Reference Number59006
TitleCarmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations with illustrative notes on words, rites, and customs, dying and obsolete: orally collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and translated into English by Alexander Carmichael
AuthorN/A (Edited work)
EditorMatheson, Angus
Date Of Edition1900-1971
Date Of Language19c
Date Of Language Ed1850-1899
DateMacroLate 19th c.
Date Of Language Notes
PublisherT. and A. Constable
Place PublishedEdinburgh
VolumeVol. 6 of 6
LocationNational, academic, and local libraries
Geographical OriginsHighlands and Islands, mainly Western Isles
Geographical Origins EdVarious
Geographical Origins Notes
RegisterLiterature, Prose and Verse (Traditional)
Register EdLiterature, Prose and Verse
MediumProse & Verse
A selection of charms, incantations, blessings, invocations, prayers, supplications, and rhymes, presented in 6 volumes.
Most of the material was collected in the Western Isles, particularly in Uist.
Contains terminology relating to a variety of subjects including Christian and pre-Christian religion, ailments and cures, and plants; and everyday tasks such as smooring the fire, shearing sheep, weaving, and milking cattle.
There was, and still is, a considerable controversy surrounding Carmichael’s editorial practices. Carmichael’s original fieldwork notebooks are in the Carmichael-Watson Collection in EUL and are being examined as part of the Carmichael-Watson Project. As Carmichael is known to have substantially altered his material for publication, his notebooks must be consulted to determine the original form of the published material.
Alternative Author NameN/A
Manuscript Or EditionEd.
Size And Condition23.6cm x 16cm
Short TitleCarmina Gadelica
Reference DetailsEUL: .89163108Car
Number Of Pages271
Gaelic Text ByN/A
Social ContextThis text, in six volumes, is a compilation of blessings, chants, prayers, and incantations, collected by Alexander Carmichael throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland during the second half of the nineteenth century. Carmichael was born in December 1832 on the island of Lismore. He became an exciseman, and as such he had the opportunity to travel extensively in the Highlands and Islands. He had a keen interest in antiquities, folklore and customs, and contributed a number of papers to the Transactions of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Carmichael was a friend of Captain Thomas and Dr. W. F. Skene, and he came to know J. F. Campbell of Islay, for whom he collected some of his material. Carmichael also contributed to Sheriff Alexander Nicolson’s Gaelic Proverbs, and to the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, the Gàidheal, the Highlander, the Inverness Courier, and the Celtic Review. After writing a section on old Highland land customs in Skene’s Celtic Scotland, Carmichael was asked to write a more extensive paper on the same subject for the Crofters Commission Report in 1884. The first two volumes of Carmina Gadelica were published in 1900.

Alexander Carmichael married Mary Frances Bean in Edinburgh in January 1868. After their marriage, they spent 14 years living in the Uists where Carmichael was working. Much of the material in Carmina Gadelica was collected during this time. The family later moved to Edinburgh and it was from Edinburgh University that Carmichael received the honorary degree of LL.D. Mary Frances Bean helped her husband with his work, often travelling with him as he collected his material, and particularly in the production of drawings for Carmina Gadelica and for other publications. Carmichael died in Edinburgh in June 1912 and was buried in Lismore. His wife died in December 1928 and is buried beside him.

Their daughter, Elizabeth (Ella) Catherine Carmichael, also helped her father in his work, particularly in the production of Carmina Gadelica for which she is credited as having ‘transcribed the manuscripts and corrected the proofs for press’ for Vols. I and II (Vol. I, p. xxxi). It was Ella who prepared the second edition of the first two volumes for publication in 1928, the year before she died. In the Preface to the second edition, Ella Carmichael states that ‘some misprints have been corrected, and a few unimportant alterations have been made’ (Vol. I, 1928, p. vii). The ‘unimportant alterations’ seem to include adding or moving the position of some of the titles, and J. L. Campbell (1978) notes that she also added a long note to An Eoir a Chuir Moire (Vol. II, pp. 152-53). I have been unable to find any other additions. The 1928 edition of Vols I and II used a smaller font-size than the 1900 edition. As a consequence, the page numbers diverge. Vols III-VI followed the type-face of 1928.

