Gaelic Incantations, Charms and Blessings of the Hebrides

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Everything nowadays is sold for the sake of lowland food without worth or pith. Think you is there any kind of jam in the town of Glasgow that is not found today in Uist? Not one! In my day there was no jam except the kind that we made ourselves of brambles, of blaeberries, and of our own black and red currants. The people of today have not so much as a rose-bush. The men have taken to sloth, and they have neither kail nor carrots, nor even a garden.

Since the folk were cast out to the streets of Glasgow and to the woods of Canada and to the peat-hags, the gardens have stopped.

Wild Scotland - The Outer Hebrides

O Mary Mother, we see the effect and the result! The young women of today have neither bone nor body, nor the growth proper to women. If they make a trip to the lowlands they come home stuffed full of airs and pride, and who but they? They go to Mass and to church to show themselves off, and who but they?

With a knot on their breast, a polonaise [fancy gown] on their back, a picture-hat on their head, and a sunshade in their hand held above their head, and Mary Mother! May God give them sense! It is themselves who should need that, and who would need to go to the knoll to see if the fairy woman would bestow the wisdom and grace of womanhood upon them.

My second example is more about soul than body, but since it concerns dancing it will be clear that this is rather a false separation. In she handed down to him a spiritual incantation. Let me quote just the first verse of it here to show the degree to which her spirituality expressed the presence of God as being revealed through nature.

This is the nature spirituality of, for example, Psalms or Job As such, panentheism is a wider perspective. It allows God to be both immanent that is, expressed in the mundane world - incarnated and at the same time transcendent which is to say, beyond all manifest expression and understanding. God with me lying down,. God with me rising up,. God with me in each ray of light,. Nor I a ray of joy without Him,. Nor one ray without Him. Such material is typical of the Carmina. What, then, happened to this spiritual tradition? Oppressed by landlordism and the destruction of their traditional culture, the people fell prey to a distorted fundamentalism.

Initially this often came from established church clergy who, under the Patronage Act, were often appointed by the landlord who had a vested interest in maintaining spiritual control. Later, tragically, it became part of a self-blaming theology. Salvation became a matter of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die rather than here-and-now transformation of the world in which we actually live.

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People blamed their own presumed sinfulness for the sufferings imposed upon them. His mother was one of the celebrated ten daughters of MacLeod of Rararsay, mentioned by Johnson and Boswell. In other words, she was part of the Celtic tradition of lineage partly through strong women. Carmichael says p. Mary Macrae was rather under than over middle height, but strongly and symmetrically formed. She often walked with companions, after the work of the day was done, distances of ten and fifteen miles to a dance, and after dancing all night, walked back again to the work of the morning fresh and vigorous as if nothing unusual had occurred.

The bigots of an iron time. Had called her simple art a crime. But Mary Macrae heeded not, and went on in her own way, singing her songs and ballads, intoning her hymns and incantations, and chanting her own port-a-bial, mouth music, and dancing to her own shadow when nothing better was available. And Carmichael concludes:. I love to think of this brave kindly woman, with her strong Highland characteristics and her proud Highland spirit.

She was a true type of a grand people gone never to return. My closed eyes welled up. To me this sort of experience indicates the power of a tradition that is not dead, but at some level of the psyche, is living. It remains as traces in our music, poetry and dance. If we let these things flow in us again, the culture that gave birth to them will be recreated first in our hearts, and then in our lives and the environment around us.

This is how we can learn from the ancestors. This is how we can hear their wisdom. We must open our eyes to visions, our ears to music, our hearts to love and our hands to action. What about those who feel they have no such cultural roots to draw upon? To them I say two things. Firstly, no genuinely spiritual culture is a closed culture. God seeks the fostership of all.

Draw from other cultures if your own one has dried up, but do so with permission which is to say, with blessing , with a profound respect which is to say, with reverence and with a generosity that offers something back which is to say, with love. And secondly. Allow creativity to work its magic through you. If you do not know what to do in life, try this.

And centre in on your feeling of inadequacy, uselessness and brokenness. Leave aside the retail therapy of consumerism, by which you feel miserable and temporarily ease it by another boost from the drip-feed of the credit card. Leave aside, for a while at least, the alcohol, tobacco and other drugs by which you - indeed, we all - might daily anaesthetise emotional pain: pain which, if you are seriously afflicted, you probably euphemistically think of as being the hooks of chemically determined addiction.

