Friday, 30 March 2012

Fort William Part II

Our home away from home!

Last Saturday the team headed up to Fort William for our second photographic venture at the West Highland Museum. The Museum in now open to the public 10:00 – 16:00 except Sundays (open to 17:00 as of April) and is well worth a visit. Keep an eye out for the Carmichael Collection reference number, WHM 1992 13, if you do visit!

 Domhnall Uilleam sorting out the coins.

We were ensconced by 8:30 on Sunday morning because, luckily, everyone remembered that the clocks went forward! Firstly Carsten Flieger, our photographer, was keen to finish up the bronze brooches and then move swifly on to the coins. And there were plenty of them, especially Spanish coins which were sent to Carmichael by his son who lived in Spain.

Once the coins were photographed there was quite a selection left including an oil lamp with man’s head, sheep’s jawbone, Egyptian figure, purses and the whorls. We had previously photographed the whorls as they were tied together on twine by Carmichael and had a handwritten label attached pertaining to how and where he came across them. The team thought the whorls deserved closer inspection and Carsten photographed them according to size and stone.

 Carsten busy at work.

All the photography is completed for the time being and we have over 500 images ready to be processed. It will be a busy couple of months for the team but quite exciting. As the last couple of blog entries have discussed, there are references to the objects in the notebooks and it is great discovering the provenance of these objects.
Do not disturb!

The only downside to the trip was that the weather was so fantastic and we were stuck indoors!

Again the team would like to thank Sally Archibald for her patience and enthusiasm as well as the WHM manager Colleen Foggo.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

A Powder Horn and a Red Pebble from Coll

A great thing about the Carmichael Watson Collection is that you can never quite be sure what will turn up next. Here’s a transcription of CW503 fos.143–5, a short piece written by Carmichael, probably in the 1880s or 1890s, about two objects connected with the Macleans of Coll, more specifically with Donald Maclean, ‘Young Coll’, the son and heir of Hugh, thirteenth laird of Coll, who was drowned in the Sound of Ulva on Sunday 25 September 1774. Maclean had won a name for himself far beyond the Highlands for having taken Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell under his wing during their tour to the Hebrides, between 23 September and 17 October 1773.

We are still trying to locate the Macleans’ red quartz pebble, but the powder horn has already been the subject of a blog just a few months ago. Carmichael’s essay turns our previous conclusions on their head! The powder horn is given what appears to be a fairly trustworthy provenance, suggesting that it wasn’t just described as being from that island because there happened to be a stray mention of a Coll powder horn in a waulking song.

The donor of the red quartz pebble was Mary MacInnes (c. 1816–1903), Taigh a’ Ghearraidh, North Uist, the daughter of Angus MacInnes, cottar, and Ann née MacDonald. She gave Carmichael Fenian material as well – the tale A’ Bhruighin Chaorainn (CW104/17 [fos.39–40v]), and probably a version of Laoidh Fhraoich (CW104/18 [fos.40v–42]) – on 3 April 1866. We aren’t told what her service was to the member of the Macleans of Coll, though it’s interesting that she appears as a ‘nurse or domestic servant’ in the household of Donald MacAulay, innkeeper at Taigh a’ Ghearraidh, in the 1871 census, and as a ‘fever nurse’ in the 1891 census.

We don’t know – yet, at least – who the anonymous woman from Smearcleit, South Uist, who donated the powder horn might have been. Interestingly enough, the one informant we have record of in Carmichael’s papers from that township was also a MacInnes (though surely of a quite different family), Angus MacInnes (c. 1798–1871), son of John MacInnes, crofter, and Ann née Steele.

We don’t know why Alexander Carmichael compiled so many short essays like this one. They may have been written as brief and hitherto unlocated articles for periodicals or newspapers. On the other hand, they may have been put together as ‘show and tell’ talks for local Highland societies in the Lowlands, or even for Carmichael’s own friends and acquaintances.

