Monday 26 December 2011

Morag, the monster of Loch Morar - 2

After the rather straightforward texts about Morag, the monster of Loch Morar, from Alexander Carmichael’s papers which we published in our last blog, here is what seems both from the handwriting and paper to be a later description – and a much more elaborate one at that – about the mysterious creature:


The Morag dwells in Loch Morar. She gives her name to the lake and still appears when any of the old Macdonalds of Morar die. Like the other water deities she is half human half fish. The lower portions of her body is in the form of a grilse and the upper in the form of a small woman of highly developed breasts with long flowing yellow hair falling down her snow white back and breast. She is represented as being fair, beautiful and very timid and never seen save when one of the Morar family dies or when the clan falls in battle. Then she is seen rushing about with great speed and is heard wailing in great distress bemoaning and weeping the loss of the House of Morar laid desolate.
  The Morag has often brought out of their houses at night the people living along the shores of the lake and in the neighbourhood of her haunts causing much anxiety to the men and much sore weeping to the women. When the Morag was heard weeping and wailing the most thoughtless became serious and the most obdurate became subdued.
  Old [       ] Macdougall, crofter, Mallaig Bheag [said] that the horn of the steamer, the shriek of the train and the crank of the rifle were inimical to the Morag giving no peace no rest no repose to bird or beast or fish day or night driving them all from their habitats to their secret hiding places in the recesses of sea and lake and mountain.
  Macdougall described the Morag her form and face her hair and breasts her weeping and waling her rushing to and fro on the water with force and reality that carried conviction! The writer caught himself several times giving furtive glances away from his book to the calm bosom of Loch Morar in the late autumn eve. [CW493 fos.36–7]

Clearly, these aren’t field notes. The text is much more like an article or short speech worked up from earlier reminiscences. And what about Eòghan Dùghallach’s missing first name? Has Carmichael simply forgotten it (so casting doubt on the accuracy of other memories in the piece?), or has he hesitated between choosing Ewan or Hugh for his English translation?

For folklore archivists, Carmichael’s mention of ‘his book’ in passing in the final sentence is interesting. We don’t  have any extant field notebook dating to 1902 in the collection, only later transcriptions. Is the folklorist describing the scene accurately? If he is, then we have tantalising evidence for a missing Carmichael notebook. What then happened to it? If the book contained lore gathered in the Island of Eigg, which the folklorist visited before he reached the mainland at Morar, it might just be possible that the missing book could have ended up in the collection of Carmichael’s assistant, that famous Eigeach the Rev. Kenneth MacLeod.

There is one obvious difference in this third description from the two earlier reports in Carmichael’s hand: the detailed mermaid-like depiction of Mòrag, part of which at least was supposedly supplied by Ewan MacDougall. This is quite a transformation from the not very thrilling description of her as appearing in a cnap dubh or ‘black lump’ in the second text. There may possibly be hints of a more attractive Morag in Carmichael’s notes there that the creature was described as ‘Morag dhubh – black Morag – morally not physically’. And Morag was certainly a ‘she’, who had once spoken to somebody at the far end of the loch – a rather difficult accomplishment for a cnap dubh.

On the other hand, it may be that Alexander Carmichael had met somebody in between writing the second and third texts who supplied him with a rather different picture of The Morag – or at least reinforced what he had already heard. We shall turn to this talented but tragic character in our next blog about Morag, the monster of Loch Morar.

References: CW493 fos. 36–7.

Image: Loch Morar

Thursday 22 December 2011

Morag, the monster of Loch Morar - 1

For our festive blogs, we thought we’d give the red water charms a little rest and turn to quite another phenomenon altogether. Alexander Carmichael probably spent only a couple of days in the district of Morar, in the heart of the rugged Garbh Chrìochan or Rough Bounds of the western Highlands. Among the items he recorded there is some fascinating material concerning the mysterious ‘monster’ of Loch Morar.

Writing to Father Allan Macdonald of Eriskay on 9 September 1902, Alexander Carmichael describes how recently ‘I was in Canna, Eigg, Skye, Morar, Arasaig, and Lochaber. I have much to tell you but must defer.’ He had already been recording in the Hebrides since the middle of June. Carmichael goes on to tell Father Allan how he had returned home to Edinburgh with his daughter Ella the previous Friday – that is, the 5 September.

This letter, then, gives us a likely year for the recordings Carmichael made in Morar. In Carmina Gadelica iii we have a (suspiciously) lengthy Ùrnaigh Mhadainn or Morning Prayer taken down from Mary Gillies there on ‘1 September 190-‘ [CG iii, 40–7]. Carmichael’s 1902 expedition would tally perfectly with this date. It was probably on the same trip that Mary Maclellan née MacDonald, Beòraid, gave him a Moladh Moire or Praise of Mary [CG iii, 126–33: again, perhaps untrustworthily long as it is printed], while Ann Maclellan, crofter, Mallaig Mhór, gave a prayer to be recited on first glimpsing the new moon, A’ Ghealach Ùr [CG iii, 288–9].

This blog, however, is devoted to material the collector appears to have recorded from a Eòghan Dùghallach. Although the name Eòghan is often translated as Hugh, a couple of references in local census records available online might suggest that in English Carmichael’s informant was called Ewan MacDougall. In one text Carmichael describes him as living in Mallaig Bheag, while in another he is from Beòraid Bheag: the latter is named as his home village in an anecdote printed in CG iv, 230–1. This particular story tells of how Mary Macmillan from Sgiathairigh on the shores of Loch Hourn relieved MacDougall’s brother of a very painful fish-scale in his eye by using Eòlas a’ Chaimein or the Charm of the Mote, and how the folklorist made an epic journey to her remote village to try to record the charm from a descendant, Mary Cameron. Although ‘a pleasant and hospitable woman’:

on no account would she repeat to me ‘Eòlas a’ Chaimein’, though I tried every possible means to persuade her. She said that the ‘eòlas’ was entrusted to her for no foolish purpose, and she was not going to impart it for any foolish purpose to any person.

Alexander Carmichael had to return to Edinburgh empty-handed.

There are three separate texts in Carmichael’s manuscript collection about Mòrag, the mysterious creature which supposedly inhabits the depths of Loch Morar. As noted, it looks as if Eòghan Dùghallach was the principal source for his information. Judging from style and handwriting, it looks as if there are two earlier items and a later one. One is a series of notes, probably transcribed some time after the original recording:


Morag is always seen before a death and before a drowning especially before the death of the proprietor.
When Iain Ruadh was drowned she was seen by Coll MacColl a native of Tiree. She was seen about six years ago before a man was drowned.
Eoghan Dughallach saw the Morag several times in his long life.
The Morag came to a man in Gleann Loch an aineach [i.e. Gleann an Lochain Eanaiche] and spoke to him. [CW493 fo.35]

The second text is more expansive:

A’ Mhòrag / Mòrag

Tha creatair ann an Loch Morar agus is e a Mhorag / Morag a theirear rithe – There is a creature in Lochmorar and she is called Morag. She is never seen save when one of the daoine duchasach – of the hereditary people of the place dies. The last time she was seen was when Aonas na Traigh, Aeneas Macdonnell, died in 1898 (?).
  The Morag is peculiar to Loch Morar. She is seen in broad daylight and by many persons – including church persons – parsons. [note in margin: She has been seen by the narrator Eoghan Dughallach and by many others including pearsachan eaglais.]
  She appears in a cnap dubh – a black heap or ball slowing and deliberately rising in the water and moving along like a boat water logged.
  The Morag is much disliked and is called by many uncomplimentary terms – Morag dhubh – black Morag – morally not physically – Morag Odhar – dun Morag. Morag dhuibhre – dusky Morag. Morag Ghran[n]da – ugly Morag. As sure as Morag is seen as surely a ‘duchasach’ [above: heredient] dies immediately thereafter. She is not seen when one of the common people dies but is always seen when one of the duchasaich – heredients – dies – One of the native chiefs or relatives of one of the native chiefs. The last time Morag was seen was immediately before the death of Aongas na Traigh – Aonas of Traigh – in 1898.
  Eoghan Dughallach Beoraid bheag – Beoraid Mhic Shimi – firmly believed in the Morag and gave many vivid descriptions of its appearance and occurrence. [CW493 fos.38–9]

Any further information from local historians or genealogists about the people mentioned in Carmichael’s accounts would be very much appreciated. In our next blog we shall take a look at a third text concerning ‘the Morag’.

References: CW493 fos. 35, 38–9.
Elizabeth Montgomery Campbell with David Solomon, The Search for Morag (London: Tom Stacey, 1972).
Alasdair Roberts, Tales of the Morar Highlands (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006), 122–33.

Image: A lovely photograph of Loch Morar from the blog ‘The Adventures of Murpharoo’.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Wee Charmers - 1

Over the past week a number of emails have arrived in the Carmichael Watson inbox with the rather alarming heading ‘urine charms’. The reason for the sudden spate of interest (to coin a phrase) is a series of threads on the online discussion group Old-Irish-L investigating three Old Irish charms in the illuminated manuscript known as the Stowe Missal. We thought it might be of interest to trace charms for what probably were similar ailments, as gathered by Alexander Carmichael when he was living in Uist between 1864 and 1882. The following blogs, then, will offer you all you’ll ever need (or probably want) to know about the mysterious world of red water charms.

The primary purpose of these charms is to cure cattle of a disease usually referred to in the islands as bun-dearg. The term is obscure, but if it derives from ‘bùrn dearg’, it is directly related to its English equivalent, ‘red water’. Although nowadays ‘red water disease’ refers to a serious and often potentially lethal ailment caused by the parasite Clostridium hemolyticum in the kidneys, in Carmichael’s late nineteenth-century Hebridean world the term would have been applied to any potentially lethal disease in which one of the principal symptoms was red urine. In a society where wealth was calculated by the numbers of cows owned, the loss of a single beast could have catastrophic effects, especially on poorer households. Here is Alexander Carmichael’s folk explanation of the bun-dearg in his ‘vocabulary notes’ at the end of the second volume of Carmina Gadelica:

Bun-dearg, red swelling; ‘burn dearg,’  red water; ‘galar dearg,’ red disease; ‘earna dhearg,’ ‘ earnach dhearg,’ red murrain; ‘earna dhubh,’ ‘earnach dhubh,’ black murrain. The red and the black murrain are two stages of this disease, which is produced by several causes. On the mainland it is generally caused by the cattle eating the young leaves of shrubs and trees, especially the bog myrtle, the alder, and the birch, and by drinking water impregnated with them. In the Isles the disease is caused chiefly by eating the sundew (drosera rotundofolia). Wherever sundew prevails red pleura is common. A place in South Uist is known as ‘Bogach na fala,’ marsh of blood, from the prevalence of sundew and its deadly effects. (CG ii, 238)

We’ll return to this account later on.

The first of Carmichael’s red water charms was gathered from Ann MacIsaac née Maclellan (c. 1808–1883), Ceann Langabhat, an t-Ìochdar, South Uist. Ann was the daughter of John Maclellan, farmer in Bòrnais, and his wife Christian Macmillan; she was probably from the same stock as the celebrated storyteller Angus MacLellan (1879–1949) from Loch Aoineort. In 1847 Ann married Hector MacIsaac, one of the principal seanchaidhean or storytellers in South Uist. Hector’s stories were first recorded by Hector Maclean in 1859 as part of John Francis Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands project. Alexander Carmichael clearly hit it off with the couple; perhaps they even regarded the young bachelor as the son they never had.

As we shall see in a later blog, Ann MacIsaac may have been the first person from whom Alexander Carmichael recorded charms and incantations, the genre with which he would go on to make his reputation in the first two volumes of Carmina Gadelica, published in 1900. Among the six charms she apparently gave to him on 16 October 1867 was Eòlas a’ Bhun-deirg, the Red Water Charm. Here is his later transcription:

Muir mor eas ruadh,
Ruith eir d’ fhual
Stad eir d’ fhuil.

Great sea, red cascade,
May your urine flow,
May your blood stop.

Note: this is thrice repeated over the sick animal afflicted with ‘Red water’. [CW87 fo.18v]

Liquid imagery of sea, river, and waterfall, together with commands to flow or stop, are probably universal in all European charms concerning blood and urine, whether they’re intended against red water or for staunching wounds.

There was, however, one major problem with Ann MacIsaac's charm for Alexander Carmichael when he was compiling and creating Carmina Gadelica. It was far too short to be printed as a stand-alone item. In a subsequent blog we shall take a look at what might have been his solution. 

Wednesday 7 December 2011

The Laird of Coll's Powder Horn

As the Carmichael Watson Project moves into a new, Leverhulme Trust-funded phase, we’re starting to investigate Alexander Carmichael’s fascinating personal collection of objects, now looked after in the West Highland Museum in Fort William. One particularly interesting item may be connected with an unusual waulking song Carmichael recorded in Mingulay.

As discussed in a blog earlier this year, Alexander Carmichael ‘discovered’ waulking songs while on a visit to the little island of Mingulay/Miughalaigh, at the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides, on 8 August 1867. Carmichael was back in Mingulay on 22 May 1869, doing intensive song-recording from his friend Roderick MacNeil (c. 1790–1875), Ruairidh an Rùma, as well as from two local women, Mary MacDonald (c. 1837–1915) and someone he later describes as ‘Mary wife of Angus Campbell’. We’ve been unable to trace her, but there’s a possibility Carmichael might have meant Marion (b. c. 1841), wife of John Campbell, who appears on the island in the 1871 census. The two women sang their songs to the very appreciative collector not at the waulking board, but while woolworking – ‘one carding, the other spinning’ – one singing the lines and the other the chorus.]

Among the songs Carmichael recorded is one with the following impassioned lines:

Mo cheist eir ti[gh]earna Cholla
S trua[gh] nach ann duit bha mi torrach
Luc[hd] mo dha chich liont am bhrollach
Ga nach beirinn dhuit ach torran
Bhi[th] gun chliu as gun char gun cholan[n]
Ach da shuil os cionn mala.
Sa leana[bh] beag na lai[gh] air a chulao[bh]
Sann daga sann aoraic [adharc] fhudair [CW150/24]

My love the Laird of Coll
A shame that I wasn’t pregnant for you
The load of my two breasts full in my chest
Even though I’d only give you a little heap
Without fame, strength, or body,
Just two eyes above a brow.
And the little baby lying behind him
[?With] the pistol and the ‘aoraic fhudair’.

