Monday 20 June 2011

John Duncan, R. S. A. on Carmina Gadelica

Deirdre of the Sorrows
In a beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated book, Voices from the Hills / Guthan o na Beanntaibh (1927) edited by John ‘Celtic’ MacDonald and printed by Archibald Sinclair of the Celtic Press, John Duncan (1866–1945), a leading artist of the Scottish Symbolist movement, wrote eulogistically about Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica. The review begins thus:

To praise this book duly would be but to print it again in its own words, adding nothing and taking nothing away—it is its own best praise. From its first hymn, an act of adoration, “I am bending my knee in the eye of the Father who created me,” to its last note at the end, “This is what I would ordain to thee, the daughter of a King, with gold and gems,” it is a necklace for a King’s daughter, of spiritual gold and jewels, to be worn like the talisman of Patrick, as a breastplate against all evil.

Carmichael and Duncan were acquainted with one another from at least the mid-1890s probably through their mutual association with Patrick Geddes (1854–1932). When Carmichael published his book-length account of Deirdire (1905), Duncan provided an illustration as a frontispiece although this was only given due acknowledgement in the second edition that made its appearance in 1914.

After giving some representative examples, including The Invocation of the Graces, from Carmina, Duncan ends his review with the following rather optimistic and idealistic thoughts:

We have here the richest body of ancient spiritual poetry, given again to us in our own time. About this spiritual inheritance of the Gael will rise, we hope, seanachies, seers, singers, and artists of all kinds, as a strong guard of paladins, to protect it, and to shape it into ever fresh forms to speak to the changing generations, and chief of these paladins stands, and shall stand, Alexander Carmichael, seannachie, seer, singer and artist in one.
This book is the result of much search and much pondering. Alexander Carmichael was a true artist, and had the artist’s hunger for perfection. He went for days, weighing the exact word to render the finest had of the meaning of the original, the word that gave the colour and the quality to it. One may say of him what he said of Catherine Macaulay:—Alexander Carmichael was greatly gifted in speaking, and was marvellously endowed with memory for old tales and hymns, runes and incantations, and for literature and traditions of many kinds. He went from house to house, from townland to townland, warmly welcomed and cordially received wherever he went. May his book travel as he travelled, bringing joy, and beauty, and inspiration wherever it goes.

MacDonald, John (ed.), Voices from the Hills / Guthan o na Beanntaibh (Glasgow: An Comunn Gàidhealach (The Highland Association), 1927), pp. 24–30.
Image: Deirdre of the Sorrows by John Duncan, c. 1905.

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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). [©]