Friday 30 November 2012

Book Week Scotland: Òra na h-Anshocair

The prayers in Carmina Gadelica often reflect the everyday fears and worries of the islanders. The following extract contains the prayer as well as notes from the reciter:

Beulaiche: Ruairidh Domhnallach, Manal, Tiriodh

Tubhairt an seann seanchaidh: tha an rann seo math air muir agus air tìr, ann an gàbhadh mara agus ann an amhghar fearainn. Is iomadh turas dubh agus duine dona ann an càs cuain agus ann an cunnart talamh dh'an tug an òra seo fuasgladh. Agus is mise a dh'fhaodadh sin a ràadh, agus

A liutha cunnart is gàbhadh,
Muir brùite agus muir bàite,
Bho'n tug thu mi sàbhailt
Air sgàth Òra na hAnshocair.

Agus is ann dhomh a b'fhìor, agus is liutha tonn a chaidh thar mo chinn rè mo bheatha! A Rìgh na gile 's na grèine agus nan riollacha reula cubhraidh, agad fèin tha fios, agad fèin tha fios, a Dhé mhèinnich nan dùla!

Crois na craoibhe ceusda
Air creuchd dhruim Chrìosda
Dha m' shaoradh bho eucail,
Bho ghèige, bho ghisne.

Crios Chrìosda gun mheang
Is in sìnte rium air fad;
Dhé, beannaich dhomh mo chrann
Romh m' dhol a mach.

Cron dh'am bitheadh ann
Nara toirinn as,
Air sgàth Chrìosd gun fheall,
Air sgàth Rìgh nam feart.
Prayer of Distress
Reciter: Roderick MacDonald, Manal, Tiree

The aged reciter said: This rune is good on sea and on shore, in peril of sea and in distress on land. Many the black journey and many the bad man in extremity on sea and in danger on land to whom this prayer has brought relief. And it is I who can say that, considering

From how many a danger and peril,
Pounding sea and drowning sea,
Thou hast delivered me safely
For the sake of the Prayer of Distress.

And that was true for me, considering how many a wave has gone over my head in the course of my life! Thou King of the moon and of the sun and of the fragrant stars, Thou Thyself knowest, Thou Thyself knowest, O compassionate God of life!

May the cross of the crucifixion tree
Upon the wounded back of Christ
Deliver me from distress,
From death and from spells.

The cross of Christ without fault,
All outstretched towards me;
O God, bless to me my lot
Before my going out.

What harm soever may be therein
May I not take thence,
For the sake of Christ the guileless,
For the sake of the King of power.

Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica iii (Edinburgh:1940) pp. 72-3.

Thursday 29 November 2012

Book Week Scotland: Murmur-bird

Carmina Gadelica contains a vast amount of notes as well as the prayers, songs and poems collected from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Carmichael's notes on ornithology are particularly extensive, and for Book Week Scotland a note about the ptarmigan is quoted here:
Tarman, torman, ptarmigan, preferably 'tarmigan,' murmur-bird; from 'tarm,' or 'torm,' murmur, and 'ian,' bird. Derivatives - 'tarmach,' 'tormach,' 'tarmachan,' 'tormachan,' murmuring bird.

The tarmigan is ruddy, mottled grey in summer, changing to pure show-white in winter. It confines itself to the summits of high hills, never coming down to the glens except under severe pressure of continued snow. Like a true patriot it contests its country inch by inch against the invading enemy and, if defeated, is never discomfited.
To the uninitiated the tarmigan is indistinguisable from its habitat. In 1877 the writeer went up to examine the beach-like shingly appearance of the summit of a hill in Harris. On the top of the mountain my companion drew my attention to tarmigans among the stones before us. I could hear the murmur, but could not see the birds, nor differeniate between them and the shingle before us, till they began to move, then to run, and ultimately to fly. The atmosphere was clear, the sun was bright, and not a breath of air on the hill nor a speck of cloud in the sky, byt my companion said that a snowstorm was coming on. He insisted on immediate descent, and, incredulous, I reluctantly followed. In less than an hour the bright sun began to disappear, and the sky began to darken and blacken, and in less than another hour a raging storm of snow was on, lasting three days and three nights without intermission.

My companion said thet he knew by the pecular plaint and mode of flight of the tarmigans that a snowstorm was approaching.    

According to the RSPB website ptarmigans can been seen, all year round, on the highest mountains of the highlands of Scotland. There is an estimated 10,000 breeding pairs in the UK today and they eat shoots, leaves, leaf buds, berries and insects.   So next time you're heading off twitching remember to pack Carmina Gadelica!    

References Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica ii (Edinburgh, 1941) pp. 368.   

