Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Sir Allan Maclean of Brolas

St Kenneth’s Chapel stands on Inch Kenneth or Innis Choinnich, a small isle situated at the mouth of Loch na Keal on the isle of Mull’s western shore. Alexander Carmichael jotted down notes about some of the gravestones when he visited on 17 August 1886. Sir Allan Maclean of Brolas (1710–1783) was the 22nd chief of the Macleans and entertained Boswell and Johnson over a weekend in mid-October of 1773 on their tour of the Hebrides. An extract from which reveals that they both took delight in their visit:

We told Sir Allan our desire of visiting Icolmkill, and entreated him to give us his protection, and his company. He thought proper to hesitate a little, but the Ladies hinted, that as they knew he would not finally refuse, he would do better if he preserved the grace of ready compliance. He took their advice, and promised to carry us on the morrow in his boat.

We passed the remaining part of the day in such amusements as were in our power. Sir Allan related the American campaign, and at evening one of the Ladies played on her harpsichord, while Col and Mr. Boswell danced a Scottish reel with the other.

We could have been easily persuaded to a longer stay upon Inch Kenneth, but life will not be all passed in delight...

Carmichael’s visit may have been less entertaining but the recumbent effigy of the Maclean chief must have caught his attention otherwise he would have passed it over:

Sir Allan s hands could be [?]
under his gartan stands – long hose
effigy in full High[land] dress target
and clogaid – On Iona stone in
tunga Sir Allan Two Iona stone
inside church 12 or 13 slates in
Length & 6 ab[ou]t 10 or 12 f[ee]t wall a[?]
Two lancet under on E[ast] end and close
togeth[er]. Supports on both win[dow]s
of bow (East) and to keep up build
ing walls. Tung of Sir Allan
on s[outh] side of east corner.
Sir Allan of Brolas family.

CW 112, fos. 10r–10v.
Grave-slab of Sir Allan Maclean of Brolas.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Runrig System

A fairly long and self-explanatory note was taken down by Alexander Carmichael, on 20 October 1884, from the recitation of Angus MacQuarrie (c. 1845–1925), a schoolmaster belonging to Tigharry in North Uist. Around this time, Carmichael was collecting material relating to agricultural traditions as he was commissioned to write a paper subsequently entitled ‘Grazing and Agrestic Customs of the Outer Hebrides’. The contents of this article had a profound influence on Lord Napier as the introduction written by Carmichael tells:

This paper was written at the request of Lord Napier and Ettrick for the Crofter Royal Commission, over which his Lordship presided…The paper is hurried and fragmentary, and contains but little of what might have been said of the interesting people and customs of the Western Isles.
“The account of the old customs is the most interesting thing in your Report; the old hymns are also charming”- Extract of a Letter from a Nobleman in London to Lord Napier.

The spade-work carried out by Carmichael in this instance paid off judging by the compliments he got for his well-received paper.

The Hosta ten[an]ts div[ided] the land at tiny
intervals from Nov[ember] to May. The area
did on any part occasion is regu
lated to some extent by the quantity
of seaweed at their disposal They
div[ided] a field into a sets of rigs each
set consisting of five of equal
area – there being five tenants
in the place. Each tenant
takes possession of the rig in
the first set falling his lot and
keeps it as long as continuous crop-
ping goes on – a period of from
two to three years according to the
nature of the soil. If the rigs in the
first set very with respect to quality
in terms of the arrangement or
the agreement the man to
whose lot the worst rig in the
first set has fallen get his choice
of the rigs in the second sets.
Perhaps this privilege is conceded
to two or three each in his turn,
getting his choice in the second
sets so that the man to whose lot
the best rig fell in the first set
must be contend to accept
the worst rig in the second set
and so on of the other tenants
according to prearranged
prescribed rules – This aims
at balancing pasture to all as
nearly as possible – If the field
is uniform as to quality lots
determines which rig it to be own
ed by each tenant. But if the field
is irregular in quality the order
of possessorship in the first set
is reversed in the second set
Thus the man who gets the first
rig in the first set gets not by
lot but by fixed rule the fifth
rig in the second set. This is the
system at Caolas Paible and
Heisgeir as well as Hosta.

