Carmichael, Alexander, 1832-1912 (Excise officer | folklorist and antiquarian | Edinburgh | Scotland)
Alexander Carmichael, folklorist, antiquarian, and author, was born on 1 December 1832 in Taylochan, Lismore, ninth and youngest child of Hugh Carmichael (1783-1862), farmer and publican, and Elizabeth (Betty) MacColl (1791-1863). After attending schools on the island and, apparently, in Greenock, Carmichael entered the civil service as an exciseman, serving in Greenock and Dublin before stints in Islay and Carbost, Skye. There he joined the team of pioneering folklorists collecting tales for the four-volume Popular tales of the West Highlands (1860-1862) compiled under the auspices of the tireless polymath John Francis Campbell (1821-1885). The principles of 'storyology' inculcated by Campbell - the necessity of recording the performance accurately, accompanied by details concerning the informant - exerted a fundamental influence upon his collecting for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, such principles clashed with Carmichael's own artistic, spiritual, and idealistic cast of mind, his desire to redeem Gaels and their traditions from the odium of outsiders and the perceived hostility of the evangelical church, and his belief that it was his duty not only to record the present, but also to retrieve and reconstruct a glorious Gaelic past.
Following a two-year interlude working in Cornwall, Carmichael returned north at the end of 1864. This time, probably on his own request, he was assigned to the Uists. His new post, initially based in Lochmaddy, allowed him to undertake arduous journeys through some of the richest areas for folklore in western Europe, scribbling down in a series of field notebooks an extraordinary range of material ranging from long Fenian tales and ballads, through historical narratives, songs, hymns, and charms, to anecdotes, observations, proverbs, riddles, and unusual words. In addition, the influence and encouragement of the surveyor and antiquarian Capt. F.W.L. Thomas focussed Carmichael's attention upon archaeological sites in the Hebrides, and their associated traditions. Although Carmichael had to rein back on his collecting expeditions following his marriage to Mary Frances MacBean (1841-1928) in January 1868, and the births of their four children Alexander (Alec) (1868-1941), Elizabeth (Ella) (1871-1928), Eoghan (1878-1966), and Iain (1878-1928), the family's house at Creagorry, close by the inn where people would wait until the South Ford between Benbecula and South Uist could be crossed, meant that he could still gather much material from passers-by.
From 1873 Carmichael was able to experiment with presenting in print some of the lore he had collected, through his position as Uist correspondent for the Highlander, the radical crofting newspaper edited by John Murdoch (1818-1903), whom he had first met when they worked together in Dublin some fifteen years previously. He was increasingly preoccupied, however, with the idea of compiling a series of volumes on the environment, history, and culture of the Outer Hebrides, working up for the general public the vast store of material he had gleaned throughout the islands. Such an ambitious project would require considerably more leisure than he could afford in his exacting position. Carmichael's attempt to secure Bhàlaigh farm in North Uist for this purpose met with a rebuff from the estate; this, coupled with his increasing disillusion regarding the somewhat philistine 'Uist gentry', as well as the need to ensure a better education for his children, made him move to Oban. After a wearisome couple of years there, spurning the Revenue's offer of a prestigious and better-paid post in London, in 1880 Carmichael returned to Uist, taking a substantial pay cut in the process. There, in Scolpaig, he finished writing an appendix concerning Hebridean land customs for the third volume of Celtic Scotland (1876-1880), the magnum opus of the Historiographer Royal William Forbes Skene (1809-92). In 1882 he once more left Uist, this time for Edinburgh, where he was to spend the rest of his life.
