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Alexander Carmichael, “Carmina Gadelica” and Clan Mhuirich

When the Clan Currie Society conducts their annual MacMhuirich Symposium in the village of ìochdar in South Uist in August of 2012, they will be returning to the site of a series of interviews conducted by Alexander Carmichael as part of his life’s work of collecting the folk tales, hymn, and songs of the Outer Hebrides. It was in ìochdar that he first met Janet Currie (still known by her Gaelic name, Seonaid Nic Muirich) in 1865 who shared stories of the Clan Mhuirich and island life. Carmichael would return to this village up until 1890.

Alexander Carmichael (1 December 1832 – 6 June 1912) was a Scottish writer and folklorist, best known for his multi volume work Carmina Gadelica - "The Hymns of the Gael". He also contributed to John Francis Campbell's work the Popular Tales of the West Highlands. Throughout his career, Carmichael sought to explore and document the traditions of the Gaelic Highlanders, particularly their mythology, much of which is also common to Irish mythology.

He was an exciseman and in the course of his travels was able to collect extensive folklore. In the Napier submissions he mentions that he had often turned down promotion in order to continue as an excise man in a location that allowed his major work to be seen through.

During the fifty years he recorded throughout the Highlands and Islands, Alexander Carmichael followed the instructions of his folklore mentor John Francis Campbell of Islay: to note down the date and place of recording, reciters' names, occupations, and occasionally their age or from whom they heard the material. In contrast to other contemporary collections made during the nineteenth century, it is not an amorphous collection of material noted down from the 'folk'.

Because of this, a remarkable database has been created of people - over 400 of them - who met Carmichael and give him their lore. His informants ranged from a remarkable six-year old boy in South Uist to an eighty-four year old female St. Kildan. Carmichael's life's work stands out from many other contemporary nineteenth-century collectors for its variety, the richness and detail of its social context, and the depth of his engagement with material culture and the environment.

The material that Carmichael collected in the Carmina Gadelica is noted for its preservation of an indigenous "Celtic" spirituality that integrates the Christian with aspects of the pre-Christian. While Carmichael does provide a little material from Lewis and Harris, most comes from the southern isles, especially South Uist, where a Catholic tradition had permitted the preservation of what, in the Protestant north, would usually have been dismissed in relatively modern times as "superstitions".

The work was originally published in six volumes, with extensive footnotes containing further details as well as additional tales and folklore.

Carmichael edited the first two volumes, published in 1900; volumes III and IV were edited by James Carmichael Watson (Alexander Carmichael's grandson) and published in 1940 and 1941; two final volumes, edited by Angus Matheson, were published in 1954 and 1971. A one-volume, English-language edition was published in 1992.

Carmina Gadelica made an immediate impact on reviewers, one of whom stated it was 'a great religious work, piously perfected by man, every fibre of whose body and being vibrates to the beauty of holiness'.

The Clan Currie owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Carmichael and the extensive collection of MacMhuirich stories he collected from their direct ancestors on Uist. It is completely appropriate that Clan Currie brings their 2012 MacMhuirich Symposium to South Uist on the centenary of Carmichael’s passing in 1912.