Carmichael, Alexander, ‘Grazing and Agrestic Customs of the Outer Hebrides’ in the Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the Condition of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (Parliamentary Papers 1884 xxxiii–xxxvi), 451–82.
CW 112/61, fos. 12r–13r.
Image: Runrig.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Horse Senses

Sandwiched between notes about fish spawn and Latha Fhèill Mìcheil (Michealmas), John Ewen (Iain Eòghann) MacRury of Torlum, Benbecula, wrote down interesting notes consisting of Gaelic vocabulary and dialectical variations regarding horses. It is no coincidence that this short note presages another note about Michaelmas for this day was renowned for horse races. In some Roman Catholic districts of the Highlands and Islands the 29th of September was referred to as latha na marcachd (‘the riding day’), where horse races were held and where other celebrations were performed in order to mark this special day in the calendar.

Bionach or Biorach
In one part of Skye a
colt or a filly is called
Bionach whereas in an-
other part of it the word
is changed into Biorach,
In Uist & Barra it is
generally termed Loth,
whether masc[uline] or fem[inin]e.
In Harris they term a
foal, Isean an eich (or
the chicken of the horse),
till they are six month[s],
and after that till they
are put in harness are
termed Spriodach, Faol
Searach, in Uist when
a foal is six month[s]
it is generally termed both
afterwards Blia[dh]nach,
Da-bhlia[dh]nach Tri-bhli[a]dh
nach, above that termed
horse or mare, a horse
is at its best at seven
a mare at nine if not
ill used, As long as the
four leggs of the animal
are right and the inside
souind good feeding and
cleaning will build up
the frame

CW 1, fos. 15r –15v.
Image: Horses Racing.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

The Butterfly of Death

Golden Butterfly
In a short note taken down by John Ewen (Iain Eòghann) MacRury of Torlum, Benbecula, the subject of death and its connection with a type of butterfly is mentioned. There are, of course, many different words for the butterfly in Scottish Gaelic, but one of the most common is dealan-dè (sometimes dearbadan-dè, depending on dialect) and another fairly frequent one is amadan-dè. This superstitious belief was probably once common in other areas of the Highlands and Islands as well as in other localities:

The “Dalan De” of golden
colour is considered of
great importance at
the time of death,
If seen after, flying
over the remains, whether
in coffin or shroud it was
supposed the spirit was,
in heaven. There is only
one class of “Dalan De,”
of medium size & of fine
yellowish colour, like gold.
“All the other kinds are of
moss, or other worms,
such as the grub, turning
into flies.

Elsewhere in Carmina Gadelica, Carmichael writes: ‘There are many kinds of Butterfly, but the kind we speak of is not so plentiful. The true Yellow Butterfly is near half an inch in length, and stouter about the body than any other kind, covered with pretty down or plumage, very small about tail—more so than any other kind under the sun. The top of his head is like a king’s crown with a fringe around it. His hue is half-way between fine gold and the white snow of the hill. He is always seen in summer, quiet and peaceful, without heat of flurry, above the corpses of infants and of other good people. It is a good sign to see the Yellow Butterfly upon a corpse or near a corpse. They say that every furrow and streak in his wings and in his head and in his body is exactly the manner of those that were in the sacred corpse and body of the Saviour lying in the linen shroud.

CW1/45, ff. 13v–14r
Carmina Gadelica, iv, pp. 4–5.
Image: Golden Butterfly.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Portrait of Ella Carmichael

In 1974, the Department of Celtic at the University of Edinburgh was presented with a portrait of Alexander Carmichael’s only daughter, Elizabeth (Ella) Catherine (1870–1928), by Michael Carmichael, MRCVS, of Tigh-a-Bhet, Fort William, nephew of Ella and a grandson of Alexander Carmichael. Some years ago, Professor William Gillies, holder of the Chair of Celtic at the University of Edinburgh, wrote a short piece about her portrait. We would like to express our gratitude to Professor Gillies for his permission to reprint in part what he wrote about the portrait that now hangs in the same room as that of her father’s portrait by William Skeoch Cumming (mentioned in a previous blog) in the Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies.

Seated towards the left at a desk, the sitter turns to face the onlooker with one hand on the back of her chair, the other resting on the desk and holding a scroll.  She wears a long evening gown and necklace of green stones. There is a clock, candle and part of a picture visible in the background. The artist creates the impression of an intense and artistic personality.

Ella Watson (born Elizabeth Catherine Carmichael) was a leading light in Highland and Celtic circles in Edinburgh from her student days in the 1890s until her death in 1928. She was, moreover, one of the stalwart ladies of Gaelic scholarship – both directly, through her personal contributions to the discipline, and indirectly, as the daughter and amanuensis of the Gaelic folklore collector Alexander Carmichael, as the wife of William J. Watson, Professor of Celtic at Edinburgh, and as the mother of James Carmichael Watson, who succeeded his father in the Chair of Celtic.

