Sunday, 30 January 2011

Bean-Tuiream: A Professional Weeper

A rather intriguing as well as an important tradition noted down by Alexander Carmichael probably came by way of a Uist reciter. This short anecdote provides some biographical notes of a bean-tuiream, a professional weeper or keener, called Mòr Bhuidhe who hailed from Barra but travelled to Uist in order to fulfil her duties at a local dignitary’s funeral:

Mor Bhuidhe belong[ed] to Barra but us[e]d
to travel in Uist as a Bean-Tuiream
much respected. Co sin agaibh
eir na maidean said she aft[e]r she
had been a lasagaich sa tuir[ea]m
M’eudail is m’ai[ghea]r is mo run [th]u
Cha bu chùl dhuit Mac Uistean
said she when Mac Uisteans wife
was on the maidean who had been
one of the Vallay family. Cha tuirst i
fhein sin said Mac Uist[ean]

Elsewhere, Carmichael provides a more detailed account of the bean-tuiream in the second volume of Carmina Gadelica:

Gul, lament, weep. Mourning for the dead was a profession among the Celts, as in the East, and was generally done by women. ‘Bean tuiream,’ mourning woman, is the term applied to a professional weeper. ‘Tuiream’ is specially applied to mourning for the dead; ‘tuiream bhais,’ death-mourning. Similar terms are ‘seis,’ dirge, and ‘seis bhais,’ ‘seisig bhais,’ death-dirge, death-wail. In Ireland this is called ‘caoineadh,’ weeping, Anglicised ‘keening.’

Carmichael then tells of an occasion when he encountered a woman from Barra whom he does not mention by name. Presumably she would have been fairly old and so her memory of the ‘tuiream’ went as far back as the first and second decades of the nineteenth century. The description given here is rather evocative:

In 1870 the writer prevailed upon a woman in Barra to do the ‘tuiream’ as she had heard it when young. The funeral was that of a crofter at Castlebay who had died leaving a young widow and several children. As the funeral procession left the house the woman set up a plaintive cadence. At first her voice was low and tremulous, but gradually rose to a great height. The scene was striking. Below, on a tidal rock, was the castle of Ciosmal, now a roofless ruin, once the picturesque home of the Macneills of Barra, while the Atlantic waves dashed against the rocks, mingling their wailing with that of the ‘bean tuiream,’ weeping woman.

Carmichael’s entry discussing the ‘bean-tuiream’ concludes with two short humorous anecdotes:

An amusing story is told in the neighbourhood of Glen Dessary at Ceann Locharkaig, of weeping women who were paid ten shillings each for professional services at the funeral of two of General Wade’s soldiers. To a sad and mournful air they sang:–

‘Hi, ro, hi, ho!
Dh’ fhalbh na Sasunnaich,
Hi, hu, ho, hi!
’S dar a tig an t-aon la thilleas iad.’

Hi, ro, ho, ho!
The Saxon men are gone,
Hi hu, ho, hi!
And may the day never come when they shall return.

The Rev. Somerled MacMillan in his book Bygone Lochaber fleshes out a little more detail: “Two of General Wade’s soldiers had died under tragic circumstances at Kinlocharkaig. In older times it was the custom in the Highlands to employ hired mourners to “keen” for the dead, and so the English General thought he would adhere to the age-long custom. Certain MacMillan women were paid ten shillings for professional services at the funeral of the two soldiers.” It is very doubtful indeed that the keening women would have seen their money if the paymasters had understood what they were actually singing!

A Lochaber woman in Glasgow was taken to see Richard III. In the course of the play she exclaimed – ‘Ach a Mhoire Mhathair! co iad na mnathan tuiream?’ – But, Mary Mother! who are they the weeping women?

CW 106, fol. 38r.
Carmina Gadelica, ii, p. 309.
Somerled MacMillan, Bygone Lochaber: Historical and Traditional (Glasgow: privately published, 1971), p. 202.
A Highland Funeral (1882), oil on canvas by Sir James Guthrie (1859-1930).

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Cailleach or Corn Dolly

Once a widespread European custom was to form a corn dolly or maiden out of the last sheaf at harvest time. Traditions of such customs were still in living memory during the 1960s in Scotland, and perhaps they are still being carried out in some parts of Europe. The most common Gaelic term for this last sheaf is ‘cailleach’ but it is also referred to as ‘maighdean(n) bhuana’ or ‘harvest maiden’  and also ‘clàidheag’ which became in Scots ‘clyack’. The following three short anecdotes were probably collected by Alexander Carmichael from Angus Currie (c. 1787–1877), described as a pauper from Iochdar, South Uist, on 30 October 1872. In such rural settings there was a measure of pride fuelled by rivalry in being the first to gather in the harvest. Whether out of spite or just for fun, a neighbour who had finished the harvest work would invariably throw the cailleach over to a rival neighbour who was still toiling away taking in the corn.

