Friday, 27 January 2012

Carmichael in Kintyre - 2: Rev. Donald John MacDonald of Killean

In the last blog we investigated Alexander Carmichael’s apparently one-off visit to the Island of Gigha on 9 June 1887, during his journey back from Islay to Edinburgh. He seems to have spent the night on the mainland, perhaps at the inn in Tayinloan, just north of Killean. His brief notes are as follows:

Left Kil[l]ean Kintire at 8am
10 June 1887. Rev. Don[ald] Macdon
ald (Nunton) not at home
his mother & sister here. Met
Miss Colville & her brother at
Manse – Mu[a]sdale

Carmichael travelled south to the manse at Muasdale to pay a visit to the local minister, the Rev. Donald John MacDonald (1855–1930) of Killean and Kilchenzie. Carmichael didn’t meet him that day, but it looks as if he did a few years later. The Rev. MacDonald is the subject of today’s blog.

Alexander Carmichael must have known the young MacDonald when he was a schoolboy in Uist: the minister’s father was Norman MacDonald, an important island tacksman, farming both Baile nan Cailleach or Nunton in Benbecula and Bhàlaigh in North Uist, while his mother Jessie – at the manse when Carmichael visited – was the daughter of the Rev. Roderick Maclean (1772–1854) of South Uist. Jessie MacDonald née Maclean (1822–1924) would die a centenarian in New South Wales. The ‘Miss Colville’ who was visiting the manse along with her brother was probably none other than Margaret Colvill (1859–1936), the daughter of Robert Colvill, Belgrove House, Campbeltown, proprietor of the Albyn Distillery there. Two years later, on 12 June 1889, she and the Rev. D. J. MacDonald would marry.

Even though Alexander Carmichael and the Rev. Donald John MacDonald didn’t meet in Kintyre, there seems no doubt that they came across each other a few years later. On 30 January 1891, both men were present at the first annual gathering of the Clan Macdonald Society, held at St Andrew (Berkeley) Hall in Glasgow. ‘The attendance’, reported the Scotsman, ‘was far in excess of the accommodation provided.’

It’s tempting to think that during the evening Carmichael may well have badgered the minister into carrying out his own researches into west Kintyre. The following year MacDonald gave a lecture on the history of his parish, subsequently published in the Campbeltown Courier, then as a stand-alone booklet. The Annals of the Church and Parish of Killean remains a basic, if brief, text for the history of Killean and Kilchenzie. Its success must have encouraged the minister to broaden his investigations into archaeology and folklore: on 30 January 1895 he delivered a paper to the Gaelic Society of Inverness, printed the following year as ‘Jottings – Legendary, Antiquarian, and Topographical – from West Kintyre’, TGSI xx (1894–6), 54–65.

This was not the only paper MacDonald prepared for the Gaelic Society of Inverness. In February 1908 a brief and intriguing article on ‘West Kintyre Field Names’ was read to the society by Carmichael’s son-in-law William J. Watson. Doubtless the great place-name expert had a hand in the version which appeared in print three years later [TGSI, xxvii (1908–11), 31–40]. MacDonald was also the transcriber of portions of the now lost manuscript diaries of Rev Murdoch MacDonald (1696–1763) – these transcriptions are preserved in the National Library of Scotland as Acc.11529.

The Rev. MacDonald was not just a local antiquarian. We’ll end this blog by having a look at a heated intervention he made in an episode in the long struggle for Gaelic to be taught as a recognised subject in Highland schools.

On Saturday 6 March 1897 a sizeable deputation under the Marquis of Lorne, including 34 Highland-linked organisations (among them eight clan societies – changed days!) and five MPs, waited upon the Conservative Secretary for Scotland ‘at the Scotch Office’ in London ‘to urge upon him the necessity for more systematic teaching of Gaelic in Schools in the Highlands’. The deputation requested that a grant for Gaelic be distributed as for other school subjects, that encouragement and support be given to bilingual instruction in the Highlands, and that Gaelic-speaking inspectors be hired, thus putting the language ‘in the same position as had already been conceded to Welsh in Wales and to French in the Channel Islands.’ In his discouraging reply Lord Balfour alleged lack of demand from parents and School Boards, and lack of need, stating further:

