-rury North Uist. Mac-a-Phiocair lived at Leth mheadhonach for a year then for two years at Baoghastal whence he went to Cape Breton. He had much old lore.

Either narrator or transcriber must have made a mistake here: the most likely candidate is the bard, piper, and fiddler Niall Ruadh Mór MacVicar (c. 1779–c. 1861), who arrived in Cape Breton in October 1829. The second lay, which Smith had already recited for Hector Maclean nine years previously, he ascribed – possibly in error again – to a fellow villager Niall Ruadh MacDonald, ‘an old man of 75 who died 20 years ago’.

At the end of the version of Sgeul Chois Ó Céin which he wrote down from Malcolm MacRae in North Harris, Carmichael later scribbled a piece of information as a memo:

A man at Boisdale is said to have this tale. He was building the policeman’s house at Loch Maddy.

It’s likely that this man was none other than Patrick Smith. On 25 March 1871, in what must have been a lengthy recording session in Smith’s own house, Carmichael wrote down a twenty-page version of Sgeul Chois Ó Céin, which the seanchaidh had heard from a Canna man some forty years previously. There then follows a seventeen-page romance, Sgeulachd Gas Gruaige, which Smith had heard ‘from an old woman’ fifty years beforehand. He ended the céilidh, it seems, by giving Carmichael several historical anecdotes, probably for a paper the gauger was then preparing for his friend the surveyor Captain Frederick Thomas about the brochs and castles of the Outer Hebrides. It was maybe after Carmichael returned home that night that he scribbled another note at the end of Malcolm MacRae’s version of Sgeul Chois Ó Céin, describing Smith as a ‘fine old sgialaiche’.

Later that year another folklorist visited Patrick Smith. In autumn 1871 John Francis Campbell embarked on a strenuous tour around storytellers in the Hebrides, probably his way of recuperating from a distressing few months reporting on the Paris Commune that spring. On 27 September Campbell met Smith ‘on a horse going for peats’ and wrote down several Ossianic items from him, including the story of Diarmuid and the accompanying lay. Smith bluntly informed Iain Òg Ile: ‘How altered you are since I saw you ten years ago… Then you were a thin lad now you are thick in the flesh & fat and the head is turning hoary.’ Campbell notes in his journal that ‘[h]e said he could recite very many stories. Those who were there said [he could recite] five or six every winter’s night, he could not tell how many he knew, he said he could not remember [the names of] them all or count them, but when he began, others came into his mind. I feel quite sure that the stories of that man’s mind would fill a large volume.’

Alexander Carmichael, however, would record no more from Patrick Smith. It looks as if ever-increasing family and domestic commitments meant that he was unable to spend as much time touring and writing down long stories as he had when he first arrived in Uist. On 18 November 1877 Patrick Smith died of ‘natural decay’. In Carmina Gadelica Carmichael would pay tribute to him as ‘[a] famous story-teller and ballad-reciter with whom died much old lore’, ‘rich in literary matter of great and varied interest and excellence. … During the winter nights his house used to be filled with young and old listening to stories and poems rehearsed in simple idiomatic Gaelic.’

Alexander Carmichael also recorded material from Smith’s daughter Mary Mackintosh (c. 1828–83), Gearraidh na Mòine, wife of the tailor Donald Mackintosh and ‘a woman of great natural courtesy and intelligence’; as well as from his son John (c. 1827–1918) who ‘inherited some of his father’s lore but none of his diction.’ Carmichael’s friend George Henderson also recorded from John Smith, taking down the mock-heroic lay Laoidh an Amadain Mhóir, and a version of the Deirdre story, Triùir Chlann Uiseanais.

CW MSS 7, fos.7–11, 28; 105 fo.10; 119 fos.24–43; 244 fo.146; 362 fos.191–2; 385 fo.2.
National Library of Scotland Adv. MSS 50.1.7 fo.33; 50.1.10 fos.270–5, 415–22, 423–38; 50.1.12 fo.65; 50.1.13 fos.415–16; 50.1.14 fos.265v, 331–2, 357; 50.2.1 fo.224; 50.2.4 fos.64v, 66–71, 76v; fos.50.7.6(xix).
Glasgow University MSS Gen.1090(11)(2); Gen.1090(27), fos.50–4.

Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica (Edinburgh, 6 vols, 1900–71), ii, 345n.5; iii, 230–1.
John Francis Campbell (ed.), Popular Tales of the West Highlands (Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas, 4 vols,1860–2), i, xxx, xxxiii, 156; iii, 328, 329, 400, 450; iv, 430 [at least nos.337–41], 438, 440, 450.
John G. McKay (ed.), More West Highland Tales (Edinburgh: Scottish Anthropological and Folklore Society, 2 vols, 1940–60), i, 394–409; ii, 120–50.