In 1906, Ella Carmichael married Prof. William John Watson, who later became Professor of Celtic at Edinburgh University (1914 to 1938). Their son, James Carmichael Watson, was born in Edinburgh in 1910, and succeeded his father in the Chair in 1938, having been Lecturer in Celtic at Glasgow University for the previous three years. He died, missing in action, in 1942, having joined the Royal Navy during the Second World War. Before he died, however, he edited two more volumes of his grandfather’s material: Carmina Gadelica Vol. III was published in 1940, and Vol. IV was published in 1941. W. J. Watson died in 1948, and in 1949 the Carmichael-Watson Collection came into the possession of Edinburgh University. The Collection contains papers belonging to Alexander Carmichael, W. J. Watson, and James Carmichael Watson, as well as papers belonging to other eminent Gaelic scholars and folklorists. The Collection is held in Edinburgh University Library and comprises 60 boxes, 149 volumes including notebooks, 6 envelope folders, and one tube.

Prof. Angus Matheson, Professor of Celtic at Glasgow University, edited the last two volumes of Carmina Gadelica. Vol. V was published in 1954, and Vol. VI was published, after his death, in 1971.
ContentsVol. I: edited by Alexander Carmichael, 1900

Vol. I begins with a table of Contents (pp. v-xiii). This is followed by an Introduction (pp. xv-xxxii) by the editor. Carmichael gives a description of the Western Isles, where most of his material was collected. He touches on the geography of the islands, their history, and on the lifestyle of the people. He names some of the people he collected from in the islands, and describes the strict religion of the people in Lewis which prevented them from singing and dancing, and their negative attitude to the ‘foolish past’ (p. xxiii). He briefly describes his method of recording the information and his reasons for wanting to preserve the traditions and lore he collected. Carmichael also explains his method of selection for inclusion in Vols. I and II, stating that he collected multiple versions of a number of items, but that for the most part, he selected only one for publication. In some instances, however, some variations are given. He adds that some of the texts have been shortened for inclusion. He also states (p. xxxiv) that he followed the advice of J. F. Campbell ‘in giving the words and in recording the names of the reciters’. (The latter are given at the end of Vol. II.). The main body of the text is divided into three sections as follows: Achaine/Invocations (pp. 1-123), Aimsire/Seasons (pp. 125-229), and Oibre/Labour (pp. 231-339).

Vol. II: edited by Alexander Carmichael, 1900

Vol. II begins with a table of Contents (pp. v-xi). The main body of the text is presented in two sections: Uibe/Incantations (pp. 1-159) and Measgain/Miscellaneous (pp. 161-217). At the end of this volume is a section of Notes (pp. 219-343). The notes are in the form of a glossary from A to U. It is not stated whether all the words in the notes can be found in the texts of Vols. I and II. However, it is likely that they were words Carmichael collected during his time in the Highlands and Islands. Most of the words are well annotated. There follows a short section listing the Names of the Reciters of the Poems (pp. 344-50).

Vol. III: edited by James Carmichael Watson, 1940

Vol. III begins with an Editor’s Note (pp. vii-viii), followed by a table of Contents (pp. ix-xx), and a chapter on Elizabeth Catherine Carmichael by the Rev. Donald Lamont (pp. xxi-xxiv). The main body of the text is presented under the following headings: Breith agus Baisteadh/Birth and Baptism (pp. 1-23), Urnaighean Maidne/Morning Prayers (pp. 24-63), Òrachan Dìona/Prayers for Protection (pp. 64-109), An Nollaig Mhór/The Nativity (pp. 110-17), Achan nan Naomh/Supplication of the Saints (pp. 118-69), Guidheachan Turais/Journey Prayers (pp. 170-99), Blessings (pp. 200-211), Òrachan Buadha/Invocation of the Graces (pp. 212-29), Dùrachdan/Good Wishes (pp. 230-55), Urnaigh Roimh Éisdeachd/Prayer Before Confession (pp. 256-59), Crois Chrìosda/The Cross of Christ (pp. 260-63), Sìth/Peace (pp. 264-69), Guth na Torainn/The Voice of Thunder (pp. 270-73), Gealach Ùr/New Moon (pp. 274-305), A’ Ghrian/The Sun (pp. 306-11), Buidheachas Bithidh/Thanks for Food (pp. 312-17), Dìon Oidhche/Night Shielding (pp. 318-67), and Bàs/Death (pp. 368-95).

The texts in Vols. I to III are numbered 1 to 351.

