Friday, 29 June 2012

St Michael's Font

Baptismal Font 

One of the larger items in Carmichael's collection is this baptismal font, on display at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. St Michael's font came from St Maelrubha's chapel, Eynort, Syke and is really spectacular. The carvings depict Christ on the cross, the Virgin and child (above), a bishop 'in full pontificals and crozier' and St Michael slaying a dragon. If you get a chance do pop into NMS to see it.

There is a reference in the notebook to the font (CW104/27), and in a blog entry from April 2010 the account of how Carmichael came to have the font is available. But recently I came across another account of how he came to receive the font and thought it would make a great blog! Otta Swire, from Skye, records in her book Skye: The Island and Its Legends:

Near this same burial-ground there was once a small chapel dedicated to St Maelrhuba, patron saint of Bracadale. Like all old Skye churches, it has become a ruin; but on one night of storm towards the end of the ninteenth century a fishing boat from south Uist found itself in danger and ran for shelter to Loch Eynort. The fishermen landed and went up to the little ruined church to return thanks for their safety and to pray for good weather. There they found the old stone font with its beautiful antique carvings. They were Roman Catholics and thought it sacrilege to leave a consecrated font exposed to the weather, and, still worse, in Protestant hands, so they carried it carefully on board their boat and, the gale having dropped, put to sea. But at once the wind rose again, mountainous waves pounded the boat, and back to Loch Eynort they ran. Again the storm dropped, again they put to sea, again the wind rose and drove them back. This time it occurred to them that perhaps St Maelrhuba wanted his font and did not wish for them to remove it, so they returned it to the ruins and had a calm and pleasant voyage to Glasgow, their destination. But the font worried them. On the return journey they called again to Loch Eynort. This time they went ashore and prayed to St Maelrhuba for a sign. Did he, they asked, wish them to carry his font to south Uist as a gift to their priest and for its proper use, or to leave it in the ruins? The sun came out, a favouring breeze arose, and the fishermen took heart again and, lifting the font with great reverence, carried it once more on board their boat. This time the weather favoured them and the font was soon safely in the hands of their priest. After his death his successor gave it to the Celtic antiquarian, Mr. Carmichael, and he presented it to the Society of Antiquaries in Edinburgh, in whose museum it now rests in peace.

Quite a tale! And it is always interesting to read variations of the same story.

Carmichael, Alexander, 'Donation of baptismal font from Chapel of St maelruve, Lochaoineart, Skye', Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries for Scotland, vol viii (1868-1870) pp. 237-239.
Swire, Otta Skye: The Island and its Legends (Edinburgh; Birlinn Limited, 2006)
St Michael's font from

Monday, 25 June 2012

St Moluag's Feastday: 25 June

St Moluag's Cathedral, Lismore (Copyright RCAHMS)

Moluag (530-592) was an Irish missionary, educated and trained in Bangor, who came to Scotland and is believed to have founded over 100 communities during his lifetime, the most significant being at Lismore, Rosemarkie and Mortlach. His name has been recorded in Irish as Lugdach and Lughaidh, and in Latin as Lugidus, Lugādius and Luanas. His name also often appears with the diminutive of endearment – Moluoc. A popular belief is that his name is derived from mo ludag my little finger but this surely is based on the circumstances by which he claimed Lismore (noted below).

He was a contemporary of Columcill and the following account of how Moluag came to settle on Lismore provides an insight into their relationship:

After looking around him in Argyll, S. Moluag resolved to settle in Lismore – the green island in Loch Linnhe. S. Columba heard of his determination and resolved to forestall him. According to the Gaelic verses (Carmichael), which have been passed down from lip to lip for centuries as S. Moluag approached Lismore he beheld a boat containing S. Columba making for the shore at highest speed. S. Columba’s craft was the faster, and when S. Moluag saw that he was going to lose, he seized an axe, cut off his little finger, threw it on the beach, and cried out “My flesh and blood have first possession of the island, and I bless it in the name of the Lord.”

It is believed that after displaying his annoyance by spouting curses at Moluag, Columcill continued on sailing and arrived at Iona.

St Moluag's Church, Lewis (Copyright RCAHMS)
The saint’s missionaries expanded from Lismore to the larger Western Isles and he was extremely influential in Pictland, owing to a good relationship with the King Brude. Moluag has frequently been described as being gracious and decorous, and his good nature is obviously reflected in his popularity throughout Scotland.

