Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search results

Carmichael, Alexander, 1832-1912 (Excise officer | folklorist and antiquarian | Edinburgh | Scotland)

 Person

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:

Description of a view from the top of Beinn Rà, 10 July 1870

 Item
Identifier: Coll-97/CW116/57
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 &...

Description of the Miùghlaigh/Mingulay schoolhouse, 1867

 Item
Identifier: Coll-97/CW114/40
Scope and Contents Description of the Miùghlaigh/Mingulay schoolhouse describing its dimensions, furniture, household goods and some books. Carmichael writes, 'His house is about 30 F[eet] x 13 []feet]. It was built by the natives and is most rude and primitive. Ab[out] 18 f[eet] of this is the scholroom. The other end is the teacher's...Floor in ruts and hollows and roof just suf[ficiently] high to allow a tall man to stand upright without touching the centre rafters.'

Diagram of Castle Coeffin and accompanying notes, September 1870

 Item
Identifier: Coll-97/CW106/74
Scope and Contents Diagram of Castle Coeffin [Caisteal Chaifeann, Lios Mòr/Lismore, Earra Ghàidheal/Argyllshire] drawn by Alexander Carmichael and accompanying notes describing a porthole facing Glensanda, large holes in the outside walls as if for bars and the dimensions and situations of the remaining structure. The dungeon is marked on the diagram along with measurements.

Draft article titled 'Hypogeum. At Valaquie, Island Uist' and other notes, c 1872

 Item
Identifier: Coll-97/CW465
Scope and Contents Draft of an article by Alexander Carmichael titled 'Hypogeum. At Valaquie, Island Uist', later published in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. The collection of papers also includes a draft letter headed 'Swallows' and further notes related to Barra.

Draft book dedication, c1893

 Item
Identifier: Coll-97/CW126g/48
Scope and Contents Draft book dedication [by Alexander Carmichael to his wife Mary] 'The best of wives And the best of mothers The severest of critics but the warmest of friends Thee my beloved Mary'.

Essay on the Barra Cross, c late 19th century

 Item
Identifier: Coll-97/CW464
Scope and Contents Two versions of an essay on the Barra Cross by Alexander Carmichael.

Etymologies concerning names around Brechin, c 1865

 Item
Identifier: Coll-97/CW442
Scope and Contents List of etymologies concerning names around Brechin, sent to David Dakers Black by Alexander Carmichael.

Excise journal marked 'III Set Journal', 1856

 Item
Identifier: Coll-97/CW109/1
Scope and Contents Excise journal marked 'III Set Journal' for Greenock, Renfrewshire showing the nature of the transaction, the individual involved, the amount of money and, in some cases, the date. Text on folio 3v has been scored through in ink.

Extract of a diary written by Alexander Carmichael including part of a journey from Uibhist/Uist [to Edinburgh], 6 January 1872 to 10 January 1872

 Item
Identifier: Coll-97/CW126f/93
Scope and Contents Extract of a diary written by Alexander Carmichael including part of a journey from Uibhist/Uist towards Edinburgh. In it, Carmichael is pining for his pregnant wife Mary, who is in Edinburgh and is anxious about her health. It is clear that there has been a lack of correspondence between them causing each of them distress 'No letter no watch. God grant that she is well. Oh Mary Mary if you knew my suffer[in]g you would not thus treat me...God grant y[ou]r safe arriv[al] home my darling wife -...

Field and transcription notebook of Alexander Carmichael, 1864-1867

 Series
Identifier: Coll-97/CW113
Scope and Contents Notebook belonging to Alexander Carmichael containing field and transcribed material. The notebook is inscribed on the front inside cover with the following: 'Scrap Book MS No1 Alex[ander] Carmichael (of Lismore) Inland Revenue Lochmaddy N[orth] Uist] 1864'. On the recto side of the fly leaf is written 'Angus MacDonald Staoinebrig tale teller' and on the verso side of the fly leaf is written 'Bought at Drew's Saint columb Cornwall this 17 day of Nov[ember] 1864 A. A. Carmichael p2/3'....