It seems to me that the more you prove that the Gaelic language is the language of the scholars [i.e. schoolchildren] the less you need to teach it as in itself a subject of study. If, on the other hand, it is put to us that it will disappear unless it is taught, then my answer is that that goes far to prove that it will not be the natural tongue of the scholars, and that it would be beyond the function of a Government Department artificially to keep it up. [Glasgow Herald, 8 March 1897]

Balfour’s rather sleekit ministerial logic, and his bald statement that there was no Gaelic literature to teach children in the language apart from the Bible, provoked the irate Rev. MacDonald to dash off what the Celtic Monthly praised as a ‘scathing letter’:

Gaelic-speaking children should be instructed in Gaelic because it is their natural language. Suppose we vary the terms, and say ‘the more you prove that English is the language of the scholar the less you need to teach it as in itself an object of study.’ … [H]e would be a poor dialectician who would suffer himself to be put on either the one horn or the other of Lord Balfour’s dilemma. …

Did Lord Balfour never hear of Ossian’s poems, of ‘Caraid nan Gaidheal,’ of John Campbell of Islay’s West Highland tales, or of M’Kenzie’s ‘Beauties of Gaelic Poetry’?

MacDonald ended the letter by returning to his childhood in Benbecula:

I attended school in one of the islands of the Outer Hebrides, in which people read [English] fluently indeed, but what they did read might have been Greek for all they understood of it. Had they been taught to read their own language, and this made the medium of instruction, I am sure it would have been otherwise, and they would have profited immeasurably more than they did by their education. And instead of objecting to Gaelic being spoken in school or playground the conditions under which the children were taught were a source of constant complaint on the part of their parents. Highlanders value and even love the Saxon tongue. But that is no reason why they should neglect a language having associations, historical and mental, of so close a nature for them, or suffer it to sink into decay and become extinct. Let all interested persevere in their demands, and none can deny them. [Glasgow Herald, 11 March 1897]

After over 45 years in the pulpit, the Rev. Donald John MacDonald of Killean and Kilchenzie left his charge on 1 March 1926. He died at Muasdale on Saturday 27 December 1930.

Celtic Monthly, 3 (1897), 130.
Glasgow Herald, 8 and 11 March 1897.
Rev. Donald John MacDonald, The Annals of the Church and Parish of Killean (Campbeltown, 1892).
_____. ‘Jottings – Legendary, Antiquarian, and Topographical – from West Kintyre’, TGSI xx (1894–6), 54–65.
_____. ‘West Kintyre Field Names’, TGSI, xxvii (1908–11), 31–40.
Scotsman, 31 January 1891, 9.

Where the Rev. Donald John MacDonald preached for over 45 years: Killean Church at Cleit, Kintyre. Image copyright J M Briscoe, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Carmichael in Kintyre - 1

Following a recent enjoyable visit to Campbeltown (Ceann Loch Chille Chiarain in Gaelic, or Ceann Locha for short), we thought we should have a brief look at some of what Alexander Carmichael recorded during a very brief visit to Kintyre – apparently his only one – in summer 1887.

Carmichael had been visiting the island of Islay for the unveiling of the monument to his friend and mentor John Francis Campbell (1821–85). This took place on Thursday 2 June; the following Saturday and Monday he conducted lengthy interviews about local Islay birdlife and fishes: nearly four thousand words in all. On Thursday 9 June, on his return journey, Carmichael appears to have stopped off at Gigha, the island where his younger colleague the Rev. Kenneth MacLeod would later serve as minister. Clearly tired out by his intensive collecting stint, he only managed to record a single page on this leg of his trip to the west.

He begins by writing down three bird names: firstly, fitheach-uisge [‘water-raven’], a sgart or cormorant, a word clearly related to Dwelly’s fitheach-mara and fitheach-fairge; secondly, Ailean na Gaoith Deas, ‘Allan of the South Wind’, apparently a local nickname for the mor-bhuachaill or muir-bhuachaill, a Great Northern Diver: Carmichael’s informant tells him that Ailean here means ‘ack’, glossed by the writer as ‘auk’; finally, a name for the teal duck: deirg or dearg. This last seems to correspond to Dwelly’s darcan (given as obsolete), probably a version of dearg-cheann, though ruadh might seem to be more appropriate for the teal’s chestnut-coloured head.