Moluag was invoked when seeking a cure for insanity, and the church on Lewis was frequently visited by pilgrims for this purpose.
Moluag died 25 June in Rosemarkie and Carmichael notes in Carmina Gadelica:

When the news reached the people of Lismore that their beloved St Moluag was dead, twenty-four of the strongest men of the island travelled to Ardclach and brought home the body and buried it beneath the altar of his church in the centre of the churchyard. About the close of the last century, while opening a grave about this place, a tripod gold candlestick was found. Calcined bones, stones, and wood came up in the debris where the tripod was discovered. The church, crowded with people, had been burned by the Norsemen. The tripod may have formed part of the altar furnishing of the church, or it may have been buried with St Moluag. It is said to have been plain, but beautifully formed.
The Barons of Bachuil on Lismore are the hereditary keepers of the Bachul Mor, St Moluag's pastoral staff.

Although overshadowed by Columcill, Moluag was an important figure in Scottish history and responsible for founding the bishoprics of Aberdeen, Argyll and Ross.
CG, ii, 242-243.
Scott, Rev. Archibald B. 'St Moluag and his Work', Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, xxvii (1908-11), 310-323.


Thursday, 21 June 2012

A trip to Tartu

The 6th Nordic-Celtic-Baltic Folklore Symposium took place this year at the University of Tartu, Estonia and the theme was Supernatural Places. This symposium began in 1988 in Dublin and has been hosted in Galway (1991), Copenhagen (1993), Dublin (1996) and Reykjavik (2005) and over the years it has developed into an important event for folklorists.
University of Tartu
Tartu, the centre of Southern Estonia, is located 185kms southeast of Tallinn, and the bus journey gave me a great opportunity to view the beautiful, lush Estonian landscape. Tartu is known as a university city with 20% of the 100,000 population being students and is very picturesque with the Emajõgi river running through it. 

The conference had an exciting programme with plenary speakers including Bengt af Klintberg (University of Stockholm), Terry Gunnell (University of Iceland), Diarmaid Ó Giolláin (University of Notre Dame), Timothy Tangherlini (University of California) and Jonathon Roper (University of Tartu).  Over the three days there were 55 papers presented on a wide range of topics: supernaturalisation of places, place-lore, representation of supernatural worlds, tradition communities and their environments to name just a few.
Tartu Cathedral and the History Museum of the University of Tartu
My own paper discussed the Hebridean landscape and the interactions between the physical and supernatural as evident in the Carmichael Watson Collection. I also referred to material recorded in the School of Scottish Studies Archive here at the University of Edinburgh. Over the course of the conference I had useful discussions with other delegates and got some great ideas for further research. The plenary speakers were particularly inspiring and offered plenty food for thought.
The Town Hall with The Kissing Students statue on the left
The conference committee organised two evening excursions for the delegates: a walking tour of the city and a boat trip down the Emajõgi. The walking tour was very informative and I learned quite a lot, especially about the university and some student traditions. I was quite surprised to see the statue of Oscar Wilde and Eduard Vilde because I thought I had seen it before...and, lo and behold, a copy of the sculpture had been given to Galway city in 2004, where I had seen it many times before! 
Wilde and Vilde
The second excursion was a boat trip down the Emajõgi and it was a really fabulous evening. The weather was great and it was the perfect opportunity to chat with other delegates. The boat traveled east down the river in the direction of Lake Peipus, the fifth largest lake in Europe, but we didn't go quite that far. It was a great way to see more of the area around Tartu.
A sacrifical stone
Overall the conference was a great success and the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore, and the Department of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Tartu did a tremendous job.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

A keening for Roderick MacPhee - 2

The mysterious drowning of a seaman as skilful and well-known as Roderick MacPhee clearly gave rise to a whole host of rumours and speculations in the islands. This was especially the case at a time of the year when Barra was bursting at the seams with outsiders – fishermen, coopers, and gutting women – involved in the rapidly expanding herring industry, then newly established in Castlebay. An item in the Inverness Advertiser on 14 June states that nearly 900 fishing boats were in the area at the time, with at least 40,000 barrels of herring despatched from the island during the week ending 11 June, conveyed on twenty steamers to Glasgow, Liverpool, Leith, and other ports (incidentally, the Glasgow Herald on 18 June states that 19 cargoes of herring had been despatched from Stornoway that week ‘for various parts of the Continent, chiefly Stettin, Hamburg, and St Petersburg’). The Inverness Advertiser article declares that ‘20,000 strangers’ were employed in the fishing: we’re not entirely sure about this number, but there certainly must have been more than 2,000!