The “cailleach” was sent fr[om] a neigh[bou]r
who finish[ed] cut[in]g his corn to his unfinish[ed]
neigh[bou]r. This was consid[ered] a great disgrace
& has been the cause of many quarrels.
A man went fr[om] Bornish on horse
back with the cailleach & left it Milton.
A man started aft[er] him caught
him in Ro[e]-glas bro[ugh]t him back
shaved his whiskers & head & sent
him home with bearradh eoin
us amadain.
Dul an Droma in Gearry
Geanacha sent the Caill[ea]ch
to Patra Nicolson Cnoc na
moine Ben[becula] The mess[en]g[e]r
was cau[gh]t stript naked & so sent
home. A tacksman would
rather find his best cow dead
than the cail[leach] in his iomaire buain
Two neigh[bours] at Ioc[hd]ar had about
equal buana to do at night. One
got up at midnight so as to finish
before his neigh[bour]. Just when near
his buain he met his neigh[bour] ret[urnin]g
home after finishing & building a
cairn at the end of his neigh[bour’s]
rig wherein he stuck the cail[leach].
The cail[leach] is the last cut sheaf
of corn decorated up with cuiseagan
buatharlain & tied with rags &c

According to Calum Iain Maclean in a posthumous article, the name given in some parts of the Islands and West Highlands to the last handful that was thrown into the plot of a neighbour was a’ Ghobhar Bhacach, presumably meaning the Lame Goat. Such a name gives quite an appropriate description of a sheaf of corn thrown at neighbour who is behind with the harvest. In other parts of the Highlands and Islands the ‘cailleach’ was dressed up with ribbons and took pride of place at the Harvest Celebration. By the time Carmichael collected these anecdotes, it would seem that the custom of the last sheaf was probably still fairly strong, but by the end of the nineteenth century it seems to have been in decline as Calum Iain Maclean noted:

In the last century, however, in Uist, the sending of the sheaf gave rise to nothing more than an occasional outburst of vituperative verses about the cailleach, reviling her as if she were an ugly old woman. According to the late Fr. Allan McDonald, the townships of Daliburgh and Kilphedar fought about the cailleach, but the practice has now ceased in South Uist. When one crofter finishes his harvest before his neighbour he says “Chuir mi a’ chailleach ort”, “I have put the cailleach on you”.

CW 106/118, ff. 41r–41v.
Maclean, Calum I., ‘The Last Sheaf’, Scottish Studies, vol. 8 (1964), pp. 193–207.
Corn field.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Mass-Murdering Ancestor of Robert Burns

As today – or rather tonight – many Scots, both at home and abroad, will celebrate Burns Night, it would not be entirely inappropriate to see what Alexander Carmichael had to say about Scotland’s most enduring poet. Try as he might – and he tried very hard indeed – to claim Robert Burns, and, therefore, by extension the genius of his song and poetry – for the Highlands (and as a Campbell to boot), Carmichael would ultimately fail in his endeavour. Carmichael based his interpretation upon the tradition that Burns’s ancestor – called Walter Campbell, Ualtair Taigh an Uillt, that is, ‘Walter of the House of the Burn’ or Burn House, as well as being known as Fear Baile an Deòir. Now, this Walter, managed to outwit a pack of strolling bards called the Cliar Sheanchain by way of a ‘sleekit’ strategy as he had failed miserably in trying to get rid of them by outdoing doing them in satirical wit and sparkling repartee. A version of this tradition was noted down by Carmichael from an old schoolmaster, Duncan MacNiven (1804–1895), on 6 July 1892, who belonged to Cnoc na h-Àird near Taynuilt.

The Ceath[a]irne-Choill came
the way. They would not have
you if you gave them enter
tainm[en]t if not they took of[f] your
stock. Fear Bhail an deor had a
sail dharaich and he was splitting
up – He placed 8 on each side
and killed them all – with the sword.
16 of the ceithirn choill – because
they dwelt in woods.

Some twenty years were to pass before Carmichael managed to write up and eventually print a version of this tradition:

Walter Campbell felled a tree in a place known since then as ‘Glac-a-Chlamhain,’ the dell of the harrier, and ‘Glac nan cliar,’ the dell of the satirists. The dell scoops across a high ridge of glacial drift. It is narrow and confined on the south at the upper end, broadening on the north and expanding downwards to a wide plain. Walter Campbell asked the satirists to come out and help him to rend the tree, and they came. He placed half the satirists on one side of the tree, and the other half on the other side. He drove a wedge into the bole of the tree, and rent the bole along the line of the stem. Then he asked the men to place their hands in the rent, and to pull against one another, while he drove in the wedge. The men placed their hands as directed. Walter Campbell struck the wedge not in, but out, however, and the two sides of the rent tree sprang together like the sides of a steel trap, holding the hands of the satirists as securely as if in a strong vice. Walter Campbell, the son of the ‘deor,’ lost control of his pent-up anger, and he fell upon the satirists with great fury, and scourged them and maimed them, killing some and wounding others fatally.