A list of place-names on the coast of west Kintyre follows, probably pointed out from Gigha opposite: Taigh a’ Chromain [Taychroman], Beath-meadhanach [Beacmenach], and Cleit, location of the handsome parish church, wrongly positioned as ‘N[orth] of Kil[l]ean’. Carmichael then records a proverb, ‘Posadh thar beinn ’s goisteac[hd] thar fo lingeari’, an apparently misconstrued version of the well-known advice ‘Pòsadh thar na h-innearach is goisteachd thar muir’ [Alexander Nicolson (ed.), A Collection of Gaelic Proverbs (Edinburgh: MacLachlan and Stewart, 1881), 338]: in Lowland Scots, ‘Marriage o’er the midden, sponsorship o’er sea’. An Islay version is ‘Goisteachd thar muir, 's pòsadh thar dùnain’. In other words, marriage sponsors can be chosen from afar, but care should be taken to select a spouse who is a ‘known quantity’! But what’s the meaning of the final term in the Gigha proverb? Carmichael answers this in his next line: ‘Lingearac[hd] = Midden!’ In other words, it’s (seemingly) just the normal ‘inneir’ (‘manure’, ‘dung[heap]’) with what seems to be a rather random initial ‘l’ added.

Carmichael then turns, rather half-heartedly, to a local antiquity:

Dunsgeig vitri[fied] fort
Carradale one also near
sea, One. This is a pen[insula] – nearly
an island (Dunsgaig?)

There is no mention of the various local legends connected with Dun Skeig, its fort, its caves, or the battle supposed to have been fought at its summit – nor, for that matter, are there any stories about Gigha’s most famous resident, or rather neighbour, the Cara Brownie. After a rather strenuous few days in Islay, it rather looks as if Alexander Carmichael was taking a rest.

Reference: CW89/99–100

Image: Eilean Ghiogha/The Isle of Gigha

Monday, 9 January 2012

Morag, the monster of Loch Morar - 3

Alexander Carmichael wasn’t the only person writing about Morag in the early 1900s. The life of the subject of our third blog in this series – a fisherman, poet, fiddler, dancer, swimmer, Mod medallist, and newspaper columnist – is narrated in the first two chapters of Alasdair Roberts’ fascinating Tales of the Morar Highlands (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006). According to his own account, James MacDonald (1872–1908) of Sandbank Cottage, 17 Mallaig Bheag, took to writing down stories – probably English elaborations of Gaelic originals – which he would tell his fellow crew members to pass the time at sea. These stories formed the basis of a monthly column of local lore, stories, and autobiographical pieces which appeared in the West Coast edition of the Highland News. Unfortunately, as we saw in the previous blog, it doesn’t appear as if a run of that particular edition of the paper is preserved. What we do have, however, is Tales of the Highlands, by a Mod Medallist (Inverness, 1907), a collection of his columns which MacDonald had printed for friends and family. Today the little book is exceptionally rare: only two copies of it are known.

Among the writings in Tales of the Highlands, composed in the romantic, flowery style favoured by Victorian journalists with a column to fill, is a piece about Morag. This item has been reprinted in full in the book by Elizabeth Montgomery Campbell with David Solomon, The Search for Morag (London: Tom Stacey, 1972), pp. 109–10. In it, MacDonald writes that:

The Mhorag as a rule only shows herself on Loch Morar whenever a member of a certain clan is about to die. We durst not name the clan, but the clan there be, and woe betide someone on the night when the Mhorag detaches herself upon the surface in three distinct portions – one portion representing death, another a coffin, and the third a grave.

When the Mhorag appears in her normal state she is, as far as one can judge, a most attractive creature. The face is fair and prepossessing as that of the most winsome maid. Her blue eyes and wreaths of yellow hair, which are the most prominent proofs of her assumption to beauty, come upon the onlooker as a glad surprise, and thus confronting her she very much resembles a mermade, only the Mhorag’s body is more cumbrous than that of the latter. In fact, it is more in affinity to the sea serpent’s than the ‘Mhoighdin Mhara’s’.