The Glasgow Herald’s article of 4 June drew the following immediate response:

The Boat Accident off Barra Head.
                                                4th June.
   Sir, – I am astounded to see the loose statement, copied in your paper of to-day, with regard to the Barra Head Accident. It is evident that the writer, whoever he may have been, was not aware of the circumstances, or he would not have made misstatements which can only cause anxiety to relatives and friends. To show how ridiculous the whole paragraph is, allow me first to state that the gentleman who hired the boat was safely landed at Pollockawe [‘Pollacharra’ must have been the original] in South Uist, that it was on the return journey that the crew of two men and a boy were lost. The statement of ‘a few hours afterwards … the boat was found,’ is totally without foundation, as it was not till the following morning (Sunday[ 29 May]) that the accident was known to have taken place. The last sentence of the paragraph only makes confusion worse confounded. I may further state that Rory MacPhee was not the lighthouse keeper, but only the man who had charge of the Lighthouse Commissioners’ boat. A little reflection might have shown that a lighthouse keeper could not be cruising about in a boat and attending to his duty at the same time.
   And now, Sir, to justify my remarks on this subject, and to show that I have good cause to be annoyed at the blundering account given in your paper, allow me shortly here to state that I was one of the gentlemen who crossed in Rory MacPhee’s boat on the day of the accident, and am acquainted with the particulars. – I am, &c.,     B.

A more accurate report was printed in the Inverness Advertiser of 14 June, and excerpted in the Scotsman the following day:

   Melancholy and Fatal Boat Accident at Barra. – A melancholy occurrence took place off Barra Head light-house on Saturday, the 28th ult., by which three persons were drowned – viz., Roderick Macphee, the light-house ferryman, upwards of 40 years of age; Donald Macneil, about 38 years of age; and John Macneil, about 16, both of the latter boatmen. On the return journey with two gentlemen tourists, who had crossed the sound between Barra and Vatersa, the boat appears to have foundered in the surf near the rocks, as it was found a few hours afterwards with keel up, and sail set, but no trace of the unfortunate occupants. Both of the deceased men have left wives and families, who were dependent on them for support. Some contributions have already been received in their aid; and it is to be hoped a generous public will not overlook this unfortunate case.

But who was the mysterious gentleman ‘B’ who had written the letter to the Glasgow Herald? His surname is given in the following report in the Inverness Courier of 16 June:

   The Boat Accident at Barra. – A correspondent sends us particulars of the sad occurrence at Barra, on the 28th ult. On that day the Barrahead lighthouse mail ferryboat, manned by the ferrymen – Roderick Macphee, Castlebay, Barra, aged 35 (an able and careful seaman, and a most obliging and respectable man); Donald Macneil, Island of Minglay, aged 38; and John Macneil, Elen [i.e. Glen], aged 16, with two gentlemen who had been visiting Barra-head, sailed from Castlebay by the east coast of the island, and across the Sound of Barra to South Uist. After landing the gentlemen there, the boat, with its crew, returned to Castlebay by the west coast of Barra, the wind blowing a stiff breeze from the east. Nothing further was heard of the boat until Monday, when some lobster fishers found it out at sea under water, with the sails set, about two miles to the west of the entrance of the sound, between Vatersay and Barra. They secured the sails and bowsprit, but as the day was stormy they abandoned the boat. None of the bodies have been found. It is believed that in sailing over one of the sunk rocks at the entrance of the sound, a sea broke, filling and capsizing the boat. Macphee has left a widow and five children. Immediately on hearing of the occurrence, Mr Brown, one of the gentlemen who had taken his passage in the boat from Barra, sent the widow and children £5. It is hoped that the public will not overlook this unfortunate case.

As we shall read in the next blog, the two gentlemen ‘had been on a scientific excursion through the Southern Isles of Barra’. ‘Mr Brown’ must be the well-known naturalist and ornithologist John Harvie Brown (1844–1916), who had not yet added a hyphen between his two surnames. His companion was Captain Henry Wemyss Feilden (1838–1921), 4th King’s Royal Regiment, who led a rather extraordinary Victorian life worthy of (a heroic) Harry Flashman and who was later described by his friend Rudyard Kipling as ‘the bravest man I ever met’. On 27 September 1870 a paper by Captain Feilden was read to the Glasgow Natural History Society, ‘part of the journal of a tour in the Outer Hebrides made by Mr Harvie Brown and Captain Feilden during the summer [of] 1870. The paper contained many interesting ornithological notes, and descriptions of shell mounds visited by the author.’ Excerpts were printed in the Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Glasgow, ii (1869–75), 58–60. Embarking upon a paper about the antiquities of Uist, Alexander Carmichael would reminisce:

   In the summer of 1870 Captain Feilden of the [     ] made an ornothological [sic] tour through the Outer Hebrides. I had the pleasure of his acquaintance and his subsequent correspondence upon subjects of mutual interest. [CW429 fo.1]

Carmichael had also embarked upon a long-lasting correspondence with John Harvie Brown. Letters from Carmichael in the latter’s archive, now in the National Museums of Scotland, date back to at least March 1871, when the ornithologist asked Carmichael to prepare ‘a list of the Gaelic names of birds.’