Given the feelings they express, it’s hardly surprising that these lines don’t appear to have been given to any other song collector. But what’s the ‘aoraic fhudair’ in the last line?

The context gives the game away: it’s what would be written in standard Gaelic ‘adharc fhùdair’, a powder horn made out of cow horn, an object used to carry gunpowder without any danger of sparks or soaking. The heyday of the often elaborately decorated powder horn was the eighteenth century, the era of muskets, before the advent of the powder cartridge. By Carmichael’s time the powder horn was quite obsolete apart from occasional use in full ceremonial Highland dress – definitely not a common sight in the Outer Hebrides! It’s hardly surprising, then, that there are few if any other mentions of an ‘adharc fhùdair’ in the corpus of Gaelic waulking songs.

We originally thought that the word ‘aoraic’ which Carmichael wrote down meant that either he or the singer didn’t understand the reference to ‘adharc’ or horn. A brief chat with Professor Donald Meek from Tiree, however, put us right. Across much of the Scottish Gàidhealtachd, ‘adharachd’ is a perfectly acceptable dialect alternative to ‘adharc’. Maybe this is how Carmichael heard it when he was writing it down, or maybe the word was preserved like that in the song, testimony to its Argyllshire origins.

What of the item in Carmichael’s collection? As you’ll have guessed, it’s a powder horn, one of four he acquired. This one is said to have ‘belonged to MacLean of Coll’ – that is, the Laird of Coll, Tighearna Cholla. But did it really? Alexander Carmichael certainly visited the Island of Coll in September 1887, and knew a number of people with Coll connections, so the provenance of our powder horn may be genuine.

On the other hand, might this be a sly joke by the original donor, perhaps in reply to Carmichael’s question, ‘Who owned it?’ The object was a powder horn, an ‘adharc fhùdair’ (or an ‘adharachd fhùdair’). There was a waulking song praising the Laird of Coll where his powder horn is mentioned. ‘So it must have belonged to Tighearna Cholla.’ The story of the powder horn and the waulking song may demonstrate how closely bound up oral tradition and material culture might be. On the other hand, this may just be yet another example of a scholar making too much out of very slender connections. There may be a much simpler explanation lurking somewhere still in Alexander Carmichael’s archive!

Reference: CW150/24
Image: A not very clear picture of Carmichael’s powder horn

Monday 28 November 2011

Oot an' Aboot

It's been a busy few weeks for the team as Phase 4 fever takes holds. The objects which we are cataloguing and researching are held either by The West Highland Museum (WHM), in Fort William or by the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) a few minutes up the road from the office, all of which means we've had to go oot an' aboot.

Two weeks ago, we'd a very productive afternoon with Pam Babes, Collections Development Manager and Angus Kneale, Collections System Manager at NMS looking at their cataloguing system and talking about the best approach for listing Carmichael's objects. We also got a better idea of the material we'll be dealing with there, most of which is tartan and the oddest of which is crossopus fodiens - a water shrew.

Next on the list was a trip to meet Màiri Mooney, curator at The West Highland Museum and to clap eyes on the considerably larger number of items in their Carmichael collection. The weather was hardly kind as we stepped off the train into ankle-deep puddles and driving rain but the welcome was very warm when we arrived at the museum. Many objects from the collection were out on display anyway, so we were able to start matching them to our list, which was originally drawn up to value the collection in the late 40s. What an array of artefacts! Everything from fossils to Jacobite clothing to charms to domestic tools and of course brooches. Many, many brooches. Màiri took a great deal of time with us and let us have the run of the museum for the day, so that we could plan for our next visit. High on our agenda is photographing the items - the current list has around 250 objects, so the task is a considerable one. Personal favourites from the objects we were able to see were a targe, a riding cape and knotted wool for Eòlas Snàithle [Charm of the Threads]. Seeing unfamiliar objects which have been mentioned in now very familiar manuscripts was an enlivening experience altogether.

On my own way home I took a detour to visit the project's friends at Comann Eachdraidh Lios Mòr. I mention this simply to allow me to post a picture showing how beautiful it was on the Tuesday morning!

Reference: Carmina Gadelica, vol. IV (Edinburgh, 1941) pp. 166-167.
Image 1:  Kirsty M Stewart, Màiri Mooney and Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart at West Highland Museum.
Image 2: Looking towards Ben Nevis from the north end of Lismore.

Monday 31 October 2011

Divination on Latha Samhna

Oidhche Challainn or Hogmanay tended to be an occasion celebrated by groups of boys. Hallowe’en (Oidhche Shamhna) and All Saints’ Day (Latha Samhna) were rather different: in the words of Margaret Fay Shaw writing about her time in Gleann Dail/Glendale in South Uist, ‘a night of much jollity, when the house was invaded by visitors in the ugliest disguises they could contrive of sheepskin and unravelled rope.’ It was also, as she goes on to remark, a time for ‘the foretelling the future of sweethearts’, not just in the Hebrides but throughout Scotland, Ireland, and far beyond. Here are Alexander Carmichael’s later transcriptions and expansions of notes on these calendar customs, originally recorded in CW111/15. The stories were probably been jotted down from Gilleasba’ Domhnallach or Archibald MacDonald (c. 1829–1922), a griasaiche or shoemaker in North Uist on 20 November 1873; they precede the items given in a previous blog.

Gilleasbaig, whose first name was mistranscribed by Carmichael as Alexander in Carmina Gadelica ii, 376, lived in Port nan Long or Newtonferry, where his father Donald had been ferryman. With his wife Margaret or Peggy (b. c. 1841) he had three children: Catherine Margaret (b. 1868); Donald (b. 1870); and Angus (b. 1875). When Carmichael visited the family in 1873 they were probably sharing the house with Gilleasbaig’s unmarried sister Mary (b. c. 1823), his apprentice Archibald Munro from Harris (b. c. 1851), and a local servant Christy MacDonald (b. c. 1846). By the time of the 1891 census Gilleasbaig was a widower, living alone with his daughter Catherine. Rather unusually for a man of his age, he is recorded as being able to speak English as well as Gaelic; this, and the knowledge he would have acquired from his trade of the people in the surrounding townships, may have been the reason why he was in charge of the local Post Office. We might wonder, however, just how strong Gilleasbaig’s grasp of English really was: ten years later, with all three of his children back living with him in what must have been a relatively substantial house, he appears as speaking Gaelic only. A picture of a refurbished Newton Post Office, Gilleasbaig's home, taken by Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, is printed on p. 144 of Bill Lawson's North Uist in History and Legend (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2004).

Gilleasbaig Domhnallach died of influenza on 25 February 1922. Only a neighbour was present, who gave his deceased wife’s name as Catherine MacDonald née Stewart: evidently it was known that his daughter Catherine Margaret had been named after his wife, but the wrong name was given. Born c. 1829, Gilleasbaig is a very unusual example of an informant who was born before Alexander Carmichael and outlived him – and, we can be sure, almost all of his contemporaries.