MacDonald claims that he himself met Morag one winter’s night in January 1887, while crossing Loch Morar to stalk a deer at Rhetland. He continues:

A man from Brinincory [i.e. Brinacory] told me that the Mhorag once chased a boat from Scamadale all the way to Romasaig, and, after swimming in front, she raised herself almost clean out of the water, and on revealing a snowy bosom she afterwards began shaking a cluster of yellow hair with such magic grace that every time the tresses discurled themselves they rained showers of gold on the lucky wights that stood gazing in bewilderment hard by.

After this unprecedented lavishness of the miraculous metal having continued for some time, a young man, a member of the forbidden clan, who, being in the boat, grew so enamoured of the clustering locks that contained so much of intrinsic value in them, enhanced by the glow of the saintly violet eyes, dainty mouth, and teeth, that he plunged into the water to embrace the alluring creature, which, we may add, reciprocated to the length of enfolding the glamoured swain in her arms after the most endearing fashion conceivable, and like Tommie Hood’s ‘Hero and Leander’.

The outcome was that the two sailed down, down, down towards the maiden’s submarine palaces below, in that terrific depth between Swordland and Meoble…   Hence, however, we believe the ‘Mhorag’s’ special predeliction for her periodical visits to the domain of Swordland, the scene of her wooing, winning and widowhood.

Blog readers will remember how Alexander Carmichael’s third and later piece about Morag rather differs from the first two. Instead of the cnap dubh or ‘black lump’ of earlier descriptions, the creature has now become something much more like a conventional mermaid, ‘half human half fish’. It may well be that in the interim Carmichael had met none other than James MacDonald; a likely occasion is the Oban Mod held on 26–28 September 1906.

The Oban Mod of 1906 was the gathering where James MacDonald won his prizes. On Thursday 27 September he finished in second place, winning £1, in in the competition ‘Seann Sgeulachd – Folk Tale (preferably unpublished) – narrated in the traditional style’. Incidentally, the first prize (£3) was carried off by David B. Fletcher, Morvern, and the adjudicators were the landowner Osgood H. MacKenzie of Inverewe (1842–1922), the Gaelic scholar the Rev. Neil Ross (1871–1943), and the Skye poet Neil MacLeod (1843–1913). James MacDonald also won another second prize, this time a silver medal, in playing of a Gaelic song on the violin.

Here are a few guesses and possibilities. Though we have as yet no direct evidence, it is probable that Alexander Carmichael also attended the Oban Mod. A piece of circumstantial evidence is that the folklorist does appear to have visited the Ross of Mull in September 1906, recording the fairy story ‘Dùn Bhuirg ’na theine’ from a fisherman John MacInnes at Bunessan [CW368 fo.278]: it is most likely that he’d have travelled out there from the ‘Charing Cross of the Highlands’. If Carmichael was at the Mod, he would surely have attended the Folk Tale recitation. If he did, he would have talked to James MacDonald about his visit to MacDonald’s native district four years previously, and about the mysterious creature of Loch Morar. Maybe it was Morag herself who was the subject of MacDonald’s seann sgeulachd. One way of cutting through all this guesswork and finding out, of course, might be to consult James MacDonald’s column about the Oban Mod printed in his book – but the only available copy is in Mallaig. We’ll keep you posted!

In addition to his other talents, James MacDonald was a fine swimmer. For saving the lives of three girls on board his boat when it capsized in Mallaig Bay in 1901, he was awarded a silver medal by the Royal Humane Society. On 24 February 1908, however, MacDonald was drowned, apparently while making an accustomed swim across Loch Moidart to Eilean Shona, where he was staying at the time, after giving a dancing lesson on the mainland. Family tradition says that following the tragedy the local doctor rowed around the island every night for six weeks until MacDonald’s body was found.

James MacDonald’s column about Morag demonstrates that many more Gaelic speakers than just Alexander Carmichael, people from all walks of life, were engaged in translating, adapting, and elaborating Gaelic stories in print for an English-speaking audience. Part of the problem these writers faced was how to make Highland beliefs comprehensible, accessible, and appealing to those outside the region, yet at the same time to preserve – or even introduce – some distinguishing traits. Note how James MacDonald – or even his original source – appears to have altered the creature of Loch Morar into a mermaid, but at the same time has given her a ‘more cumbrous’ body, ‘more in affinity to a sea serpent’s’.