                                                     [later hand: Clach bheag nan tursanan]

                                                                                            Various [later hand: Frìth]

The writer has a small pebble of red quartz
that was used in making the frith and other forms
of occult sciences. It is called Clach Bheag
nan tursanan – the little stone of the quests.
   The pebble belonged to the Macleans of Coll
by whom it was much prized and sacredly kept.
It came down to them through remote antiquity.
I got the stone from Mary Macinnes, cottar,
Taigh-a-ghearruidh, North Uist. She got it from
a member of the Coll family to whom she
had been of great service in her day.
   This pebble of red quartz had been used
in the frith in discovering the body of Donald
Maclean of Coll when he was drowned in
the sound of Ulva. Donald Maclean
was engaged to one of the two daughters of
Sir Hector Maclean of Innis Choinnich. He
was on his way to Innis Choinnich and along
with him several friends among them an
English gentleman. Among others in the boat
was [blank] Maclean of [blank]
who quarrelled with Donald Maclean
over Sir Hector’s daughters. The much
overladen boat was upset and sank beneath
their feet only one man escaping. He climbed
up the mast the top of which was above water,
Maclean of Lochbuie demanded the man
to come down and give place to his better.
Bha thusa bhos mo chionns an de agus
tha mis os do chionns an diugh, ars an duine.
Bha thu fada gu leoir os mo chionn anns
an t-saoghal seo. Bithidh sinn cothram [del: anns
an ath] [addition above: ’s an] shaoghal [addition: thall]
   The only man saved was [blank
                     ] He lived till a good old age
but he was wisely reticent over the drowning
but indicated that there had been foul play
in the boat.
   The death of Donald Maclean of Coll
made a great sensation all over the [del: whole]
British Isles to whom he was known and
endeared through Dr. Johnson and Boswell.
He greatly endeared himself to all who knew
him and very specially so to his own people of Coll.
   The writer has also the pow[d]er horn that
belonged to Donald Maclean. It was found
upon his body. It was taken possession
of by a man from South Uist living in Coll.
The man brought the horn to Uist and
I got it from his great grand daughter at
Smearcleit South Uist.
   The pow[d]erhorn is now plain the silver
mounting having been taken off. The initials
of Donald Maclean are on the side of the horn
                     A. Carmichael

CW503 fos.143–5.

Donald Maclean's powder horn.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Prince Charlie's Creepy Stool

Just yesterday as I was searching the collection for seabean references I happened upon a description of the Creepy Stool that is housed in the West Highland Museum. This was very interesting as we photographed the stool on our last trip to the museum.

The writer possesses a small stool on which Prince Charlie sat the night Flora MacDonald took him across from Uist to Skye. The stool is simply a tree root on three legs and is like a [above: bread] toaster [deleted: slightly more curved]. It was known in the family from whom it was obtained [later addition: and to whose ancestors it belonged when used by the Prince] as Far chrann a Phrionnsa the [above: food] toaster of the Prince furm a Phrionnsa the form of the Prince and Stol a Phrionnsa the stool of the Prince.

CW228 is an article about The Prince Charlie Stool and gives an account of how Carmichael came into possession of it. He received it from Rachel MacDonald, Bororay, North Uist whose mother and mother’s mother passed on the stool. On a visit to the island Carmichael noted that the history of the stool was well known and that the history was ‘clear and distinct’. He was eager to meet the owner and see the stool and on meeting her he asked her for the stool! Initially she was not eager to part with it while she was alive but some years later she travelled to meet Carmichael at Lochmaddy in order to give him the stool. Alexander placed five shillings in her hand ‘to buy some small gift with it before she went back to her island home’ but Rachel refused to accept the money. She said it took away from the pleasure she had in gifting the ‘far-chrann’ to him.

A number of items in the Carmichael Collection at Fort William still have their tags with them, some written by Alexander and others by his daughter, Ella. Here is the label that is with the stool, can you make out what it says?

This is a really exciting time for the team to be combining the textual collection here at the University of Edinburgh with the object collection housed in the West Highland Museum. In the coming weeks we will be working on getting the photographs ready for the website!