La Samhna Goid a chail [All Hallows’ Day, stealing the cabbage]. Girls put cal under the pillow. If a girl sees her lover talking the cal from under her pillow she is to be married to him that year. Three plates, one of earth, one of salt, and one of clean water are placed on the floor. A girl is blindfolded and the plates are moved about. The girl is then led to the plates, into one of which she places her hand – each place indicating something, as the uir, earth, death; the salt (bitterness) diolanas [illegitimacy]; and the clean water, marriage!

The girls then throw their criosans, belts, out through the opened window. A blindfolded person throws them back one by one each girl picking up her own crios as it came in. The position in point of trim of the belt in the ceremony indicated the position in point of the time of the owner’s marriage. If no belt could be found no marriage.

[in left margin: See Burns] The girls went to Allt criche a mach stream, when they dipped their hands. They were not to speak till spoken to in their sleep and the speaker then was their lover.

Tilgeil Ghloinneachain [Throwing Glasses]

Clear water was put into a glass. The white of an egg – gealagan uibhe – was gently let down. If the white rose craobhach briagh [beautiful like a tree] it was fortunate; if not, the reverse. Salt, drowning; dirty water meant Diolanas. A craobh chorc, an oat tree-stalk, was drawn out of a stack by the teeth. The number of grains remaining indicated the number of children. If the top grain – ‘graine mullaich’ –was off, the person died.

Reference: CW7/31
Image: Port nan Long in the fifties: Gilleasbaig Domhnallach may have lived in one of the derelict blackhouses on the right.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Another Glimpse of the Professional Weeper

Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica is one of the principal sources for information about the bean-tuiream: the mourning woman or professional weeper. An account has already been published in this blog for 30 January 2011, in which a quote is taken from CG ii, 309. There Carmichael reminisces about how, in 1870, he had ‘prevailed upon a woman in Barra to do the “tuiream” as she had heard it when young.’

More information about this intriguing episode is preserved in papers in CW383, apparently the text of a lecture given by Carmichael, probably in the 1890s. The keener is revealed to be none other than Catherine Pearson or MacPherson (c. 1813–1880), wife of Alexander MacFarlane, Ceann Tangabhal, Barra. Despite a reputation for witchcraft, Catherine, together with her brother John (c. 1820–1885), was clearly one of Carmichael’s favourite informants in the island. We hope to have more anecdotes about Catherine in subsequent blogs. The text below has been lightly edited for legibility:

The old custom of mourning, called in Scottish Gaelic tuireadh, in Irish caoineadh, ceased in the Highlands many years ago. Upon one occasion, however, the writer had the privilege of being present at a funeral in Barra where a woman was prevailed upon [supra: very unwillingly] to reproduce this lost art. [del: The woman is now dead but the writer sees her still before him. Her name] [supra: She was called] Catherine Phearsan.

She is now dead but the writer sees her still before him with her [supra: tall] spare figure which [supra: in youth] must have been once singularly handsome, her good prominent features, her fine, large blue eyes, silvery hair, and voice of great flexibility and compass, and [supra: her copious] [del: a] command over the Gaelic language, truly marvellous.

She was richly endowed by nature but not by art, mentally and physically.

This woman rehearsed in weird, [?] and measured cadences of great attraction to my untutored ear the deceased man’s kindly deeds and manly actions by sea and land, his kindreds for generations back, his relationship to long lineaged proud chiefs, ‘and fair women and brave men’. She pathetically told too of the prostration of the fair young wife with her swan-like bosom thus laid bare to the weary wintry blasts and of the tender nestlings thus bereft of a loving father whose brave heart, strong arm and deft hands was wont to bring them home the white ling from the angry sea, the brown barley from the laboured field, the juicy cockles from the distant strands and the good puffin from the towering cliff. The bare glaciated hill high overhead re-echoed the woman’s voice, whilst the deep rolling restless, heaving sea underneath our feet seemed to moan as if in sympathy.

We buried the man in Brendan’s lovely burying-place near the base of an amphitheatre of hills benignly looking down and surrounded on three sides by the sea. The glorious Atlantic sings requiem to the dead in a voice, now louder than loud thunder wakening terror in the trembling earth, and now softly sighing with an eerie sugh like the hallo[w]ed tones of dying love.

Carmichael certainly recorded Catherine or Catriona Pearson on 21 June 1870 (if indeed the year given in Carmina Gadelica is correct). He visited her brother John on 2 December and, perhaps, 2 June. We know he was on Barra on 30 September, 6 November, and the 1 December as well. We wonder if any of our readers could help us in working out who might be the crofter-fisherman of Castlebay, with widow and young children, who was mourned by her?

Reference: CW383 fos.11–13

Image: The burial ground at Gob Bhuirgh, Barra

Friday 21 October 2011

A Weekend in Appin

Last weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to give a paper to the Appin Historical Society on behalf of the Carmichael Watson Project. The drive up was rather eventful, with a caravan crash (luckily, nobody was hurt) a few seconds ahead of us at the Brander Pass necessitating a lengthy detour via Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. Nevertheless, we arrived at Port Appin Hall only five minutes late!

The subject of the paper was the lore and traditions of Appin which Alexander Carmichael gathered in the district during three days of intensive collecting in the late summer of 1883. Most of the paper was devoted to the wonderful material he scribbled down from the recitation of Donald MacColl (c. 1793–1886), ‘Domhnall Brocair’, the foxhunter then living at Fasnacloich up in Glen Creran. In his younger days Donald had met both Sir Walter Scott and Duncan Bàn Macintyre, Donnchadh Bàn nan Òran. He reminisced about both these literary giants to Carmichael, as well as about his own experiences during over fifty years of gamekeeping. Other stories Carmichael recorded relate to the Battle of Culloden, at which Donald’s paternal grandfather had been badly wounded and was lucky to escape with his life; to Colin Campbell of Glenure and the notorious Appin Murder; to the local hero Domhnall nan Òrd, the ‘Donald the Hammerer’ whose picaresque adventures so fascinated the youthful Walter Scott; and especially to the local MacColl burial ground Cladh Churalain, perched half-way up Beinn Churalain on the north side of Loch Creran. The ninety-year old Domhnall Brocair, clearly hale and hearty despite his great age, took Carmichael on a visit to the graveyard and its associated healing springs. One story he told particularly caught Carmichael’s imagination: the burning in the late eighteenth century of what appear to have been wooden images of saints Columba, Moluag, and the local holy man Curalan by three ‘scamps’ – sons of the gentry of the district, who all suffered divine retribution as a result.

The great thing about researching a paper on very local subjects is that you have to read the relevant manuscripts extremely closely. The field notebook in which Donald MacColl’s lore was recorded – CW120 – is horrendously difficult to read and leaps seemingly at random from subject to subject. Here I’d like to pay tribute to the transcribing abilities of our erstwhile colleague Dr Andrew Wiseman and the tireless and patient cataloguing of Kirsty Stewart.