To conclude: many still believe that the supposed growth of modern rationality, secularisation, and a scientific world-view has led to the ‘disenchantment’ of the world, as old superstitions and magical and mystical beliefs everywhere wither and die. The case of ‘The Morag’ suggests that in certain circumstances this might not exactly be the case. Supernatural ‘water deity’ though she might have been, Morag in Alexander Carmichael’s day seems to have been for many locals a surprisingly straightforward kind of creature, even rather prosaic: people generally knew what she looked like, and what her function was: to foretell the death of a member of a local family (Morar tradition states that it was the Gillies of Loch Nevis side rather than the MacDonalds, as Carmichael wrote).

Contrast Morag as was with Morag in our scientific age: a dimly perceived and fleetingly glanced unknown creature, an enigma, an inexplicable anomaly, a ‘monster’. This Morag has in the relatively recent past been the elusive object of considerable scientific research involving exhaustive biological surveys of the chemistry of the loch, its botany and fauna; painstaking correlations of sightings; and even diving expeditions and a submarine observation chamber. Nothing was found. Which is the more enchanted? The wailing and ‘much disliked’ creature known as Mòrag dhuibhre and the Mòrag odhar ghrànnda of the Morar of a hundred years ago, or the elusive crytozoological mystery of our present?

Campbell, Elizabeth Montgomery Campbell with David Solomon. The Search for Morag (London: Tom Stacey, 1972), pp. 81, 108–10.
Mod Report, 1906: An Deo-Ghréine, ii, 2 (Samhuinn, 1906), p. 30.
Roberts, Alasdair. Tales of the Morar Highlands (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006), pp. 3–28, 117–33.

Image: Loch Morar (many thanks to Iain Thornber for the magnificent photograph)

Friday, 6 January 2012

A Strathconon Phlebotomist in the Loudies

The series of scrapbooks from CW537 to CW576, filled with newspaper cuttings from newspapers published across the Highlands and beyond, has been rather neglected by the Carmichael Watson Project over the years. A recent query from Dr Jake King of Ainmean-àite na h-Alba/Gaelic Place-Names of Scotland sent us back to the strongroom shelves to have a second look at what is a wonderful resource. Local newspaper columns at the end of the nineteenth century, buzzing with letters and articles, served as a clearing-house for discussion about all kinds of items connected with Highland literature, lore, and history. The great Gaelic scholars of the time kept a close eye on Highland newspapers for any material of interest, and it looks as if we have in the CW collection examples of the cuttings books of Alexander Macbain, the Rev. Charles M. Robertson, Prof. William J. Watson, and Henry Whyte (‘Fionn’).

We look forward to the digitisation of all newspapers in the British Library collection currently being carried out. When – eventually – these are accessible online, it will allow those of us with an interest in Highland history and culture to investigate and assess a still sorely underused level of literature, an ephemeral and lively medium half-way between manuscripts and printed books. We worry, though, that some newspapers may be lost forever: one grievous loss, for example, appears to be the West Coast edition of the Highland News, the main outlet for Gaelic material in that paper. Only the Inverness edition, fascinating though it is, has been archived for posterity.

Here’s one example out of thousands preserved in the cuttings books: a (very lightly edited) Highland Reaper’s Song, transcribed from CW558, p. 34, a cutting from the Northern Chronicle, 4 March 1885:


SIR, – Reading to-day the last volume issued of the Life of Thomas Carlyle, I was reminded, by a passage quoted (p. 325) from a letter to his wife, of some fragments of a song – of no great merit, certainly – which I used to hear sung more than sixty years ago by Highland shearers on their return from the ‘Loudies’ (Lothians). Their composition was ascribed to the ‘Bard Conanach.’ I am sure there must be a good many more verses than those which I send you, but I can recall no more – and no great matter! – Yours, &c. OCTOGENARIAN.

Tomnafeille, 24th. Feb. 1885

Tha mi ’n diugh ann an Dunèdin,
’S bha mi ’n dé ann an Dunbàr,
’S bi mi ’maireach an Dunchailion,
’S bi mi ’nearar ann am Blàr.