CW386(b) Creepy Stool
CW228 The Prince Charlie Stool

Monday, 19 March 2012

A lost St Kilda Gospel?

All sorts of unusual information and anecdotage lurk in murky corners of the Carmichael Watson Collection. Here is a piece relating to the Island of Boraraigh or Boreray in the St Kilda archipelago. A recent survey by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) has found evidence that the island, previously thought only to be home to many thousands of seabirds and a flock of sheep, may in fact have been inhabited by humans for many centuries, right up until the seventeenth century.

The undated item, CW170 fo.16, is written in Carmichael’s hand. It refers to the Rev. Lauchlan MacLeod (1762–1832), minister of St Kilda between 1788 and 1830 when he left his charge and retired to the Island of Berneray, Harris: perhaps a corroboration of part of the story given below.

Macleod, Lachlan Rev.


Mr Lachlann Macleod was for many years minister in S. Kilda. After coming from S. Kilda, when dining with Macleod of Bearnaray in the Sound of Harris, he was choked with a piece of beef. He told Macleod of Bearnaray that boys – perhaps girls also – were digging in taigh an stallair in Boraraidh near S. Kilda and in their upturning they came upon a curious ‘stone’. They brought home the stone from Bororay to St. Kilda. The ‘stone’ was a parchment manuscript of the Gospels now become hard and solidified like stone. The minister said that  the letters were like Hebrew – old Celtic. What became of the M.S. no one knows. Probably the M.S. belonged to the anchorite who lived in [the] lonely spot.

When the team were up in Fort William looking at Carmichael’s material collections, one of them got rather excited when he found in a box of odds and ends a small lump looking like a stone on the outside, but apparently made from closely packed sheets with writing on them. Could this be part of the Rev. Lauchlan’s long-lost parchment manuscript? Unfortunately, probably not: the rock seems to be a papier-mâché one made for the West Highland Museum and once used as a perch for a stuffed bird or animal in their exhibition!

References: CW170 fo.16
Hew Scott et al. (eds), Fasti Ecclesiæ Scoticanæ vii, 194.

Image: The Island of Boreray, from the website

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Prayers, blessings, charms, and incantations: What Carmichael did and didn't print before Carmina Gadelica - II

In this blog and the next one we’d like to take a look at how Alexander Carmichael was first inspired to publish charms he had collected, in the ‘Nether-Lochaber’ column of the Inverness Courier, compiled by his friend the Rev. Alexander Stewart (1829–1901).

Stewart was always looking for fresh material for his newspaper column, a compendium of local anecdotes and observations, mainly concerning natural history and folklore, whose lively conversational style and curious subject matter had won a wide readership throughout the country. For many readers, ‘Nether-Lochaber’ was the Inverness Courier. Among the myriad topics broached by Stewart were proverbs, riddles, songs, and charms: short, unusual items which could fill a column and were almost guaranteed to elicit a response from readers, encouraging them to send in examples of their own.

From September 1871 ‘Nether-Lochaber’ began to mine a productive lode, printing a series of Gaelic riddles and other linguistic curiosities together with English translations. Among them was a healing charm, ‘taken down for us a short time ago by a gentleman in a neighbouring district from the recitation of an old woman on his property. It bears internal evidence of being intended for use only in the case of sprains, bruises, and dislocations.’ This was printed, together with a translation, in the Inverness Courier for 9 November 1871:

Esan a mharcaich gu stòld’,
Air an asail dheas òg a bha grinn;
A leighis gach creuchd ’s gach plàigh,
’S a dh-aisig gu slaint’ na bha tinn;
Leighis E sùilean an doill,
Do’n bhacach rinn rathad réidh;
Le Peadair ’s le Pàl, ’s le Muire bean àigh,
Biodh dlu an drasd’, a leigh[e]as nan cnamh ’s nam féith’.
Suathadh a’s sile a’s luibh Challam-chille
   (’An ainm an Athair),
Suathadh a’s sile a’s luibh Challam-chille
   (’An ainm a Mhic),
Suathadh a’s sile a’s luibh Challam-chille
   (’An ainm an Spioraid Naoimh),
Suathadh a’s sile a’s pòg ’o bhilibh –