But I do want to support the view that determining factors might also be in our psyches. Nearly all of us have or have had addictions of one sort or another. Let us then consider the possibility that our addictions are not so much chemical dependencies in the brain, as emotional dependencies. These will be expressed via physiology in brain chemistry, yes, but that is not necessarily their origin. Allow me, then, to suggest that instead of denying or masking the pain, we let ourselves feel that pain.

Consider that perhaps the raw pain IS the mantra. It is a well-known fact, that the superstitions of the Druids has been handed down from generation to generation for a great maney ages, and is not wholy extinct yet… Campbell —, I, lii [printed verbatim]; see also MacLeod , —9. The remarkable rehabilitation, or even idealisation, of the charm genre in Gaelic, its rescue from widespread hostility and condescension, can be ascribed primarily to the efforts of Alexander Carmichael. As introductions to charms and charm types in Gaelic, the following have still not been super- seded: Macbain —, —66; Mackenzie —, 97—; Maclagan , 91— Following a particularly irascible academic controversy in the late s, scholars have been wary of engaging with such items, especially in the two volumes that Carmichael edited himself see espe- cially Robertson , —65; Campbell , 1— Once it was clear that many Carmina charm texts had been polished, regularised, archaicised, extended and even recreated by Carmichael, it was felt that as long as his original fieldnotes were missing, the scope of edito- rial interference could not be clarified.

The search for field notes, as well as his atrocious handwriting, led scholars to over- look some 26 notebooks in which he recorded items in the field. Many of these texts are vernacular Scottish Gaelic charms, although it should be stressed that for Carmichael as for many of his contemporaries not to mention many of our own , whether collectors or charmers themselves, the putative boundaries separating charms proper from prayers, blessings, curses, hymns and indeed work songs are ill-defined and distinctly porous.

He impressed upon those working under him not just the need for accuracy in recording texts, but also the importance of documenting the name, patronymic, age and indeed status of the informant, as well as the date and location of the performance itself. Carmichael not only habitually jotted down such crucial contextual information as part of his fieldwork, but occasionally supplemented it with more personal observations, as well as later reminiscences and even reconstructions written up long after the original event. Firstly, it is not uncommon to come across transcriptions of original recordings as yet untraced or else missing forever.

Again, it is evident from instances where we can compare orig- inals and later copies that Carmichael did not transcribe every single item from his field notebooks. Nevertheless, where we have a series of transcribed items from one specific occasion, it is probable that they have been set down in the order in which they were originally dictated — even though this may not represent the entire recording session.

To make matters even more convoluted, ascriptions to the original record- ings make it clear that the supposedly canonical list of attributions to informants as printed at the end of the second volume of Carmina Gadelica is by no means wholly trustworthy.

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More specific problems further compromise the surviving evi- dence. III, now no longer extant. A subsequent No. IV volume has, however, survived. IV are now missing, it seems likely that the same was the case for some items tran- scribed into the lost No. These suggest that, in addition to the 63 texts that we possess definitely dated to the years that he spent collecting in the Outer Hebrides, there may have been at least 13, and maybe as many as 21, other items recorded during this period whose originals are no longer extant CW MS , fols.

Some of the charms recorded by Alexander Carmichael, therefore, are surely gone forever in their original form. With his archive incomplete, the corollary is that although we might suspect or even presume substantial and pervasive editorial interference throughout the charm texts eventually printed in Carmina Gadelica, definitive proof must remain forever out of reach. In late Carmichael secured an excise post based in the Protestant island of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides off the north-west coast of Scotland, taking in responsibility for the Catholic islands in the south of the archipelago, renowned then as now for their rich Gaelic tradition.

During the years that he spent working in the Outer Isles his interests would expand to embrace other aspects of oral culture — historical anecdotes, songs by men and women, proverbs, individual items of vocabulary, prayers, blessings, cures and charms. From the mid-eighteenth century, commercial reorientation of Highland estates and massive population growth placed the subsis- tence economy of the region on an increasingly precarious footing.

Incantations in Action

The i5. Younger islanders tended to be formally educated to some degree of literacy, with a consider- ably better command of English. Thanks to improved communication and transport networks, they were much more conversant with the outside world. The real but fragile economic improvements that the younger generation enjoyed in wages, housing and diet by no means benefited the entire population. For Alexander Carmi- chael, the generation gap between those older people from whom he gathered traditional material and the—in his eyes at least—uninter- ested young was quite palpable.

He gathered eight in and in , seven in , six in , two in , and just one in and in Such figures, however, can only properly be interpreted if we bear in mind the number of informants from whom Carmichael recorded the texts. We thus find that during his entire sojourn in Uist Alexander Carmichael only ever recorded charms from at most six individuals a year, always during a single session each.

