Monday, 31 October 2011

Divination on Latha Samhna

Oidhche Challainn or Hogmanay tended to be an occasion celebrated by groups of boys. Hallowe’en (Oidhche Shamhna) and All Saints’ Day (Latha Samhna) were rather different: in the words of Margaret Fay Shaw writing about her time in Gleann Dail/Glendale in South Uist, ‘a night of much jollity, when the house was invaded by visitors in the ugliest disguises they could contrive of sheepskin and unravelled rope.’ It was also, as she goes on to remark, a time for ‘the foretelling the future of sweethearts’, not just in the Hebrides but throughout Scotland, Ireland, and far beyond. Here are Alexander Carmichael’s later transcriptions and expansions of notes on these calendar customs, originally recorded in CW111/15. The stories were probably been jotted down from Gilleasba’ Domhnallach or Archibald MacDonald (c. 1829–1922), a griasaiche or shoemaker in North Uist on 20 November 1873; they precede the items given in a previous blog.

Gilleasbaig, whose first name was mistranscribed by Carmichael as Alexander in Carmina Gadelica ii, 376, lived in Port nan Long or Newtonferry, where his father Donald had been ferryman. With his wife Margaret or Peggy (b. c. 1841) he had three children: Catherine Margaret (b. 1868); Donald (b. 1870); and Angus (b. 1875). When Carmichael visited the family in 1873 they were probably sharing the house with Gilleasbaig’s unmarried sister Mary (b. c. 1823), his apprentice Archibald Munro from Harris (b. c. 1851), and a local servant Christy MacDonald (b. c. 1846). By the time of the 1891 census Gilleasbaig was a widower, living alone with his daughter Catherine. Rather unusually for a man of his age, he is recorded as being able to speak English as well as Gaelic; this, and the knowledge he would have acquired from his trade of the people in the surrounding townships, may have been the reason why he was in charge of the local Post Office. We might wonder, however, just how strong Gilleasbaig’s grasp of English really was: ten years later, with all three of his children back living with him in what must have been a relatively substantial house, he appears as speaking Gaelic only. A picture of a refurbished Newton Post Office, Gilleasbaig's home, taken by Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, is printed on p. 144 of Bill Lawson's North Uist in History and Legend (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2004).

Gilleasbaig Domhnallach died of influenza on 25 February 1922. Only a neighbour was present, who gave his deceased wife’s name as Catherine MacDonald née Stewart: evidently it was known that his daughter Catherine Margaret had been named after his wife, but the wrong name was given. Born c. 1829, Gilleasbaig is a very unusual example of an informant who was born before Alexander Carmichael and outlived him – and, we can be sure, almost all of his contemporaries.

La Samhna Goid a chail [All Hallows’ Day, stealing the cabbage]. Girls put cal under the pillow. If a girl sees her lover talking the cal from under her pillow she is to be married to him that year. Three plates, one of earth, one of salt, and one of clean water are placed on the floor. A girl is blindfolded and the plates are moved about. The girl is then led to the plates, into one of which she places her hand – each place indicating something, as the uir, earth, death; the salt (bitterness) diolanas [illegitimacy]; and the clean water, marriage!

The girls then throw their criosans, belts, out through the opened window. A blindfolded person throws them back one by one each girl picking up her own crios as it came in. The position in point of trim of the belt in the ceremony indicated the position in point of the time of the owner’s marriage. If no belt could be found no marriage.

[in left margin: See Burns] The girls went to Allt criche a mach stream, when they dipped their hands. They were not to speak till spoken to in their sleep and the speaker then was their lover.

Tilgeil Ghloinneachain [Throwing Glasses]

Clear water was put into a glass. The white of an egg – gealagan uibhe – was gently let down. If the white rose craobhach briagh [beautiful like a tree] it was fortunate; if not, the reverse. Salt, drowning; dirty water meant Diolanas. A craobh chorc, an oat tree-stalk, was drawn out of a stack by the teeth. The number of grains remaining indicated the number of children. If the top grain – ‘graine mullaich’ –was off, the person died.