He that rode with dignity
On the fine young ass that was handsome;
Who healed every wound and plague,
And restored the sick to health;
He healed the blind man’s eyes,
And made a level path for the crippled man;
With Peter and Paul, with Mary, blessed woman,
May [He] be near now, to heal the bones and sinews.
Rubbing and spittle and Saint Columba’s wort
   (In the name of the Father),
Rubbing and spittle and Saint Columba’s wort
   (In the name of the Son),
Rubbing and spittle and Saint Columba’s wort
   (In the name of the Holy Ghost),
Rubbing and spittle and a kiss from the lips –

On 20 June 1872, after the interest in riddles had run its course, Stewart published another four charms, including the two taken from Caraid nan Gàidheal. These were Rann Galar nan Sùl (‘A Rhyme for Sore Eyes’); Eòlas air a’ Ghréim-Mhionaich (‘A Charm for the Colic’); Eòlas an t-Snìomh (‘A Charm for a Sprain’); and Eòlas an Tairbhein (‘A Charm for the Tairbhean’). One reader in particular was inspired by the column to send in some charms from his own collection: Alexander Carmichael.

‘Nether-Lochaber’, Inverness Courier, 9 November 1871 & 20 June 1872.

Rev. Alexander Stewart, ‘Nether-Lochaber’, Celtic Monthly, ix (1901), 19.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Prayers, blessings, charms, and incantations: What Carmichael did and didn't print before Carmina Gadelica

From his papers we can calculate that during the time he lived in Uist, between 1864 and 1882, Alexander Carmichael recorded at least 62 charm texts. But in actual fact, Carmichael would print hardly any of this rich corpus under his own name before he published the first two volumes of Carmina Gadelica in 1900. What did appear was a number of prayers and blessings among other ‘old hymns’ included in ‘Grazing and Agrestic Customs of the Outer Hebrides’, Carmichael’s unorthodox contribution to Appendix A of the Napier Commission’s Report into the Condition of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1884), 451–82; these were republished in Lord Archibald Campbell’s Records of Argyll (Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1885), 385–98. Some of these appeared again in the paper Carmichael gave on 24 December 188 about ‘Uist Old Hymns’ to the Gaelic Society of Glasgow, a revised version of a newspaper report of which was printed in the Society’s Transactions, i (1887–91), 34–47.

Now, it seems significant that neither of these pieces, ‘Grazing and Agrestic Customs’ or ‘Uist Old Hymns’, actually contains any item whatsoever which Carmichael would include in the second volume of Carmina Gadelica, the one mostly taken up with Uibe or Incantations. What we do have in these articles are what he was to describe in the first volume of CG as Achaine or Invocations: that is, blessings and prayers. This inevitably brings us to the delicate and problematic distinction between blessings and prayers, and charms and incantations. The Gaelic scholar Alexander Macbain, whom we’ll meet again shortly, anticipates a common, but by no means uncontroversial, modern definition of the latter when he writes:

An incantation consists of a formula of words which is recited to bring about certain physical results to which the meaning of the words has some correspondence more or less direct. [Alexander Macbain, ‘Gaelic incantations’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, xvii (1890–1), 222].

But strict, watertight divisions between the two genres are difficult to uphold. Macbain admits as such a few pages later on:

The exact line of demarcation on the one hand between what is an incantation and what is a prayer or hymn, and on the other hand between an incantation and an ordinary secular song, is often difficult to draw. [ibid., 230]

We can build on Macbain’s suggestion by suggesting that, pragmatically and in general, it was felt that charms tended to focus upon specific ailments or accidents, to ‘bespell’ people, or to protect them against evil eye. Of course prayers could also function to protect or cure; charms, however, often needed to be recited by a specific class of people to be efficacious: the luchd-eòlais, or ‘cunning folk’ in English. Charms were usually more ‘performance pieces’ than prayers, often delivered with the assistance of an object or an amulet, in specific places, at specific times, and under specific conditions of enactment. Most importantly of all, charms had to be kept secret. Often a charm couldn’t be given to just anybody. If it were to retain its efficacy, it had to be handed down under certain restrictions: a woman had to give a charm text to a man or vice versa, for example. Once the charm had been given to somebody else, the original reciter might lose their power to use it. Prayers, on the other hand, were much more portable, and much more public.