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Book Week Scotland: Hairy Tooth Fairy

A child losing a tooth is one of life's milestones and along with it comes the tradition of the tooth fairy. In Carmina Gadelica, Alexander Carmichael records a version of the tooth fairy custom which is still familiar to us today. As a postscript to the story, he also describes similar customs about cutting hair (hands up who still has a lock of hair among the family heirlooms?) and the threat of doing something which might stop you growing.

An Luch: The Mouse
The little boy or girl who lost a tooth said, ‘A luchag, a luchag, thoir dhomsa fiacaill gheal òir (no airgid) is bheir mise dhut fiacaill gheal chnàimh.’ ‘Little mouse, little mouse, give me a white tooth of gold (or silver) and I will give thee a white tooth of bone.’ (Or the bargain may be the other way about)

'Little dude' with his latest loose tooth from

After that the child placed the fallen tooth ‘ann am fròg a’ bhalla,’ in a chink of the wall of the house, there to remain until the mouse should replace it with the little tooth of white gold or the little tooth of white silver. And the boy or girl visited the chink many times a day to see if the little mouse had brought the promised tooth.

Is e an dochas dòlais 
A lònaich a’ bhaintighearn.
It was hope amid grief
That sustained the great lady.


A luchag! a luchag!
A luchag bheag bhàidh!
A luchag! a luchag!
A luchag bheag ghràidh!

Thoir thusa dhomhsa
Fiacaill bheag òirgill,
Thoir thusa dhomhsa
Fiacaill bheag airghill,

Is bheir mise dhutsa
‘Na chomhnadh, ‘na dhàil,
Fiacaill bheag bhòidheach bhàn,
Fiacaill bheag ògain chual chnàmh,
Fiacaill bheag òighe chual chnàmh,
Fiacaill bheag ògraidh luath-ghàir.

Luch-fheòir or Field mouse from

Little mouse! little mouse!
Little mouse, kindly one!
Little mouse! little mouse!
Little mouse, beloved one!

Give thou to me
A little tooth gold-white,
Give thou to me
A little tooth silver-white,

And I will give to thee
In its stead, in return,
A little tooth of beauteous white,
A little tooth of boy, bone bound,
A little tooth of maid, bone bound,
A little tooth of youngster laughing loud.

Similarly when hair was cut, at the waxing of the moon, the child from whom the hair was taken placed a lock of it in the hole of a wall as high as the hand could reach. After that the little owner of the lock was to grow with the growing moon until the little hear reached as high as the little hand had reached before. The child went every now and then to measure the head against the hair in the wall. Those hopes! And those disappointments!

Phases of the moon from
Phases of the moon

The ‘luch fheòir,’ field-mouse, was believed to exert a bad influence. A child who stepped across a field-mouse would stop growing and would remain a dwarf. Hence to a small person of dwarfish form is said ‘Is tu thug an leum luideach thar na luch fheòir,’ ‘It is thou who gavest the clumsy leap over the field-mouse.’ ‘Is tu thug an leum luch,’ ‘It is thou who gavest the mouse-leap,’ that is, the little leap in growing.

To place the sieve on a child’s head had the same effect; hence the sayings, applied as those above, ‘Chuireadh an criathar air do cheann,’ ‘The sieve was placed upon thine head.’ ‘Is tu thug an leum criathair,’ ‘It is thou who gavest the sieve-leap,’ a small leap in growing.

Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, (Edinburgh, 1941) pp. 18-19.

Field mouse:
Phases of the moon:

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Book Week Scotland: The Dancing Dairymaid

ook Week Scotland continues with two entries about one woman from Carmina Gadelica. These demonstrate well the personal details which Alexander Carmichael collected and which undoubtedly enhanced the folklore he recorded. It has to be said that on occasion he appears to have confused some people or misrecorded information but given the hundreds of individuals with whom he interacted it isn't entirely surprising that there are a few errors.

Be that as it may, the descriptions of the Harris dairywoman, Màiri Nic Rath [Mary Macrae] in Carmina Gadelica are corroborated by Carmichael's original notes, which are part of the Carmichael Watson Collection: notebook Coll-97/CW87/67 giving us a description of this lively nonagenarian. In addition, the published versions, given below,  mention useful historical information and surprisingly even refer to the literary figures of Bowell and Johnson.

Dia Liom a Laighe

This poem was taken down in 1866 from Mary Macrae, Harris. She came from Kintail when young, with Alexander Macrae, whose mother was one of the celebrated ten daughters of Macleod of Rararsay, mentioned by Johnson and Boswell. Mary Macrae was rather under than over middle height, but strongly and symmetrically formed. She often walked with companions, after the work of the day was done, distances of ten and fifteeen miles to a dance, and after dancing all night walked back again to the work of the morning fresh and vigorous as if nothing unusual had occurred. She was a faithful servant and an admirable worker, and danced at her leisure and carolled at her work like 'Fosgag Mhoire,' Our Lady's lark, above her.