   So haorăvi ho-ru-nŏ-ŏ,
   So haorăvi ho-ru-naan,
   So haorăvi ho-ro-eile,
   ’S mo rùn fein dhuit gu bhi slàn.

Chaith mi ùin’ aig Port-na-ban-Righ
(’S beag a bh’ agam ’shannt ri tàmh),
Gus an d’ thainig am fear crubach
A chuireadh na siuil ris a bhàt.


’S tha na leabannan cho daor ac’
Gun an t-eudach a bhi slàn;
’S bi na boguis ga mo chaobadh,
Mas ’gabh mi ’s an eudach blàs.
   So haorăvi, &c.

Ach cuiridh mise m’ aghaidh dhachaidh,
’S ann gu tìr nan cas-bheann àrd,
Far am biodh na mnathan fialaidh,
Nach do chleachd ’bhi ’g iarraidh pàigheadh.
   So haorăvi, &c.

Port na Bànrigh is of course Queensferry, while the hungry boguis are none other than (bed)bugs. The reference to Carlyle’s biography is to rather biased observations about Irish and Highland reapers in James Anthony Froude’s Thomas Carlyle: A History of his Life in London (London, 1884), volume i, p. 325. We don’t (yet) know who the Northern Chronicle’s ‘Octogenarian’ correspondent was. Tomnafeille, however, might be Tomnafeil, now anglicised as Markethill, in Fort Augustus – though there is another possible candidate in Markethill near Dunbeath.

Am Bàrd Conanach was the sawyer Donald MacDonald (1780–1832), whose life is described in John Mackenzie (ed.), Sàr Obair nam Bard Gaelach (Glasgow, 1841), pp. 347–51, and in Keith Norman MacDonald (ed.), MacDonald Bards from Mediæval Times (Edinburgh: Norman MacLeod, 1900), pp. 48–9.

In his paper ‘The Gaelic Incantations and Charms of the Hebrides’, published in the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, xviii (1891–2), pp. 157–8 [reprinted in booklet form as Gaelic Incantations: Charms and Blessings of the Hebrides (Inverness: Northern Counties Newspaper and Publishing Company, 1895), pp. 61–2], William Mackenzie prints a blood staunching charm he had learnt from:

Duncan Campbell, an old Strathconan man, now resident in Beauly. He learnt it from a sister of Donald MacDonald, the Bard Conanach. The Bard, it appears, was celebrated for his Charms and Incantations, and taught the present one to his sister.

In an accompanying footnote, Mackenzie prints the following anecdote:

In local tradition he is represented as having been particularly successful both in letting and in staunching blood. On one occasion, while at the harvest in the Lothians, he lodged with a weaver, who was also a noted phlebotomist. A full-blooded damsel of the district called on the weaver in order that he might let her blood. He tried with all his skill, but the blood would not come. Whereupon the Bard took the damsel in hand, and, taking her by the small of the wrist, squeezed an artery, with the result that the blood squirted in the weaver’s face. The weaver desired the Bard to show him his method. The Bard responded in verse:–

Cha tugainn eolas mo lamh fhein
Dh’fhear bhualadh slinn no chuireadh i;

Lot thu gairdean na nighean dhonn
’S cha ’n fhac thu steall de ’n fhuil aice;

’S an uair a theannaich mi caol a dùirn
Mu ’dha shuil bha ’n fhuil aice.

Obviously, for somebody such as the bard who made his living from sharp blades – and, perhaps, from sharpening blades at the reaping – the skill of staunching blood would be very useful, and maybe rather lucrative as well.

Sources: CW558, p. 34 [Northern Chronicle, 4 March 1885].
Froude, James Anthony. Thomas Carlyle: A History of his Life in London (2 vols, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1884), i, p. 325.
MacDonald, Keith Norman (ed.). MacDonald Bards from Mediaeval Times (Edinburgh: Norman MacLeod, 1900), pp. 48–9.
Mackenzie, John (ed.). Sàr Obair nam Bard Gaelach (Glasgow, 1841), pp. 347–51.
Mackenzie, William. ‘The Gaelic Incantations and Charms of the Hebrides’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, xviii (1891–2), pp. 157–8.

Image: F. H. Mole, Highland Reapers (engraving).

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). [©]