For information about Niall Ruadh Mór MacVicar, see and; also Bill Lawson, North Uist in History and Legend (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2004), 204–6. 

Cille Pheadair agus an Leth Meadhanach, le Dougie Beck

Thursday 24 June 2010

Every Song a Story – The Jealous Wife II

The previous blog gave different variations of the song narrative for A’ Bhean Eudach, or the Jealous Wife, as collected by Alexander Carmichael. Indeed, some elements of the song suggest it was something of a ballad. A' Bhean Eudach has been published many times before, but it may well be that the version offered here is among the oldest. As might be expected, the song text itself varies, just like the narrative behind it; again, this adds local colour to the song, for all these slight differences mark out the various areas where it was found throughout the Highlands and Islands and, it so happens, even in Ireland:

A bhean ud thall hùg ò
An cois na traghad hug o
Nach truagh leat fein hao ri ho rò
Bean ga bathadh hug ò

Nach truagh leat fein hùg ò
Clann gun mhathair hùg ò
Cha truagh cha truagh hao ri ho ro
S beag mo chas deth hùg ò

Sin do chas uat hug o
Sin do lamh dhomh hug o
No fiuch bheil agad hao ri ho ro
Buile shnamha hug o

No sin stamh domh
Mas e is f[h]ear[r] leat
Cha sin cah sin hor ir ho ro
O beag mo chail duit

Coisich air falbh
Us innis trath e
Dha mo bhrathrean
Dha mo chairdean

Cha b e [supra: an] an t-ainnis
Thug an traigh mi
An duileasg donn
No meud m ailleas

S i bhean iadaich
Rinn mo thaladh
'S a dh' fhag mis
An seo gam bhathadh

Ach thoir mo bheannachd
Gu mo chairdean
S beannachd air leth
Gu mo fhaisdean.

Fear diu bliadhna
'S fear a dha dhiu
'S fear eile
An aois a thalaidh

'S thus uain bhig
Gaol mo mhanrain
Iarraidh tu n nochd
Cioch do mhathair

Ach mu dh iarras
'S diamhan da sin
Bithidh iad luma
Lan de 'n t sala

CW 152, fos. 41v-42v
Gillies, Anne Lorne, Songs of Gaelic Scotland (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006), pp. 33–36
Image: Gathering Dulse

Monday 21 June 2010

Every Song a Story – The Jealous Wife

The headline for this blog is a slight exaggeration, but nonetheless there is a strong tradition of song narratives in Gaelic culture and the ceilidh house, or any similar type of gathering, which would have provided an opportunity for the participants to discuss the finer nuances of just who composed a particular song or in which circumstances the song – whether a lullaby, a love song, a dirge or a lament – came to be. One of the most famous of Gaelic songs is A' Bhean Eudach, or the Jealous Wife, once widely known throughout Gaeldom and still popular among Gaelic singers to this day. It is unclear (so far) from whom Alexander Carmichael got the story, or rather stories, but it would appear that he is writing up an amalgam of different narratives from the many localities which claim the song to be their own. Each locality, of course, added its own local colour to the mix to give an air of authenticity. The story is basically the same for each place, although local variations have often been added:

A Bhean Iadaich

Eigg, Rum, Canna, Coll and Uibhist and
others of the Western Isles claim this song.
In Uist the scene is laid at Aird-a-mhachair
and the reef or rock is pointed out where
the unhappy woman was drowned. The
woman who decoyed the other woman
to the traigh dhuilisg – dulse shore is
said to have been the servant girl of the
house and who beacme enamoured of her
master. In Eigg the "bean iadach" –
jealous woman is said to have been
the sister of the wife who was drowned
The story of the drowning differs in
some slight details in the different islands.
The main features of the story are
these – The girl who coveted the
man got the woman to come
with her to the traigh dhuilisg – dulse
shore / ebb. The two women sat down
upon a tidal reef and the day being
warm and sultry the married woman
fell fast asleep while the watchful
girl crooned a taladh cadail – sleep-
ing lullaby. The girl as the story goes
tied strands of the womans hair to the
sea-weed upon the rock escaping her-
self before the rapidly flowing tide cut off her retreat When
the rising tide and the increasing waves
surrounded the sleeping woman she awoke
but awoke to find herself tied to the rock
and the tide already under her and round
her and her retreat cut off between the
rock on which she was and the shore. By the time the
woman got her hair untied from the sea-
weed the rock on which she was was al-
ready under the sea and the waves soon
washed her off the rock and into deep water
where she was drowned. When she went
home she told that they both fell asleep
under the heat of the sun and that when
they awoke their retreat was cut off – that
she got across le a beatha with her life
but that the woman was drowned.
The crime was discovered one day
sometime thereafter while the guilty
was grinding at the quern. The woman
was composing and singing the song
while he husband was listening near by.
Unknown to her the husband heard
the whole story.