The upshot was that Walter Campbell had to flee for his own life as he had broken the unspoken law of hospitality and where he eventually ended up in the Mearns of Kincardine. Carmichael continues with his supposition that, ‘Walter Campbell found people of the names of Burness, singularly like his own familiar cognomen of Burn-house at home in Muckairn; and as a slight disguise, he called himself by this designation of Burnhouse, dropping his clan name of Campbell. It was an easy transition from Walter Burnhouse to Walter Burness, Brunus, Burnes, Burns.’

A well-known fact is that Robert Burns’s descendants were called the Burness family from Kincardineshire, where they were tenant farmers. His father William moved to Ayrshire – where the prospects seemed better – in 1750 where Robert was born on 25 January 1759. One of Robert Burns’s great-great-grandfather’s was called Walter Burness who was probably born around 1625 and who died in 1670 in Bogjorgan, Glenbervie, Kincardineshire. So can this Walter be indentified with the one who escaped the West Highlands by the skin of his teeth? It is probably wishful thinking on Carmichael’s part for, along with a derivation that hardly seems to be water-tight, his romantic attachment to making a Scottish poetic icon be attached to a less than salubrious character seems a bit all too contrived and the evidence which he forwards does not make for a convincing argument to prove his point beyond any reasonable doubt. In other words, there is too much special pleading but it does make for an interesting story to say that Robert Burns was descended from a mass-murderer.

Carmichael, Alexander, ‘The Land of Lorne and the Satirists of Taynuilt', Evergreen, vol. I (Spring, 1895), pp. 110–15
Carmichael, Alexander, ‘Traditions of the Land of Lorne and the Highland Ancestry of Robert Burns’, The Celtic Review, vol. VIII (1912), pp. 314–33
CW126, fol. 187v
Image: Robert Burns (1759–1796), Scotland’s National Bard.

Friday, 21 January 2011

St Columba, St Moluag and Oran

Now and again when the opportunity arose Alexander Carmichael would make periodic visits to his native island. Such visits would have allowed the young exciseman not only to reconnect with the place of his birth but also afforded him the opportunity to pick up some of the local lore from the older inhabitants. Here, for example, is something which Carmichael picked up from Duncan Carmichael (fl. 1870) on 2 September 1870 while they travelled by boat from Oban to Lismore. It reflects the tenacity and sheer opportunism of Carmichael’s curiosity and of a collector who would be loath to miss any chance that came by his way to get something down on paper, a habit that had already stood him in good stead and which would continue to do so in the remaining years of his collecting career. Both these traditions have been recorded elsewhere but it must have been satisfying for Alexander Carmichael to have got them from a fellow islander, who, given their shared surnames, might have been related to him:

Mr Duncan Carmichael
in the boat who told me Calumcille
Maoluag and Ordhean were brothers
M[aoluag] & C[alumchille] were making for Lismore
& each try[ing] who sh[ou]ld be ashore first M[aoluag]
put his finger on the tobht
& cut it off and when near
shore threw it ashore say[ing] Tha m
fhuil us m fheoil eir tir agus
s lioms an t eilean & then Maol[uag] got Lismore
& Cal[umchille] went to Iona (Ithona).
Lismore got its name from having
been a garden for Macdonald of the Isles,
who had tai[gh] eir le[th] Alaba (Baile ’s le[th] Alaba?)
All the sur[rounding] country was then a wilderness.
Orran [sic] was bur[ied] alive & on the 4 day
Col[m]kill[e] open[ed] his grave to see if he was still
alive – which he was. Cal[umcille] asked him
how he felt during his three days in the
grave. Oran rep[lied] that Ifrin[n] was not so
bad as aledg[ed] whereupon Cal[umcille] said Uir eir
eir suil Odhrain mur la[bh]uir e tuille
cob[h]air[idh] when the earth was shovelled back
upon him again Col[mcille] fear[ed] that such
lang[uage] com[in]g fr[om] Or[an] might injure[?] the com[passion?]
he had at heart.

