Friday, 25 February 2011

Clach Nathrach – The Serpent Stone

Another anecdote noted down by John Ewen (Iain Eòghann) MacRury, from Torlum, Benbecula, concerns the serpent stone or clach nathrach. Since classical times there has been a strong connection between serpents and healing. One only needs to think of the logo for the British Medical Association with a rod and a single snake wrapped around it. Sometimes this symbol is mistaken for a caduceus, a winged staff with two serpents entwined, carried by Hermes, the messenger of the gods, which later became known as a symbol of peace. Rather the BMA’s logo symbolises the rod of Asclepius, a son of the God Apollo, who was a practitioner of medicine in Greek mythology. No mention of the druidic cult would seem to be complete without the mention of the serpent’s egg or adder stone which was believed to have magical properties.

Clach Nathrach
Is an accumulation
of liquid matter from
the mouth of the
serpent and is alw-
ays found among
rank heather where
it is spiralled by
the serpent going con
stantly round the
stem or stalk till
all the matter ronan
is accumulated on it.
It gets very hard and
of a darkish colour
and light in proportion
to its size. I remember
when in School in Uig
Lewis of seeing one
about the size of a
small hen egg. It was
found by the herd-
boy of Croulista who
was sometimes attend
ing school with me
on the South side
of Suanaval hill.
It was greatly val
ued by the more in
tellegent people who
saw it, as it is
good for taking
away any bad or
rotten matter on
a wounded swelling or
cut. Serpents are
common enough
in Uig, but not of
a big Size. I remem
ber of one being killed
on the public
road in the glen betw-
een Balnakill and
Miavaig Uig. It would
be about a foot
long but very thick
in proportions to its
length. Since then I
have seen plenty of
serpents but the
biggest was in the
Island of Mull in 1889.
It was dead on the public road
between Daircraig
and Tobermory.

Elsewhere in Carmina Carmichael, Carmichael provides some more detail in rather wide-ranging entry under the header ‘nathair’:

A product called ‘clach-nathrach,’ serpent stone, is found on the root of the long ling. It is of steel-grey colour, has the consistency of soft putty when new and of hard putty when old, and is as light as pumice-stone, which it resembles. It is of a globular form, and from one to three inches in diameter. There is a circular hole, about a quarter of an inch in width, through the centre. This substance is said to be produced by the serpent emitting spume round the root of a twig of heather. The ‘clach-nathrach’ is greatly prized by the people, who transmit it as a talisman to their descendants.
There are many sayings dealing with the serpent:–

‘Tha e ann an grath na nathrach dhuit.’
He is in the spirit of the serpent towards thee.

‘The nimh na nathrach aig dhuit.’
The venom of the serpent he has towards thee.

‘Cho carach ris an nathair nimhe.’
As twistful as the sepent venomous.

‘Cleas na nathrach cur a chraicinn.’
The trick of the serpent changing the skin.

‘Cochul nathrach is olc a dh’fheumadh tu.”
The sheath of the serpent badly wouldst thou need.

According to the Rev. John Gregorson Campbell, serpents were also associated with healing. Serpent stones (clach nathrach) were a sort of bead used in healing rites to cure diseases for people or livestock, or else they were used to aid women in labour or to protect against enchantment. The sloughed skin (cochall) of a snake, or the severed head, could also be used for healing. Either the stone or the skin was placed in water, which was then given to the patient either a bewitched person or beast to drink in order to aid healing, presumably after a charm had been sung over it. It was commonly thought that these stones had once been used by the druids themselves, and they were sometimes also referred to in Ireland and Wales as ‘druid’s glass’.

Black, Ronald (ed.), The Gaelic Otherworld (Edinburgh, 2005), pp. 219–21.
CW 1/81 fos. 52r–54r.
Carmina Gadelica, ii, p. 335.
Image: The rod of Asclepius.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Channelled Wrack – Feamainn-chìreann

On 14 February 1895, John Ewen (Iain Eòghann) MacRury, from Torlum, Benbecula, noted down a fairly long list of different types of seaweed, giving their Gaelic equivalents, and also writing down interesting details and observations about their properties. The twenty-first item on the list is known in Gaelic as feamainn-chìrean (sometimes cìreanach), which, rather pleasingly, has its equivalent in English as channelled wrack. As can be seen from the following note its properties were well-known and, apart from producing the most productive kelp, was extremely useful for the manufacture of cattle feed, which helped to produce good quality livestock, something which the Western Isles are still renowned for to this very day:

Feamuinn Chirinn the
most productive of all
seaweed for Kelp it grows
higher than any other marine
plant. Just at the height
of tide and unlike other
sea weed is generally ex
posed to the elements of
nature for a period of 18
hours out of the twenty
four hours. It is one of the
best feeding stuff for cattle
when well boiled. The juice
should be allowed to cool
and two pints given to each
beast when stalled at night
and much as a person
could lift twice in his
hand of the feminn [sixed
bith boan?] or clean chaff
or oats or bear or any
other sort of corn, three
times a week during the
month of March and April
It regulates cattle and cle
ans the inside and gives
a very glossy appearance
to the new hair in Summer.

Edward Dwelly notes in his Gaelic dictionary similar properties: ‘feamainn-chìrean or chìreag. It is known as feamainn chìreanach in Uist, and feamainn-chìreag in Skye and Lewis. It is only a few inches in length and grows only on rocks that are seldom under the water during neap-tides. It has a strong laxative property, often being plucked off the rocks and boiled, when it is given to cattle that are suffering from dryness.’ The initials appended to this piece of information are JM and by looking up Dwelly’s authorities that he quotes from throughout his work it can be revealed that this was Rev. John MacRury of Snizort [Skye & Uist.]. This was John Ewen’s elder brother and it may well be the case that this information noted down by him came as a result of an enquiry made by his brother who served as a minister in the isle of Skye for over twenty years until his death in 1907.

Interestingly enough, dúlamán, Irish Gaelic for channelled wrack, is the subject of a popular folk-song whereby the practice of collecting seaweed during times of scarcity is referenced throughout:

Dúlamán na binne buí, dúlamán Gaelach
Dúlamán na farraige, b’fhearr a bhí in Éirinn
Tá ceann buí óir ar an dúlamán gaelach
Tá dhá chluais mhaol ar an dúlamán maorach
Bróga breaca dubha ar an dúlamán gaelach
Tá bearéad agus triús ar an dúlamán maorach

Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed
Seaweed from the ocean, the best in all of Ireland
There is a yellow gold head on the Gaelic seaweed
There are two blunt ears on the stately seaweed
The Irish seaweed has beautiful black shoes
The stately seaweed has a beret and trousers

CW 1, fos. 100r–100v.
Dwelly, Edward, The Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary (Glasgow, 1994), p. 421.
Image: Channelled Wrack or Feamainn-chìreann.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Dustaidh: A Bad Kelper

As mentioned in a previous blog, John Ewen (Iain Eòghann) MacRury from Torlum, Benbecula, supplied a great deal of traditional lore, of many different varieties, to Alexander Carmichael. Here, for example, is an anecdote recorded on 18 May 1895 regarding the word ‘Dustaidh’, apparently an English loan-word. The kelp industry (obair na ceilpe) was a mainstay for the economic well-being of the Western Isles for several generations. Kelp – a type of seaweed – was converted by burning it in kilns and the resulting ash was used for many purposes, particularly in the production of soda and iodine. The alkaline product from the ash was also used in the manufacture of soap and glass, and is still used today for this purpose. The versatility of the alginate derived from seaweed can also be seen through its use as a thickening agent in such diverse products as ice-cream, jelly and toothpaste. With regard to the Western Isles, the ending of the Napoleonic Wars, which led to cheaper sourcing of soda ash from continental Europe, meant that the kelp industry had all but collapsed by around 1830. During the boom years, landlords wishing to exploit the profits from this lucrative industry – the price of soda ash had risen astronomically from two pounds per ton in 1760 to twenty pounds per ton by 1808 – crowded families into crofting communities on the western seaboard to create pools of cheap or virtually free labour. The resultant economic collapse was disastrous not only for the profit-mongering landlords but more so for the islanders who faced either involuntary or voluntary eviction as well as an uncertain future.