CW 152, fos. 40r–41v
Image: Gathering Dulse

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Tha Mo Rùn air a’ Ghille / I Love the Lad

It may be recalled from a previous blog – the fiftieth one to be precise – that we discovered a voice recording of Alexander Carmichael singing a famous Gaelic song, Tha Mo Rùn air a’ Ghille. Dr Keith N. MacDonald, who was the subject of a previous blog, submitted an article about this very song to The Oban Times and gives an interesting background to the song’s composition. Carmichael is also name-checked for the song was apparently his ‘parlour’ piece and it would seem that no social occasion was complete without the well-known Liosach singing his favourite song:

In the majority of the older Gaelic songs it is impossible even to guess when they were first composed, without some clue of a historical nature, hence it is of importance to note such a clue when it does present itself. The above being one of the most lovely of our Gaelic melodies, it is well worth tracing it to its source if that is now possible. The following version of it may or may not be the earliest, but, at any rate, it can be traced as far back as 1692–that is 209 years ago, and even then it might have been an old song. It was composed by the laird of Grant’s daughter to Donald Donn poet and politician, who, we know, was executed in 1691 or 1692. This Donald Donn was of the house of Bohuntin and Aberarder, a branch of the MacDonalds of Keppoch, the second son of John MacDonald, 4th of Bohuntin, and uncle of Gilleasbuig na Ceapaich. He was in love with a daughter of the chief of the Grants, of Glenurquhart, but as the Grants opposed the match, the young couple planned an elopement. Donald, to be close at hand, hid himself in a cave on the north side of Lochness, near “Réilig Gharraidh.” Here he was to remain until Miss Grant was able to join him, but Donald’s secret retreat was betrayed to Miss Grant’s brother, who had him decoyed into a house, and subsequently disarmed and taken to Inverness where he was executed in 1692. Mr Alexander MacDonald, of Upper South River, Nona Scotia, to whom I am indebted for the words of the song, and himself a scion of the family of Bohuntin, informs me that he was not executed in the Grants’ country as generally supposed, in 1691, but at Inverness in 1692. There is no one now living who can sing this beautiful song so well as Mr Alexander Carmichael the author of “Carmina Gadelica,” with his superb natural tenor voice, and exquisite taste and feeling. Some of the Gaelic societies should certainly have this song as sung by Mr Carmichael gramophoned, for the benefit and admiration of future generations:

Tha Mo Run air a’ Ghille
That Youth I Love

Do Dhomhul Donn Mac Fhir Bhothiuntainn le nighean Tighearna Ghrannd. Bha dùil aige i so a phòsadh mur bhi gu’n deachaidh e féin ’s a h-athair a mach air a chéile.

CHORUS.– Tha mo rùn air a’ ghille,
                     ’S mòr mo dhùil ri tìm thilleadh,
                    ’S mi gu’n siùbhladh leat am fireach
                     Fo shileadh nam fuar-bheann.

Tha thu ’d mhac do fh-fhear Bhothiuntinn
’S mise neaghan Tighearna Ghrannda,
’S rachainn leat a null do’n Fhraing
Ged bhiodh mo chàirdean gruamach.

Tha mo rùn, etc.

Gur h-e m’ athair ’rinn an do-bheart.
Mise chumail gun do phòsadh
Shiùbhlainn leat ged b’ ann do’n Olaind
Ach do chòir a bhuannachd.

Tha mo rùn, etc.

Rachainn leat har chuan do dh-Eirinn,
Rachainn leat air chuairt do’n Eiphit,
’S aig a mheud ’s a thug mi spies dhuit
B’ eutrom orm an t-uallach.

Tha mo rùn, etc.

Nàil a ’s e mo cheist am fiùran
Dòmhnull Donn Mac Fhir Bothiunntinn
Fada is farsuinn a tha cliù
Air mùirnean nam ban uaisle.

Tha mo rùn, etc.

Nàil a ’s e mo ghaol an t-òig-fhear
Dòmhnull Donn an leadain bhòidhich
Tha thu ’n fhìne àrd gun fhòtus
Dòmhnullaich a’ chruadail

Tha mo rùn, etc.

’S iomadh nighneag a tha ’n tòir ort
Eadar Inbhirnis is Mòrair
Ged a bhiodh air crùn do stòras
Phòsadh anns an uair thu.

Tha mo rùn, etc.

Tha do phearsa cuimir dealbhach
’S math thig éididh dhut is armachd
Bu tu ’n curaidh treun neo-chearbach
Meanmach anns an tuasaid.

Tha mo rùn, etc.