CW107, fols. 5r–5v
Carmichael, Alexander, ‘The Barons of Bachuill’, The Celtic Review, vol. V (1908–09), pp. 356–75
McDonald, Fr Allan, ‘Calum-Cille agus Dobhran a Bhrathair’, The Celtic Review, vol. V (1908–09), pp. 107–09.
St Moluag’s Cathedral, the Isle of Lismore

Thursday, 20 January 2011

A Curious Old Song – II

Following on from the previous blog, the rest of the chapter offers not only a translation of the Gaelic song but also some musings about the piece from the pen of the Rev. Alexander Stewart. It may be assumed that the translation was undertaken by the minister who was no mean poet himself. Alexander Carmichael, not the least in the songs or poems that he offered for publication in newspapers and the like, tended to translate in a more literal manner.

It is impossible, perhaps, to give the full aroma of the quiet satire and humour of these verses in an English translation, even the most literal. One must be “to the manner born,” a Celt brought up amongst Celts, familiar with their domestic avocations, as well as with their speech and modes of thought, thoroughly to appreciate all that the poor wife-tormented wight suffered from the thrawn temper and stiff-neckedness of his uncompromising, termagant spouse. In the following jingle, however, the outsider has a tolerably fair rendering of a song that is certainly old and in many respects curious.


Chorus— “O, the three brown-backed birds,
The brown-backed birds, the brown-backed birds;
O, the three brown-backed birds,
The wale of birds I trow are the they!”

“Black is white, and white is black,
(A quarrelsome wife is of woes the woe!)
If I assert that the raven is black,
She’ll swear it’s as white as the driven snow!

“My wife she stings like a nettle top,
Crosser in grain than bramble or thorn;
Hotter than seven times heated fire,
With her loud bad tongue I’m shattered and torn.

“If I build her a house on a good dry stance,
“With rafters and roof all tight and trig,
She says, with provoking gesture and sneer.
‘Was there e'er such a hovel—not fit for the pig!

“Well can I plough, and sow, and reap,
And build a corn-stack without bulge or hump,
But she'll vow and declare, ‘by her blameless life,’
That ‘’tis never a stack, but a shapeless lump!#

“Well can I fish with hook and line,
Fish round and long, fish broad and flat,
When, hark ! from her lips, with her hands on her hips,
‘Such fish to be sure! give it all to the cat!’

“If I make a milk-cog of good hard wood,
That will stand on its bottom all steady and stieve,
She will swear by her soul, and by all she’s worth,
That the poor cog leaks like a very sieve!

“As well light a fire on the brown-ribbed sand,
For to dry a rock that is washed by the sea;
As well may you hammer a cold-iron bar,
As to make a bad wife all she ought to be.

“Nought to the lake is the mallard's weight;
To the generous steed nought the weight of his rein;
Not worse is the sheep for its coat of wool
Nor can sense give any one trouble or pain.

Chorus—“O, the three brown-backed birds,
The brown-backed birds, the brown-backed birds;
O, the three brown-backed birds,
The wale of birds I trow are they!”

For very obvious reasons, no kind of poetry is so difficult to translate from one language into another as the comic or humorous and the satiric, and hence it is that literal renderings of such compositions are but rarely attempted, the loosest paraphrase being preferred even in justice to the original itself. The chorus or burden of the foregoing song seems to be only accidentally connected with the accompanying verses, probably, as is often the case, merely as the key-note to the air to which they are to be sung. It is manifestly the chorus of an older composition, probably also of the comic order, which, opportunely ringing in the ears of the hen-pecked bard, as he resolved to give vent to his grievances in song, he laid hold of and pressed for the nonce into his own service.

CW107/18, fols. 23v–24v
Stewart, Rev. Alexander [Nether-Lochaber], ’Twixt Ben Nevis and Glencoe: The Natural History, Legends, and Folk-lore of the West Highlands (1885), pp. 119–23.
Image: A Couple Arguing

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

A Curious Old Song – I

As has been mentioned before in this blog Nether-Lochaber, or the Rev. Alexander Stewart (1829–1901) and Alexander Carmichael were old friends and corresponded with one another on a regular basis. Not a few of the traditions collected by Carmichael made there way into print via the astute eye of Nether as can be seen from Chapter XVII of Stewart’s book ’Twixt Ben Nevis and Glencoe: The Natural History, Legends, and Folk-lore of the West Highlands (1885). Although not mentioned by name, the woman from whom Carmichael recorded the song was Peigi Robasdan nighean Alasdair ’ic Amhlaidh (Margaret MacAulay née Robertson) also known as Peigi Sgitheanach (1821–1881):

From the Outer Hebrides our friend Mr. Carmichael sends us a song which he took down on the 10th March 1869 from the dictation of a cottar woman at Howmore, South Uist, a woman who, though in a lonely position, has a keen sense of the humorous and ludicrous.
The following is the song; we retain Mr. Carmichael’s orthography as being more in keeping with the Outer Hebrides pronunciation of many of the words :


Fann—“Na tri Eoin chruinne-gheala dhonn,
Chruinne-gheala dhonn, chruinne-gheala dhonn,
Na tri Eoin chruinne-gheala dhonn,
’S b’ iad sid na tri Eoin!