View from Ard an t-Sobhail /Ardintoul.
The people of Harris had been greatly given to old lore and to the old ways of their fathers, reciting and singing, dancing and merry-making; but a reaction occurred, and Mary Macrae's old-world ways were abjured and condemned.

'The bigots of an iron time
Had called her simple art a crime.'

But Mary Macrae heeded not, and went on in her own way, singing her songs and ballads, intoning her hymns and incantations, and chanting her own 'port-a-bial,' mouth-music, and dancing to her own shadow when nothing better was available.

I love to think of this brave kindly woman, with her strong Highland characteristics and her proud Highland spirit. She was a true type of a grand people gone never to return.

Cailleach Beinne Brice

The wonderful woman who sang this song and many other songs to the writer has been described earlier (i. 4 f.). Mary Macrae, known as Màiri Bhreac, Màiri Bhanchaig, was dairywoman with Alexander Macrae of Hùisinis, Caolas Stiadar, Harris. In her ninety-ninth year she was hale, strong and comely, having been ill but once in her life, and that with smallpox. She had been always an active and excellent worker, bright, cheerful, and good-humoured, and these qualities she retained to the end of her days. She sang this song with remarkable effect, as if she were in her nineteenth rather than her ninety-ninth year.

She attended church every Sunday, no matter what the weather might be. If the tide was out she came across 'Tràigh Chliamain,' St Clement's Strand, which shortened the way, though wet; if the tide was in she had to come round the bay, which made the distance much longer. One stormy day of wind and snow the minister, Mr Charles Maclean, expected no one to come out in such weather; but, lest any should, he went down to the church. To his astonishment he found Mary in her usual place, alone in the church.

'A Mhàiri, a Mhàiri, 'd é thug a mach sibh an diugh ri leithid seo do latha, agus sibh leibh féin?'
'Mary, Mary, what has brought you out on such a day, and all alone?'

'Thug, a Mhaighstir Tearlach, a dh'éisdeachd facal Dé 'ga leughadh agus 'ga mhìneachadh dhomh; agus nar bheil mi liom féin idir, a Mhaighstir Tearlach.'
'To hear the word of God being read and expounded to me, Mr Charles; and I am not alone at all, Mr Charles.'

'Nach bheil, a Mhàiri bhochd?' agus thug am ministir sù­il thuig agus sù­il uaidh mun cuairt na h-eaglais, feuch am faiceadh e neach na neach, ach chan fhac e neach idir. 
'Are you not, poor Mary?' and the minister glanced round the church, if by chance he might see somebody but he saw no one at all. 

'Nar bheil mi liom féin idir, a Mhaighstir Tearlach, is mi nach bheil. Bha triùir chairdean caomh caomhail liom gach ceum dha'n t-slighe tighinn.'
'I am not alone at all, Mr Charles; far from it. There were three dear and loved friends with me every step of the road coming.'

'An robh a nis? Chan fhaic mi iad, a Mhàiri! Có iad, na càit am bheil iad?'
'Were there now? I do not see them, Mary! Who or where are they?'

'Bha triùir chairdean coamh coibhneil liom gach ceum dha'n t-slighe, - an t-Athair agus am Mac agus an Spioraid liom gach ceum dha'n t-slighe,' arsa Màiri. Chuir Màiri Nic Rath agus am freagairt a thug i, gun facal sgoil 'na ceann, agus i faisg air ciad bliadhna dh'aois, gu smaoin am ministir mar nach do chuir dad riamh roimhe na 'na dhéidh.
'Yes, there were three dear kind friends with em every step of the way, - the Father, the Son and the Spirit were with me every step of the way,' said Mary. Mary Macrae and the answer she gave, though she had not a word of schooling in her head and she was close on a hundred years old, made the minister think as nothing before or since.
Shamrock, symbol of the Trinity
Alexander Macrae whose dairywoman Mary Macrae was, had come from Aird an t-Sobhail, Kintail, to live in Harris, and was known as 'Fear H­ùisinis,' the laird of Hùisinis. His brother was Sir John Macrae, general of India. Sir John, who was an able musician, sent to his brother for this song, and played it before Queen Victoria upon the pipes.