Born in her father’s native Lismore, she spent most of her early childhood in the Uists, where he was an Inland Revenue Officer. Although she received her secondary schooling in Edinburgh, she never lost her sense of belonging to the Highlands, nor her facility in speaking Gaelic. In 1892 she started at the University, and distinguished herself in Professor Mackinnon’s Celtic classes between then and 1895. Her involvement in promoting Gaelic causes began in 1894, when she helped to found the Celtic Union. She also showed crusading zeal in another area: finding herself debarred as a woman from joining the University Celtic Society, she promptly founded the Women Students’ Celtic Society, which flourished until the mores of a later age enabled an honourable merger to take place.

Despite her more sociable commitments, she did not neglect her Gaelic literary studies. After helping her father transcribe and edit the material for his Carmina Gadelica (published in 1900) she was a prime mover in the scheme to launch the Celtic Review, a scholarly journal which she then edited from 1904 to 1916, in a highly creditable way.

In 1906 her marriage necessitated a move to Inverness, where Watson was Rector of the Royal Academy; but they returned to Edinburgh three years later on his appointment as Rector of the Royal High School, a post he filled until his translation to the Chair of Celtic in 1914. The Watsons’ home (at first in Spence Street, and latterly in Merchiston Avenue) became a hospitable resort for all with Highland or Celtic connections. Even so, Mrs Watson found time to continue with her scholarship and good works. After her father’s death in 1912 she worked for many years on a revised edition of Carmina Gadelica, which appeared, shortly after her death, in 1928.

Of her two sons, the elder died in childhood, but the younger, James, fulfilled his mother’s deepest hopes, carrying all before him academically, and matching her enthusiasm for Gaelic language and literature. Her death, after a period of illness, came at a relatively young age; it deprived her of the joy of seeing her son follow in his father’s footsteps, though it also spared her the tragedy of his premature death on war service in 1942.

A Jack Yeats crayon sketch of Ella Carmichael, executed in 1902, and reproduced as frontispiece to Carmina Gadelica, Volume III, emphasizes her slightly intense, girlish beauty. The University portrait is of a slightly later date. The work of C. H. Mackie, it conveys something of the serenity, idealism and loving kindness which stand out in the reminiscences of all those who knew her.

Gillies, William, ‘Elizabeth (Ella) Catherine Carmichael Watson (c. 1871–1928)’, in John H. Burnett et al. (eds.), The University Portraits. Second Series (Edinburgh: Eyre Spottiswoode, 1986), pp. 204–6.
Image: Ella Carmichael (oil on canvas) by Charles Hodge Mackie, RSA, RSW. (1862–1920). Signed 'Mackie' bottom right corner. 48" x 38". Full length. University of Edinburgh Fine Art Collection.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Latha Fhèill Brìghde – St Bride’s Day

One of the four great quarter-days in the Gaelic calendar is Latha Fhèill Brìghde, or St Bride’s/Brigid’s Day, celebrated on the very first day of February. Alexander Carmichael recorded in a transcription notebook the following anecdote concerning Mrs Major MacLeod, Anne MacLeod (1754–1834), wife of Major MacLeod of Stein, and a daughter of the Highland heroine, Flora MacDonald:

Mrs Major MacLeod a daughter of the celebrated
Flora MacDonald was on a visit to Mr Tolmie
Uiginnish Skye. One day while at breakfast
some person remarked that the day
was La[tha]-fheil[l]-Bri[gh]de St Brigit’s day. On hear-
ing which Mrs Major MacLeod started up
got a stocking put some thing in it pro-
bably a piece of peat and proceeded
to pound it down with a mallet saying as
she did so – La-[tha]-fheil[l]-Bri[gh]de thig ni[gh]ean I[o]mh[a]ir as an toll
Cha bhoin mise do ni[gh]ean I[o]mh[a]ir
’S cha bhoin ni[gh]ean I[o]mh[a]ir rium.”
There is a belief among the old Highlanders that
if the serpent under the name of nighean I[o]mh[a]ir
is pounded in effigy on La[tha] fheil[l] Bri[gh]de the day
on which it is believed it emerges from
its winter retreat it cannot sting that person
during the whole year again.