“Is dubh am fionn sin, ’s dubh am fionn
Chaidh mi butarscionn mo bhean;
Ma their mise, ’s dubh am fitheach,
Their is' gum beil am fitheach geal

“Tha bean agam mar an deantag,
Bean is crainnte na tom druis;
Bean is teogha na seachd teinteann
Bean chruaidh chainntidh mharbh i mis!

“Thogain tigh air laraich luim,
Chairinn bonn ri maide cas,
Thigeadh ise 's car na ceann,
‘’S meirig a rachadh ann a steach.’

“Dhianain treothadh, dhianain buain,
Dhianain cruach mar fhear a chach,
Theireadh i mar bha i beo,
Nach robh ann ach torr air làr.

“Dhianain iasgach leis an doradh,
Mharbhain langa, mharbhain sgat;
Chuireadh ise ’lamh na cliabh,
’S dh-iarradh i sid ’thoirt an chat!

“Dhianain cuman air fiodh cruaidh,
A shuidheadh gu buan air an làr;
Chuireadh i h-anam an geall,
Gun robh e ’call air a mhàs!

“Teinne ga fhadadh mu loch
Gu tiormachadh cloich an cuan,
Teagasg ga thoirt do mhnaoi bhuirb,
Mar bhuil’ uird air iarann fuar?

“Cha truimeid an loch an lach,
Cha truimeide an t’ each a shrian,
Cha truimeid’ a chaora a h-olainn,
'S cha truimeid’ a choluinn ciall!

Fonn—“Na tri eoin chruinne-gheala dhonn,
Chruinne-gheala dhonn, chruinne-gheala dhonn,
Na tri eoin chruinne-gheala dhonn,
’S b’ iad sid na tri eoin!”

Carmichael appends a note about the song adding some interesting detail from whom and from where the reciter originally heard this piece:

Compos[ed] by a jealous wrangling pair.
Heard only once by the reciter when a girl.
Never heard it again. This was in Morar
at a wedding. Sung by a man.

CW107/18, fols. 23v–24v
Stewart, Rev. Alexander [Nether-Lochaber], ’Twixt Ben Nevis and Glencoe: The Natural History, Legends, and Folk-lore of the West Highlands (1885), pp. 119–23.
Image: A Couple Arguing

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Taking the Best, Leaving the Rest

Historical legends were (and still are to some extent) a common enough type of story to met with in the Highlands and Islands. Some tradition bearers were renowned for their ability to specialise in this genre such as Angus MacLellan, or Aonghas mac Iain ’ic Chaluim, from Griminish (Benbecula), from whom many such tales were recorded by Calum Iain Maclean during the 1950s. Indeed, almost a century before John Francis Campbell of Islay remarked upon those storytellers who had a deep knowledge of certain genres which, it may be assumed, is where there interests lay:

...Each branch of popular lore has its own votaries, as branches of literature have amongst the learned; that one man is the peasant historian and tells the battles of the clans; another a walking peerage, who knows the descent of most of the families in Scotland, and all about its neighbours and their origin; and other are romancers, and tell about the giants; other are moralists, and prefer the sagacious prose tales, which have a meaning, and might have a moral; a few know the history of the Feni [sic], and are antiquarians.

In this particular tale, the son of Sir Seumas Ruadh (or Sir James MacDonald of Sleat), who was but only around five years of age at the time of Culloden and who died in 1766, plays a key role. Seumas Òg or James MacDonald of Sleat, acting as a kind of knight errant, sees off the ruthless big bailiff through the intervention of his nursemaid. Having arrived from Trotternish in Skye, the bailiff was to come and collect the best horse from a poor widow but the undaunted Seumas Òg could not let such an injustice be done and took action as he thought fit necessary to deter any further visits from Skye bailiffs.

