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 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
Scope and Contents Sketch plan of Dun a Chaolais Bhatarsay [Dùn a' Chaolais, Bhataraisgh/Vatersay]. The sketch shows three concentric circles marked as ' Wall', 'Passage' and 'Wall', with their measurements noted. The circles are on a rounded oblong described as a 'Raised platform outside built of stones'. A compass is marked on teh sketch showing that the oblong runs north to south. A note written on what would be the west side of the dùn reads 'West Oscean (sic) not in sight - Rising hill between. Maoldonaich...
Scope and Contents Story about a sheep which Carmichael observed 'up to the middle in the water of a lakelet gathering a few stray blades of grass that were growing in the clear water' and that he 'Never saw such before.' He saw this happening at Amhor farm on North Uist [Ath Mhòr/Ahmore, Uibhist a Tuath].
Dates: 20 May 1870
Scope and Contents Story about a great northern diver collected from Kenneth MacLean, merchant, Lochmaddy [Loch nam Madadh, Uibhist a Tuath/North Uist] describing the one occasion on which he saw a great northern diver on the wing at Fladda, Lochmaddy [Flodaigh/Flodday] 'The wings went rapidly and the bird seemed to exert himself greatly'. That the bird might have been a black throated diver and not a great northern diver is put forward. Carmichael notes that he and his children saw a great northern diver...
Scope and Contents Story about a sick woman in an unthatched house on Miùghlaigh/Mingulay in which Carmichael was encouraged by 'My old friend Ruary' [Roderick MacNeil] to visit the sick woman even although Carmichael did not know her as Roderick thought she would appreciated it. On arriving at the house he was surprised that the woman was young and 'comely' but saw that she was completely paralysed with rheumatism. He also noticed that there was only a tiny amount of roof over the bed where she lay as 'The whole...
Scope and Contents Story collected from an unnamed woman Carmichael met on the road probably in Uibhist a Tuath/North Uist about her trip to a wise woman for a snaile. She had gone to the wise woman because she had a cow which was unwell and she did not know why. The wise woman or witch friend as Carmichael describes her, told the woman that it was probably because a number of people had 'put the eye' on the cow and gave her two snaile, 'which she kindly showed me each about 6 or 9 inches long and twisted of...
Dates: 5 Aug 1870
Tale beginning 'Bha duin uasal ann uair agus bha mac dligheach agus mac diolain aige. . ' [There once was a gentleman and he had a lawful and an unlawful son…], c.1862
Scope and Contents Tale begins 'Bha duin uasal ann uair agus bha mac dligheach agus mac diolain aige. Se an Gillemadh mor agus an Gillmade beag bha orra'. Recorded by Donnul MacCuiein [Donald MacQueen] of 'Fearun a le' [Fernilea], Isle of Skye on 30 January 1862.
Scope and Contents English translation of tale titled 'The Destruction of the Picts' , and a draft letter about the story. Originally recorded from Angus MacInnes, Smearcleit, South Uist on 13 January 1865.
Dates: c 1860-1875
Scope and Contents Three sayings or proverbs beginning 'Is furasda dh'fhear eisdeachd Beum fhaighinn/thoir a dh-fhear labhairt'; 'Co seolta ri sionnach na Maoile' and 'Mionnan bi-bhuan da a mac'.
Scope and Contents Vocabulary note written down by John Ewen MacRury, Beinn na Faoghla/Benbecula for 'Co chair' defining it as 'an old Gaelic word, signifying a small gift given with a good warm feeling.' Alexander Carmichael appears to have annotated 'Co chair' as 'cochair'. Text has been scored through in pencil.