’S math thig féile dhut ’s an fhasan,
Boineid ghorm is còta breacain
Osan gean is trì chuir ghartan
’S glas-lann air do chruachan.

Tha mo rùn, etc.

Cha ’n ’eil òganach cho ainmeile
Riut ’s a’ cheàrna so de dh-Albuinn
’S meirg a dhuisgeadh suas gu fearg thu

Tha mo rùn, etc.

Ged a gheibhinn-sa gu m’ òrdugh
Na tha dh’fhearann aig Diùc-Gordon,
’S mòr gu’m b’anns’ leam na stòras
Còir thoirt domh air m’ uaibhreach.

Tha mo rùn, etc.

MacDonald, Dr Keith N., ‘The Age of “Tha Mo Run Air A’ Ghille.” (209 Years)’, The Oban Times, no. 2437 (12 Aug., 1901), p. 3, c. 2
Image: Portrait of Dr Keith N. MacDonald from The Celtic Monthly.

Thursday 10 June 2010

The Funeral of Alexander Carmichael

Almost a century ago – on 10th June 1912 – Alexander Carmichael was laid to rest in his native island of Lismore. The following description of his funeral, taken from The Oban Times, reflects the deep affection of those who attended the service at St. Moluag’s cemetery, named after the saint who founded a monastery there which subsequently became a seat of the later medieval bishopric of Argyll and the Isles:

The funeral took place in Lismore Churchyard on Monday afternoon. The body was conveyed from Edinburgh to Oban by the morning train, which arrives in Oban at 12.35 p.m. There travelled by this train Mrs Carmichael, the widow; Dr. W. J. Watson, rector, Edinburgh High School and Mrs Watson; Mr Alastair Carmichael, Mr Kenneth Carmichael, the Rev. Malcolm Maclennan, St. Columba U.F. Church, Edinburgh; Mr. Dugald Maclean, solicitor, Edinburgh; Mr. Alexander Morrison, Edinburgh; Mr. Kenneth Macleod, Strathloch; Rev. M. N. Munro, Taynuilt; and Rev. C. D. MacIntosh, Connel, and others.

At Oban the party of mourners was joined by a company including, among others, Sheriff Wallace, Dunstaffnage; ex-Provost Dugald M’Isaac, Dr. Kenneth Campbell, Rev. J. M. MacGregor, Kilmore; Rev. D. J. Martin, Argyll Square U.F. Church; Rev. S. M’Cune, Oban Free Church; Mr Duncan Mackillop, Mr John Macpherson, Cluny House, and Miss Macpherson; Mr Henry Mackenzie, solicitor; Mr Hugh Macdonald; Captain Macdonald, late of the Northern Lighthouse Commissioners’ service; ex-Bailie John Livingstone, Mr Neil Carmichael, etc.

With a Carmichael tartan plaid thrown over it, the coffin, which was of polished oak, was borne from the train on the shoulders of relay of mourners along George Street to the North Pier. Here the remains, with a number of wreaths sent from Edinburgh, were transferred to Messrs MacBrayne’s steamer, the Fingal, and there went on board, in addition to the family mourners, a number of those who had joined the cortege at the railway station. About one o’clock the Fingal, with he colours flying a half-mast, left on the short journey to Lismore.

The funeral party was met at Lismore pier by a number of the inhabitants. The service in the churchyard was conducted by Rev. A. M’Bean, U.F. Church, Lismore, and Rev. J. M. MacGregor, Kilmore.

The Gaelic Psalm, sung to the plaintive notes of “Coleshill” by male voices in the Highland style in the peaceful churchyard girded by the loch and its enclosing mountains, was most impressive in its solemnity, and not less so was the finely-intoned prayer in the same language of the minister of Kilmore.

And then, in a grave overhung by a fine sycamore tree, the aged Highlander was committed to his rest.

Although he was for a long period non-resident in Lismore, to the very end Dr. Carmichael took the liveliest interest in the island, and was always ready to do his very utmost to further anything calculated in benefit of it. No fellow-islander who found his way to Edinburgh but was sure to be visited by him, and wisely counselled and aided if in need.

It is not generally known that in the infancy of the Highland Mod, when Lismore was sending a very efficient junior choir to meetings, it was largely owing to the financial support that Dr. Carmichael secured for it among his extensive circle of friends that the choir’s presence at the Mods was rendered possible.

It need hardly be said the news of his demise was received in Lismore with feelings of deep regret.

A snippet of further information is added by Professor Donald MacKinnon (who may have been the author of the above description):

Dr Carmichael passed away at his home in Edinburgh on Thursday, 6th June 1912, his ‘changing’, as the Gaelic puts it, being peaceful and unexpected. On the following Monday he was buried, in the simple Highland manner, in St Mo-Luag’s Churchyard, in the Island of Lismore. His fellow-islesmen carried the coffin, covered with his plaid of Carmichael tartan, on their shoulders from the landing-place, and the son of the minister who had baptised him conducted a simple Gaelic service.

