Friday 1 April 2011

Folklore from the Hebrides: A Disclaimer

The reputation of Miss Ada Goodrich-Freer (1857–1931) was made upon the collection of folklore gathered together  by Fr. Allan McDonald of Eriskay (1859–1905). Maighstir Ailein, as he was affectionately known, originally hailed from Lochaber but will be for ever associated with Eriskay, an island lying at the southern tip of South Uist, where he served the remaining years of his priesthood. More than anyone else John Lorne Campbell proved that Goodrich-Freer unashamedly plagiarised McDonald’s folklore collection without paying him due acknowledgement.  She had accepted all the plaudits for his hard work while her own selfish end must have been at the uppermost of her mind. McDonald’s motivation for writing this short reply was to distance himself completely from Goodrich-Free while making it clear that Carmichael had in no way borrowed material from him. Some two years earlier, on 7th October 1901, Carmichael had written to McDonald expressing his concerns over Goodrich-Freer: “We hear from various sources that Miss Freer is not genuine and some call her a clever imposter. I never got my wife to believe in her. In London it is said that one society after another, and one man after another, have thrown her off.”

In a paper entitled “More Folklore from the Hebrides,” by Miss A. Goodrich-Freer, read at a meeting of 6th November, 1901, and published 25th March, 1902, occur the following words: “In the very few cases in which I have presented examples already published by Mr. Carmichael in his Carmina Gadelica, it is because we have both borrowed from a common fount, the Rev. Allan Macdonald, &c.”

I should be guilty of an injustice to my good friend Mr. Carmichael if I were to allow the statement to pass without comment. The author of Carmina Gadelica borrowed nothing from me. I did put a book of notes at his disposal, as he courteously mentions in the introduction of his great work, but, as he tells us in the same paragraph, he was unable to make use of these notes, having so much material of his own. Mr. Carmichael has done more for the collection of Island folklore than any living man.

Eriskay, South Uist, 7th January, 1903.

Campbell, John L. & Hall, Trevor H. Strange Things (London: RKP, 1968), p. 211.
McDonald, Fr. Allan, ‘Folklore from the Hebrides: A Disclaimer’, Folk-lore, vol. 14, no. 1 (1903), p. 87.
Image: Miss Ada Goodrich-Freer (1857–1931).


  1. I am just working with one of Carmichael's 2 remarkable testimonies to the Napier Commission, the one called "Grazing and Agrestic Customs ..." and on this question of authenticity, and Fr McDonald's admiration of AC, I am struck by his line (p. 482): "In the following translation I have endeavoured to adhere closely to the original." This suggests that, a) AC sometimes improvised over the original, and b) He saw no problem with so doing. I would have to say that I am completely with him on this, given his depth of connection with the culture and language. Whoever said that a living tradition must be fossilised? It seems to me that Carmichael was only doing what bards often do - transmitting a tradition in ways that find ongoing life and capacity to give life. In contrast, Goodrich-Freer, well, the name if you unpack it speaks for itself if JLC's findings are correct.

  2. Alastair chòir,

    Many thanks for your comment – you’re absolutely right that Alexander Carmichael’s aspiration to transmit to a new audience the traditions which he had gathered meant that he often had to adapt and translate them, just as any good contemporary seanchaidh would tailor his material for the listening audience!

    His testimonies to the Napier Commission are a good case in point: Carmichael’s intention was to make both a political and a cultural statement about the people of the Highlands. This is why he included hymns, lullabies, and milking songs in his articles – not the usual sort of evidence you’d expect in a parliamentary report!

    Lord Napier would later credit the appendix Carmichael wrote in 1880 about the agricultural institutions of the Outer Hebrides for the third volume of William Forbes Skene’s 'Celtic Scotland' with awakening his interest in the crofting question in the first place.

    Carmichael did his work well. Professor Donald Mackinnon wrote to him about the final meeting of the Napier Commission: ‘Some praised one paper and some another, 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.’


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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). [©]