Mary Macrae, dairywoman, said that this song was sung by a woman whose mind was deranged by a sudden fright when she was but newly risen from childbed. She fled to the hills and lived in the 'frìth,' forest, with the deer, going with them wherever they went. The people of the town-land often saw and followed her, but they could not keep her in sight, far less catch her. At length a 'brocair,' foxhunter, found her asleep and came upon her from behind.

'Shuain an sealgair a folt fada m'a ghàirdean doisgeil, agus cha b'àil leatha teicheadh. Mo ghaol air féin! nach e bha tapaidh!' arsa seann Mhàiri bhochd.
The hunter twined her long hair around his left arm, and she had no wish to flee. My love on himself! was he not brave!' said poor old Mary. 

The sudden start she got put back her heart in its place, and she became quiet and gentle. The hair of her head reached down to her heels, and her body was covered all over with downy hair, a touching sight to see. The hunter put his 'breacan-guaille,' tartan shoulder-plaid, about her, and she came home with him quite quietly. This happened in Lochaber.

Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, vol i (Edinburgh, 1900) pp. 4-5, 
Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, vol v (Edinburgh, 1954) pp. 168-173
Initial letter from Carmina Gadelica, vol i (Edinburgh, 1900 p. 22.
MacNicol dairymaid by R. R. MacIan, 1842.
View from Ard an t-Sobhail /Ardintoul panorama: copyright of
Deer picture from

Monday 26 November 2012

Book Week Scotland: Carmina Gadelica

Book Week Scotland takes place this week, so we thought we'd mark it with excerpts from the extraordinary creation that is Carmina Gadelica. Although its title means 'Gaelic incantations', it is not simply a book of religious or devotional lyrics. Alexander Carmichael and, indeed, the editors of the later volumes were careful to include extra information about each 'incantation' whether it was about the reciters, the characters, the history, the language or the places involved. The plethora of detail makes Carmina Gadelica one of those books in which you will inevitably find something new and intriguing.

This first excerpt is a tale entitled 'The Cow of Blessings' or 'Bò nam Beannachd' which accompanies 'The Charm of the Wild Heifers' 'Òra na Aighean Fiadhaich' and appropriately enough mentions a book.

The Cow of Blessings, collected from Catherine MacNeill, Ceann Tangabhall, Barra.
The reciter said: When Colum Cille was dwelling in the Aoi (Iona), a poor little wretched woman came to put her trouble to him and to ask his advice, for Colum Cille was the world's head of wisdom and the head of healing of the universe.

The poor woman said, 'My man died when he was coming home from the strand of periwinkles, and my son was drowned when he was swimming to the Isle of Women to visit his mother, and I am left with three orphans without pith or power. I have a lovely little heifer, but she will not give milk for the children and she will not take to her calf, and I know not under the white sun what to do or which way to turn.'

Colum Cille said to the poor little woman, 'I have made prattlings of cows and incantations of horses in my day and in my generation. I had them in a skin book, and I had the skin book in the window. The skin book was stolen from me, and I lost the charms for cattle and the incantations for horses, and I have none of them available this day. But I will make a rune for thee, poor little woman, which thou shalt sing to they heifer, and before thou shalt have finished the rune the little heifer shall have taken to her calf. And the name of this rune is "The Charm of the Wild Heifers".' And Colum Cille sang the charm to the poor little woman with the tears streaming down his cheeks.

Colum Cille was the best at speaking and the best at singing and the best at melody that was born of woman.

The Charm of the Wild Heifers
My heifer beloved, be not alone,
Let thy little calf be before thee;
See yon bramble bush a-bending,
And bowing down with brambles.

He ho-li-vó 's a vó ri ag,
Ri ag vó, take to thy calf!

Coax thy pretty one to thyself,
Till thou sendest to the fold a herd;
Columba's tending shall be thine behind them,
He made this lilt for thyself.

Certain is the gentle proverb,
The cow of blessings is the cow of calves;
The cow of curses is the moorland cow,
That has never quenched our thirst.

Often afield is the calfless cow
Seldom within is the calfless cow,
Despised among cattle is the calfless cow, 
Refuse among cattle the calfless cow.

Head to shoulder is the calfless cow,
Foot to mountain is the calfless cow,
At the edge of the fold is the calfless cow,
Cow without profit is the calfless cow.

On crest of hill is the calfless cow,
On floor of glen is the calfless cow,
At the edge of the fold is the calfless cow,
Nor butter nor crowdie from the calfless cow.

In desert glens strays the calfless cow,
Ugly and bristling of shag is the calfless cow,
Leaper of walls is the calfless cow,
Dirt of byre is the calfless cow.

The black heifer is reconciled,
Thou wilt make lowing to thy pretty on;
Thou wilt come home with droves,
Thou will quench the thirst of hundreds.