The great thing about giving a paper on very local subjects is the feedback – and also corrections! – I always receive from people much more knowledgeable about the area than I am myself. I’d like to thank all those who attended, from Appin and further afield (including Lismore, Ardchattan, Oban, Taynuilt, Morvern, and the Isle of Luing) who kindly took the trouble to chat to me, to enlighten me, and to put me right! Especial thanks to Ronald and Sylvia Laing of the Appin Historical Society for their generous hospitality, and also for showing me two photographs of yet another ‘Carmichael informant’ – Janet MacColl the dairymaid, whom Carmichael met when hiking to Cladh Churalain with Domhnall Brocair:

‘Mòran taing a Chrìosdaidh chneasda’ said [supra: old] Seonaid Nic Colla, Glasdruim, when I helped her up the bank. [CW120/90; see also CW120/178]

Ronnie also told me the intriguing fact that the photographer Erskine Beveridge was taking landscape photographs in Lismore and Appin at exactly the same time as Carmichael was collecting lore there – surely they must at least have met?

Saturday morning was spent rambling in Carmichael’s footsteps up through scrub birch, old oak, and bracken to reach (thanks, GPS!) the graveyard of Cladh Churalain. Despite a couple of soakings, we had wonderful views and thoroughly recommend this fascinating site to our readers.

Images: Cladh Churalain

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Job Vacancy: Research Assistant: 18 months

The Carmichael Watson Project is currently recruiting for a Research Assistant for Phase IV, which is being funded by the Leverhulme Trust. All the details about the post are given below. Feel free to share the details with anyone you think might be suitable for the post or who might interested in working with us. The closing date for applications is 24 October 2011.

Vacancy details

Vacancy Reference: 3014922
Special Collections and Archives: Research Assistant (fixed-term, full time)
Closing Date: 24-Oct-2011
Salary Scale: £29,972 - £35,788

Following a recent funding award from the Leverhulme Trust, phase four of the Carmichael Watson Project aims to research the material culture and collecting practices of the Hebridean folklorist and collector Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912) and to catalogue and contextualise the objects, field monuments and sites collected or described by him. We require an experienced post-doctoral researcher with proven ethnographic, object-based, linguistic and research skills to play a key role in the Carmichael Watson Project team. You will identify, investigate, classify and contextualise objects collected by Alexander Carmichael, disseminate project findings and assist with overall project delivery and resource development.

You will have a PhD in one of the following fields relating to Scottish Gaelic/Irish: folklore, ethnology, literature, history or museum studies and be fluent in Gaelic, or fluent in Irish with some knowledge of Scottish Gaelic and willingness to augment that knowledge. Highly developed organisational and problem-solving skills are a requirement as are ICT skills and excellent interpersonal and communication skills.

The post is fixed-term for eighteen months and is available from 3 October 2011.

Details on how to apply are available here:

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Clean sheets

Last week we were happy to see the return of Carmichael Watson documents which had been enjoying some tlc in the Conservation Department. Over the past 18 months, Mariko Watanabe, a postgraduate student, has, in her spare time, been cleaning, repairing and re-housing the 300 sheets of paper which make up Coll-97/CW244/1-200, under the watchful eye of Ruth Honeybone, conservator for the Lothian Health Services Archive. These documents are transcriptions of secular songs collected by Alexander Carmichael and include Brochan Lom, A' Bhanais Spòrsail, Mac Mo Rìgh air Tìr an Alba and Tàladh Cuain, amongst a multitude of others [refs. Coll-97/CW244/59/1, /79b, /107b and /181]. Ruth tells us that the work the manuscripts required was ideal for training in paper repair. Well there's plenty more where that came from!

Mariko returns the newly conserved manuscripts to Kirsty at "Carmichael Corner".
Mariko is now heading off to West Dean College in Sussex to train as a book conservator and we want to express our sincerest thanks to her (and to Ruth) for all the work she has put into preserving these precious papers and wish her all the best at West Dean. Beannachd leat, a Mhariko!

Friday 2 September 2011

St Donan’s House, South Uist

Eilean Donan Castle
From whom Alexander Carmichael got this snippet of information concerning St Donan’s House, South Uist, is not now known with certainty. Archaeological remains, particularly those with an ecclesiastical connection, were of great interest to the collector, something which is reflected in his folklore notebooks. Aside from providing rough measurements of the actual site, Carmichael then proceeds to give some traditions about it stating that the saint is said to lived there. Mention is then made of the nearby township of Kildonan – where the museum is now located – and how it was cleared during the 1830s. Before this rather sad event, Flora MacDonald, the most famous Jacobite heroine, is said to have lived in this township after she had separated from her husband, Allan MacDonald of Kinsburgh (c. 1720–1792), who is said to have come to visit Flora in his dotage.

St. Donans house in Eilean Donain
L[ength] 50 x 26 feet with several surrounding ruins
Length of Isle 70 y[ar]ds. B[readth] 50 yards. This isle
is about 25 y[ar]ds from the next isle which is ab[ou]t
50 y[ar]ds from Claddh [sic] Donain. Cladh Donain
is a peninsula with a no of ruins and that
of a chapel & altar and the font in a herds
house at Milton & used as a crotag. Isl[e]
Donain is a small gre[e]n fertile isle field
of nettles & viratus Alba. St Donan is said to have
lived here & the the [sic] large ruin is called ‘Taigh-
Dhonnain’. Graves and caibeil are in the
Peninsula of cleadh [sic] Don[ain]. Near by is the hamlet
of Kildonain the ruins of many houses fr[om] which
the people were ousted ab[ou]t 40 y[ea]rs ago. Beautiful
land now a sheep track. Ab[ou]t 20 tenants
Flora MacDonald is said to have lived here
left her husband fr[om] jealousy.
Alain Chi[n]sburgh came to Lochaoineart and
was so infirm with rheumatism & flesh & age
that he had to be carried upon a cra-leaba to Bornish
where he remained that night and proceeded next day
to Kildonan to Flora’s house. How long they remained

St Donan, a Columban saint, is closely associated with one of the Small Isles, namely the Isle of Eigg, where he suffered the death of a martyr on 17 April 617. Tradition says that this day was being observed as Easter Sunday. The Felire of Oenus the Culdee says (in translation):

“With the festival of Peter the Deacon,
To glorious martyrdom ascended
With his clerics of pure lives Donnan of cold

Many are the place-names associated with St Donan, ranging from Carrick, Loch Garry, Kintyre, Arran, South Uist, and, of course, Kintail. The iconic Eilean Donan Castle situated on the island of St Donain is a familiar site and has been used in many films through the years such as The Highlander and as the Scottish HQ for MI6 in the James Bond movie The World is Not Enough. But don’t be fooled by the way it looks: it was restored during the twentieth century (completed in 1932 after twenty years of restoration work) from the ruins of a fortified structure which dates to around the thirteenth century.

CW150/82, ff. 55v–56r.
Eilean Donan Castle.

Thursday 1 September 2011

A Close Encounter of the Fairy Kind

Corunna (A Coruña), Galicia, Spain
Fairy lore looms fairly large in any collection of folklore and Alexander Carmichael’s extensive archive is no exception to this general rule. A song and the background story to it was collected from the recitation of Mary Ferguson (c. 1825–1909), a domestic servant, staying then at Cladach a’ Bhaile Shear, but hailing originally from Carinish, both North Uist, by Carmichael some six weeks before he neatly transcribed it on 15 June 1869. The story if not the song itself is typical fairy lore.