Dustaidh a modern name for
a bad kelper. The kelp industry
was carried on rigorously on the
West during the later end of last
century and the present century.
A man that did not burn the
seaweed well and in the
usual manner, was known as to
have a great deal of duast
dust, which would require to be
reburnt with some well seasoned
seaweed very carefully. There was
a man in North Uist known as dust-
aidh dust-man after being a season
kelp making in Rona it would not
stick together and the ground officer
who was also kelp officer gave him
a lump sum for his dust and
procured another practical man
to reburn it with his own sea
weed deducting the allowance made
to dustaidh. I cannot say what
became of dustaidh, but a daugh-
ter of his was in Carinish very
recently have only one issue
as son who was also know[n]
as dustaidh og, young duster.
She was know as nighean ruadh
dhustaidh – red daughter of –
duster. She was a very upright
industrious woman, and never
thought of the name, no more than
her Christian name Mary.

CW1, fos. 109v–110r
Image: Kelp

Friday, 18 February 2011

Two Anecdotes About Bonnie Prince Charlie

From whom Alexander Carmichael collected these two short anecdotes about Bonnie Prince Charlie was not noted down by him at the time. They both refer to when the Prince was a fugitive on the lam in South Uist. It would seem likely, then, that Carmichael’s source was a Uist tradition bearer. Here, more than many other parts of the Highlands and Islands at that time, was a safe haven for the Prince and his comrades: the island was thoroughly Jacobite, mainly Roman Catholic, and fairly isolated. The greatest risk was taking a boat to the island because it was then that he would have been most exposed and liable to be undone. Nonetheless, this was not the first time that the Prince had to reply upon the loyalty and expertise of Hebridean mariners and so he managed to escape unscathed journeying to and fro from the Outer Hebrides. The first of these anecdotes reflects the loyalty and affection shown to the Prince by the South Uist people. As the man in question – Eachann mac Mhurchaidh ’icilleMhoire, who may have been a Morrison, belonging to Drimisdale – managed to steer the search party in the opposite direction from where the Prince was hiding. The second anecdote, involving Flora MacDonald, is rather amusing but reflects the concern showed by his Highland heroine to make sure that he looked the part when he was, presumably, dressed as Betty Burke.

The Prince drank the milk of her
black sheep from a girl milking sheep
Brai[gh] Bhornish. The P[rince] was com[in]g
from Bornish. Mary Nighean
mhic neill
A man met party of red sold[iers]
in search of Prince. They asked him
abo[u]t the P[rince]. He said had just parted
with him. Take us to him & we will give
a reward. I will. He took them in con[trary]
dir[ection] for they were near P[rince] not ¼ mile
& took them up Driomor & all fell
away but one when near farthest
part mount[ain] this other asked bheil
sinn fad uai[th] nis. Sin fad an
d fhag mis a mhic na bitse & he
struck him in the ear & felled him
& left him there! & took himself off
Eachan mac Mhurchai[dh]
ic Ille Mhoire. Dreumsdale.

Flora struck P[rince] with towel because
he did not wash milk boyns
right when soild[er]s pass[in]g. This
was sorest blow he ever got he said.

CW1, fos. 5–6.
Linklater, Eric, The Prince in the Heather (London, 1965).
Image: Prince Charles Edward Stuart (1722–1788) by Antonio David.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

A Method of Recovering Stolen Goods

John Ewen MacRury (1853–1909)
A remarkable method – which may be termed witchcraft – was said to have been a favoured way in which to claim the recovery of stolen goods. This particular tradition was recorded not by Alexander Carmichael – although he may have been aware of it – but rather by his friend and colleague John Ewen (Iain Eòghann) MacRury of Torlum, Benbecula. Born in Benbecula around 1853, MacRury was nearly twenty years younger than Carmichael. He died in Airdrie Poor House aged fifty-four in 1909. Between 1887 and 1895 he gathered in a great deal of material at the behest of Carmichael who remembered him as: ‘A highly intelligent man, for whose knowledge of old lore I am greatly indebted in this work.’ The following example of his collecting, where the original spelling has been retained, was entitled in the notebook as ‘Togal an Doinis’ or rather ‘Togail an Donais’, which, in other words, was ‘Raising the Devil’. No reciter is noted down from John Ewen – he was a tradition bearer himself – but it is likely that he heard this anecdote from someone in Uist:

This extraordinary stroke
of art in olden times
was very effectual am-
ong the inhabitants of
the North. When anything
was stollen, and no
clear clue attached could be found
to any person in par-
ticular, all under sus-
pission were named out
by the looser to the
party gifted with the
art, their names were
written on parchment
or paper, and if the
party could not write
there was a different
mark for every one
under suspission.
The paper was fould
ed longways, and rub
bed between the pa[l]ms
of his hand, and in
the name of the Dev
il allowed to fall
gently into a basin
or a big bowl full
of cold water. If the
name of the guilty
party was among them
it would go to the
bottom and the rest
would float on
on the surface. Then the party
possessed of the art
was to inform the thief
of what happened and
unless the stolen
property was restored
to the right
ful owner within three days
the whole affair was
proclaimed publicly
and would be compelled
to submit.
They greatly object
ed to the raising of
the D[evil] as several y[ea]rs
famine was
sure to follow in
the township after

CW1, fos. 32r–33.
Carmina Gadelica, ii, p. 381.
Image: John Ewen MacRury (1853–1909). Reproduced with the kind permission of Calum Laing.

Monday, 14 February 2011

The Surname Livingstone or Mac an Leigh

Continuing with the theme of a recent blog, another enquiry sent in by a reader elicited a response in the Celtic Review from Alexander Carmichael’s pen as follows:

REPLY Mr. Niall Campbell’s note in the October 1909 issue of the Celtic Review is interesting and informative. It seems, however, probable that the name Mac-an-leigh (Livingstone) originated in two ways, i.e. Mac an leigh, Son of the Physician, of which the equivalent is to be found in the Manx Clegg or Legge; and Mac-Dhun-sleibh corresponding to the Irish Donlevy.
The late Dr. Alexander Macbain gives much information regarding Livingstones in his papers on Gaelic Personal Names and Etymological Dictionary. It would be a most natural thing to have such a name as ‘son of the physician’ in Gaelic.
I may mention that besides Eilean an t-Sagairt in Lochanan Dubh there is Eilean an t-Sagairt in Loch Etive near Achnacloich, so that two islands of the same name are in the same neighbourhood. ALEXANDER CARMICHAEL.

It may be imagined that Carmichael had a personal interest in the matter as he wrote, rather effusively as it happens, about the Barons of Bachuil, who were indeed Livingstones. Perhaps it was modesty that prevented him from mentioning his own article in his reply and so he name-checked a better authority than he in the form of Dr Alexander MacBain (1855–1907). There can be little doubt that the most famous Livingstone is the one remembered for being a missionary and an explorer of darkest Africa. Carmichael mentions him thus in his article about the Barons:

Donald Livingstone, the son of Neil Livingstone, was in the local Fencibles of his day. During the annual drills at Oban and Stirling he made the acquaintance of his namesake and distant kinswoman, Catherine Livingstone, whose father was a farmer at Bailemore in Kerrara, opposite Oban. When his regiment was finally disbanded Donald Livingstone married Catherine Livingstone and brought her home with him to Ulva. Things, however, did not prosper in Ulva with the young people, and after a time they removed to Blantyre on the Clyde. Donald Livingstone had a son, Neil, the father of David Livingstone, whose name will live while courage, honesty, and humanity are admired among men.

Carmichael, Alexander, ‘The Barons of Bachuill’, The Celtic Review, vol. V (1908–09), pp. 356–75.
Carmichael, Alexander, ‘Reply’, The Celtic Review, vol. 6, no. 23 (Jan., 1910), p. 288.
Dr David Livingstone (1813–1873). Reproduced with the permission of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Columba of the Graves and Tombs

As may be remembered Alexander Carmichael’s printed output after the publication of the first two volumes of Carmina Gadelica was almost solely restricted to the Celtic Review. This journal, founded in 1904, and lasting until just before the outbreak of the First World War, was edited by Carmichael’s daughter, Ella, under the consulting editorship of Prof. Donald MacKinnon, the first incumbent of the Chair of Celtic at the University of Edinburgh. The year of MacKinnon’s death also saw the Celtic Review fold thus it would seem the impetus to continue publication was lost through this. Responding to a query from J. M. Mackinlay, Alexander Carmichael gave the following reply in the Celtic Review:

Calum-cille nam feart ’s nan tuam. Columba of the graves and tombs. (Carmina Gadelica, vol. i. p. 249 [recte 246].)

In the Celtic Review of April Mr. J. M. Mackinlay asks the meaning of this phrase. Like many other passages in the work, this was translated tentatively. I am under the impression that the phrase refers to the many churches, with burying-grounds attached, named after St. Columba.
Feart is a grave, a graveyard; tuam is a tomb, a place of tombs, a chambered place of burial.
Tung is also applied to a chambered place of burial, and sometimes to an underground house. ALEXANDER CARMICHAEL.