The inscription on the stone was designed by Carmichael’s son Ewen, but can only be read with difficulty now:



Be my soul in peace with thee, Brightness of the mountains. Valiant Michael, meet thou my soul.
To the honour of God and in memory of Dr Alexander Carmichael, Lismore 1833 [recte: 1832], Edinburgh 1912.

Anon., ‘The Late Mr Alexander Carmichael, LL.D.: A Master Celtic Gleaner,’ The Oban Times, no. 3003 (15 Jun., 1912), p. 5, c. 4
MacKinnon, Donald. ‘Alexander Carmichael LL.D.’ The Celtic Review, VIII (1912–13), pp. 112–15 [reprinted in Carmina Gadelica, vol. IV, pp. xxi–xxv].
Image: Alexander Carmichael’s gravestone, St Moluag’s Churchyard, Lismore. Thanks to our colleague, Kirsty Stewart, for providing this picture.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

A Letter in Appreciation of Alexander Carmichael

Of course not a few letters, following many obituary notices, of Alexander Carmichael appeared in the press after the sad news of his passing. A colleague and contemporary of Carmichael’s was Dr Keith Norman MacDonald (1834–1913), a Skyeman, and a medical graduate of the University of St Andrews, who wrote a rather idiosyncratic if revealing character sketch - especially of his singing prowess - of his recently deceased friend. MacDonald is chiefly remembered for three works: The Gesto Collection of Highland Music (1895); The MacDonald Bards from Mediaeval Times (1900) and Puirt-a-Beul – Mouth-tunes: or Songs for Dancing as Practised from a Remote Antiquity by the Highlanders of Scotland (c. 1901). The latter two books were first published as a series of installments in The Oban Times over many issues at the turn of last century from 1899 to 1901. Both were exiled Highlanders living in Scotland’s capital and it is little wonder that with their shared interests they should have kept each other good company and in good cheer.

                                                                                            21 Clarendon Crescent
                                                                                             Edinburgh, June 23, 1912
SIR, – I would like to place a stone on the cairn of the late Dr. Alexander Carmichael, who was very well known to me for many years. He was my only cronie in this Babylon of motor cars and motor busses and other devilments of modern civilisation, and I finer minded man I have never met. He was truly a man without guile.
I often remarked to him that I would like to meet a real Christian, as I had never met one. The only people I knew were members of sects, and each of these would see the others in perdition! That made him smile with satisfaction, at least to me. Our conversations, however, and there were many, were nearly all about the past. I often told him in my private study that I felt perfectly certain that no man living or dead would have done what he did, without pay or promise of reward, except himself, and that he must have come into this world for that purpose.
When a man does that which is worth doing, and which no one else could do, and does it well, and is a genius, not after mammon, but after truth, and hands it down unsullied to posterity, he deserves the highest reward that his countrymen can bestow upon him.
He and I often mapped out journeys which we would like to make together. One was to the old castle of Dunsgaith, in Skye, near which I first saw the light; and knowing that a prehistoric stone coffin had been found near the place many years ago, it was to be our principal points for attack. Another was Selma, where Fingal’s castle was said to have been. This place was to be thoroughly roused and trenched all over, and it used to amuse him very much my recital of all the treasures I expected to find there. On making a calculation, I found that we would require £1000 a year each for travelling and working expenses, and as there was no chance of getting that out of “present Government” (!) the idea was dropped.
My friend was very staunch on the Ossianic question. He often told me he felt was sure as he was alive that James Macpherson had originally Gaelic poems for all he printed, but joined many of them together to make long epics of them. The late Dr. Blair of Edinburgh was of the same opinion.
The dear old man did not like controversy, but he was as true as steel to his convictions. He loved the Highland people with all the sympathy and affection at his disposal, and rejoiced in all changes that were likely to improve their condition. He had some disappointments, however. On one occasion he walked a long distance to see an old woman who possessed some secret powers of divination, but she would not budge an inch, and gave him no satisfaction. If I ever meet her, I shall frighten her! I know where she lives. During his fifty years of work and travel he met with very few such cases.
One great charm about Dr. Carmichael was that he had a lovely singing voice–a high baritone of the richest quality, which would have made him a “star of the first magnitude” if he had had early training, but even without any training a rich natural voice is at its best when unadorned by artificial dodges.
A few evenings before his death he called on me here, and after our usual conversation he sang for me “Tha rùn air a ghille” as no one else could sing it. On that occasion I talked of having his songs and a splendid pibroch gramophoned for posterity, but the spoiler came and took him away, and with him these and many other things that will never be heard again! Verily a great patriot has passed away from amongst us. Peace be to his ashes!–I am, etc.
                                 K. N. MACDONALD

Anon., ‘Dr Keith Norman MacDonald, FRCSE, Edinbane, Skye’, The Celtic Monthly, vol. II, no. 10 (1894), pp. 197–99.
MacDonald, K. N., ‘The Late Dr. Alexander Carmichael’, The Oban Times, no 3005 (29 Jun., 1912), p. 3, c. 6.
Image: Portrait of Dr Keith Norman MacDonald from The Celtic Monthly

Carmichael Watson Conservation Commences!