Reference: CW7/31
Image: Port nan Long in the fifties: Gilleasbaig Domhnallach may have lived in one of the derelict blackhouses on the right.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Another Glimpse of the Professional Weeper

Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica is one of the principal sources for information about the bean-tuiream: the mourning woman or professional weeper. An account has already been published in this blog for 30 January 2011, in which a quote is taken from CG ii, 309. There Carmichael reminisces about how, in 1870, he had ‘prevailed upon a woman in Barra to do the “tuiream” as she had heard it when young.’

More information about this intriguing episode is preserved in papers in CW383, apparently the text of a lecture given by Carmichael, probably in the 1890s. The keener is revealed to be none other than Catherine Pearson or MacPherson (c. 1813–1880), wife of Alexander MacFarlane, Ceann Tangabhal, Barra. Despite a reputation for witchcraft, Catherine, together with her brother John (c. 1820–1885), was clearly one of Carmichael’s favourite informants in the island. We hope to have more anecdotes about Catherine in subsequent blogs. The text below has been lightly edited for legibility:

The old custom of mourning, called in Scottish Gaelic tuireadh, in Irish caoineadh, ceased in the Highlands many years ago. Upon one occasion, however, the writer had the privilege of being present at a funeral in Barra where a woman was prevailed upon [supra: very unwillingly] to reproduce this lost art. [del: The woman is now dead but the writer sees her still before him. Her name] [supra: She was called] Catherine Phearsan.

She is now dead but the writer sees her still before him with her [supra: tall] spare figure which [supra: in youth] must have been once singularly handsome, her good prominent features, her fine, large blue eyes, silvery hair, and voice of great flexibility and compass, and [supra: her copious] [del: a] command over the Gaelic language, truly marvellous.

She was richly endowed by nature but not by art, mentally and physically.

This woman rehearsed in weird, [?] and measured cadences of great attraction to my untutored ear the deceased man’s kindly deeds and manly actions by sea and land, his kindreds for generations back, his relationship to long lineaged proud chiefs, ‘and fair women and brave men’. She pathetically told too of the prostration of the fair young wife with her swan-like bosom thus laid bare to the weary wintry blasts and of the tender nestlings thus bereft of a loving father whose brave heart, strong arm and deft hands was wont to bring them home the white ling from the angry sea, the brown barley from the laboured field, the juicy cockles from the distant strands and the good puffin from the towering cliff. The bare glaciated hill high overhead re-echoed the woman’s voice, whilst the deep rolling restless, heaving sea underneath our feet seemed to moan as if in sympathy.

We buried the man in Brendan’s lovely burying-place near the base of an amphitheatre of hills benignly looking down and surrounded on three sides by the sea. The glorious Atlantic sings requiem to the dead in a voice, now louder than loud thunder wakening terror in the trembling earth, and now softly sighing with an eerie sugh like the hallo[w]ed tones of dying love.

Carmichael certainly recorded Catherine or Catriona Pearson on 21 June 1870 (if indeed the year given in Carmina Gadelica is correct). He visited her brother John on 2 December and, perhaps, 2 June. We know he was on Barra on 30 September, 6 November, and the 1 December as well. We wonder if any of our readers could help us in working out who might be the crofter-fisherman of Castlebay, with widow and young children, who was mourned by her?

Reference: CW383 fos.11–13

Image: The burial ground at Gob Bhuirgh, Barra

Friday, 21 October 2011

A Weekend in Appin

Last weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to give a paper to the Appin Historical Society on behalf of the Carmichael Watson Project. The drive up was rather eventful, with a caravan crash (luckily, nobody was hurt) a few seconds ahead of us at the Brander Pass necessitating a lengthy detour via Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. Nevertheless, we arrived at Port Appin Hall only five minutes late!