The context for the query was the last verse from Beannachadh Buana or ‘Reaping Blessing’, collected by Carmichael from Angus MacDonald, a crofter from Gearrynamoine, South Uist:

Air sgath Mhicheil mhil nam feachd,
Mhoire chneas-ghil leac nam buadh,
Bhride mhin-ghil ciabh nan cleachd,
Chaluim-chille nam feart ’s nan tuam,
Chaluim-chille nam feart ’s nan tuam.

Translated by Carmichael thus:

For the sake of Michael head of hosts,
Of Mary fair-skinned branch of grace,
Of Bride smooth-white of ringleted locks,
Of Columba of the graves and tombs,
Columba of the graves and tombs.

Not content with just one query, J. M. Mackinlay also merited a response from Alexander Carmichael’s son-in-law, William John Watson, soon-to-be Rector of Edinburgh Royal High School and afterwards the second holder of the Chair of Celtic Languages, Literature, History and Antiquities at the University of Edinburgh. It can be seen that Watson was not shy in flexing his onomastic muscles, and his scientific method of enquiry can be easily discerned:

In last number Mr. J. M. Mackinlay queries whether Maolrithe (Carmina Gadelica, i. 285) is ‘to be identified with St. Maolrise, otherwise St. Finlagan, who is believed to have given name to Knock Mulreesh in Islay, near which is his chapel Cill Fheileagan.’
Maolrithe is none other than Maelruba, the genitive being used as nominative. The pronunciation is seen in Amulree, Maelruba’s ford.
Mr. Mackinlay also asks if Maolruain is a diminutive of St. Maelrubha. It is not. Maolruain is an independent name, occurring twice in the Martyrology of O’Gorman. The latter part of the compound is found with extension in the Irish word ruanad, a champion, whence the very common Irish name Maol-ruanaidh.
Whatever ‘St. Maolrise’ may be, Finlagan is a place-name, meaning ‘little white hollow,’ well known in connection with the Lords of the Isles. W. J. W.

Carmichael, Alexander and Watson, William J. [W.J.W.], ‘Replies’, The Celtic Review, vol. 4, no. 13 (July, 1907), p. 96.
Carmina Gadelica, i, p. 246.
Image: St Columba, Calum Cille

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Pipers of Smerclete – II

In a previous blog from last year the well-known South Uist tradition regarding the Pipers of Smerclete was given and so, as a kind of reprise, here is another version. Alexander Carmichael was not adverse to take down the same stories – sometimes from the very same reciters – allowing comparisons to be made. This is clearly an advantage when looking at repeated versions of a tale or, for that matter, migratory legends or stories with an international resonance. In this instance, Carmichael neglected to take down the name of the reciter but it seems likely that it was collected in Kilpheder, a village in close proximity to where the action of the story takes place. Basically, as in the previous version of this story given in an earlier blog, as well as many other variants that have subsequently either been printed or collected, a fairy gifts an idiotic son – who was only good for looking after cattle – with such an ability to play music on the pipes that no one else could match his peerless skill. The crux of this particular version of tale hangs on the proverbial phrase: “ealain gun rath” skill without luck, or “rath gun ealain” luck without skill. The choice had to be a wise one, otherwise the fairies would get the upper hand. By making sure that the door of the fairy mound was closed by either a knife or a nail (something made of steel or iron in order to counteract fairy bewitchment), the so-called half-witted son managed to get both luck and skill which stood him in good stead, as he became a celebrated piper.

Sithein a Phiobaire Kil Pheadair
S[outh] Uist. Used to hear pip[ing] ther[e].
Clan[n] an t Saoir Smearcleit wer[e] c[e]lebr[ated]
pip[ers] a mach s a staigh cha
ro[bh] ann a gheo[bhadh] buai[dh] orra. One
son was a “lecheallach” unfit for a pip[er]
So he was sent to faire buaile crui[dh]
He saw the sith[ein] light & he ent[ered]. First
plac[in]g a Knife or nail in the door
aft[er] which the sith[ein] could close it.
“Rath us ealain rath us eal[ain]” said he
& all the sith[ein] pip[ers]. Rath gun eal[ain] rath
gun eal[eain] they rep[eated] & tried to close the door
& keep him but they could [not] so they
were obl[i]g[ed] to give him also the eal[ain] Go you
hom[e] said the sean bod[ach]. sì & send
the bones of the black dead horse
at y[ou]r fath[er’s] door & get a pipe made
& you shall be a pip[er] such as non[e]
of y[ou]r people nev[er] saw. He did & got a pipe & sett[led]
to piob[aireachd] & eclip[sed] them all. We may stop
if you re[frain] said his fath[er] and bro[ther] for no one
will list[en] to you so go you to [sic] out into
the world and not m[e]n[tion?] us. He did so
& he was celebr[ated].