Elsewhere in Carmina Gadelica, Carmichael has a long entry headed ‘Sloinntearachd Bhride’ (Genealogy of Bride) where he expands upon the subject matter in some detail, an extract from which throws some light upon the above anecdote:

The serpent is supposed to emerge from its hollow among the hills on St Bride’s Day, and a propitiatory hymn was sung to it. Only one verse of this hymn has been obtained, apparently the first. It differs in different localities:–

‘Moch maduinn Bhride,
Thig an nimhir as an toll,
Cha bhoin mise ris an nimhir,
Cha bhoin an nimbhir rium’

Early on Bride’s morn
The serpent shall come from the hole,
I will not molest the serpent,
Nor will the serpent molest me.

Carmichael then offers three different versions of the hymn before explaining that the “‘daughter of Ivor’ is the serpent; and it is said that the serpent will not sting a descendant of Ivor, he having made ‘tabhar agus tuis,’ offering and incense, to it, thereby securing immunity from its sting for himself and his seed for ever.”

CW112/48, fos. 119v–120r.
Carmina Gadelica, i, pp. 164–75; iii, pp. 154–63.
Image: Adder or Rìghinn (one of the its many names in Gaelic).

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Fuath – An Evil Spirit

Here is a very short anecdote―leaving the original spelling intact―written down by John Ewen (Iain Eòghann) MacRury, from Torlum, Benbecula concerning the Fuath. By anyone’s standards it was best avoided and it seems to have haunted those remotest of places ready to pounce on an unexpectant wayfarer.

Is considered an invissible
spirit generally in a
whirel wind & in sec-
luded places or felt
at wakes of wicked
people. A bad omen
for any family as they
are to loose all their
possession[s] shortly.

Elsewhere in Carmina Gadelica, Carmichael glosses the wordFuath as ‘a spectre, a kelpie, a demon, a water-fiend frequenting glens, rivers and waterfalls.’

CW 1, fol. 12v.
Carmina Gadelica, ii, p. 296.
Image: Am Fuath © Andy Paciorek http://www.batcow.co.uk/strangelands
This and many other images can be found in the Strange Lands book:

Monday, 7 March 2011

Sealing the Fate of Odar

As is generally well known the Norse had a lasting impact on the Western Isles since they first invaded and then settled in the islands and western seaboards of the Highlands. The following historical legend was recorded by Alexander Carmichael at some point in 1875 from the recitation of Major James Andrew MacRae (1834–1873) of Valley and Griminish in North Uist.

Odar was a great Scandinavian robber

sea king – a Viking – who ravaged the
coasts of these Western Isles often the
expulsion of the Norsemen and the
crowing of Macdonald as Lord of the
Isles. The King of the Isles announced
that he would give a fitting reward to any
man who would bring him Odar’s head
dead or alive. All were eager to dis-
tinguish themselves in capturing the
great robber King. “Ga luath an sionnach
beirear uairigin eir” Odar was captured
at last at a point of land at Griminnish
called “Odair.” This was done by
MacUistean Ghriminnish a near relation
of Māg Onuil Lord of the Isles.
Macuistean carried Odar’s head to his
chief. In return for this signal service
in getting rid of this ocean pest – this
biast mhor a chuain – the Lord of the
Isles granted to MacUistean and to his
posterity the seals of Haisgeir. Seals
then were prized equally for food and
oil – (Bu mhath am biadh feamanaich
aran seagail agus sail roin)
Odar’s head was buried at a spot
known as Earann Mholach…

It may be adjudged that the reward given to MacÙisdein was not in proportion to his doughty deed in getting rid of the Norse menace but this would be far from the truth for seals at that time were prized for both their oil and as a foodstuff. There would hardly be anything left of a seal carcase that was not put to some good use or another. The narrative then continues to describe how each seal was portioned amongst the boatmen and people of Griminish, Kilpheder, Scolpaig and how different seals were given to the minister of Kilmuir ‘to offer up in sacrifice to the “gods”’ for the safe return of the seal hunters, the blacksmith and the people of Boreray.