My little black heifer thou! my little black heifer!
The same lot is mine and thine.
May thy little black calf not be lost to thee;
But mine only son beloved is beneath the sea.

He ho-li-vó 's a vó ri ag,
Ri ag vó 'a vó ri ag,
Ri ag vó 's a vó ri ag,
Ri ag vó, take to thy calf!

Bò nam Beannachd' agus 'Òra na Aighean Fiadhaich' 'sa Ghà­idhlig

References: Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica: Ortha nan Gàidheal, vol IV (Edinburgh, 1971), pp.55-59.
ImageBlack cow and heifer from

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Objects in Focus: Spindle and Whorls

Continuing on from the carding combs, this blog will highlight two objects used in the next step towards producing cloth: the spindle and whorl. There are examples of both items in the Carmichael collection housed at the West Highland Museum.

Once the wool was combed through it was spun into a continuous piece of yarn. I. F. Grant provides a brief account of the process, involving a spindle and whorl, in Highland Folk Ways:

The process was a simple one. The thread was twisted and lengthened by the dangling spindle which was sufficiently weighted to spin when it was given a twirl by the finger and thumb.

Towards the end of the 18th century the spinning wheel came to replace this spindle and whorl method, but this is not to say that the hand-method fell out of practice.

The whorls also served as amulets and were commonly referred to as clachan nathrach meaning serpent stones. They were used in the same method as flint arrowheads: dipped in water to be given to an ailing animal or to wash a wound (snake-bite), or rubbed on the wound directly.

Captain Thomas writes about these stones in the Proceedings from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland:

Clach-nathrach, or snake-stone, 1 inch in diameter, Lewis.—This stone is said to be formed by the association of twelve snakes, and the hole is where the snake or snakes have passed through. I am not sure whether the stone is made from the slime agglutinising the sand and earth, or whether the stone exudes from the reptiles. When the cattle are bitten by the snakes, the snake-stone is put into water, with which the affected part is washed, and it is cured forthwith. So much for the legend; and I believe one of these charms has been used quite lately; but not the least curious circumstance connected with this superstition, is the fact that there are no venomous snakes in Lewis. The blind-worm is not uncommon, but it is quite innocuous. However, there is a full belief that if a sheep, for instance, were to lie down upon one of them, the wool and skin would both peel off; and the man is probably alive who trod upon a righinn,—the local name for the blind-worm (from a tradition that it is a princess metamorphosed),—and in consequence the skin came off the sole of his foot.

Since my return to Edinburgh, I learn that these snake-stones are a part of the gear of the distaff; and it is strange that their original use should be quite unknown in Harris and Lewis, although the distaff is there in common use.

It is interesting that he notes their use ‘quite unknown’,  because on the label attached by Carmichael to the whorls he notes their use as 'doubtful'. It is difficult to derive whether Carmichael was commenting on their use as an amulet or a tool, or on their future use.

The use of these is doubtful. They have been found in sandbanks graves underground houses and [-] and in various other places throughout the Long Island within the last ten years. Alex. A Carmichael, Creagorry, 1874”
Photograph of Mairead Mhòr by Walter Blaikie 1898
©Gaidheil Alba / National Museums of Scotland. Licensor 

F.T. Elworthy, 'On Perforated Stone Amulets' in Man, vol. 3 (1903) 17-20.
I. F. Grant Highland Folk Ways, 222.
W. J. Knowles, 'Spindle-Whorls' in Ulster Archeological Society 2(1), 1905, 1-9.
Capt. F.W.L. Thomas Proceedings from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland IV, 119.
Objects: © Carsten Flieger
© Gaidheil Alba / National Museums of Scotland. Licensor 

Thursday 15 November 2012

Bait Holes in the Hebrides, and beyond

Toll sollaidh: man-made holes in rocks on the shore where fishermen would pound their bait. Carmichael writes about them on Carmina Gadelica ii, 361:
Sola, soladh, food, broken food – whelks, cockles, limpets, mussels, and other shell-fish broken and thrown into the sea to attract fish. The Lady Amie, wife of John, Lord of the Isles, sent men round the islands to make hollows in the rocks in which the people might break shell-fish and prepare bait. Such pits are called ‘toll solaidh,’ bait holes. These mortars resemble cup cuttings, for which antiquarians have mistaken them.
The original for this information is possibly to be found in a long excursus about Teampall Chàirinis in North Uist, recorded from John Mackinnon in Càirinis itself on 18 January 1871. The church was said to have been constructed on the orders of Amy MacRuairi, fourteenth-century heiress to the Lordship of Garmoran and supposed builder of Caisteal Tioram in Moidart and Caisteal Bhuirgh in Benbecula. She is misremembered here as Nighean MhicDhùghaill, ‘MacDougall’s daughter’:
Ni[gh]ean Mhic Dhuil used to send mason[s] to the gribeachun on the point to make pollagan sollaidh for fishing for the poor people. These are still seen. [CW116 fo.54]
Grìob or grìoba is explained in Dwelly’s dictionary as a ‘coast precipice, part of seacoast where it is rocky and difficult to land.’ We presume that this is the same as Cnip near Bhaltos in Uig on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis.
But there is more than one place with tuill sollaidh in Uist. Doubtless prompted by Carmichael, Mackinnon returns to the subject a couple of pages later:
Places where holes for Soll (soul) are each side of bun L[och] ephort Ru heva (?) [= Rubha  Heabhal] [?,] at B[aile]vanaich below Nunton ? & out at the baigh on east side B[en]becula. [ibid. fo.56]