The present phase of the Carmichael Watson Project includes the beginnings of much needed conservation work. A number of Alexander Carmichael’s original field notebooks are currently under going conservation and preservation treatment and we are also lucky enough to welcome Mariko Watanabe to the project.

Mariko (a student on the University’s MSc Material Cultures course) has been volunteering in the Centre for Research Collections conservation studio since April. Working under the supervision of the Lothian Health Services Archive Paper Conservator, Mariko is treating a collection of manuscript notes of secular songs collected by Carmichael. The following is Mariko’s first blog update, but others will follow as the work progresses. 

So far, overall condition of the items has been checked, photographed and documented. There is no one item whose condition is exceptionally bad. Fortunately, none of the tears and losses are so big that we lose the transcribed songs and almost all of the text is still fairly legible.

However, dirt has accumulated on the surface of the papers and a number of small tears, creases and pin holes mean that this collection is fragile and may prevent researchers from using these materials comfortably. Metal pins and paper clips used to hold some sheets together have caused holes and rust damage to the surrounding area. In order to improve each item’s stability and ease of handling, we are going to repair these damaged sheets carefully without any loss of text.

After condition checking, surface cleaning began after training and some practice on non-collection items. Surface cleaning is carried out very gently using a soft-bristled brush, a chemical sponge and small slithers of Mars Staedtler eraser.

Once I have done some more cleaning, I will post photographs to show before and after the treatment.

Sunday 6 June 2010

The Death of a Master Celtic Gleaner

As today is the anniversary of the death of Alexander Carmichael almost a century ago it seems appropriate to commemorate his passing by publishing a long, and fulsome, appreciation of his career which appeared in The Oban Times. The name of the author who contributed this article is not given but he knew Carmichael from a personnel perspective thus giving some insight into the character of the man who had spent over fifty years of his life devoted to collecting Gaelic oral traditions in many parts of the Highlands and Islands:


Liom is tim a bhi dol dachaidh,
Do chuirt Chriosd, do shith nam flathas.”
– Carmina Gadelica

We greatly regret to announce the death of Dr. Alexander Carmichael, which took place at his residence in Edinburgh on Thursday last. Dr. Carmichael, who had reached the great age of seventy-nine, bore his years well, and his final illness was of brief duration. His death removes the greatest figure from the field of Celtic gleaning. His services to the Gaelic language and literature, performed modestly and unostentatiously, earned him far-reaching fame. Officially located in the Hebrides, from which he had repeated opportunities of removing at the call of promotion, he devoted himself over a long series of years to gathering up and preserving from extinction the Celtic folklore which, in his day, still survived on the lips of the people in rich abundance, but lingered only within the limits of a narrow circle to which entrance was difficult. Dr. Carmichael reaped a rich harvest, and his self-denying and unceasing labours have laid the whole Celtic world under a lasting debt to his patriotic energy and insight.
Living among the Hebridean islanders, Mr Carmichael cheerfully identified himself with all their interests. In this connection during the crofter agitation he wrote a notable paper for submission to the Napier Commission, which latterly became on oft-quoted document, and had its effect in securing the legislation which followed the Government enquiry.
Mr. Carmichael settled in Edinburgh twenty years ago, but for many years he visited Taynuilt during summer, and was occasionally seen in Oban. His leisure was devoted almost exclusively to the revision of his remarkable collection of folklore, of which the two volumes of “Carmina Gadelica” formed only a part.
In April, 1909, the University of Edinburgh conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. Sir Ludovic Grant, Dean of the Faculty of Laws, presented Mr. Carmichael for the degree, and, in doing so, gave a fine appreciation of his career as a Celtic scholar. He had, he said, made many interesting contributions to philology and archaeology, but none of his achievements was more deserving of commemoration than his work in collecting and recording large portions of the Gaelic folk-lore, which, but for his timely exertions and pious care, must have irretrievably perished. Mr Carmichael was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.
Dr. Carmichael is survived by a widow and a family consisting of a daughter and three sons. His daughter is the wife of Dr. W. J. Watson, rector of the Royal High School of Edinburgh, and she is well known as the editor of the “Celtic Review.”