It may also be added that Martin Martin, writing in the seventeenth century, tells how the men of North Uist caught seals in a narrow channel by means of a net of horse-hair ropes ‘contracted at one end like a Purse', and gives a detailed account of a seal-hunt on the Isle of Heisker:

When this crew is quietly landed, they surround the passes, and then the signal for the general attack is given from the boat, and so they beat them down with big staves. The seals at this onset make towards the sea with all speed, and often force their passage over the necks of the stoutest assailants, who aim always at the forehead of the seals, giving many blows before they be killed; and if they be not hit exactly on the front, they contract a lump on their forehead, which makes them look very fierce; and if they get hold of the staff with their teeth, they carry it along to sea with them. Those that are in the boat shoot at them as they run to sea, but few are caught that way. The natives told me that several of the biggest seals lose their lives by endeavoring to save their young ones, whom they tumble before them towards the sea. I was told also that 320 seals, young and old, have been killed at one time in this place. The reason of attacking them in October is because in the beginning of this month the seals bring forth their young on the ocean side; but those on the east side, who are of the lesser stature, bring forth their young in the middle of June.

CW 112/28, fos. 95v–96r.
Martin, Martin, A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland circa 1695, ed. by MacLeod, Donald J. MacLeod (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1994), pp. 133–34.
Image: Heisker, North Uist © Donald Lawson and is licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.

Friday, 4 March 2011

An Tuairisgeul Mòr – An Epic Tale

One of the stories that was prized above all by reciters was an epic one known as An Tuairisgeul Mòr, sometimes translated as ‘The Chief Story’. Unsurprisingly, this tale has been much sought after by collectors of Gaelic folklore and has been recorded and published on numerous occasions. In a marginal note, dated 11 November 1883, by John Francis Campbell in his copy of The Scottish Celtic Review he writes: ‘This story is considered to be one of the first class by story tellers all over the far west. This version is rather shortened [Gregorson Campbell’s Tiree version] and made reasonable by my friend the Minister but so far as it goes it is good and genuine.’ John Francis Campbell was in a position to know for the had printed versions of this tale in his Popular Tales of the West Highlands some two decades previously.

Here, John Ewen (Iain Eòghann) MacRury, from Torlum, Benbecula, provides a social context (and perhaps even a rather romanticised one) for the telling of this particular tale. The man name-checked as being ‘a famous old piper’ was Donald MacDougall, styled Dòmhnall Bàn Dùghallach (c. 1813–1893), a joiner by trade and a resident of Creagorry in Benbecula. The old man passed the tale on to his son, John, who settled at Crinan Canal and plied his trade as a steamer skipper on the Clyde. Perhaps in order to pass the time he might have even regaled his crew with this very story. It looks as if neither of these two men were actually recorded telling this particular tale but, fortunately, many others were such as those collected in South Uist, Eigg, Tiree, and Islay during the nineteenth century. The story was still evidently in circulation for it was collected by Calum Iain Maclean and John Lorne Campbell from Duncan MacDonald of South Uist in 1947 and 1950 respectively as well as also being recorded from Alick Stewart then residing at the Muir of Ord in 1953.

Tuaireasgeul Mor.
How he was put to death or how
he went to death, was a wonder-
ful tale. I heard old men well
versed in folk-lore say that it wo[u]ld
take a good reciter seven winter long
nights from beul na hoi[dh]che dusk
to Gairm-chailleach cock-crowing
to repeat it in full. In olden times
they used to meet, heads of families
in an appointed place to hear it re-
cited. It was divide[d] into chapters
and each chapter would take a whole
night. Domhnull Ban Dughallach
Donald Macdougall a famous old
piper of the MacCrimmon school
was considered the best reciter
of his day. His son John who
left Benbecula about thirty
years ago and settled down at Crinan
Canal could recite it word for
word, but not with the same
emphasis as his father.
John is still living and one
of his sons is Skipper of one of
the Clutha steamer up & down
on the Clyde. 1895

CW1, fos. 109r–110v
Campbell, John Gregorson, ‘West Highland Tale: How the Tuairsigeul Mor was put to Death’, The Scottish Celtic Review, no. 1 (1881), pp. 61–77.
Macperson, Donald C., [=Abrach], ‘An Tuairisgeal’, An Gàidheal (1875), pp. 303–10.
MacKay, John, ‘An Tuairisgeal’, The Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. XXXIV (1927–28), pp. 1–112.
Duncan MacDonald’s recitation of An Tuairisgeul Mòr recorded by John Lorne Campbell:

Image: Illustration from Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands (though not of the Tuairisgeul Mòr!)

