Sunday, 20 June 2010

Book review: The Life and Legacy of Alexander Carmichael

My reading is going slowly at the moment - I've had a lot of distractions recently so I've only just got through my second book from my birthday haul, along with having picked through some of the articles in Celtic Consciousness (a really good article on seasonal customs by Kevin Danaher, for one). But I've gone and bought a few more books to add to the pile, anyway, seeing as I'm all on my lonesome for the next few weeks and have nothing better to do (whether that's shopping or reading I'm referring to, I'm not sure...).

So I'm waiting on Daithi O' Hogain's Irish Superstitions, Margaret Fay Shaw's Folk Songs and Folk-lore of South Uist, and Morgan Daimler's Land, Sea and Sky has already landed on my doorstep (I'm about halfway through).

I had to go into Glasgow yesterday to get the kids new shoes, and my mother-in-law offered to take them off my hands for the afternoon once I'd accomplished the mission for footwear. So I dumped the kids with Nana at Central Station, with new shoes proudly stuck on feet for Nana to admire, and took myself off to the university to renew my membership at the library. It's probably been two years since I've been, or something close, and in that time I compiled a good list of things I wanted to look up, which Rosie then promptly deleted during a gleeful button-mashing session...Grr. "Look mummy, I'm typing!" "Noooooooo!"

But I managed a good haul anyway, including Charles MacQuarrie's Waves of Manannán. Again. This time I will read it (third..or fourth...time's the charm). For the most part I went to look up some articles, though, because I have enough books to get through at the moment, so I got a goodly chunk of photocopying done (I could really do with a scanner, it make things much easier). I did have a list of books I wanted to look up just to see what they were like, and my curiosity has now been satisfied. Some of them I'll probably end up getting out on loan when I go back.

Anyway, onto the review:

The Life and Legacy of Alexander Carmichael
Ed. by Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart

To be fair, it's hardly the most inspiring title for a book, but it delivers far more than the title promises.

The book is a collection of essays from a conference on Benbecula in 2006, with contributions from Ronald Black, Hugh Cheape, Donald Meek, and William Gillies, amongst others (those were the names I recognised - vaguely or otherwise).

I was hoping they'd deal with a few of the problems that have been raised with Carmichael's research and the Carmina itself, and that's pretty much what I got, handily packaged in an article by Ronald Black called 'I Thought He Made It All Up: Context and Controversy' - that is, in terms of the studies that have been made on the Carmina, it was suggested in the 1970s that Carmichael had been more than a little liberal in his recording, 'polishing', and outright reworking and embellishing of the material he collected and then published, which essentially made the Carmina next to useless as a reliable source of genuine folklore and song. Black counters this convincingly, to a certain extent at least, and gives examples of where Carmichael obviously tampered with the material, and where he obviously didn't (Domhnall Uilleam Stìubhart's opening article also gives some good examples).

Overall, Black concludes that Volumes I and II are the most in tact in terms of authentic material, with the Gaelic verses being the least tampered with (i.e. the stuff that provides major inspiration for some of CR liturgy), while the Gaelic prose was hugely 'polished' to confirm to a somewhat romantic propaganda about the Noble Celts, and so on, because Carmichael wanted to show them as having a literature to rival the Classics. Meek follows on with this point in his article on Celtic Christianity and how Carmichael was pivotal to the development of the idea.

I got the sense that Black is a tad more apologetic towards Carmichael, whereas Meek is more forthright in his criticism of Carmichael's work (and also the romanticism that accompanies a lot of the studies of the material), so along with Stìubhart's work, there's a good balance to be found. This isn't the only topic that's covered, though - Cathlin MacAulay's article on Uist in the School of Scottish Studies Archives gives a tantalising account of all the material that's been recorded on the Uists over the years, and just how much material there is that hasn't been published yet.

The same could be said for the original records and manuscripts from Carmichael, which Meek (arguing that there was a definite agenda with the Carmina, to portray the Highlanders as a spiritual people, living in harmony with pagan and Christian elements that were old, but civilised, not primitive) comments, "One has only to look at the amount of material of a 'pagan' nature left out of the Carmina, and still lying unedited in Edinburgh University Library, to realise that neither the Gaels nor the editors of Carmina were, in fact, as accommodating and as eclectic as the paradigm wanted them to be." It's comments like that that make me wonder why there wasn't an article on this unpublished 'pagan' material, and what it contains. I would loved to have seen something on the things we're not familiar with.

There's a lot more I could go on about - the final article in the book is short but sweet, a reminiscence of a childhood on South Uist that describes many of the traditions that the author took part in, that he later found described by Carmichael in the Carmina. This article alone - only a page long - made the book for me.

The book provided a lot of food for thought for me, although in many respects it raised more questions than it answered. It did point me to this site, though, which I've been happily trawling through since. I don't imagine many folks have a burning desire to snap this book up, but I'd definitely recommend a read of it if it's the sort of subject that interests you. It's a good book for understanding the context of the Carmina, certainly.