CW 160 ff., 22v–23r.
D.M.N.C., ‘Uamh an Oir’, An Ròsarnach (1917), pp. 159–71.
Ella C. Carmichael, ‘“Never was Piping so Sad, and Never was Piping so Gay”’, The Celtic Review, vol. II (1905–06), pp. 76–84
Fr. Allan McDonald, ‘Pìobairean Smearclait (The Pipers of Smerclait)’, The Celtic Review, vol. V (1908–09), pp. 345–47.
Image: Still from Pìobairean Bhòrnais. Many thanks to Catrìona Black for permission to use her image.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Tragic Deaths of Flora MacDonald’s Brothers

There can be little doubt that Flora MacDonald is one of the most famous Highland heroines. She is, of course, chiefly remembered for the help she gave to Prince Charles Edward Stuart in making his hair-breadth escape from South Uist to Skye. When on the point of being captured, she intervened and disguised the Prince as a maid called Betty Burke who was supposed to be one of Flora’s companions as she was making her way to visit her mother in Skye. The ploy worked a treat and the Prince remained uncaptured. The Prince had been on the lam for a number of months as a fugitive in the wake of his disastrous defeat at Culloden. Flora was born in Milton on South Uist in 1722 and was the daughter of Ranald MacDanald there, and his wife, Marion, a daughter of Angus MacDonald. She later married Allan MacDonald of Kinsburgh, Isle of Skye, and had a large family of five sons and daughters. She died at Kingsburgh aged sixty-eight in 1790 and was buried in Kilmuir Cemetery. Alexander Carmichael collected this historical anecdote about the tragic deaths of two of Flora MacDonald’s brothers, Alexander and Donald, from Donald MacInnes (c. 1800–1880), who belonged to Balgarva in South Uist, sometime in September 1872. It is also interesting to note that the aunt Isobel whom Flora’s brother visited was married to mac Leaspa ’ic a’ Mhinistear who is described as having visited Rìoghachd nan Daoine Buidhe which probably means ‘Kingdom of the Yellow-skinned People’ – perhaps a veiled reference to China – where the king’s daughter had fallen in love with him. Expecting to marry him, the king’s daughter made him a suit of multicoloured feathers, but he returned to Scotland to marry ‘his friend Isebal’.

Alex[ander] brother to Flora Macdonald shot
in Carras[a]y. was on a vis[i]t to his Aunt Isebal
ni[gh]ean fir Airi[dh] mhuil[ean]. Saw a flock of ducks
in the Creagun below the house. He rush[ed]
to the gun not know[ing] it was load[ed] It went
off & kil[led] him. Old Don[ald] who was th[e]n
2 y[ea]rs saw the blood. He was sent
with this Isibel. Isibels hus[band]
was mac Leaspa ’ic a mhinisteir.
He was long in rio[ghac]c[hd] nan daoine bui[dhe]
& the da[ugh]t[er] of Ri[gh] nan dao[i]n[e] bui[dhe]
fell in love with him & ex[horted] him to marry
her. She made him a deise of itean
ian – dhan na chuile dath bha eir ial[aith] nan speur & an deise
e[i]le do shioda agus uisgair eir
But he ran from her & came home & mar[rried]
his friend Isebel.
Flora & the Prince left Buail
Unacleit at Minngeary Milton
& crossed to Lochaoineart fr[om]
which they sailed.
Don[ald] saw her bro[ther] Angus who was
a thorough soldier. Poor Donald! He went
away one day to cut rushes & was found dead

CW 106, fos. 26r–26v
Portrait of Flora MacDonald, oil on canvas, by Allan Ramsay (1713–1784)

