Monday, 23 April 2012

Museum Ethnographers Group Conference 2012

The Museum Ethnographers Group was established in 1975 and their aim is to promote an understanding of museum ethnography. Membership is not restricted to museum curators; anyone with an interest in ethnography can join and be kept up-to-date via the newsletter, twitter and website.

Last week the MEG’s annual conference was held in the National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh. This two day affair was an exciting opportunity for the team to meet up with museum folk from all over the UK and gain insight into the world of museums. The location itself was ideal (just a stone’s throw from the library!) with NMS looking inspiring after the refurbishment.

This year’s theme was 'Multiple Dialogues: interpreting ethnographic collections in the 21st century' which was of particular interest to us and Carmichael’s material collection. It was fascinating to hear the speakers and learn of the various methods for presenting and interpreting collections from all over the world. A speaker from Zeeuws Museum in the Netherlands, Caroline van Santen, spoke about a Blackfoot exhibit and how she worked closely with Clifford Crane, a Blackfoot Indian, in order to gain a greater understanding of the objects in the collection. Catherine Moore from the Powell-Cotton Museum in Kent spoke about how she worked with the Angolan community in preparation for a forthcoming exhibit ‘TALA! - Visions of Angola’.

Another interpretation of the theme was the museums’ youth programs. A number of speakers discussed their thriving programs and upcoming exhibits as chosen by the young curators (14-24 years old). Two of these young curators co-presented a talk about their exhibit entitled ‘The Curious Case of the …’ a play on the Victorian cabinet of curiosities. These programs allow them to organise the exhibit from choosing the objects, researching the selected objects, labeling, presenting and designing the leaflets. These opportunities only made me wish I was ten years younger!

The conference was a great event and it offered us a new perspective on Carmichael’s collection housed at both the West Highland Museum and the National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh.

A brooch from the Carmichael Collection, West Highland Museum

West Highland Museum

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

A Trip to the Well

A common topic discussed in folklore from all over the world is the well as a sacred site. The tradition of pilgrimage to wells is still practised although not as widespread as it was in the past. In 1581 the practice was actively frowned upon in Scotland and the result was an Act of Parliament ‘against passing in pilgrimage to chapels, wells and crosses, and the superstitious observing of diverse other popish rights’. This Act set out to put the public on the straight and narrow as pilgrimages were thought to be misguided beliefs rather than evil practices. In later years the Church essentially absorbed some of the practices into their doctrine.

The process of the pilgrimage was quite a rigorous procedure for those who were desperate for results. The following is a list of key elements that were adhered to in Scotland:

• The trip to the well was done at a very specific time whether a time of day or a day of the year. The day of year coincided with the patron saint of the well, for example, pilgrimages in honour of Moluag take place on 25th June. The most popular times of day for the pilgrimages were sunrise and sunset.

• The ritual of the pilgrimage required a circumambulation deisil (clockwise) around the sacred site; this was commonly repeated three times in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost and it was believed to enclose the sacred space.

• Silence was observed with the exception of prayers or incantations at the well.

• Tokens such as pins, coins, shells, and buttons were left at the well as a sacrifice. There are records of more substantial sacrifices being made for example Hector Mackenzie was recorded in the presbytery of Dingwall 1678 for sacrificing a bull on Inis Maree to Saint Maelrubha hoping to cure his wife.

• At clootie wells a piece of cloth from the patient’s clothes was taken and pinned to a nearby tree or bush. It was believed that the disease would be transferred from the patient to the cloth.

• For those who were unable to travel water would be taken from the well and conveyed to them. It was very important that neither water nor container touched the ground on this journey and the water was called uisge sèimh. Carmichael explains why it is so called in Carmina Gadelica iv: “The person who draws the water must observe silence from the time of setting out to the time of returning from the well, whence the name ‘uisge sèimh”. In the notebooks Carmichael notes that water was taken from Tobar Chriosd, Vatersay for this purpose.

For a more detailed account see Aude Le Borgne's Clootie wells and water-kelpies: an ethnological approach to the fresh water traditions of sacred wells and supernatural horses in Scotland (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh: 2002).

In the next blog entry we will examine more unusual practices associated with wells and saints.

Beith, Mary Healing Threads: Traditional Medicines of the Highlands and Islands (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1995)
Carmichael, Alexander Carmina Gadelica, vol. IV (Edinburgh, 1941) p. 132.
CW107/11 fo. 21
Le Borgne, Aude. Clootie wells and water-kelpies: an ethnological approach to the fresh water traditions of sacred wells and supernatural horses in Scotland (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh: 2002)

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). [©]