Vol. IV: edited by James Carmichael Watson, 1941

Vol. IV begins with an Editor’s Note (pp. v-viii), followed by a table of Contents (pp. ix-xx), a chapter on Alexander Carmichael LL.D. by Professor Donald MacKinnon (pp. xxi-xxv), a chapter entitled Our Interpreter by the Rev. Dr. Kenneth MacLeod (xxvii-xl), and a chapter on Carmichael’s wife Mary Frances Bean (xli-xlv), by the editor. The main body of the text is presented under the following headings: Beò-Chreutairean/Live Creatures (pp. 1-19), Glòir nan Eun/The Speech of Birds (pp. 20-31), Foghnadh Feamainn/Abundance of Seaweed (pp. 32-35), Iasgach/Fishing (p. 36), A’ Chailleach/The Hag (p. 37), An Àirigh/The Shieling (pp. 38-39), Sealbh/Cattle-Stock (pp. 40-87), Luathadh/Waulking (pp. 88-99), Cunntas na h-Acainne Griasachd/The Counting of Shoemaking-Tools (pp. 100-101), Taghadh Fiodh/Choice of Timber (pp. 102-03), Rogha/Choice (pp. 102-03), Biadh agus Caiseart an Tuathanaich/The Farmer’s Food and Footgear (pp. 104-05), Bardachd Hirteach/St Kilda Poetry (pp. 106-15), Lusan/Plants (pp. 116-39), Òr Anacainnt/Prayer Against Ill Report (pp. 140-43), Òra Ceartais/Invocation For Justice (pp. 144-45), Buadh Mòid/Success of Moot (pp. 146-47), Orthachan Leigheis/Charms for Healing (pp. 150-313), and Measgain/Miscellaneous (pp. 315-67).

Vol. V: edited by Angus Matheson, 1954

Vol. V begins with an Editor’s Note (pp. vii-x), followed by a table of Contents (pp. xi-xviii), a chapter on The Late Professor James Carmichael Watson by John MacLean (pp. xix-xxii), and a chapter on James Carmichael Watson, O.S. by W. M. Calder (pp. xxiii-xxiv), reprinted from the University of Edinburgh Journal, 1942. The main body of the text is presented under the following headings: Òrain Luaidh/Waulking Songs (pp. 1-83), Am Bròn Binn/The Sweet Sorrow (p. 85-105), Òrain Sìdhe/Fairy Songs (pp. 107-181), Tàladh Mhic Leòid/MacLeod’s Lullaby (pp. 183-233), Sìdhichean/Fairies (pp. 235-51), Bodach/Fairy Changeling (pp. 253-69), A’ Bhean-Nighe/The Washing-Woman (pp. 271-84), Frìth/Augury (pp. 285-97), Mac Gille Chaluim Ratharsaidh/Mac Gille Chaluim of Raasay (pp. 299-304), Mac Mhuirich/Macvurich (pp. 305-19), and Measgain/Miscellaneous (pp. 321-403).

The texts in Vols. IV and V are not numbered. Vols. III, IV, and V contain no notes. The names of reciters in Vols. III, IV, and V are given, where possible, beside each item.

Vol. VI: edited by Angus Matheson, 1971

Vol. VI begins with a Preface by Rev. William Matheson, brother of Prof. Angus Matheson. It explains that Prof. Angus Matheson died leaving an almost complete manuscript of Vol. VI. It was Rev. William Matheson who finalised the manuscript and submitted it for publication. There follows a list of Works referred to and Abbreviations (pp. 1-5), a large chapter consisting of Gaelic Words and Expressions collected by Alexander Carmichael (pp. 6-144), a Subject Index (pp. 145-65), a List of Motifs according to the Stith Thompson Classification (pp. 116-78), and three further indices: an Index of Persons (pp. 179-92), an Index of Places (pp. 193-205), and a Glossarial Index (pp. 206-70). This volume ends with a short section entitled Names of Cattle (p. 271), which lists the names given by people to their cows in North Uist and of the names of the cows belonging to Iain Mac Gille Mhoire, Torr an Tuirc, Lorn.

Given the nature of the materials and the history of the editing process, it is not surprising that there is some thematic overlap between volumes. For example, texts relating to smooring the fire appear in Vol. I and in Vol. III.

The English Translations

All Gaelic items have been translated into English. Vols. I-V display Gaelic and English on facing pages. The translations in Vols. I and II are by Alexander Carmichael; those in Vols. III to V are by J. Carmichael Watson. Carmichael confessed in his Introduction that there were some words and phrases that neither he nor the reciter could translate. In these instances, they were ‘rendered tentatively or left untranslated’ (Vol. I, p. xxxi). Carmichael also pointed out that ‘some localisms are given for the sake of Gaelic scholars’ (Vol. I, p. xxxi) and warned that dialectal and metrical considerations had necessitated some variation in spelling.
SourcesThe material was collected by Alexander Carmichael in the Highlands and Islands, particularly in the Western Isles. His handwritten notebooks containing the original material can be found in the Carmichael-Watson Collection, housed in Edinburgh University Library. These are currently being collated as part of the Carmichael-Watson Project at the University of Edinburgh ( In an article in Scottish Gaelic Studies published in 1976 (Vol. XII, Part 2, pp. 220-65), Hamish Robertson alleged that the MSS for Vols. I and II of Carmina Gadelica were not extant, and that little by the way of MS material existed for Vol. III in the Carmichael-Watson Collection. However, Phase 1 of the Carmichael-Watson Project, based at the University of Edinburgh, has discovered Carmichael’s original fieldwork notes in the Carmichael-Watson Collection (including those pertaining to Vols. I, II, and III).