In both ‘Grazing and Agrestic Customs’ and ‘Uist Old Hymns’, it’s notable that Carmichael never uses the words ‘charm’ or ‘incantation’. We have ‘hymns’, ‘prayers’, ‘invocations’, ‘croons’, and ‘dedicatory hymns’, but no charms. If anything, Carmichael appears keen to play down the category: although he reprints six pieces from the Napier Commission Report in ‘Uist Old Hymns’, it may be significant that this time he misses out the Beannachadh Buachailleachd (‘Herding Blessing’) and the Rann Buachailleachd (‘Herding Rune’), prayers to protect cows which to our eyes shade suspiciously into charms to be recited by milkmaids and cattle herds. Mention is certainly made in ‘Uist Old Hymns’ of a Eòlas Ceartais, but this piece is described as a prayer rather than a charm for justice, and is not printed in the article. Incidentally, this was probably the Eòlas Ceartais obtained from Catrìona Macintosh, Staoidhligearraidh, on 20 May 1875 (CW87/17 [fos.12v–13]), and printed as Ora Ceartais, no. 20 in CG i, 52–3.

Two questions for the next blog on this subject: Which charms recorded by Alexander Carmichael had been published before Carmina? And why was he apparently so reluctant to see them in print once more?

Alexander Carmichael, ‘Grazing and Agrestic Customs of the Outer Hebrides’, Parliamentary Report into the Condition of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1884), 451–82.
_____. ‘Prayers and hymns of the Hebrides’ in Lord Archibald Campbell (ed.), Records of Argyll (Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1885), 385–98.
_____. ‘Uist old hymns’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Glasgow, i (1887–91), 34–47.
Alexander Macbain, ‘Gaelic incantations’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, xvii (1890–1), 222–66.

Staoiligearraidh, home of Catriona Macintosh

Monday, 5 March 2012

Breac anns an Tobar

St Andrew's Well, Isle of Lismore, Argyllshire
A bricein in Tob (Tobar) D (Domhnull) nan
Ord 140 yrs (years) old. A strange
lad took it out Then put it
back & Stop ad cuir cann (ceann)
on. The trout died.

This is quite an unusual entry in Carmichael’s notebooks dated 27 September 1883 and collected from John Livingstone 'Muillear Mòr', Portnacroish, Appin aged 73 years. The mention of trout in wells is not very common although it does get a mention in Seán Ó Suilleabháin’s A Handbook of Irish Folklore: is a trout or other fish supposed to inhabit the well permanently? Is it considered unlucky to meddle with this fish?

With a bit of research it was discovered that a trout or even an eel living in a well was a good omen, especially if they appeared at the time of pilgrimage. If the fish was removed there were often consequences. Here is a story related to Sunday’s Well, Walshestown, Co. Cork:

The story is to the effect that a local woman carried home water from the well to boil potatoes, but unfortunately the eel had been drawn out at the same time. To her amazement the water remained cold after hours of boiling until her husband found out what had happened and returned the eel and water to the well. But this did not appease the offended spirit, who caused the well to dry up; and it has remained dry to the present day. (Cordner, 30)

On further research to the Scottish Studies Archive a handful of references to trout in wells were discovered in the MacLagan Manuscripts and the oral recordings:
            From Mrs McLean, Kintra, Islay.
Tobar a’bhric, is the name of a well on Lic. Which is now a part of the Estate of Ballinaby, in Islay. It is said to have got this name because it has never yet been seen without a trout in it. Long ago offerings used to be made to it and old people treated it with much respect, under the belief that it possessed healing properties.

