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 25 Collections and/or Records:
Fragment of a poem beginning 'Is mithich dhuinn nis bhi triall' and accompanying note, June 1887
Scope and Contents Fragment of a poem beginning 'Is mithich dhuinn nis bhi triall, As Barra Chrian nach d fhas pailt' and accompanying note which reads 'Sligean [shell] used for drinking Creachain used on Sunday in on top of Ruaival by Prof Blackie Mr Jolly + self.'
Dates: June 1887
Journal account of a journey around Glen Nevis, 28 September 1890
Scope and Contents Journal account of a journey around Glen Nevis with Bail[li]e John Maccallum [Baillie John MacCallum] on 28 September 1890. The account tells how they went to see 'old Ionnor Lochaidh Castle', Banaovi, then 'with a carriage and pair' to Glenevis to the head of Glen. One half around Ben-nevis [Banavie/Banbhaidh, Beinn Nibheis/Ben Nevis, all Earra Ghàidheal/Argyllshire]. Carmichael remarks 'Magnificent scenery. The nevis runs level and land on either bank level for many miles.'
Dates: 28 September 1890
Journal entry on visit to the manse at Musdale, 10 June 1887
Scope and Contents Journal entry on visit to the manse at Musdale which reads 'Left Kilean Kintire [Killean, Cinn Tìre/Kintyre, Earra Ghàidheal/Argyllshire] at 8 am 10 June 1887 Rev Don[ald] Macdonald (Nunton) [Baile nan Cailleach, Beinn na Faoghla/Benbecula] not at home his mother + sister here. Met Miss Colville + her brother at Manse - Musdale [Mùsdal/Musdale].'
Dates: 10 June 1887
'Mac a Ghothain' [The smith's son] and 'Mac Shir Eothain Lochiall agus Mac Iarl Anntruim an Eirinn' [The son of Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel and the son of the Earl of Antrim in Ireland], c 1861-1866
Scope and Contents Two tales. 'Mac a Ghobhain' (pp. 1-9) recorded from Uilleam MacCoinnich [William MacKenzie], Carbost, Isle of Skye on 6 February 1861. 'Mac Shir Eothain Lochiall agus Mac Iarl Anntruim an Eirinn' (pages 10-16) recorded from Aonghas Beaton [Angus Beaton], Bernisdale, Isle of Skye on 31 January 1861. Includes additional notes by Carmichael from 1866.
Dates: c 1861-1866
Notebook belonging to Alexander Carmichael, 12 September 1890 to 1895
Scope and Contents Notebook belonging to Alexander Carmichael but also used by John Ewen MacRury. The front cover bears a sticker which reads 'Gaelic Notes 1894-5. (Collection of traditions, tales, etc. by Alexander Carmichael (?). Many pages cancelled, indicating publication.) [Carmichael Watson Collection]'. The flyleaf reads 'Gaelic Notes, 1894-5' and the rear flyleaf contains a jotting which reads 'Wishing Guidhe'. The beginning of the notebook contains field notes made by Carmichael in Uibhist a Deas/South...
Dates: 12 September 1890 to 1895
Notes about John Stewart, Baleshare, North Uist, 23 March 1869
Scope and Contents Notes about John Stewart, Baleshare [Baile Sear, Uibhist a Tuath/North Uist] who had heard that Carmichael was searching for 'old things' and wanted to 'unburd[en] his mind' to Carmichael but never did although as Carmichael states 'I so often wished'.
Dates: 23 March 1869
'Oigh an Fhuilt Oir' [The maid of the golden hair], c 1861-1866
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
'Sgeul na Luireach' [The story of the breastplate], c 1861
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
Story about a grazing sheep, 20 May 1870
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
Story about a great northern diver, 1885
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...