Friday, 4 February 2011

St John’s Wort or St Columba’s Plant

Another short anecdote from Archibald Currie (1821–1896) from Iochdar, South Uist, collected at the same time, was one which concerns St John’s wort or, as it is sometimes referred to, St Columba’s plant. This plant is, in any case, known under many other names in Gaelic such as achlasan Chaluim Chille, which Carmichael literally translates as ‘armpit package of Columba’ and has many medical properties that were well-known to herbalists who practiced folk medicine. The first recorded use of this plant for medicinal purposes stems from ancient Greece. Since then St John’s wort has been used over the centuries for mental conditions as well as for other health problems and it was (and still is) used as a remedy for the debilitating effects of mild to moderate depression:

Achlasan C[aluim]-chille gun sire[adh]
gun iar[raidh] is scraped ag[ainst] its bark & a crosgag
(a ring) is made & place[d] in the
bottom of the milk boyne
Cneapag is the first worsted put
on the fearsaid the round ball
before the crosgag is made
C[alum] Cille the best herd that ev[e]r
lived & this he [presid[e]s?] ov[e]r sprei[dh]

Introducing a piece about St John’s wort in Carmina Gadelica, Carmichael adds that the plant has other very useful properties aside from those which may be termed medicinal. Indeed, St John’s wort could claim to be a panacea for all ills, whether physical or otherwise:

Saint John’s wort is one of the few plants still cherished by people to ward away second-sight, enchantment, witchcraft, evil eye, and death, and to ensure peace and plenty in the house, increase and prosperity in the fold, and growth and fruition in the field. The plant is secretly secured in the bodices of the women and in the vests of men, under the left armpit. Saint John’s wort, however, is effective only when the plant is accidentally found.

Echoing the first phrase to be met with in the above fragment, a fuller version of the incantation was provided by Carmichael:

‘Achlasan Chaluim-chille,
Gun sireadh, gun iarraidh!
Dheoin Dhia agus Chriosda
Am bliadhna chan fhaigheas bas.’

Saint John’s wort, Saint John’s wort,
Without search, without seeking!
Please God and Christ Jesu
This year I shall not die.

It is specially prized when found in the fold of the flocks, auguring peace and prosperity to the herd through the year. The person who discovers it says:–

‘Alla bhi, alla bhi,
Mo niarach a neach dh’ am bi,
An ti a gheobh an cro an ail,
Cha bhi gu brath gun ni.’

Saint John’s wort, Saint John’s wort,
Happy those who have thee,
Whoso gets thee in the herd’s fold,
Shall never be without kine.

CW 106, fo. 33r.
Carmina Gadelica ii, pp. 96–101.
St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) or achlasan Chaluim Chille.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Cures for Black Warts

Curious folk cures were also one of the genres which greatly interested Alexander Carmichael. The following cure for black warts or foinneachan dubha was probably noted down from Archibald Currie (1821–1896), a shoemaker who was aged around 46 at the time, and who belonged to Iochdar, South Uist, on 28 October 1872:

Foineachun du[bha] old wom[an]
at Bornish had warts. She set
to get straws with 9 uilt on
each sop & 81 for each wart.
Then to dig a pit & put 81 of these
in each for each wart. They were
to be left in the pits till they crione[adh]
& the warts were gone.

Elsewhere in Carmina Gadelica, Carmichael adds the following, presumably stemming from the same source:

A woman of Upper Bornish, who had many warts on hands and feet, procured with time and trouble ‘naoi naoi glùinean’, nine nine knees, i.e. nine stalks with nine joints on each stem. These she buried in the ground, and as the knots of the straws decayed, the warts disappeared.

Mar a chrìon a sìos na stràilleanan,
Chrìon gu bràth na foinneachan.

As withered down the straws,
Withered till doom the warts.

Other perhaps more scientific cures are then suggested by way of rubbing dry dust upon a wart, or to apply moist rust to it. Another method was to apply a poultice of broad-leaved tangle, a type of seaweed, to the wart which may result in getting rid of it due to the beneficial effect of the constituent iodine. Perhaps the most unlikely cures that were said to work are between these two methods: either to go to a cemetery and to ‘dip the wart in water lying on a gravestone’ or to rub ‘the wart against the clothes of one who has committed fornication.’