The remainder of this paper offers a preliminary exploration of just how Carmichael went about investigating and recording charm texts during his sojourn in Uist. Nevertheless, it should be stressed that the fact that he was able to record such items at all is a tribute to his assiduousness and inclusivity as a collector, as well as to his personal charisma, his candour and integrity, and the deep-rooted trust clearly accorded him by his informants.

Occasionally at least, Carmichael was acknowledged as to some extent one of their i5. An unusually frank note jotted into a field notebook the following year demonstrates how the two men had established a rapport: He declares that When [he] is done planting his potatoes he will travel over the F[ord] — a dis[tance] of about 21 m[iles] — to give me a proper opp[ortunity] of taking down any word he has before he dies.

He says he [has] neither son nor dau[ghter] except one little girl to whom he can leave his legacy of prose and poetry. And as he likes me better than any other person in the world he is desirous I should become poss[essor] of this invaluable legacy CW MS , fols. Some seventeen years later, Carmichael reconstructed her speech to him as follows: An unbaptised child cannot be harmed in a house where this bean is, no woman can be harmed while wearing it, and nor will a house where it is go on fire.

This blessed bean was blessed on the altar by the priest and in the eyes of God and the people it is sacred. No misfortune shall ever strike a woman who wears it. MacIsaac had made her gift.


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Chaidh an Arna bheannaichte so a bheannachadh air an altair leis an t-sagairt agus ann an suilean Dhia agus dhaoine tha i naomh. Cha tig baol air bean gu brath air am bith i. If so, it was a whirlwind courtship: the couple would marry in Edinburgh on 13 January the following year. The bean did not come by itself, however; it had an invocation attached, although Mrs. MacIsaac herself described the item as a laoidh or hymn: See, o Mary, the woman On the brink of death.

See her, o Son, For you are able To give the infant his power And to make the woman well. Comas a thoir dhan leana. I shall come with God and God will come with me God and Mary and Michael From the top of my head To the heel of my sole Let me come with my reputation Let me go with my right [testimony? MacIsaac had in fact confused it with another Gaelic charm type specifically relating to yarrow.

For yarrow charms, see ibid. A further note, however, seems to allude to the original purpose of the charm: intoning the words would apparently prepare and equip the reciter to undertake other, perhaps more weighty prognostics, to find out whether a lost person or beast might be recovered. If, as appears to be the case, Mrs. By the time that the recording session had ended, Alexander Carmichael had noted six items, almost as many vernacular charm texts as had been written down in Scottish Gaelic during the previous three centuries.

He does not, however, seem to have pursued the genre. On 8 May he met, for what appears to be the only time, Isabella or Iseabail Chisholm c. Angus MacDonald of Killearnan — , is to be believed: Isabel was full of old lore and knew many old Catholic hymns which she was supposed to have learned at Strathglas[s].

Carmichael scented her and made arrangements to have her tapped. He made an appointment with her to come to his house one morning for the purpose of taking down some of the hymns. He soon discov- ered that he gave the dram at the wrong end. Isabel soon began to show symptoms of inebriety and would not know a Catholic hymn from the Reel of Tulloch. Carmichael never saw her again. Whatever hymns Carmichael had intended to record from Iseabail Chisholm, he ended up noting down from her a series of charms, most of them against evil eye.

The Lost Charms and Incantations That Molded Celtic Reality

Four survive in transcripts, while a further three texts ascribed to her are only found in printed versions in Carmina Gadelica CW MS 7, fols. One of the latter is an example of a malefic charm, a most unusual occurrence in the recorded corpus. Although the printed version has unmistakably been embellished, the flavour of her exuber- antly creative cursing remains, the particular flyting style of a woman well remembered by the Rev.

Angus MacDonald: She was then an old woman — cursing an absent person kneeling on one knee. The words she used were awful. The relative paucity of charm texts recorded by Alexander Carmichael during his first five years living in the Outer Hebrides might lead us to question just how conspicuous the use of charms in island communi- ties actually was. Thus, perhaps, the uncharacteristic excitement with which Carmichael recorded his next discovery concerning charms: Extraordinary. While travelling along the road today — Friday the 5th July [recte August] — I overtook a woman who told me that she had a cold very poorly and that she could not understand the nature of her illness — diseased.