            From William Forbes, Camuserney, Perthshire (oral recording summary)
Wells: this well, only wishing well he knows of. Called tobar taimh in Gaelic. Quite a number of wells in the area, but he does not know their names. There was a village well until recently. The women cleaned it out each year. 1 trout always kept in it, which they fed. Trout quite a pet. When it died, no fish for many years, then replaced.

From Stephen Bichan, Rendall, Orkney (oral recording summary)
Fish in wells: has heard of eels in wells in North Isles, not in Deerness; but there is a saying that a girl expecting a love-child has "a trout in the well".

A well in Kilbride is mentioned by Martin Martin in his A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland :
I saw a little Well in Kilbride in the South of Skie, with one Trout only in it; the Natives are very tender of it, and tho they often chance to catch it in their wooden Pales, they are very careful to preserve it from being destroy’d; it has been seen there for many Years: there is a Rivulet not far distant from the Well, to which it hath probably had access thro some narrow Passage.

He also refers to Skye and the well of Lough-Siant well and the surrounding area:

There is a  little fresh-water Lake within ten Yards of the said Well; it abounds with Trouts, but neither the natives nor Strangers will ever presume to destroy any of them, such is the Esteem they have for the Water.

MacLagan Manuscripts, Volume 25, pps 5319-5320
Oral Recordings 1964 17 a6 and 1967 115 A11
Cordner, W. S., ‘The Cult of the Holy Well’, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 9 (1946), 24-36.
Martin, Martin A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (Glasgow : T.D. Morison, 1884), 141.
Ó Súilleabháin, Sean A Handbook of Irish Folklore (Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1970), 279.

St Andrew's Well, Isle of Lismore, Argyllshire, taken by Ciorstag, August 2009.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Tracking Down Treasures

Last Sunday the team made their way through beautifully snowy glens to Fort William to carry out a significant piece of work for the project. Fort William is home to the West Highland Museum, where the majority of the artefacts collected by Alexander Carmichael are held. Indeed, the museum has looked after the collection for a long time, first taking it in as a loan from Michael Carmichael, one of Alexander's grandsons, in 1948 before it was gifted to the museum in 1992.

Domhnall Uilleam placing a winnowing riddle for Carsten to photograph

In addition to research, this phase of the project aims to catalogue all the objects collected by Carmichael. In order to make a useful online catalogue photographs are required, so we hired Highland photographer Carsten Flieger to work with us. Now, the collection is complicated enough, with Uist plaids, Jacobite tartans, bronze brooches, bone pins, fossils, wool carders, sea bean charms, oil lamps and swords to contend with without adding in the fact that a large proportion of the collection is on display. Luckily for us museum volunteer and former curator Sally Archibald had given up her time to help us identify objects in storage and carefully remove and replace objects on display. No mean feat given the weight of some of the display cases - it's not just the tango that takes two.

Guinevere proving the worth of a porridge breakfast with the charms display case

The variety of objects, their dispersal throughout the museum and the need to consult different lists compiled over the years made the task quite complicated, however we soon had a production line of sorts going. Working from the largest objects to the smallest, prioritising items on display and trying to keep things made of similar materials together were key. Over the five days we were in Fort William, of the 200 or so items which were produced Carsten took over 300 photographs. What we've seen so far is first-class and we can hardly wait to see them all properly: ruddy-red tartans, shiny sea beans, ferocious flax combs. However, we're going to have to wait as we still have some objects to to photograph, which, now we have some experience, we know will probably take another two days.

Carsten and the bright lights making sure everything looks as it should

We are grateful to the West Highland Museum, especially manager Colleen Foggo for letting us work for as long as possible each day to get through the material and for being patient with us as we roved the different floors and rooms of the museum seeking out Carmichael-collected objects. We are indebted to Sally Archibald for the extraordinary energy and work she put into locating and identifying items.

Sally and Kirsty try to identify a brooch

The museum re-opens following its winter closure next week, so if you're in Fort William, do go in as it's well worth the time.

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). [©]