Sir Seumas Rua[dh] lived in Sollas
and had a caisteal there the ruins of this
were taken down ab[ou]t 80 y[ea]rs ago for fear
the[y] would injure cattle & horses that
used to shelter there. They were higher than
Carinish temple. When taken down
they nearly kill[e]d several. The pillars would
sway to & fro like trees. An anchor was pl[ace]d
at a distance and a cable on the top
tier of the binneag & then taken down.
This was Caisteal Shollais. C[aisteal] Sheum[ais].
Ruai[dh]. Sir Seumas Rua[dh] was mar[ried]
twice. Had a son by the first wife also
Seumas Og. A Maor mor came fr[om]
Trotarnish to take up the Each Ursann.
He went to Baileshear and took the
best was the E[ach]-ursann and taod gao[i]s[id]
fr[om] a poor wid[ow] there He came to
Sollas heated in a warm day. He
stooped to drink out of Tobar
Pheadair and Seumas og saw
him and rush[e]d out with his sw[or]d
Take up y[ou]r bon[ne]t said he and put
it on y[ou]r he[a]d and be off and never
let me see y[ou]r face here again or
Ill cut y[ou]r head into that well
His muim[e] heavy with child came
betw[een] them and S[eumas] Og said I give him
his life not for his own lifeless car
cass but f[o]r your sake but let me
never see his face again. The Maor
mor ran off as hard as he c[ou]ld an[d]
no maor has ever come fr[om] Trot
airnis since to N[orth] Uist. Tobar
Pheadair was closed there after
that and op[ene]d 30 y[ar]ds lower down.

CW 107, fols. 32v–33v
Campbell, J. F. Popular Tales of the West Highlands, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd., 1994), p. 34.
The MacDonald Boys (Sir Alexander MacDonald 1745–1795, 9th Baronet of Sleat and 1st Baron of Sleat, with Sir James MacDonald, 8th Baronet of Sleat 1741 –1766, father of Seumas Òg) by William Mosman.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Carmichael on Kilts

It really should come as no surprise that an inveterate wearer of the kilt, as Alexander Carmichael most certainly was, expressed an opinion or two about the so-called ancient dress of the Highlanders. A lecture entitled ‘Bards and Bardism of the Highlanders’, which Carmichael had been working on over several sessions while he was resident in Cornwall, contains the following aside about kilts which deviates from the main thrust of the rest of his essay. Some of the purple prose pouring from Carmichael’s pen can be discerned from this extract but mercifully this has been kept to a minimum. Perhaps the exuberance of youth as well as a man still honing his skills and reaching to find his own voice are but some of the legitimate excuses for some of Carmichael’s stylistic excesses:

Some are for maintaining that the
kilt is but a modern dress. It is strange
what ready credence anything dem[ons]tr[a]ted to the High[lands]
is received. However distorted the facts and uniform
ed the story if it makes against the High[lands]
it receives easy credence. And on the
other hand again any thing said as
an antidote to this however respectable
the authority and well confined is
received with distrust.
There are many indisputable facts
that confirm the antiquity of the
kilt. There is an abbey in the Island
of Harris which is believed to be one of the
oldest pieces of architectural remains
in Scotland. The abbey is called Saint
Clemens = “Cill-a-Chliamain.”
Among curious figures on the
tower of this old abbey is a sculp-
tured figure of a Highlander. The
dress is exactly like that worn at the
present day. The kilt comes to the
cap of the knee while the rest of
the dress corresponds with that now worn.
Another impression is that tartan
is not old. This is another erroneous
impression. Tartan is old. In a Gaelic
M.S. of the 10th century the term breacan
literally chequered tartan is expressly
used. It is some what strange that
the English should pronounce the word
plaid more like the original G[aelic] pronounci
ation than the Scotch do. The English
pronounce the word as if written plad
while the Scotch pronounce it according
to the orthography. The original of the
word was plaide now confined
to the blanket. In ancient times when the
Highlanders were more given to hunt-
ing and fishing and battles and
perchance to creach lifting than they
are today their plaids joined their
blankets. Rolled up on these they slept securely
their bed the purple heath[er] and the curtains
the blue azure vaults of heaven.

It is likely that Carmichael is referring to a carved panel inset in the Irish manner (and possibly earlier than the actual church) which includes a kilted figure, that had formerly been mounted on the medieval parapet on Tùr Chliamainn or St Clement’s Tower as can be seen in the above image of Rodel Church, isle of Harris.

CW 107, fol. 5r–6r
Image: Rodel Church, Harris

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Caibeal Bhrianain in Barra

Archaeological remains, particularly those of an ecclesiastical nature, held quite a fascination for Alexander Carmichael. On 5 March 1869, Carmichael took time out of his busy schedule to jot down his observations concerning Caibeal Bhrianain at Borve Point near Craigston, in the isle of Barra:

Caibial Bhrianain with taigh eisd
eac[hd] at end. The orig[inal] entrance to the Con
fessional is thro[ugh] the chapel. The walls
of the chapel can orig[nally] be traced but those
of the Conf[essional] are up a few feet. As the door
is in the centre of the wall at east end the
altar must have stood at the west end
surely an unusual thing. The original
door was 37.4 In[ches]. At north side of door a piece
is built up and the door stands now 2½ f[eet].
A Mr Aon[gh]as mac Fir Dhaileile
is the only priest who is known to have
died in Barra and he is said to be
buried in the caibeal beag – 2 & the
taigh eisdeac[hd] at end of chapel
here at Borve.