The implication here is, of course, that these bait holes are important or interesting enough to be noted at specific sites – the best sites for rock fishing – around the coast. This reminds us that there was a time when creagaireachd, rock fishing, was not just something you did to pass the time of an evening; especially in times of dearth, it was an important source of food for the community.
Carmichael makes further vocabulary notes in his notebook CW108, possibly connected with a visit to Siolaigh Mhór in the Sound of Harris on 31 May 1877:
Sóll = Broken shellfish w[h]elks limpets
sgilleach-fionntrain thrown out for bait.
Slugag = The broken little hollow in this tis [sic] pounded. [CW108/68]
‘Sgilleach-fionntrainn’ is either a dialectal variation, or Carmichael’s misunderstanding of, gille-fionntrain or gille-fionn, glossed by Dwelly as ‘large periwinkle, white buckie, whelk’. Again in Dwelly, slugag just means a small pool.
As so often, Father Allan McDonald’s Gaelic Words and Expressions from South Uist and Eriskay adds even more. Soll is ‘pounded shellfish’; as for solladh: ‘pronounced like tolladh, the throwing of the soll into the sea to attract fish.’ Pollag is ‘a little hole in a rock in which shell fish is pounded to be thrown out into the sea to attract fish to the Carraig [fishing rock] or into the tàbh [hand net].’ A note added by John MacLean, headmaster in Dunoon and a native of Barra, records that cnotag is the word still used in that island; it is also the word used in Tiree. Usually in Gaelic, however, cnotag refers to a hollow stone or mortar for husking corn. One final evocative description for those of us who spent happy evenings doing creagaireachd or rock-fishing: snaomh, ‘swimming slowly along edge of shore, lake or river. Tha ’n saoithean a’ falbh air an t-snaomh.’ ‘When saithe or cuddies are on the snaomh, no soll [pounded bait] or maorach [shellfish] is required to entice them into the tàbh or bag net.’
In the journal Scottish Studies, 17 (1973), there is a wonderful little article by the late Sandy Fenton about ‘craig-fishing’ in the Northern Isles. It was reprinted in his The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland, which readers can (mostly) find on Google Books here.
The piece is illustrated with a lovely picture by Frank Barnard from his Picturesque Life in Shetland of 1890. Here it is, from the Shetland Museum and Archives website. Note that in the Northern Isles – a phenomenon also recorded in Tiree – bait-holes are often found in threes: two smaller ones in which the bait was pounded (for instance, with the end of a fishing rod), and a larger one used for storage.
In the Northern Isles, mashed bait is called soe, clearly cognate with our soll. The word must have its roots in Old Norse. Our Norwegian isn’t the best, but we’ve found in the dictionary soll, ‘flatbread crumbled in milk, a mixture of cheese and milk’; and søl, ‘dish water, slop, mire, mud, slush’. Any help or suggestions would be most welcome.
The fascinating Canmore site of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland records a number of bait holes from all over the country. Many are in Tiree, and described in articles in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland by J. Sands and Ludovic Mann. In a more recent article in the Proceedings, Ronald Morris has suggested that the holes are ‘probably between a hundred and several hundred years old, but in some cases, in western Argyll, they may be older.’
Any further information, or sightings of bait holes by our readers, would be gratefully received!
Many thanks for Mark Hall at Perth Museum and Art Gallery for suggesting this subject to us.

