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Alexander Carmichael (1 December 1832, Taylochan, Lismore - 6 June 1912, Edinburgh) was a writer and folklorist, best known for his multi volume work Carmina Gadelica.

He was an exciseman and in the course of his travels was able to collect extensive folkore. His daughter Ella who continued to publish his work after his death was married to Scottish Gaelic scholar William J. Watson.

The material that Carmichael collected in the Carmina Gadelica - "The Hymns of the Gael" - is exceptional for its preservation of an indigenous "Celtic" spirituality that profoundly integrates the Christian with aspects of the pre-Christian. It is striking that while Carmichael does provide a little material from Lewis and Harris, most comes from the southern isles, especially South Uist, where a more relaxed Catholic tradition had permitted the preservation of what, in the Protestant north, would usually have been dismissed in relatively modern times as "superstitions" or "Papist superstitions". The Catholic southern isles might have have been more open to "nature religion" than other Catholic regions because, after the Reformation, they were re-evangelisd by Franciscan missionaries, with their renowned openness to nature spirituality. To what extent scholarship into Carmichael has been shaped over the past century by differences between Catholic and Protestant perceptions of Hebridean tradition is a question that has been asked privately by some scholars, but thus far not researched.

In his 1992 preface to the Floris single volume edition (abbridged and without the Gaelic original) John MacInnes of the School of Scottish Studies concludes by quoting his Edinburgh University ethnographer colleague, Ronald Black (Raghnall MacilleDhuibh), as surmising: "Carmina Gadelica is by any standards a treasure house ... a marvellous and unrepeatable achievement. There will never be another Carmina Gadelica." More recent scholarship on the Carmina by Domhnall Uilleam StiĆ¹bhart at Edinburgh University's Carmichael Watson Project can be accessed through the Bibliography link (below). Amongst other points, this explores the extent to which Carmichael might have embelished some of his material.

At least the first two volumes, the original published volumes (out of an eventual four) of the Carmina are now available as online searchable scans - links can be found at its Wikipedia page link (above). Also important is Carmichael's two written testimonies to the Napier Commission of 1883 into the condition of Scottish crofters. All five volumes of Napier have now been scanned and placed online by Lochaber College, and an extract PDF, containing just the Carmichael material with its rich ethnographic account, is online at the external link below. It is striking in the Napier material that in some of the "old hymns" cited, Carmichael specifies "close translation", and not so with others. A folklorist with an approach to living tradition such as that of the late Hamish Henderson (also of Edinburgh University) on seeing such specification might have surmised that in some cases, where "close translation" was not specified, Carmichael allowed himself to enter into the tradition by allowing it to flow via his own interpretation of what he heard ... and that as an indigenous West Highland himself (from Lismore) this could be considered as being eminently appropriate - depending on how one views the rigidity or fluidity of a folk tradition. One thing of which we can be certain is that Carmichael deeply loved his people and their spirituality. In the Napier submissions he mentions how he had often turned down promotion in order to continue as an excise man (like Robert Burns) in a location that allowed his great work to be seen through.


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