The liveliness of Carmichael's agrestic descriptions caught the eye of Francis, Lord Napier (1819-98) - indeed, he later credited the piece with first inspiring in him an interest in Highland affairs. Carmichael was requested by Napier to contribute two similar appendices for the Report of the Crofting Commission (1884). Rather to his alarm, however, Carmichael insisted on including a number of Gaelic songs and hymns in his work in order to illustrate the grace and refinement of Hebridean crofters. Although Carmichael's leanings towards spirituality were by no means latent previously, his interest in the subject had doubtless been heightened both as a result of ongoing study he was undertaking concerning the place-names of Iona, drawing upon his comprehensive work on the toponymy of Uist and Barra for the Ordnance Survey, and also the fact that, having lived among the islanders for many years, he was now in a position to gather private and personal as well as more ostensibly public lore. Carmichael's appendices in the Report proved exceptionally popular, an uncontroversial oasis in an exceptionally contentious volume. This, and the enthusiastic reception accorded a further paper on 'Uist old hymns' (1888), encouraged Carmichael to embark upon a much larger work on the subject.
During the final decade of the nineteenth century, Carmichael, now in retirement, further consolidated his position not only as doyen of Edinburgh's Gaelic intellectual community, but also as a crucial player in Scotland's Celtic Renaissance, for instance in his contributions to the seminal journal Evergreen (1895-6) edited by Patrick Geddes (1854-1932). These circles, in which scholarly interests interacted with contemporary artistic movements, exerted a major influence on Alexander Carmichael's greatest and most enduring work, the two volumes of Carmina Gadelica (1900). Encouraged and advised by his protégé the scholar George Henderson (1866-1912), though with the rather more sceptical counsel of fellow folklorists such as Father Allan MacDonald (1859-1905), Carmichael compiled and edited a substantial collection of sacred pieces, hymns, and charms, expressedly intended to illustrate the refined spirituality, the crepuscular rhapsodic mysticism, the visionary qualities of the people among whom he had lived for nearly two decades. With the help of the publisher Walter Biggar Blaikie (1847-1928), and of his daughter Ella, Carmichael was able to fashion a landmark in Scottish publishing, a stately, sumptuously produced magnum opus, whose illustrations (by his wife) and hand-made paper were surely intended to recall early Christian manuscripts, to represent to the reader the original numinous experience of hearing the original chants and lays.
Despite the enthusiastic response of most reviewers to the Carmina Gadelica, and notwithstanding that he was awarded an honorary LL.D. by the University of Edinburgh in 1906, scholarly doubts soon surfaced concerning the editing techniques employed. It is clear from Carmichael's manuscripts that he was prepared to hone, polish, even rewrite substantial portions of his original material before publishing, smoothing metre, cadence, and rhyme, heightening and refining language, adding esoteric referents, even introducing obscure vocabulary in order to enhance the impact which the hymns and charms - and indeed the quotations from the informants themselves - would exert upon the reader of the Carmina Gadelica. Although Carmichael continued to collect lore for the rest of his life - many of his new informants were mainland contacts of his son-in-law the Gaelic scholar William J. Watson (1865-1948) - it is noteworthy that he did not see the further volumes he originally envisaged through the press. It was left to his daughter Ella to bring out a new edition of the first two books of the Carmina in 1928, with a third and fourth volume, edited by his grandson James Carmichael Watson (1910-1942), appearing in 1940-1941.
Although later scholars have cast some doubt on the editing practices he employed in the creation of the Carmina Gadelica, Carmichael's great work, and his manuscript collection as a whole, remain an indispensable treasure-trove, the fruits of a lifetime spent selflessly in the service of his own people, gathering, preserving, communicating and interpreting Gaelic culture, tradition, and lore for the wider world and for future generations. Alexander Carmichael died in Edinburgh on 6 June 1912, and is buried at St Moluag's on his native island of Lismore.
Professor William John Watson died in 1948. His son, James Carmichael Watson, born in 1910, and successor to his father as Professor of Celtic at Edinburgh University in 1938, contributed to later volumes of Carmina Gadelica . James Carmichael Watson died, missing in action, in 1942.