Ludovic MacLellan Mann, ‘Ancient Sculpturings in the Island of Tiree’, PSAS, lvi (1921–2), 118–26.
Ronald W. B. Morris, ‘The cup-and-ring marks and similar sculptures of Scotland: a survey of the southern counties, Part II’, PSAS, c (1967–8), 47–78.
J. Sands,‘Notes on the antiquities of the Island of Tiree’, PSAS, xvi (1881–2), 459–63.
A toll sollaidh in Easaigh, Sound of Harris, from the Canmore website.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Objects in Focus: Wool Carding Combs

The production of wool was an important craft in the Highlands and Islands in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the Carmichael notebooks there are plenty references to its manufacture: the different types of wool, fleece being pulled, baskets and even fairy lore associated with wool.
In the Carmichael Collection, at the West Highland Museum, there is a pair of wool carders that were used to make yarn. These carders are made of wood and rectangular in shape, there is a pad of leather on each with fine teeth protruding through. This particular pair was manufactured in Glasgow by R. McIntyre.
The entire process of wool-working from the raw material to the finished cloth was known as calanas. This pair of carding combs would have been used in the production of ordinary cloth, a different comb was used for very fine cloth. 

At what stage in the production of yarn were the carding combs used? Here is a breakdown of the various stages:

• The fleece was sheared.

• The fleece was washed, dyed and dried. CW120/320 is a list of native dyes from South Uist. 

• The wool was separated and straightened by using the carding combs. A handful of wool was placed on the teeth of one carder and the other carder brushed the wool repeatedly in the one direction.

• Once the wool was brushed thoroughly, the carder was brought in the opposite direction to remove the wool from the fine teeth. This created a sausage-like shape, called a rolag, and made the wool easier to spin.

• The wool was then made into yarn by using a spindle and whorl. This method was carried out by hand and was later replaced by the spinning wheel.

© School of Scottish Studies. Licensor
The end result was a continuous length of yarn that could easily be worked with.

The carding and spinning was carried out by women, often in pairs to keep a steady production line going. Carmichael notes in Carmina Gadelica iv:

The industry of these women is wonderful, performed lovingly, uncomplainingly, day after day, year after year, till the sands of life run down. The life in a Highland home of the crofter class is well described in the following lines:-
Air oidhche fhada gheamraidh
Theid teanndadh ri gniamh
A toir eolas do chloinn
Bith an seann duine liath,
An nighean a cardadh,
A mhathair a sniamh,
An t-iasgair le a shnathaid
A caramh a lian.'
© School of Scottish Studies. Licensor

In the long winter night
All are engaged,
Teaching the young
Is the grey-haired sage,
The daughter at her carding,
The mother at her wheel,
While the fisher mends his net
With his needle and his reel.

The School of Scottish Studies Archive has some amazing images in their collections, some of which are included here.

Carmina Gadelica, iv, 294-5.
CW1/56folio 22r, line 8 to folio 22r, line 15
CW89/173folio 35v, line 7 to folio 35v, line 19
CW111/82folio 18r, line 17 to folio 18r, line 25
CW120/320folio 92v, line 1 to folio 95r, line 19
CW126f/90folio 207r, line 10 to folio 207r, line 13
Kissling Collection, School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh.
Carders copyright Carsten Flieger

Sunday 4 November 2012

Donald Lamont: his Life and Work

Thousands of pages of undiscovered Gaelic prose – unread for many years, but now brought to light by the National Library of Scotland. The volumes in question are the Gaelic Supplement to the Church of Scotland magazine Life and Work, and they come from the collection of the Rev. Donald Lamont (1874–1958), who edited the Supplement between 1907 and his retiral in 1950. As Lamont states in the handwritten introduction to the first volume, any unsigned contribution was composed by himself.
Donald Lamont was a native of the island of Tiree. Like many able young Highlanders at the time, he was educated at Rainings School, Inverness, before going to the University of Edinburgh. Ordained minister in Glen Urquhart in 1902, he transferred to Blair Atholl in 1908, the parish where he remained, with the exception of a spell as a forces chaplain in World War I (he served at Gallipoli in 1915–16), until he retired from the pulpit in 1946. The Prose Writings of Donald Lamont, full of pithy, lively writings by a master of the Gaelic essay, was published as a volume for the Scottish Gaelic Text Society in 1960. His fellow Tirisdeach Professor Donald Meek sums up Lamont’s work as follows:
Under Lamont’s ceaselessly provocative pen, the Gaelic Supplement became the main vehicle for thematic and stylistic experimentation in Gaelic; it carried sermons, essays and short stories. Lamont had a particularly lively imagination, and was not afraid to create ‘factional’ characters and scenarios, and to use these to carry the message he wanted to communicate. He was obviously aware, to a remarkable degree, of the opportunity he had, as a clerical writer, to contribute constructively to the well-being of the Gaelic language. His concept of a Gaelic Supplement was not one that ran in the rails of ecclesiastical convention, restricted by doctrinal rigidity and enslavement to purely homiletic styles.