Elsewhere, in Carmina Gadelica, some traditions were recorded about St Brendan from a smith named Malcolm Maclean (1815–1881), Kentangval, in Barra, who Carmichael later recalled as being ‘a man of quiet wit, natural intelligence, and independence of mind.’ It is a bit too long to give in full but here is the gist of the story which explains that Dòmhnall Dubh Mòr took to working on the Lord’s Day and is said to have ‘had opinions of his own about Saints and Saints’ days, in consequence of which he and the priest of St Brendan had occasional rubs, sometimes bordering on anger. The man was neighbourly and industrious, but some said sceptical and irreligious, barely observing the Sunday, and hardly even the Feast Day.’ On the feast of St Brendan, Dòmhnall decided to go ploughing instead of attending Mass. When he began to work a magic mist descended and transformed his horses and plough. This he tried three times but finally had to give up the ploughing as a bad job. Those who knew Dòmhnall rebuked him ‘for disturbing the rest of the blessed Brendan, and breaking his holy day.’ Such was the ‘curse’ laid upon him that Dòmhnall Dubh’s comely young wife ran to the priest for help. ‘Let Domhull Dubh Mor revel in his agony,’ said the priest, “till he shows by his good deed contrition for his evil ways.” But the good priest came notwithstanding, and, after administering a rebuke to Domhull Dubh, sprinkled on him the water of peace, and bade him go and give alms to the poor and the needy made in the image of God, and sin no more.’

Carmina Gadelica, ii, pp. 235–38
CW 107, fol. 19r
St Brendan’s Craigston Church, built in 1857

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The Shipwreck of the Racoon - II

We’ve been carrying out further research into the wreck of the Racoon – the internet can be a wonderful thing! – and can now fill in some gaps in the account.

The schooner Racoon, under her master Isaac Jones from Caernarfon (not Càrnan, South Uist, as we had first thought!), left Port Dinorwic / Y Felinheli on the Menai Strait loaded with a cargo of slate from the quarries there on Friday 3 October 1873. She must have sailed up the strait, under the Menai Suspension Bridge, and put into Bangor for the weekend before setting sail for Aberdeen on Monday 6th. Three days later disaster struck. It looks as if the schooner was blown off course while sailing to the west of the Outer Hebrides, possibly struck rocks to the south of Eriskay, before foundering that evening on Eilean Thairteamul a couple of miles to the east. The crew took to a small boat, but they were unable to get to shore. They were driven up the Minch and, having endured what must have been an uncomfortable and frightening night, were lucky to make landfall at Borreraig in Loch Dunvegan on Friday 10th.

As the local exciseman, Alexander Carmichael was also the local Receiver of Wreck, responsible for compiling reports about any ships which had come to grief on the shores of the southern Outer Hebrides. It looks as if Carmichael travelled from Uist to Dunvegan in order to interview the crew; it also looks as if he took the opportunity of voyaging a bit further afterwards. If Oban was the ‘Charing Cross of the Highlands’ at this time, then Dunvegan was the Oban of the northern Highlands, with steamers sailing to a variety of mainland and island destinations. One of these ports was Stornoway in Lewis, and we can be fairly certain that Carmichael took the opportunity of travelling to that island – either after interviewing the crew of the Racoon in Dunvegan, or maybe because they themselves had already taken passage there. Whatever the case, we find Carmichael acquiring a wooden plough from Norman Graham in Am Bac, Lewis, on Friday 17 October 1873, then travelling through Tolstadh fo Thuath to Sgìre Nis on the same day. He must have stayed in the district for at least ten days, filling in much of his important field notebook CW MS 115 – seemingly an exercise book ‘borrowed’ from a local school! – on Monday 27 October. Just over a week later, on Tuesday 4 November, Alexander Carmichael is back in Uist.

We might owe to the wreck of the Racoon the fragmentary but fascinating glimpses into contemporary Lewis folklore recorded by Carmichael that autumn in 1873. There might be more information about her fate in the National Archives at Kew: folder MT 10/165 is referenced as ‘Stornoway: Expenses in connection with sale of Wreck ‘Racoon’’.

‘Shipping News’, Dundee Courier, 8 October 1873
CW MSS 111 fo.2; 114 fos.89–90; 115; 512 n.f.