CW 106/102.
Carmina Gadelica ii, p. 334.
Carmina Gadelica iv, p. 221.
Image: Barley Straw.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Clanranald Stronghold of Dùn Raghnaill

Dùn Raghnaill
Lying some eighty yards from the southern shore of Loch Druidibeag is the ruin of a once impregnable fortlet still known as Dùn Raghnaill. Alexander Carmichael may have visited this island fortlet for himself and taken some measurements of it but, if he did, these do not seem to have survived. It is likely that this short historical narrative was collected from John MacInnes, or Iain mac Phàdruig (c. 1804–1894), who belonged to Stilligarry in South Uist, on 29 January 1875. On this winter’s day Carmichael took down a great deal of historical lore relating to the MacMhuirich bardic family, local antiquities and a most prestigious Fenian story ‘Ceudach nan Collachain Òir’ which MacInnes had heard from a fellow South Uist storyteller – and who may have been related to another Donald MacPhie recorded previously by both John Francis Campbell of Islay and Hector MacLean – Donald MacPhee, or Dòmhnall mac Aonghais ’ic Phroinsiais, in Carnan. Later Carmichael said of MacInnes that ‘several volumes of old lore, mostly heroic tales, died with this nice, intelligent man.’ Of other materials taken down from MacInnes by Carmichael, three items appear in Carmina Gadelica: versions of Beannachadh Leapa, Ora Cuithe and Féith Mhoire.

Built by Raol [Raghnall] mac Ailein. He
lived at Dremisdale & his son
on [sic] Mor[a]ir. A hard spring came
& the son came ashore at Loch
sgiopart for provender. I cant
give you any said the father – it’s
scarce with myself – I have only 3
stacks. At night the son went
out & began taking down a stack
The gre eir [greighear] came in & wakened
his master & told him his son was on
the top of the stack taking it away. Up
Rose Clanranald in his night-shirt with
his bow in hand. He threw & knocked down
his son & the sheaf together. His son left
a son in Mor[a]ir & Clan fearing that his
own grandson might come & kill
him built Dun-Ra[ghna]il[l]. The ath &
iodhlan are on “Eilean nan tailear”.

Perhaps the historical veracity of this particular anecdote can be questioned. Why would Clanranald’s son take the trouble to travel all the way from Morar, on the western seaboard of the Highlands, to South Uist? Reading between the lines, it seems rather implausible that he would go so far as this in order to gain some victuals. It would appear that this story hangs upon a power struggle between father and son, probably in order for the son to gain clan supremacy. The taking of the haystack was probably not the immediate reason but rather the final straw (pun intended!) which saw Clanranald fetch his bow in order to dispatch his son; nor, would it appear, that the fortlet was built in order to stop the aggression of a grandson seeking revenge for the death of his father.

Dùn Raghnaill appears to date to around no earlier than the sixteenth century which, according to tradition, was the earliest Clanranald stronghold in South Uist. It was occupied until relatively late: it was in use as a prison in 1610, and a marriage contract for one of Clanranald’s daughters was signed there in 1653.

An archeological description quoted from the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland provides more detail from a fairly recent excavation of this ruin though it fails to mention that the kiln and cornyard were located in the nearby island of Eilean nan Tàillear as noted down by Carmichael:

Dun Raouill, Loch Druidibeg. The island is largely natural, though possibly modified to the NE. Its entirety above water is covered by a substantial rectilinear drystone dun. At least three phases of building are evident. The first is the outer walling 1.5–2m thick, slightly denuded around the NE and SW corners, as well as along the W edge. The only gap is at the entrance on the SE corner. The passageway is largely overgrown and filled with rubble. The second phase of building is the construction of the inner chambers, the larger western one possibly being earlier than the eastern one. The walls are lower than the outer skin, roughly 1–1.5m high, and 1m thick. The eastern cell appears to be lower and thinner, 50cm high and 75cm wide, though this may be largely due to differential survival. The walls of the smaller eastern cell and the NW corner of the larger western cell appear to have been consolidated at a later date, apparent in a single skin of stones creating curvilinear ends to both chambers. Both are heavily overgrown with trees and shrubs.

CW 106/124, ff. 51v–52r.
Carmina Gadelica, i, pp. 82–83.
Carmina Gadelica, ii, pp. 130 –1; pp. 132–35 & p. 345 n.7
Dun Raouill [].
Raven, J. A. & Shelley, M., ‘South Uist and Benbecula Duns (South Uist Parish), Survey’, Discovery Excavation Scotland, vol. 4 (2003).
Image: Aerial photograph of Dùn Raghnaill.

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). [©]