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

A Letter from Carmichael to Fr Allan McDonald

On 13 February 1894, Alexander Carmichael wrote a short letter to Fr Allan McDonald (1859–1905), styled Maighstir Ailein, who has recently been the subject of a biography (Father Allan) written by Roger Hutchinson. Previous to this, John Lorne Campbell carefully researched McDonald’s life and wrote a short account of him entitled Fr Allan McDonald: Priest, Poet and Folklorist (1956), and which, to a remarkable degree, sums up the character and traits of Fr Allan. During research for this booklet and a longer study that later appeared in book format as Strange Things (1968), Campbell would have come across this letter (as well as many others) and so preserved them for future generations in Canna House.

Dear Father Allan,
I am glad that you are going to Eirisga. You will have more time there to do work near your heart.
Why did you pass us? I hope you believe that we would have been – each and all of us – delighted to see you here?
And so good Father Campbell is gone! Good kind man I shall always remember him gratefully for his kindness to me and mine.
Professor Geddes is desirous to get up Celtic lectures in connection with his Universities Extension classes. He has asked me to analyse many for his proposal. We are anxious to bring Celtic to the front and I am sure you will help. Now like a true friend do come to our help. I have mentioned Henderson for Celtic mythology. Mr John Murdoch for the poetry of Ossian; Mr Jolly for the scenery of the Highlands and its effect upon the character of the people &c &c. Professor Geddes is most desirous to bring about a Celtic revival and we must all help. The lectures are in August and I hope you will do us the great pleasure of being our guest.
Let me hear from you soon and say what you do. I must give in my names and their subjects soon. I meant to have written you at length but I am interrupted much.
All here join me in warm love to you an la chi agus nach faic.
Yours very truly,
Alexander Carmichael

After ten years of hard work ministering the parish of Daliburgh in South Uist, sometimes in the most trying of conditions, Fr Allan, who was mentally and physically worn out, had to be transferred to nearby Eriskay for the sake of his health. Carmichael captures news of his impending move well and, so it would turn out, has a prophetic resonance to it.

Those that are name-checked in the letter are Fr Alexander Campbell, a native of South Uist, who died in Daliburgh in 1893. This man was highly influential on Fr Allan for it was he who encouraged his interest in Hebridean folklore. The other is Sir Patrick Geddes (1854–1932), an Aberdeenshire-born polymath of the old school, being as he was a biologist, philanthropist and pioneering town planner. Evidently, his interests were not even circumscribed to those subjects as he was involved in the revival of Celtic Studies as well. At the time of Carmichael writing this letter Geddes was Professor of Botany at University College, Dundee but seems to have maintained close links with his former University of Edinburgh as he had been a lecturer in Zoology during his days there. The three others mentioned by Carmichael are old friends in the shape of George Henderson, John Murdoch and William Jolly, all of whom have been mentioned before in this blog.

Black Ronald, ‘Eriskay Business’, Scottish Book Collector (2004), pp. 7–11 (http://textualities.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/collecting/features-h-m/mcdonalda01.pdf).
Campbell, John Lorne, Fr Allan McDonald of Eriskay, 1859–1905: Priest, Poet and Folklorist (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1956).
Canna House Archives, Letter dated 13 February 1894, from Alexander Carmichael to Fr Allan McDonald.
Hutchinson, Roger, Father Allan (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2010).
MacDonald, Fr. Michael, The Priestly Life of Fr. Allan McDonald (http://www.rcdai.org.uk/attachments/Fr_Allan_MacDonald_Talk.pdf).
Image: Patrick Geddes, c. 1886.

Transcription of the letter reproduced with the permission of Canna House Archives.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

It’s No Use Crying Over Spilt Milk

Milk Drop
According to John Ewen (Iain Eòghann) MacRury, from Torlum, Benbecula, the old people had a saying which they said whenever some milk had been accidently spilt. The phrase which he gives is: ‘Coma leibh dheth, tha beul feumach a’ feitheamh air’ which may be literally translated as ‘Never you mind, there is a needy mouth waiting for it.’ Given that milk and its derivative products was a staple part of the islanders’ diet, from which they produced many foodstuffs such as cheese, butter, buttermilk, crowdie, cream and so on, it seems that the above phrase reflects their rather philosophical stance: if even only a little was spilt then even that would still not go to waste:

Spilling Milk
In olden times the
Inhabitants of the
Outer Hebrides when
Milk was spilt would
say “Coma libh dheth,
tha bial feumach a
feathamh air,” mean-
ing that there was
a thirsty mouth –
waiting for it somewhere
else, and that the thirsty
party would get the[ir]
thirst quenched.

CW 1/60, f. 27r.
Image: Milk Drop.

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). [© carstenflieger.com]