The subject of the paper was the lore and traditions of Appin which Alexander Carmichael gathered in the district during three days of intensive collecting in the late summer of 1883. Most of the paper was devoted to the wonderful material he scribbled down from the recitation of Donald MacColl (c. 1793–1886), ‘Domhnall Brocair’, the foxhunter then living at Fasnacloich up in Glen Creran. In his younger days Donald had met both Sir Walter Scott and Duncan Bàn Macintyre, Donnchadh Bàn nan Òran. He reminisced about both these literary giants to Carmichael, as well as about his own experiences during over fifty years of gamekeeping. Other stories Carmichael recorded relate to the Battle of Culloden, at which Donald’s paternal grandfather had been badly wounded and was lucky to escape with his life; to Colin Campbell of Glenure and the notorious Appin Murder; to the local hero Domhnall nan Òrd, the ‘Donald the Hammerer’ whose picaresque adventures so fascinated the youthful Walter Scott; and especially to the local MacColl burial ground Cladh Churalain, perched half-way up Beinn Churalain on the north side of Loch Creran. The ninety-year old Domhnall Brocair, clearly hale and hearty despite his great age, took Carmichael on a visit to the graveyard and its associated healing springs. One story he told particularly caught Carmichael’s imagination: the burning in the late eighteenth century of what appear to have been wooden images of saints Columba, Moluag, and the local holy man Curalan by three ‘scamps’ – sons of the gentry of the district, who all suffered divine retribution as a result.

The great thing about researching a paper on very local subjects is that you have to read the relevant manuscripts extremely closely. The field notebook in which Donald MacColl’s lore was recorded – CW120 – is horrendously difficult to read and leaps seemingly at random from subject to subject. Here I’d like to pay tribute to the transcribing abilities of our erstwhile colleague Dr Andrew Wiseman and the tireless and patient cataloguing of Kirsty Stewart.

The great thing about giving a paper on very local subjects is the feedback – and also corrections! – I always receive from people much more knowledgeable about the area than I am myself. I’d like to thank all those who attended, from Appin and further afield (including Lismore, Ardchattan, Oban, Taynuilt, Morvern, and the Isle of Luing) who kindly took the trouble to chat to me, to enlighten me, and to put me right! Especial thanks to Ronald and Sylvia Laing of the Appin Historical Society for their generous hospitality, and also for showing me two photographs of yet another ‘Carmichael informant’ – Janet MacColl the dairymaid, whom Carmichael met when hiking to Cladh Churalain with Domhnall Brocair:

‘Mòran taing a Chrìosdaidh chneasda’ said [supra: old] Seonaid Nic Colla, Glasdruim, when I helped her up the bank. [CW120/90; see also CW120/178]

Ronnie also told me the intriguing fact that the photographer Erskine Beveridge was taking landscape photographs in Lismore and Appin at exactly the same time as Carmichael was collecting lore there – surely they must at least have met?

Saturday morning was spent rambling in Carmichael’s footsteps up through scrub birch, old oak, and bracken to reach (thanks, GPS!) the graveyard of Cladh Churalain. Despite a couple of soakings, we had wonderful views and thoroughly recommend this fascinating site to our readers.

Images: Cladh Churalain

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Job Vacancy: Research Assistant: 18 months

The Carmichael Watson Project is currently recruiting for a Research Assistant for Phase IV, which is being funded by the Leverhulme Trust. All the details about the post are given below. Feel free to share the details with anyone you think might be suitable for the post or who might interested in working with us. The closing date for applications is 24 October 2011.

Vacancy details

Vacancy Reference: 3014922
Special Collections and Archives: Research Assistant (fixed-term, full time)
Closing Date: 24-Oct-2011
Salary Scale: £29,972 - £35,788

Following a recent funding award from the Leverhulme Trust, phase four of the Carmichael Watson Project aims to research the material culture and collecting practices of the Hebridean folklorist and collector Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912) and to catalogue and contextualise the objects, field monuments and sites collected or described by him. We require an experienced post-doctoral researcher with proven ethnographic, object-based, linguistic and research skills to play a key role in the Carmichael Watson Project team. You will identify, investigate, classify and contextualise objects collected by Alexander Carmichael, disseminate project findings and assist with overall project delivery and resource development.

You will have a PhD in one of the following fields relating to Scottish Gaelic/Irish: folklore, ethnology, literature, history or museum studies and be fluent in Gaelic, or fluent in Irish with some knowledge of Scottish Gaelic and willingness to augment that knowledge. Highly developed organisational and problem-solving skills are a requirement as are ICT skills and excellent interpersonal and communication skills.

The post is fixed-term for eighteen months and is available from 3 October 2011.

Details on how to apply are available here:

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). [©]