An old man in Baileshear
heard this song in a bruth[ain] in a
croc fraoich while pulling heath[er].
He heard this in a warm (braiste
day. He sat down took off his bon[ne]t
& had the song when he ret[urne]d at night
and the whole baile gath[ered] to hear
the oran si[th]. The man was Iain
mac Aon[gh]ais MacAulay. Twas
heard at Croca-du[bh]-Amhain an
iasgaich. The Knoll was always
haunted and even to this day none
likes to pass the way. One Mary
Mac Aulay in Baileshear while
out in search of sheep to mile saw
two women coming out fr[om] this si[th]
ein. They had on green petticoats
with sheen of silver. One tall & one
short & both of exceed[in]g beauty & grace
Their green dresses were like the
dewy grass. They accost[ed] her & told
her where she was go[in]g – for her caig-
ean chaorach & told her where she
would find one & then where the other.
They then told her to go on till she
would see a tall man with a white sheet
in his hand for her life not to to in his
sight. They then gave her a small
stone round stone with a hole in centre
& told her to keep it & that while she lived she
would have plenty of sheep & to give this
stone to her dau[gh]t[er]. This the woman
did & she & her desc[en]d[ents] have been
noted for the manner in which
their sheep have prosp[ered]
She saw the tall tall man
& he was so tall that the fright[ened] her
life & she threw herself down in a
ditch & then rem[ained] till he went
out of sight. He looked all r[oun]d
and gazed upon the sky. She
made for home & lay in leaba
bais for a long time & last rec[o]v[ered]

The informant on this occasion was nick-named Màiri Fheargasdan nighean Corunna and elsewhere, in Carmina Gadelica, Carmichael notes that she was a ‘boireannach bochd truagh ach làn ciùil agus seanchais’ (a poor pitiful woman but full of music and lore). Carmichael also noted the family tradition that Mary heard a lot of her songs from her own mother who had a ‘a large number of songs and lays of gr[ea]t antiquity’ and who was known as Cailleach Choruna on account of her many stories relating to Corunna (A Coruña, a Galician maritime city and municipality) in Spain where she had been during the Peninsular War and where she had given a drink of cold water to Sir John Moore (1761–1809)  after he fell.

It seems as if the song Seathan Mac Rìgh Èireann, mentioned in a previous blog, held a particular fascination for Carmichael as he recorded many, many versions of the song, upwards of half a dozen and perhaps even more. The version given by the North Uist reciter on 29 May 1869 is as follows:

Hura hurabhi o
B anns Seathan cul to[bh]ta
Na i ora o agha[i]dh o
B anns Seath[an]
Huru a burra bhi o
Na dearbh mhac an righ eir lota
Na hi ora o agh o
Leaba fhraoich smi tha eir chlach
Nam faicte Seath[an]
Thig an t iasg. as an cuantan
’S thig na bric o na bruacha[n]
Thogta leat cro[dh] far a chrualaich
Cha bhi[odh] bo dhu[bh] na bo ghuaillean
An ioc[hd]ar ar uach[d]ar na buaile
Bh[e]ir[eadh] si[o]d an aon bho / gach aone bho bh[uamsa]
Gu ire mo bhreac[ain] uac[hd]air uaine
Sheath[ain] cridhe [th]u nan sul socair
Gur minig a dhearg [th]u na crocun
Cha bann le fuil chrui[dh] na chapal
Le sioda le strol la fasununn?
Tha S[eathan] a noc[hd] na mharbhan
Sgeul is ma[th?] le luc[hd] a leanabhain
Le mac cail[lich] nan naoi[dh] dealgun
Sheath[ain] sa Shea[thain] gun anam [th]u
Tha Sea[than] san t seomar ua[chd]rach
Gun ol cup gun ol caiche
Gun ol fion an cuirt dhaoine uasal
Nam faicte Se[athan] ag eiri[gh]
Ri sga[th] croic eir mad[uinn] Cheitin
S criosan caol du[bh] eir a leine
Gaol a mhuime gradh a cheile e
S seac[hd] seallai[dh] a mha[tha]r fhein e
Minig a chual e nach do dh’ in[nis] e
Gun ro[bh] mo lean[nan] an Minginish
Nam bio[dh] gun dean[ainn] fuirich innt
S meinig [thuirt thu] riumsa nach bu bhean sh[i]u[bh]ail mi
Bean bhoc[hd] chian[ail]
Bha mi o ru rudha gu ru[bha] leat
Bha mi an tir nan caill[each] du[bha] leat
Bha mi cill don[nain] a ghiubhais leat
Bha mi n Ile bha bha n Ui[bh]ist
Bha mi Eiri[nn] Choga M[h]umh[a]inn leat
Chuir m a[tha]ir an aite caraideach
Noch[d] sin a rinn [th]u banais dhomh
O choin a ri[gh] nach bi m fhalair[e]
Nach do rinn[eadh] [th]u an t anart ghearra[dh] domh
Nach do rinn[eadh] [th]u giu[th]as ghlana[dh] domh
Nach do chuir[eadh] [th]u san uir fal[ach] mi
Bann Seath[an] an cul to[bh]ta

Carmina Gadelica, v, pp. 60–83.
CW150/67, ff. 42r–44r.
CW150/68, ff. 44r–45v.
Corunna (A Coruña), Galicia, Spain.

Wednesday 31 August 2011

Lover’s Rock

Hornish Point, South Uist / Rudha Thornais, Uibhist a Deas
Another song narrative recorded on 27 May 1869 by Alexander Carmichael was recited by a domestic servant, Mary MacMillan (c. 1825–1883) who hailed from Lionauiche, South Uist. The song and accompanying narrative are versions of A’ Bhean Eudach (The Jealous Wife), mentioned in previous blogs, as it contains similar motifs: for instance, the man has to choose between two sweethearts and then when he overheard his eventual choice singing about what she had done in order to gain his affection, he leaves her.

An Leumaire-rua[dh] at Holm
below Ru[bha]-thoirinnis. Then here the wom[an]
was left. There is a deep narrow channel
which a pers[on] might leap. The place
is full of limpets. The two women were
two sweethearts the man had. He mar[ried]
one & left the other & the mar[ried] one remained
on the rock till the first bhoinne
lionai & there[fore] was unable to leave
The man, mar[ried], the young girl & lived with
her till one day when she was milk[in]g
the cows she was sing[ing] this song
He over heard her & under[stood] how his first wife was
lost. He left her & never ret[urne]d.
The woman sat on the top of the rock
and comp[osed] the song while the other
sat opp[osite] her & learnt it from her.
Sin do chasa dhomh hug o
Sin do lamh dhomh
Hug o Cha sin cha sin hao u ri horo s beag mo
chas dhiot hugo
Thig an coite so maireach.
Iain bhig a hao sa naire
Chan iar[r] [th]u noc[hd] cioch do mhathar
This was a truthful song. The two wo[men]
& the man belonged to Ioc[hd]ar & both the man had been
courting. He mar[ried] one & the other resolved upon re-

The lyrics themselves are very truncated in this particular version which may reflect the fact that Carmichael had taken them down previously. Also, the song narrative would have been familiar not only the collector for this song and variations thereof were not only known throughout the Highlands and Islands but also in many parts of Ireland. Its geographic spread is probably a reflection of its popularity which remains to this day among Gaelic singers and musicians.