The Controversy

Over the last thirty years, there has been much debate among scholars as to the nature of the editorial principles adopted by Carmichael in the first two volumes of Carmina Gadelica, and as to the reliability of the material published therein. While there is evidence to suggest that Carmichael’s editorial principles were not approved of by everyone, even in his own day, doubts about Carmichael’s editing of the texts in Carmina Gadelica were re-ignited since the 1970s.

Hamish Robertson’s 1976 article directly challenged ‘Carmichael’s motives and methods’ (p. 220) in the research and publication of Carmina Gadelica. He claimed that Carmichael doctored the material he collected, transforming it into a more literary form, by the addition and substitution of single words, phrases, whole lines, and possibly whole texts, and that he deliberately changed some of the words to a more archaic form, e.g. tha mi laidhith to laighim, found in Beannachadh Leapa (Vol. I, p. 88) and cho to co, found in Am Beannachadh Banachaig (Vol. IV, p. 60). In his article, Robertson compares some of the MS material found in the Carmichael-Watson Collection with versions of the same found in Carmina Gadelica, noting that ‘hardly one had not been touched up in some way, sometimes drastically’ (p. 231). For example, he cites the last verse of Beannachadh Banachaig, which appears in Carmichael’s notes as ‘Nim facas riamh air an talamh \ Mac a tha cho math ri Crìosd \ A chruthaich na bruidean air fad \ Gu maitheas dhuinne ’s d’ar friamh’, and in Carmina Gadelica as ‘Cha robh mac màthar air talamh \ Co math ri Macan nan nèamh; \ Chruthaich e magach na machrach, \ Snàmhach mara is sgiathlach speur’ (Vol. IV, p. 60).

John Lorne Campbell attempted to refute these claims in the next edition of Scottish Gaelic Studies (Vol. XIII, Part 1, pp. 1-17), stating that while Carmichael did edit his material into a more publishable form, this was no more or less than any scholar of his day would have done. As noted above, however, not all of the scholars of Carmichael’s day agreed with his edititorial principles. Campbell quotes from some of Carmichael’s letters which show Carmichael’s openness about his wishes to arrive at a definitive version of each item, particularly in his letters to Fr. Allan McDonald. With regard to the deliberate use of archaic word forms, Campbell suggests that while Carmichael may have been ‘archaizing’ (p. 10), it is quite possible that he was in the possession of other versions of these texts that did use the archaic forms. For example, versions of Beannachadh Leapa did exist in which the form laighim was used.

Robertson further noted that, in Vols. III and IV, Carmichael Watson corrected and standardised the spelling, added accents where necessary, and provided a selection of alternative words. He also suggested that Carmichael Watson had seen fit to ‘reject quite a substantial body of material which he must have regarded as either unsuitable or untrustworthy’ (SGS, Vol. XII, Part 2, p. 227). In Vols III and IV, both in the versions of the incantations and in the translations, Carmichael Watson leaned heavily on his grandfather’s work, using his translations of obsolete words. John Lorne Campbell argued that Carmichael Watson was working to a very tight time scale, had no personal knowledge of the material he was working with, and had perhaps too high a regard for his grandfather’s work, stating that ‘Much of the first three volumes of Carmina must be taken as a literary and not as a literal presentation of Gaelic folklore’ (SGS, Vol. XIII, Part 1, p. 13). He also pointed out that Carmichael Watson’s method of editing Vols. III and IV was out of date by the 1940s. More recent scholarship has shown that ‘archaizing’ is too simplistic a term to apply to Carmichael’s engagement with these texts; e.g. in Am Beannachadh BanachaigNi’m facas (notes) is a good deal more archaic than cha robh (published text). See further D. U. Stiùbhart (ed.), The Life and Legacy of Alexander Carmichael (Port of Ness, 2008).
LanguageWhile it is likely that much of the vocabulary in these volumes accurately reflects the words used by the people who contributed these incantations, given the evidence for extensive editorial alteration made by Carmichael, it is imperative to check the published texts against Carmichael’s notebooks.