Found in 50 Collections and/or Records:
Scope and Contents An account by Alexander Carmichael of his trip to St Kilda [Hiorta] in May 1865. He describes the crossing which lasted from 04:30 until 12:00, the weather and the sights and then describes the physical and temperamental characteristics of the islanders. 'Cameron the missionary oldish and common looking. St Kildeans good looking s[t]out fellows with pale complexions. Women good looking and ruddy complexions...Beautiful white teeth...Enunciation peculiar and lisping. People seem to be spoiled...
Dates: 22 May 1865
Scope and Contents Account of the preparation of seals for eating in Uibhist a Tuath/North Uist, including pressing blubber to extract oils. Carmichael recalls tasting the flesh of a young seal on Heisgeir [Heisker/Monach Isles] and that it was 'very agreeable.' and like venison. The accompanying proverb reads 'Bu mhath am biadh feamanaich aran seagail agus saill roin'.
Scope and Contents Account of watching waves at the natural arch at Gonnamaol [Gunamul, Miùghlaigh/Mingulay] describing them as 'a glor[ious] sight...the sea churned purely white against the rocks like divine snow on a mount[ain]side'. He observes the plentiful bird-life there 'The birds in thous[ands]nay millions fly hither and thither at times dark[e]ning the very air and along with the dizzy height on which you sit mak making (sic) you still more dizzy till you feel your position anything but safe or prudent....
Scope and Contents Notes by Alexander Carmichael, perhaps the draft of an article, on various topics including Borve Castle in Benbecula; shell-mounds; the 'Good John of Islay' and his wife; 'Teampull na Trionaid'; ruins at Cairinish; the castle of the Clanranalds. Refers to an article by 'Captain Feilden' from the 'Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Glasgow'.
Scope and Contents Archaeological notes on ruins at Croice near Bornish [Cròic a Deas, Bornais, Uibhist a Deas/South Uist] describing Carmichael's visit there, how he was looking at and for the ruins as well as a description of what he found including that the scattered remains of a building could be found within half a foot at low water on the spring tide, that in digging down a few inches he found remains of a plant and peat moss with sand and gravel and the hard buttresses 'like broken pieces of old ruins...
Dates: 19 March 1874
Scope and Contents Large bundle of papers originally wrapped in brown paper labelled 'Vol. IV'. Includes material considered for Carmina Gadelica IV (1941), which was edited by James Carmichael Watson, including copies handwritten and edited by Alexander Carmichael, as well as others later typed. The material was later consulted by Angus Matheson while compiling 'Carmina Gadelica VI' (1970). Among the material is a charm, pages 334-336, recorded from Mary Matheson in Malacleit, North Uist, on 17 March...
Dates: c late 19th-early 20th century
Scope and Contents Detailed descriptions of items sent to the [National Museum of Antiquities, Edinburgh] by Alexander Carmichael, including a 'sculpture stone' from Bearnaray, Harris; a baptismal font from Pabbay, Barra; and 'Fingal's shoe', a 'shoe-like' stone from the Isle of Skye.
Dates: c 1870
Scope and Contents Two draft letters to Captain F. W. L. Thomas from Alexander Carmichael, Lochmaddy, North Uist, 5 March and 28 March 1867. Letter from Thomas to Carmichael, Rosepark, 4 May 1872 in which Thomas relays his thoughts on an article by Carmichael about the 'Long Island'.
View transcriptions of the letters.
View transcriptions of the letters.
Scope and Contents Description of a view from the top of Beinn Rà [Tarasaigh/Taransay] around sunset in the company of Ranald MacDonald describing amongst other aspects the sea as 'a sheet of clo[u]ds & glossy mist with the sun shin[in]g up on them in a most extra[ordinary] man[ner]' and the sun 'amber omar col[our] gold & silver - all speck speckled in in (sic) long streaks of sheer beaut[y] & sp[l]end[ou]r'. Carmichael mentions the view to Fincastle 'the seat of the noble E[arls] of Dunmore &...
Dates: 10 July 1870