CW150/59, ff. 33r–34v.
Hornish Point, South Uist / Rudha Thornais, Uibhist a Deas.

Tuesday 30 August 2011

A Jacobite Song: The Silver Whistle

Prince Charles Edward Stuart
Many would perhaps consider one of the most popular Jacobite songs out of more than just a few as An Fhìdeag Airgid (The Silver Whistle) composed in honour of the Young Pretender. The silver whistle in the context of the song refers to a silver reed used in the pipe chanter. Alexander Carmichael collected one of the earliest recordings of this songs from the recitation of Donald MacPhee, a blacksmith from Breivig in Barra, mentioned in an earlier blog. The version given here looks slightly corrupted perhaps because Carmichael had not understood the reciter or that the reciter himself had picked up the song incorrectly or perhaps merely misremembered some of the words:

Co shein[n]eas an fhideag airgid
Hi uill uill o
Mac mo righs eir ti[ghin]n a dh Alba
O ro hu o huill o.
Air luing a mharaiche ghreanan
Ho ro hu o hu ill o
Ribenan an t si[o]da Fhrangach
Ullagan oir eir g [sic] gach ceann diu
Mo ghaol ammister ainmeil
Cha b e mac sin M Fearachar
Cha b e ogha Mairi Simason
Ga b e thrialla gu tai[gh] talla

Carmichael notes that it was taken down on 21 May 1869 and he later wrote out the piece in a transcription book in a neater hand on 16 and 17 June 1869. Perhaps the most interesting part of this recording session is the song narrative that Carmichael had the pleasure of hearing. A further note says the MacPhee had heard from a North Uist bard and catechist called An Dall Mòr that the song had been composed specifically for the Prince. The reciter then goes on to give some historical details about the actual song. It is also of interest to note that this song or rather variations of this song was later recorded from quite a few tradition bearers from Barra:

One Peter Campbell from Barra
went to Loch nan Uagh for timber. Food
was scarce in Barra – no grain but
plenty of butter cheese & flesh. They
landed a pot in a nook to boil beef
when they saw a large vessel come
ashore in the Loch. He sent a boat
ashore. A gentleman landed
from the boat under whose arms
two men went & took him outdey[?]
They asked P[eter] Campbell to take
ashore arms swords & guns. He did
so and they hid them. He was asked
what pay he charged. He told them
that if they had grain food he pref[erred]. The
boat was loaded with flour & biscuits
till he told them that they would sink
his boat. He came home to Barra
and the pot is still in Lochnanua [Loch nan Uamh].
This was the landing of P[rince] Charlie.

CW150/13, ff. 5r–5v.
An Fhideag Airgid: (Flora MacNeil) (Captain Donald Joseph MacKinnon) (Nan MacKinnon)
Image: Prince Charles Edward Stuart.

Monday 29 August 2011

Song Narrative of Seathan Mac Rìgh Èireann

Breivig, Barra / Brèibhig, Barraigh
An interesting bit of lore picked up Alexander Carmichael from the recitation of a blacksmith called Donald MacPhee (c. 1816–1869) from Brèibhig in the Isle of Barra concerns the famous waulking song Seathan Mac Rìgh Èireann (Seathan the son of the King of Ireland), as popular then as it is to this very day. The narrative speaks for itself:

Composed by a aunt of MacLeod
of Harris to MacNeill Dhun an t-Sleibh
her husband. She alleged that the Priest
attempted to take advantage of her in the
confessional (He was Irish.) The
Priest drowned a candle in chapel on
the Sunday foll[ow]ing indicating that she was
ex-com[municated]. This angered MacNeill
and led to a quarrel between himself
and wife. She left and went home to
her father. She fell with a former
sweetheart. She then comp[osed] this
song upon hearing which MacN[e]ill
said Co sam bi leis an leis
an long luchd s liomsa a clao [clar] and went
with his brolair for her. MacN[e]ill
then left the Church of Rome. There
was a ban against Cath[olics] during
the Carras and fad na h-aidolein
not to make balls. To spite the Priest
Mac Mhic Neill Dhun an t Sleibh
make to balls and feills. He was ex-
com[municated]. In going out of church he
said to the Priest that he would never
hear Mass again and so left the
Church of Rome. This was the
Lady MacNiell [sic] who left Cios-
mal. All rent was paid in kind
in those days. She then went to Lag
fhliodh from which the woman
came with the fish by the Lag fhliodh
close to Doirlin at Tangasdal.

As is well known this song is far longer than the mere fifteen lines taken down by Carmichael which probably reflects the fact that this was all the reciter knew or could manage to recall on that particular occasion when it was recorded:

Hu ru o na hi oro
Na nam fai[gh]te Seathain ri fhuasgla[dh]
Cha bhiodh an cro[dh] laoi[gh] eir bhuailt.
Hu ru o na hi oro
Cha bhi gobhar an Creag Ruari[dh]
A Sheath[ain] sabh[ail] nan anam
A Sheath[ain] sa mhic Iosa Criosda
Ge grianach an la[tha]
S beag m aithear ri bho[i]chead
O hi ri ri o huru bho rotho.
Mi nam shui[dh] eir an tulaich
Gon am mulad mi m onar
Smi ri feitheamh a chaolais, S gun mo ghaol
Nam faic thu tigh[inn] Smi gun r[u]itheadh ad cho[mhdh]ail
Bhiodh mo chri[th] lan solais

A far longer version of this particular waulking later appeared in the fifth volume of Carmina Gadelica where a number of reciters and so it appears that this version of the song was a conflation of many different versions. The song has been recorded on numerous occasions during the twentieth century, many from Barra tradition bearers such as Calum Johnston (1891–1972) and Nan MacKinnon (1903–1982), as well as being published in various Gaelic periodicals.

Carmina Gadelica, v, pp. 60–83.
CW150/11, ff. 3v–4v.
Breivig, Barra / Brèibhig, Barraigh.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Storm-bound on Mingulay

Ruairidh an Rùma / Roderick MacNeil
A topic and a name mentioned previously in this blog is that of Carmichael’s visit to  Mingulay and also that of the tradition bearer Roderick MacNeil, styled Ruairidh an Rùma (c. 1790–1875), so-called ‘from a hogshead of rum he found on the shore and from the contents of which he nearly died’. Alexander Carmichael visited the remote island of Mingulay on more than one occasion and in September 1871 he found himself there in company of his folklore mentor, John Francis Campbell. Whilst storm-bound for a three whole days, Campbell took the opportunity to sketch MacNeil and Carmichael wrote down some traditions from this excellent tradition bearer. An account written by Campbell says ‘Rory Rum the story man about 85 the best climber in Minglay till he got past work…He never wore shoes or stockings, never had a bonnet on his head till some years ago and how is crippled by the Rheumatism and stoops over a longs stick.’ MacNeil’s knowledge of birds, their habitats and behaviour must have been phenomenal given his many years of actively taking part in bird-fowling. Here is but one example that Carmichael noted down from MacNeil’s recitation about the langaid or guillemot:

Incident in Langai[d] – bird life. A Lang[aid] came
with a siolag and herring and left these with its
peite and left. Another came with the same
to its own peite which was young. The big
pet did not con[sume] what was given it and the
parent bird of the little pet with [went] over
and took the siol[ag] and the her[ring] over to its own pet
and left. The par[ent] bird of the big pet re[turned] and
foun[d] that its pet had nothing. The pet and
bird chattered for a moment after
which the pa[rent] bird went over to the small pet
took it up in its bill gave it a fierce shake
and threw it with the pre[cipice]! An old wom[an]
in Miulay has a pet gull 7 ye[ars] It goes am[ong]
all the house[s] in the place can un[derstand]
all said to it – and do what is said to it.