Despite this difficulty, Carmina Gadelica presents us with a wealth of vocabulary from hymns and incantations current in the Western Isles or elsewhere in the Highlands during the second half of the nineteenth century. The hymns and incantations reproduced in Vols. I-V cover a wide variety of topics, as can be seen from the Contents section above. Many of them involve non-Christian elements, e.g. Òrain Sìdhe (Vol. V, pp. 107-81). Others are overtly Christian in their sentiments. Examples include some of the material in Gealach Ùr (Vol. III, pp. 274-305), Aimsire (Vol. I, p. 177), and Am Beannachd Lombaidh (Vol. I, p. 296). The first stanza of Aimsire, for example, reads: ‘Sloinneadh na Ban-naomh Bride, \ Lasair dhealrach oir, muime chorr Chriosda. \ Bride nighinn Dughaill duinn, \ Mhic Aoidh, mhic Airt, mhic Cuinn, \ Mhic Crearair, mhic Cis, mhic Carmaig, mhic Carruinn’ (Vol. I, p. 177).

These volumes contain a rich source of the vocabulary of blessings, charms, incantations, invocations, prayers and supplications (e.g. Mhoire Mhaighdean, Vol. III, p. 118; Tiùraidh nam buadh, Vol. III, p. 20; and Is i Brighid mo bhan-chomainn, Vol. III, p. 162), ailments and cures (e.g. buirbean, Vol. IV, p. 200 and a’ chioch slugain, Vol. IV, p. 203), plants (e.g. am monalan, Vol. IV, p. 130 and am mòthan, Vol. IV, p. 134), animals (e.g. an Dobharchu, Vol. IV, p. 2 and an Deargan-Allt, Vol. IV, p. 5), and everyday tasks such as smooring the fire (e.g. ‘Toga mis an tulla \ Mar a thogadh Muire \ Caim Bhride ’s Mhuire \ Air an tulla ’s air an lar, \ ’S air an fhardaich uile’, Vol. I, p. 234), shearing sheep (e.g. ‘Falbh lom ’s thig molach, \ Beir am boirionn Bealltain, \ Bride mhin a bhi dha d’ chonaill, \ Moire gheal dha d’ aurais’, Vol, I, p. 296), weaving (e.g. ‘Fuidheagan no corr do shnath \ Cha do chum ’s cha chum mo lamh’ (Vol. I, p. 301), and milking cattle (e.g. ‘Beannaich, a Dhé, gach sine, \ Beannaich, a Dhé, gach miar; \ Beannaich fhéin gach boinne \ Théid dha m’ ghogan, a Dhia!’, Vol. IV, p. 64), to name but a few.

John Lorne Campbell has pointed out (Scottish Gaelic Studies, 13, p.15) that these volumes do not include charms and incantations relating to sex and fertility, although these would probably have been common in the Highlands and Islands at the time. He suggests there that this may have been a deliberate omission on Carmichael’s part.

The Notes in Vol. II (pp. 219-343) and the Gaelic Words and Expressions in Vol. VI (pp. 6-144) present a rich, though often problematic, source of vocabulary collected by Carmichael in the Highlands and Islands during the second half of the nineteenth century. Vols. I and II do not use accents. Vols. III to VI use both accents.
EditionFirst edition of all six volumes. A second edition of Vols. I and II was published in 1928 by Ella Carmichael. The differences between this and the first edition are noted above.

The Sabhal Mòr Ostaig website has Vol. I online: Another website ( has Vols. I and II online, including the Notes section in Vol. II. While the ‘sacred-texts’ site gives the date of Vols. I and II as 1900, i.e. the first edition, the online version of Vol. II contains the added notes by Ella Carmichael from the second edition. This website states that some of its texts have been scanned from the original document, while others have been copied from elsewhere on the internet.
Other Sources
Further ReadingBruford, Alan, ‘“Deirdire” and Alexander Carmichael’s Treatment of Oral Sources’, SGS, 14 (1983), 1-24.
Campbell, John Lorne, ‘Notes on Hamish Robertson’s “Studies in Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica”’, SGS, 13 (1978), 1-17.
MacInnes, J., Introduction to Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations ([n.p.],1992: Floris Books).
Robertson, Hamish, ‘Studies in Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica’, SGS, 12 (1976), 220-65.
Stiùbhart, D. U., Introduction to Ortha nan Gàidheal: Carmina Gadelica in English and Gaelic (Edinburgh, 2006: Floris Books).
Stiùbhart, D. U. (ed.), The Life and Legacy of Alexander Carmichael (Port of Ness, 2008: Island Book Trust).
Thomson, Derick S. (ed.), The Companion to Gaelic Scotland (Glasgow, 1994: Gairm).
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