References: CW429 fo.1.

Feilden, Capt. H. W. 'Journal of a Tour through the Outer Hebrides in 1870', Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Glasgow, ii (1869–75), 58–60.

Glasgow Herald, 6 & 18 June 1870; Inverness Advertiser, 14 June 1870; Inverness Courier, 16 June 1870; Scotsman, 15 June 1870.

Images: J. A. Harvie-Brown, one of the last two men to see Roderick MacPhee and his crew alive.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

A keening for Roderick MacPhee? - 1

Last year we wrote a blog about Catherine Pearson or MacPherson (c. 1813–80) who had been prevailed upon by Alexander Carmichael in 1870 to perform a keening or tuireadh at a funeral in Barra. At its end we asked – given we know that Carmichael was in Barra in June, September, November, and December of 1870 – if any of our readers could help with the identity of the man being mourned. A swift return from Peter Kerr, writer of the ever-fascinating a’ spaidsearachd agus a’ meòrachadh Direcleit blog, suggested that two widows with young families in the 1871 census might be worth further investigation.

One of these widows was 30-year old Joanna MacPhee from Oban. Her husband, Roderick MacPhee, lighthouse ferryman, had been drowned some time in the late evening, Saturday 28 May 1870. As we’ll see, although we can’t prove that Roderick MacPhee was indeed the man being mourned, there certainly was a connection between himself and Alexander Carmichael, and the sad story is well worth the telling.

Here’s the initial report of the tragedy as it appeared in the Scotsman, 3 June 1870:

Three Fishermen Drowned. – The Dunvegan Castle, which arrived at Greenock yesterday afternoon, brought intelligence of the capsizing of a fishing-boat while on its way from Barra to Vatersea [sic]. The crew of three men were drowned. The names are not yet given.

On the same day the Dundee Courier reported:

FATAL BOAT ACCIDENT ON THE WEST COAST. – The Dunvegan Castle, which arrived at Greenock yesterday, reports the upsetting of a fishing boat going from Barra to Vatarsay, and the drowning of the occupants – Robert McFie, porter for the Barra-head Lighthouse, and a man and a boy. McFie was the best boatman about Barra, but the boat was new, and east country built. The boat was got upset, but no trace of the bodies was found.

On 3 June again another report was printed in the North British Daily Mail: it was reprinted verbatim in the Glasgow Herald the following day, and in Inverness Courier on 9 June.

MELANCHOLY OCCURRENCE OFF BARRA HEAD LIGHTHOUSE – THE LIGHTKEEPER AND TWO PERSONS DROWNED. – By the arrival of the S.S. Dunvegan Castle, Captain McEwan, at Greenock, from the North Highlands, we learn of a very melancholy occurrence off Barra Head Lighthouse on Saturday, by which three persons have been drowned. The keeper of the lighthouse, Roderick McPhee, was a man well known in that part of the Highlands, and for fifteen years had charge of the Barra Head Lighthouse. He had quite a reputation in the matter of boating, being considered the best handler of a boat in those parts, and many parties have enjoyed a sail with him, considering themselves quite safe under his guidance. On Saturday last, a gentleman and boy, whose names are at present unknown, desired a sail with McPhee, who readily consented. The boat, specially built for the lighthouse service, was entered, and the voyage which was to have so disastrous a termination commenced. A few hours afterwards, in the narrow Sound between Barra and Vatersa, the boat was found, keel up, with sail set, but without any trace of the unfortunate occupants. The boat was, of course, secured, but nothing was found to explain the occurrence. Diverse are the rumours as to the cause of the accident, but from McPhee’s known ability and carefulness, it is conjectured it must have been something unusual. From the nature of the Sound, where the upturned boat was discovered, and where the event is supposed to have taken place, there is little probability that the bodies will be found. It would be a pity to cause undue excitement amongst those who may have friends there, but it may be as well to state that there was a rumour to the effect that the name of the gentleman was McLeod.

The Dundee Courier also reprinted the report, but – perhaps rather more responsibly – omitted the final sentence.

References: Dundee Courier, 3 & 4 June, 1870; Inverness Courier, 9 June 1870; North British Daily Mail, 3 June 1870; Scotsman, 3 June 1870.

Image: Caolas Bhatarsaigh, by Leo,

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). [©]