Here is a list of the Gaelic Supplements online:
Donald Lamont graduated M.A. from Edinburgh in 1898. Among his fellow classmates was none other than Alexander Carmichael’s daughter Ella (1870–1928). A small notebook, numbered CW22, is, according to the cataloguer the Rev. John Mackechnie, in Lamont’s hand. It contains a poem to Ella, about whom Donald Lamont was to write so movingly in Carmina Gadelica iii, xxi–xxiv, beginning:
Ella Carmichael was my friend for more than thirty years, my first sight of her being in the Quadrangle of Edinburgh University, when she came to attend Professor Mackinnon's Celtic class, and my last when I went to see her a few days before her death ; and in all these years she was one of the half-dozen friends that I liked best in the world. She was one of those people with whom it is easy to keep one's friendship in good repair, even though one does not see them often. There were fairly long periods of time within these thirty years when I had but few opportunities of meeting her, but that did not matter — the door of her heart and home always remained unlatched, and one could enter without formality or apology and take up the threads of intimate talk where they had been dropped years before.
She seemed to me to have changed less between young womanhood and middle life than any other woman I have known, so that one's first impression of her never had to be revised even in small details. This applies even to her physical appearance, as well as to her mind and character. In the middle 'nineties Ella Carmichael was a very beautiful young woman, singularly gracious and dignified, with an air of distinction and charm. …
For our Gaelic readers, we give a transcription of the poem’s contents below
Ella C. Carmichael
this poem
respectfully dedicated.
Och! och! ’s truagh mar tha mi
’S mi smuainteachadh ort
’S mo cheann ann an tuaindeal
’S mo chridhe cho goirt.
O na faighinn mo dhurachd
’S mi shiubhladh air falbh
’S cha bhithinn na ’b’fhaide
Ri obair cho searbh.
’S ged tha mi n’am shuidhe
Ann an cuideachd cho math
Far bheil iorghuill is cabhag
Am meag fhear agus bhan
Tha duin’ ionnsuichte seolta
A comhpairteachadh sgoil
Ach ’s mor m’fheagal gu bheil ‘Seoras’
Le mor fhoghlum air bhoil’
Ged tha mise ’s an ait’ so
Ann an cruth ’s ann an dòigh
Tha mo smuaintean ’is m’aire
A ghnàth air an oigh
Tha i maisach ’is sgiamhach
Agus cùinn [ciùin] anns gach dòigh
Ion-ghradhach ’is coimhneil
Neo-dhàn’ agus còir
B’e mo dhurachd bhith dluth dhi
Ri comhradh ’s ri ceòl
’S cha ’n iarrainn a fàgail
Fhad sa bhitheas mi beo
Ach tha n’uine dol seachad
Le cabhag ro-dhian
’S ann a seachduin no dha
Cha’n fhaic mis’ a fiamh
Se ni tha g’am fhagail
Cho bronach ’s cho truagh
Bhi caithibh na h-ùine
Cho fada so uait
O nach bochd nu[a]ir tha ’n samhradh
A nis a tighinn cho dlùth
’S an geamhradh dubh dorcha
A tionndadh a chùl
Gu feum mis’ mar an ceudna
Bhi fagail Dhunèdin
’S dol air imrich leam fhein as
Gu tìr a tha céin
Cha’n e bhith fagail Dhunèdin
Le mhaise ’s le sgèimh
A tha cho cràiteach ’s cho duilich
O ’s fhada ma ’s e
Ach tha ’n tìm gu bhith seachad
’Is feumaidh mi sgur
Bho’n tha fhios agad fhein air
Mo thinneas gu túr
Gach sonas ’is solas
Gu robh gu brath na do sheilbh
’S gu ma fada fada beo thu
Ann a slaint’ agus foirm
Leig leam so a ràdh ruit
Gu càirdeil ’s gu fior
Gu bheil agamsa gràdh dhuit
A tha domhain agus sior
Slàn-leat ma tha ’n drasda
’S gun deanadh gràdh agus seirc
Thusa leantainn a’n comhnuidh
‘Gach la chi ’s nach fhaic’
Feumaidh gur e Seòras MacEanruig no George Henderson (1866–1912) a th’ ann an ‘Seòras’. Thoiribh an aire mar a bha an Laomainneach ag obair mar Examiner ann an Cànanan agus Litreachas Ceilteach ann an Oilthigh Dhùn Èideann eadar 1903 agus 1906.
Donald Meek, ‘The Gaelic literature of Argyll’, Association for Scottish Literary Studies
Donald Lamont about Alexander Carmichael, here and here.
Eaglais Sgìre Bhlàr Athall/Blair Atholl Parish Church

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). [©]