13 Jul 2011

Lost folk tales come to light in the notebooks of Scottish tax collector

"Lost tales of a Hebridean Atlantis, magical water horses, and Robert Burns’ murderous ancestors have been uncovered in a major study of Scotland’s foremost Victorian folklorist that has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
For the first time the notebooks of Alexander Carmichael, a man compared to Germany’s Brothers Grimm, have been transcribed, catalogued, indexed and imaged. They have been made available online by the University of Edinburgh’s Special Collections.
The publication is the third part of the Carmichael Watson Project, a decade-long project to unlock one of the world's major folklore resources.
Working as a tax collector on Lewis, Argyll, Uist and the West Highlands from 1860, Carmichael spent 50 years collecting legends, songs, curses, charms, prayers, and oral history from Gaelic-speakers. In total Carmichael spoke to more than 400 individuals, filling 28 notebooks full of tales. He recorded the names, ages, occupations and locations of almost everyone he met.
Carmichael used his notes for his masterwork, Carmina Gadelica. Published in 1900 it was a seminal work within the Celtic Twilight movement of the time. Yet it is estimated that only a tenth of the work collected made it into the book.
The AHRC award has allowed researchers and archivists to spend two years deciphering and transcribing Carmichael’s notoriously bad handwriting. They have uncovered hundreds of unpublished stories including tales of the Green Island, the Hebridean version of the Atlantis myth, the giant Finn McCool, and magical water horses. 
One historical account records a new date for the last sighting of the Great Auk, a now extinct, oversized bird that resembled a penguin. Reputedly last seen in Iceland in 1844, Carmichael records the sighting of one in St Kilda four years later. It met its demise when islanders believed it was possessed by a demon and beat it to death.
Dr Donald William Stewart, senior researcher for the Carmichael Watson Project, said: “For over fifty years, Alexander Carmichael tirelessly, even obsessively, recorded the culture, lore, and beliefs of his native Scottish Highlands. By the end of his life in 1912, he was both Celtic guru and folklore jukebox, the internationally-recognised authority on Scottish Gaelic songs, stories, traditions, and beliefs. Carmichael’s voluminous papers, now preserved in Edinburgh University Library, form one of the foremost folklore collections in the world.”
Users of the new resource will also be able to search the catalogue for names of individuals who shared stories, or were mentioned in tales. For example, individuals who trace their family tree to Uist can search for mentions of their ancestors within Carmichael’s notebooks.
The website (www.carmichaelwatson.lib.ed.ac.uk) was launched in conjunction with a two-day conference 'Alexander Carmichael: Collecting, Controversy and Contexts' and an exhibition, ‘Unlocking the Celtic Collector’, is running in the University Library until 22 July."

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