Friday 20 August 2010

Hebridean Hymns and Popular Lore – V

In the final instalment from the article submitted to the Northern Chronicle, Alexander Carmichael gives some interesting, if rather general, background details about the various Uist men and women from whom he collected the materials that make up a substantial part of his collection. Carmichael was in the main not an overtly political individual, leaving such matters to others, but he could not resist firing a barb at those who were insistent upon denigrating the good folk of Uist. For instance, his article written in support of the crofting community, which forms but one of the appendices of the Royal Commission’s Report on Crofting, was praised thus:

At the last meeting of the Crofter Royal Commission, the members discussed the various papers that had come before them. ‘Some praised one paper and some another,’ said Professor Mackinnon, ‘but there was only one opinion among us all that your paper, Mr. Carmichael, is the paper of the Commission—a paper which will live as long as the English language lasts. I was asked to tell you this, and to thank you for it.’

Fine words for a fine paper, one might say.


The following verses are said to have been composed in Benbecula in the time of bows and arrows. They are singularly chaste, beautiful, and elevated. They indicate, I think, the wonderful natural refinement of the people who could appreciate, preserve, and repeat these, and whole libraries of similar oral literature, throughout the past ages.

The oral literature of the Highlands and Islands is singularly pure in tone and poetical in expression. I have taken down large quantities of this literature, probably a small library in mass, and I have never heard, either in this or among the people, an unbecoming word or an impure story.

I went much among the very poorest of people, among a people whose pinched features betrayed their poverty, yet during nearly seventeen years in Uist I was never once asked for charity. Their proprietor in South Uist, the late Mr John Gordon, did not exaggerate when he said―“The Uist people are all born gentlemen―every man of the them.” Yet, these are the people so often misrepresented, and sometimes so cruelly maligned by men who do not know them.

The Uist people are excellent workers, and for the farming best adapted for their country infinitely before the best farming representatives that have been brought against them from the south. All these successively have had to adopt the native system of farming, after proving the unsuitableness of their own.

Mar chirein nan stuagh uaine, ta mo ghaol,
A h-eugas tlath, mar dhearsa speuran ard;
Mar sheudas loinneireach, a da shuil chaoin;
Mar arradh air bharr sleibh, fo ghrein nan trath.

O! càit am facas bean is aille snuagh,
Cà ’m facas riabh air cluain, le ceumaibh sèimh,
Do shamhuil fein, a gheug nam mile buadh,
Mar chlacha, buadha, ’san or is aille sgèimh!

In the following translation I have endeavoured to adhere closely to the original.


To the white crest of the green wave I like my love,
Her countenance warm, like the beaming sky above;
Like brilliant jewels are her two blue sparkling eyes,
Like the gleaming sunbeams, all radiant from the skies.

Oh! were has e’er been seen a lovelier form or face?
On lawn, or plain, or field, of statelier mien or grace?
The branch of thousand beauties, in thy pride of beauty’s joy,
Thou gem in purest gold, yea, gold with alloy!

Carmichael, Alexander, ‘Hebridean Hymns and Popular Lore’, The Northern Chronicle, no. 177 (21 May, 1884), p. 3, cc. 5–6.
Carmichael, Alexander, ‘Grazing and Agrestic Customs of the Outer Hebrides’ in the Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the Condition of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (Parliamentary Papers, xxxiii–xxxvi, 1884), pp. 451–82.
Carmichael, Alexander, ‘Uist Old Hymns’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Glasgow, vol. i (1887–1891), pp. 34–47.
Image: Sea waves.

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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). [©]