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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 113 Collections and/or Records:

Notices of Carmina Gadelica, 1900-1903

Identifier: Coll-97/CW245
Scope and Contents Volume entitled 'Notices of Carmina Gadelica'. 'E.C. Carmichael' [Ella Carmichael] is written on the inside cover. The volume is a scrapbook containing typed copies of reviews of Alexander Carmichael's 'Carmina Gadelica' from journals such as 'The Oban Times', 'Highland News', 'Northern Chronicle' and the 'Irish Weekly Independent and Nation', as well as newspaper cuttings of reviews. The volume also includes correspondence mostly addressed to Alexander Carmichael regarding the 'Carmina...
Dates: 1900-1903

'Oigh an Fhuilt Oir' [The maid of the golden hair], c 1861-1866

Identifier: Coll-97/CW423
Scope and Contents

Tale begins 'Bha sid uair gille agus dh'falbh e dh'iarraidh cosnaigh agus rainig e Sasunn.' Recorded from Alasdair Donnullach [Alexander MacDonald] at 'Gleannose', Isle of Skye on 5 November 1861. Includes additional comments by Carmichael from 1865 and 1866.

Dates: c 1861-1866

Personal note about brutality, c1893

Identifier: Coll-97/CW126g/7
Scope and Contents

Personal note about brutality stating that there are 'many brutalitys' the 'most hateful' being the 'brutality of wealth'. The note also describes the strong man as brutal because of his strength and the ignorant man brutal because of his ignorance but these he 'can forgive'.

Dates: c1893

Personal note relating to the cladhs [graveyards] on Tarasaigh/Taransay, 9 July 1870

Identifier: Coll-97/CW116/42
Scope and Contents

Personal note relating to the cladhs [graveyards] on Tarasaigh/Taransay noting how they made him think of 'Gray's elegy' and how 'I could wish to send the cut skull to the mu[seum] but am unwill[in]g to remove it. not right I think.'

Dates: 9 July 1870

Poem beginning 'Cold blow the wind through the chinks in the window', 5 October 1865

Identifier: Coll-97/CW105/6
Scope and Contents

Poem [probably written by Alexander Carmichael] beginning 'Cold blow the wind through the chinks in the window' and addressed to a woman named Mary, although it appears that it was originally addressed to someone else possibly 'Jeanie'. The poem is composed of eight lines divided into two stanzas.

Dates: 5 October 1865

Programme for the First Annual Soiree of the Ossianic Society of Benbecula, 1878

Identifier: Coll-97/CW352
Scope and Contents

Programme for the First Annual Soiree of the Ossianic Society of Benbecula, 3 May 1878, with Alexander Carmichael in the chair. Also includes the text of Carmichael's address (in Gaelic).

Dates: 1878

Remarks on the collection of dog tax in North Uist, c1871

Identifier: Coll-97/CW90/72
Scope and Contents Remarks on the collection of dog tax in North Uist [Uibhist a Tuath] written by Robert Urquhart, preventive officer. Some of the remarks are referenced by number, which correlate to the list at the beginning of the volume (see CW90/2), others are unnumbered. Examples of remarks are 'to pay on Wednesday first at Lochmaddy by Mr McAulay', 'Says never pay a penny for his Dog & he will not Dispense with it either', 'Mr McLean Catchist is poorly but will pay it in a month when he gets his...
Dates: c1871

Saying entitled 'Fairies', 1895

Identifier: Coll-97/CW1/72
Scope and Contents

Saying entitled 'Fairies' beginning 'Naogh naoghanan a deol nan cioch'. The saying attributes nine nines of years [eighty one years] to each stage of life. Carmichael sums up that the lifespan for fairies would be 567 years. Text was written in ink and scored through in pencil as if transcribed elsewhere.

Dates: 1895

'Sgeul na Luireach' [The story of the breastplate], c 1861

Identifier: Coll-97/CW427
Scope and Contents

Tale beginning 'Bha fear ann uair agus bha aige seanar mhac. Chaochail e agas cha do dh'fhag e sian an t-shaoghail aig a mhic ach luireach.' Recorded from Domhnall MacCuithein [Donald MacQueen], Fernilea, Isle of Skye.

Dates: c 1861

Short account of a trip to Ìle/Islay, 1 June 1887

Identifier: Coll-97/CW89/59
Scope and Contents

Short account of a trip to Ìle/Islay by Alexander Carmichael, describing how he landed at Port Ellen and drove to Bridgend finally travelling with his sister-in-law, Helen Carmichael and staying in Claidville [Port Ilein, Beul an Àtha and Cladville].

Dates: 1 June 1887