The wise woman told my friend that 2 or 3 per[sons] put an eye in the cow. She got 2 Snailes which she kindly showed me each about 6 or 9 inches long and twisted of natural dusky brow[n] wool. This is the colour ciar for brutes and scarlet for human beings. Some [supra: eccle- siastics] here are not proof ag[ains]t the snaile and I have heard of some upon whose cattle the snaile was put if not at their request at least with their sanctions CW MS , fols. If it is from the eye of a man, may [he] burn up like pitch, If it is from the eye of a woman, may she be without her breast.

May a cold [? CG II, While Carmichael recorded a number of songs from Catherine Pearson, it is striking that, although she undoubtedly worked with charms, she gave him none of her store Macneil a, For three years almost all the charms Alexander Carmichael had encountered were protective ones against evil eye. Although the inci- dence may merely reflect his specific collecting interests at the time, it appears rather probable that this charm type was in fact predomi- nant in the islands.

But this is certainly not the impression given by Carmichael in Carmina Gadelica. Charms as Newspaper Curiosities, — At the end of an opportunity arose for Alexander Carmichael not just to collect charms, but to transmit them to a wider audience. The Rev. From September he began to mine a productive lode that attracted much interest from his readers, printing a series of Gaelic riddles and other linguistic curiosities together with English transla- i5.

Luibh Chalum Chille is St. Carmichael certainly knew the Rev.


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Alexander Stewart. For their provenance, see ibid. Carmichael would record from her again before he left the Uists. Stewart printed the other two charms that Carmichael had sent him in his next column. Columba, Put your feet [fearlessly] under you, A safe pathway [bridge] being provided for you by the Blessed Virgin24 These charms evidently attracted some interest, to the extent that the entire column was reprinted in the Glasgow Herald two days later.

In these overwhelm- ingly Catholic districts vernacular blessings, prayers, and charms were much more openly performed than in the Protestant north. Translation as printed. In addition, rightly or wrongly, he felt that his collecting had now exhausted the supply of long traditional tales, the more so in that the best of the older generation of his first informants were now dying off.

In addition, given that his onerous official duties were now combined with a young family to look after and building work to supervise, it was clearly more convenient for Carmichael to record short items such as songs and charms, rather than long narratives. In fact, Carmichael may have increasingly come to believe that the soul of the culture was not to be found in the epic prose tales tailored for public recitation so celebrated among other contemporary folklore collectors.

On his next visit to the island of Barra in September, he once again visited John Pearson. A few cinders In the bottom of your petticoat, Three bones of an old man Taken out of a grave And nine strong snares of horsehair.

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Burn that on a brushwood fire And make of it all ashes. Sprinkle that about the breast of your lover against the north wind And I shall pledge and warrant you That man will never leave you. See Campbell , , No original appears to be extant. I have been officially busy. Since we came to this cottage more than a year ago tradesmen have hardly been out of the house so that I really could do nothing more than keep up my official work. The reciter said that this charm was good for sore swelling in the breast of a woman, in the udder of a cow or for the dug of a mare. She herself cured women and cows and mares through the means of this charm and many times.

The Torranan Charm, Carmichael resumed collecting charms in , but in a rather unusual way. The implication of this is that Carmichael was copying out the charm while his memory of it was still fresh, in order to have the text published. Some time during the same month Carmichael can be observed trying out in a field notebook an English translation of a new charm that he must recently have acquired, evidently for another newspaper column.

Fionnghal was in a bad humour. Her cow had been losing milk during the spring dearth. Nevertheless, he was fully prepared to make the arduous journey to obtain it. Wicked woman! Shortly afterwards he collected another variant, coincidentally from another Fionnghal MacLeod, Fionnghal nighean Chaluim c. He despatched the two to the Rev. Alexander Stewart, and they were eventually printed together, with translation, in his Inverness Courier column on 6 August Let me pluck thee, Torranan!

With all thy blessedness and all thy virtue, The nine blessings came with the nine parts, By the virtue of the Torranan. The hand of St. Bride with me, I am now to pluck thee. With thine increase as to sea and land; i5. Bride, The holy St. Columba directing me, Gentle St. Odhran protecting me, And St. Michael, of high-crested steeds, Imparting virtue to the matter the while, Darling plant of all virtue, I am now plucking thee! She said the cuach or crop of the plant gradually fills up, le sugh sonais, with the dew of bliss, while the tide is flowing, and slowly dries up again during the ebbing of the tide.

In order, therefore, to obtain the buaidh or virtue of the Torranan, the plant or flower — whether the whole plant, or simply the flower, I could not make out — must be procured during the flow of the tide, or near the time of high water.


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