CW114/41, f. 67v.
Image: Ruairidh an Rùma as sketched by John Francis Campbell. Courtesy of the Trustees of the National Library of Scotland (NLS Adv.MS.50.4.6, f. 119v).

Thursday 18 August 2011

Frìth: A Method of Divination

Silhouette in Doorway

A name by now very familiar to this blog is John Ewen (Iain Eòghann) MacRury who hailed from Torlum, Benbecula, and who supplied quite a lot of information to Alexander Carmichael. It appears that he was something of a tradition bearer himself and so it is rather difficult to ascertain if some of his anecdotes were his own or came from some other source. Either way, what he did write down contains some fascinating details particularly about superstitious beliefs. In this narrative, a Donald MacInnes (fl. 1850), styled Dòmhnall mac Ailein, is name-checked as someone who had a particular bent for making auguries using the frìth. In short, this allowed the augurer to obtain occluded information previously hidden which allowed in some instances to find out the whereabouts of missing people or cattle. The first story tells of a lost vessel and its crew who were thought to have persished but are found safe and well in remote St Kilda whereas the second ones tells of the tragic drowning a young man from Howgarry, North Uist:

MacCallain Duncan
McInnes Balavanich
Benbecula was known
far and wide for his
power of Frith making.

On one occasion a
boat with four men
were driven, by a severee [sic]
storm from the N[orth] E[ast]
off the coast of Uig
Lewis. The idea was
at the time that the
boat was swamped
and all perished but
as no wreckage was
cast on shore on
the west of Lewis
or Harris resembling
the belongings of the
boat people thought
they managed to get
on shore in the Flannan
Isles. A boat & crew
went there but got
no trace of the miss
ing boat.
People advised
the nearest relative
of the missing crew
to visit MacCallen
in Benbecula and
he lost no time in doing
so. In his arrival at
his destination Mac
Callen received him
hospitably and told
him to at rest
It was late at night
for to make a Frith
but early the following
morning he told him
that his missing friends
were all well on
the Islan[d] of St
Kilda, and were actually
k[i]l[l]ing & flaying a
cow along with
some of the natives
and that they could
not come home till
the Month of March
This happ[e]ned in Winter.

On another occasion
a fine young man
from Howgarry
North Uist was
drowned and his
remains could not
be found,
His father
weeks after the
accident visited
MacCallen and
he told him to
go back at onc[e]
and that his son
was lying face
downward under
a quantity of sea-
weed in a “geobha”
at the point of
Instances of this
sort could be followed
to a great length.

Elsewhere in Carmina Gadelica, Alexander Carmichael offers a description of this method of divination in connection with Frìth Mhoire (‘Augury of Mary’):

The ‘frith’ augury, was a species of divination enabling the ‘frithir’, augurer, to see into the unseen. This divination was made to ascertain the position and condition of the absent and the lost, and was applied to man and beast. The augury was made on the first Monday of the quarter and immediately before sunrise. The augurer, fasting, and with bare feet, bare head, and closed eyes, went to the doorstep and placed a hand on each jamb. Mentally beseeching the God the unseen to show him his quest and to grant him his augury, the augurer opened his eyes and looked steadfastly straight in front of him. From the nature and position of the objects within his sight, he drew his conclusions.

Carmina Gadelica, ii, p. 24, p. 158, p,. 295; iii, p. 156; iv, p. 150; v, p. 286, p. 290, p. 292, p. 294, p. 296.
CW 1/65, ff. 28r–30r.
Silhouette in Doorway.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

A Charm to Avert the Evil Eye

Evil Eye / Droch-Shùil
Another example of the use of a thread cure used as a charm to avert the evil eye, or droch-shùil, was collected by Alexander Carmichael on 10 April 1875, from the recitation of Fionnghal NicLeòid, Flora MacLeod, a cottar, from Carnan, Ìochdar, South Uist. Immediately following the charm, the reciter then goes on to describe the actions that made such a charm efficacious. In effect, what she is describing is the method used to produce uisge-airgid, or silver-water, a cure used most commonly to heal cattle that had been subjected to the pervasive influence of the evil eye. The charmer would sprinkle the water over the animal, or in some cases, the person so affected, while reciting the verse and, if done correctly, this would relieve the sick animal or person which, according to the testimony, would make the charmer ill for the next twenty-four hours. This is most likely an example of what may be described as sympathetic magic. In recompense for such a service the charmer would require to be paid even it was merely something as insignificant like a pin.

Ni mis[e] air obair ri shuil
A uc[hd] Phead[air] a uc[hd] Phoil
A uc[hd] Phadra mhin na feaist
Is gach math ga math gan tig
Ga be rinn a t suil dhuit
Gun till i eir fhein
Gun till eir a dhaoine
Gun till eir a sprei[dh]
Eir a chaillich mhiongaich
Mhangaich bheur-luirg
Dh-eirich sa mhaduin[n]
A suil na seilbh a seilbh
na toin
Nar a lethi le a buaile fhein
A chuid nach ich na fith
ich dhi
gun ich na h eoin i
4 rin[n] an t suil dhuit.
Fear agus bean gill & ni[gh]ean
3 eile thileas e A[n] t Ath[air] s mac
agus an Spiord naomh.
Anothers – Goes ere sunrise
to a well where the living & the dead
pass – a spring that does not
dry. She puts the cuman sun-
wise round the well & strikes the
bot[tom] on the water say an ainm an
A[thai]r sa Mhi[c] san Sp[iorad] n[aomh] amen.
This is done 3 times. She then
lifts a small quant[ity] of water
a glassful will suffice. Then
3 leugagan beaga bronach
from the edge or bot[tom] of the
well. She throws on over the
guala thoisgeul left saying
Rosad [ag]us farmad na bhas
deoi[gh] a bheo’aich [bheothaich] (no’n duine)
sin a lai[gh] eir a siod. She then
brings home the 2 other & silver
 (1/-) (6d is broken money & will not
do) or a brooch in the water
which she bri[n]gs home sprinkles
it on the animal saying an
ainm an A[thai]r sa Mhic san
Sp[iorad] N[aoimh]. The illness then
leaves (a greim?) the sick
and goes to the expert which
makes her sick & vomiting
for 24 hours. She w[ou]ld re-
quire to be well paid – some
thing must be given her – even
a pin.

Carmina Gadelica, ii, pp. 56–57.
CW111/89 & 90, ff. 20v–21r.
Image: Evil Eye / Droch-Shùil.

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). [©]