A view from Eriskay out to Eilean Thairteamul, last resting place of the Racoon (photographer Calum McRoberts,

Friday, 7 January 2011

The Shipwreck of the Racoon

A random description of a shipwreck of the Racoon, probably dating to around 1875 when the anecdote was recorded, must be counted as one of Alexander Carmichael's most bizarre notes. Immediately following a prophecy attributed to Coinneach Odhar Fiosaiche, or the Brahan Seer as he is popularly known, which had been written down in rather a neat hand, the following description occurs but it may be assumed, given the appalling hand in which it was written, that it was taken down in haste and it may have even been the first hand recollections of one of the survivors of the wreck. More likely, perhaps, it was taken down from someone from Skye who had actually witnessed the events spoken about but unfortunately Carmichael gives no clear indication of this. The description takes up one full page and then stops abruptly leaving quite a cliffhanger. There is no indication why Carmichael stopped but perhaps he may have been interrupted or he had to attend to some business or another.

Racoon Isaac Jones, fr[om] Carnan
for Aberdeen Slates On Thursday
on the Point of Erisga ab[ou]t. 9 pm
took to small boat couldn’t r[e]ach shore
shiplength drift[ed] on to Sky[e] aft[er] a
landing at Dunveg[an] N[orth] 35 mil[e]s to
leeward from of[f] Bororey inside
Dun[vegan] N[orth]. People very kind to them gave
them old sho[e]s & clothing & got on to
Dun[vegan?] on Sat[urday] mor[nin]g. Course had
their bearings cont[inued] drift[ing] wreck[?] big
W[est] S[outh] W[esterly]. double reef canvas
from orders & put up helm hard
when in[?] aft[er] she struck. Part to own[ers]
in Aberdeen & part Carnan.
Left Bangor last Mon[day] week
Land[ed] at Dun[vegan] N[orth] ab[ou]t 3 pm no
food nor wa[ter] nor cloth[in]g. Drenched
to the skin. 6 men on board 2 in bed
& took to small boat 15 keel about…

Despite undertaking some initial research the piratical sounding Isaac Jones proves to have been rather elusive. We would, of course, be delighted to hear from anyone who knows more about this intriguing story.

CW 105, fol. 55v


Wednesday, 5 January 2011

From MacGilleMhoire to Morrison

Learned journals such as The Celtic Magazine (1876–88), edited during these years by Alexander MacKenzie, attracted correspondence not only from throughout Scotland but also from the descendants of those who had immigrated to various parts of the world. Typical topics for many were those related to genealogy and the derivation of surnames. Given that Alexander Carmichael had at times a hectic work load as well as a fairly busy home-life, it is amazing that he found enough time to write answers to such questions below, but also that he managed to gather in such a vast amount of oral material as well as keeping up correspondence with many friends and colleagues.

GILMORE.―We have submitted the Query by Mr William Fraser, Elgin, Illinois, U.S.A., about this name to Mr Alexander A. Carmichael, North Uist, one of our best living authorities on such subjects, who kindly sent us the following answer: “I am no genealogist, but I have no doubt of the name Gilmore being Highland. As you are probably aware, a large proportion of our Highland names are of Christian or ecclesiastical origin. This, I doubt not, is one of them. The name seems variously spelled Gilmore, Gilmoire, Gilmour, and Gilmorie. We have the baptismal name of Gilmoire, properly Gillemoire, the servant of the Virgin. This again becomes the surname MacGilmhoire, and, more correctly, MacGillemhoire, ‘the Son of the Servant of the Virgin’ (Mary). This name has: now become Morrison, the son of Moire―literally ‘Son of the Virgin.’ I take it that Gilmore, Gilmour, and all the other abbreviations of the name are from Gille-Moire, ‘the Servant of the Virgin Mary,’ equivalent to the English name St Mary. Gillean, as you are aware, is an abbreviation of Gille-Sheathain, ‘the Servant of John,’ and the same as the English St John, a name dear to every Northern naturalist. MacGillean, as abbreviated from Gille-Sheathain, has now become Maclean.”

The most famous Morrisons in the Highlands and Islands are probably those belonging to the Isle of Lewis. Carmichael wrote the following about them: ‘In some districts the chiefs appointed judges to act for them. These were called ‘breitheamh,’ Anglicised ‘brehon.’ The office was as a rule hereditary. The best known of these ‘brehons’ were the Morrisons of the Western Isles, generally called ‘Na breithimh Leodhasach,’ the Lewis brehons, who are still spoken of with admiration…’ The surname Morrison in Gaelic is usually given now as Moireasdan which ultimately derives from MacGilleMhoire (sometimes MacGilleMhuire) but from the Reformation onwards the more secular-sounding Morrison was adopted by some in order to avoid the taint of Roman Catholicism.

Carmichael, Alexander A., ‘The Name Gilmore’, The Celtic Magazine, vol. VII, no. LXXVI (1882), p. 196
Carmina Gadelica, ii, p. 253

The Blessed Virgin Mary

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). [©]