The first of the Scottish Celtic gleaners was Dean Macgregor of Lismore. His great collection of Gaelic poetry was made in 1512. And now the last of the master gleaners, Dr. A. Carmichael, has passed away, and his dust lies in the soil that bore him, in that same beautiful and historically famous island of Lismore. Celtic literature and the Celtic people owe a great debt to the gleaners, to those few choice spirits who had the heart and the will to sacrifice time and money, and sometimes even worldly advancement to the work of saving the literary and traditional masterpieces of the race from oblivion. The precious treasures of the Irish manuscripts, the contents of “Leabhar na h-Uidhri” and the “Liber Hymnorum,” and many others besides would have been lost to posterity for ever were it nor for the literary enthusiasm and patient industry of the men who transcribed them. And as long as Celtic literature endures, the memory of such collectors as Campbell of Islay and Carmichael will be cherished and honoured. Dr. Carmichael was fortunate in discovering a rich vein of old Celtic hymns and traditional lore in the Hebrides, and to the recording of these he devoted his energies through a long life-time. It is not always their own contemporaries that put the highest value on the work of the collector, but those who come after. Even so Dr. Carmichael’s work in “Carmina Gadelica” and elsewhere will be more and more appreciated by scholars and by the people as the years pass. It was something unique and precious that none could do but himself, and that none can now do, as the old people are gone to the silent land. He was possessed of a love of the people and their literature that never grew cold, and a warm enthusiasm and tireless industry joined with a wise literary and critical that remained active to the very close of his working years that extended over more than half a century.

Personal Qualities

There personnel qualities were of the utmost service to him in his work. He had rare tact and skill in dealing with old people. His kindness and warmth of heart and fine courtesy seldom failed to charm from the folks the old traditions and lore that they hid in their hearts with a sort of shamefacedness from an unappreciative younger generation, careless though the history of their own past and its poetic masterpieces and rich legendary lore were lost for ever. He was possessed of a breadth of sympathy that enabled him to see all that was best in Calvinist or Catholic, and to win the friendship and confidence of men of all classes and creeds. The most striking thing in his personality was his intense love for the Highland people–a love that delighted in and idealised their virtues, and was tender and charitable for their faults. The other side of this love was seen in his indignation and anger when any act of oppression or injustice done to the Highland people came to his knowledge.

The Old Hymns and Poems

The old hymns, breathing a simple, warm piety, with little elaborate dogma, were literature according to his own heart. Many of them have probably come down with little change from the primitive Celtic Church of St. Columba’s day. Still, no man had a deeper appreciation for the best passages in the noble religious poetry of such writers as Morrison of Harris, a Celtic poet of another school and a later time. He was a charming conversationalist, and could tell entrancing stories of days and nights spent with Campbell of Islay by peat fires in Barra, of strange wanderings and adventures when on the quest of old place-names, stories, hymns, or weird incantations that were hardly lawful to utter. But he was at his very best when the privileged visitor to his home saw him open his cabinets and recite choice old Gaelic poems from the immense manuscript store at his hand. Then it was the one felt the power of the man, the burning love for his people, and that spiritual expression of themselves in their old literature which was the passion of his life. He would read or chant these poems on into the small hours until oftentimes his emotion became overmastering and tears would begin to flow.

His Literary Labours

The editing of his manuscripts for the press was a labour of love, but it demanded much time and toil. To collate perhaps a score of versions of one traditional song, to translate the form finally adapted as best, and to write notes on obscure points demanded great literary skill and expert knowledge. His own literary style alike in English and Gaelic was of the finest quality. Had he chosen to write largely in Gaelic prose he could have rivalled Norman Macleod. His introduction and notes in English to “Carmina Gadelica” are models of finished and felicitous diction full of distinction and individuality. Some of his power in English may have been unconsciously gained from his life-long study of old Gaelic masterpieces, a literature that shows a wonderful native artistry in words and delicate feelings for music and fitness in style. There is never a word too much or a word too little, and all his work, original or translated, is transfused with a Celtic glamour and grace.
His great work, when published, was received with enthusiasm throughout the English-speaking world. By the power and truth of his interpretature he evoked a new respect for the Scottish Celt, and in many cases changed indifference or prejudice into warm and intelligent interest in the Celtic movement and Celtic studies. One of the chiefs of the English Education Department, after reading Dr. Carmichael’s translation of “Ora nam Buadh,” expressed his astonishment that such noble literature was found in the remote Hebrides, and went so far as to say that it that was the literature of the people were being educated out of–long might they remain uneducated! He referred to that false conception of education which presupposes the extinction of the old Highland culture as a necessary preliminary to progress.
Dr. Carmichael’s last piece of work was a visit paid to the Oban district about a month ago in order to seek from the old people some additional local matter required for the new edition of “Deirdre.” This classic Gaelic tale in, in the opinion of Mr. Nutt of London, quite equal in intrinsic merit to any of the tales in the mythologies of Greece or Rome.
Perhaps the last sheaves of the master gleaner was collected at Barachander, Taynuilt, where he and the writer spent a delightful summer day with Mr Charles Macdonald, whose stores of memory regarding local history and traditions are so copious and accurate.
The Celtic world is poorer to-day by the loss of a most lovable personality, a great Celtic humanist, with a deep hidden fountain of piety and tenderness, a man of distinct genius, and first Gaelic folk-lorist of his age.
The call came suddenly at the last, but the long day’s work had been done, and well done. His last thoughts and desires would, we think, be well expressed in the verse from one of his loved old hymns:

Tha mi sgith ’s mi air m’ aineol
Trioraich mi do thir nan aingeal
Liom is tim a bhi dol dachaidh,
Do chuirt Chriosd, do shith nam flathas.”

There remains unpublished still a great deal of Dr. Carmichael’s manuscript material. His talented daughter, Mrs. Watson, and her husband, Dr. Watson, who have done so much for Celtic studies by their own research and by their power to stimulate interest and enthusiasm in new workers in the Celtic field, may be trusted to give to the world at some future time which remains unpublished of Dr. Carmichael’s work. Much sympathy is extended to them and to the other members of the bereaved family, and especially to Mrs Carmichael, whose loving co-operation and sympathy made it possible for her late husband to achieve so much.

Over the next few blogs we shall publish more items that appeared in various Highland and Gaelic-related newspapers printed shortly after the demise of Alexander Carmichael on St Columba’s day, the 6th of June, 1912.

Anon., ‘The Late Mr Alexander Carmichael, LL.D.: A Master Celtic Gleaner,’ The Oban Times, no. 3003 (15 Jun., 1912), p. 5, c. 2–4
Image: A picture portrait of Alexander Carmichael on receiving his honorary Doctor of Laws in recognition of his work on behalf of Gaelic folklore.

Thursday 3 June 2010

Loch Up Your Daughters!

Ancient artefacts as well as buildings held a particular fascination for Alexander Carmichael and when the opportunity arose he would ask his many informants if they knew something about them or if they had heard any stories connected with them. In a notebook (CW 90), there are not a few such items and one story which Carmichael picked up, probably taken down from John Pearson or MacPherson (1814–1885), concerns a dun in Loch Nic na Ruaidhe. On modern maps this name is given as Loch Nic Ruaidh which on first impression doesn’t make a great deal of sense. But on earlier maps this geographic feature is referred to as Loch na Nighinn Ruaidh, giving the ‘Loch of the Red-haired Girl’, which lends credence to the following traditional story:

Dun loch
nic na Ruaidh – an Ruai
Mhor a da[ugh]t[er] of Ri Loch Lea’ad
Nam Fear Mora when the loch
used to stand above this dun
W[est]side. Nic na Ruaidh was
sought by many heroes of Loch
lan & here a dun was built to
save her fr[om] them & they would
come to the “Lea’ad” op[posite] & look[ed] on
& wi[th] delight to get a look
at her even at a dist[ance] They live[d] at
Dun a Bhairp. Dun a ghlinne
Auin an Duin Lamruig an Duin

So, according to this story, the dun was built to keep a beautiful princess from her many but distant Viking admirers. In reality, of course, the dun is far older than Viking times for it can be dated back to the Iron Age. The ruin in Loch Nic Ruaidh is described as follows:

A tumbled mass of stones rising some 8ft above the water, the remains of a dun on one of the smaller islets in the North East corner of the loch, with a number of boulders, possibly the commencement of a sunk causeway, stretching out towards it from the North shore.

The site was excavated more than fifty years ago when the following description was given:

The other crannog site, on the Loch of the Red-Haired Girl, Loch nic Ruaidhe, also shows tumbled walling, a causeway leading to the dun from the shore by way of a second and larger island. Mr J. S, McRae reported the find of a worn hammer-stone at a depth of two feet from the surface while cutting peat near the shore of this lochan, in the summer of 1955

An alternative version of why the loch was given such a name is explained by the red colour of the Rowan berries found there in autumn and thus is said to have given Loch Nic Ruaidh its name but we think you’ll agree that Carmichael’s folk etymology of this place-name is far more entertaining if a bit less prosaic.

CW 90 fo. 41v
Macneil, Calum, ‘Carmichael in Barra’ in Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart (ed.), The Life & Legacy of Alexander Carmichael (Ness: The Islands Books Trust, 2008), pp. 44–57.
Young, Alison, ‘Excavations at Dun Cuier, Isle of Barra, Outer Hebrides’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, vol. 82 (1952), pp. 290–95
Image: A dun in a loch

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). [©]