You’ll find the headstone of Alexander Carmichael (1832–1912) on his home island of Lismore, in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, in the graveyard of St Moluag’s Cathedral. The stone bears a touching inscription:
Be my soul in peace with thee, Brightness of the mountains. Valiant Michael, meet thou my soul.
It is just the kind of poetic gem, with its high literary style, that you’d expect from the man who, in the nineteenth century, collected the tales of his fellow Hebrideans and then recounted them in the greatest anthology of its kind, the Carmina Gadelica. One hundred and twenty years later, Carmichael’s towering collection is still in print and has been called a “bible of Celtic Christianity.”
More than seven hundred pages long, the compendium presents hundreds of Highlands and Islands hymns, prayers, incantations, and charms. The picture that emerges of Gaelic-speaking Scotland is astounding. These are a nature-loving people, with hearts full of lyric poetry and pride for their island communities. Their religion is a coherent, gentle Christianity, amenable to all.
But there is something odd and liminal about Carmina Gadelica. Edinburgh University, which holds Carmichael’s papers and notes, pinpoints the “crepuscular rhapsodic mysticism” of the great work. It stood against the very angular evangelical revival sweeping the Highlands and Islands at the time the book was compiled. That was no accident.
The poems within are almost too good to be true. Perhaps we should have asked more questions from the start. As the Edinburgh Celtic Studies historian Ronald Black writes, “everyone agrees Alexander Carmichael existed. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the contents of Carmina Gadelica.” Is Carmina a literary hoax, a plot to create a smoothed-out reality that never existed? Is it art masquerading as science? Or is it a true masterpiece, one whose glorious achievement of vision and poetry transcends the convoluted story of its creation?
Alexander Carmichael was born on December 1, 1832, the ninth and youngest child of Hugh Carmichael, a farmer and publican, and his wife, Elizabeth MacColl. The family took pride in coming from ancient stock. Alexander’s childhood was idyllic, but the Highland Clearances and a famine during his early years seem to have left the young man with a sense of the precariousness of his people’s culture. He soon determined to collect the stories and prayers of the crofters before they all went to dust.
Carmichael’s portrait, painted by the Scottish artist William Skeoch Cumming in 1899 when the subject was sixty-seven, presents a tall, beefy man in a kilt, with a long white beard. But the appearance of confidence and authority was both hard-won and more fragile than it seemed. Carmichael had no academic training. He was an enthusiast—a story collector—and it seems as if the anxiety of the amateur never quite left him. It certainly might explain the decades-long gap between the collecting and the publishing of his first volume.
Carmichael assembled the stories he heard and wrote them in field notebooks.
Carmichael’s passion was listening to the old folk tales, prayers, and spells of the people of the Highlands and Islands. His career as an exciseman, which had him going home to home across the country, was well suited to this extracurricular endeavor but not without its attendant challenges. (Families who might have had an illicit whisky still out back would have been less accommodating of the tax collector’s visits.) It helped that he understood his own people and for many years lived among them. Carmichael assembled the stories he heard and wrote them in field notebooks—often traveling on dangerous and long journeys just to get an interesting fragment from some faraway islander.
When Carmichael died in 1912, his legacy as an author and antiquarian had been seemingly secured by this work, even if only two of the eventual six volumes of Carmina Gadelica had been edited and published. But more than half a century later, in 1976, controversy broke out when a Gaelic-studies scholar named Hamish Robertson penned an article that condemned Carmichael’s sloppy methodologies and loose relationship with the raw material.
The reality was likely far less scandalous. Carmichael had originally planned a modest book of prayers from Uist, an island in the Outer Hebrides. But after years of collecting pieces of this region’s oral traditions, he soon had a problem: there was so much material, how was he to edit it down? The simple book became a six-part colossus—edited and contributed to by many hands, including his wife, daughter, and son-in-law.
By 1882 Carmichael had moved to Edinburgh with his cultured and well-connected wife, and he became a leading figure in the city’s Gaelic intellectual circles. He mixed with professors and scholars—“real academics”—who may have persuaded the insecure amateur to take different tracks with the work. Carmichael’s propensity to obsessively fiddle with the recorded words—there were often innumerable versions of the same prayers or tales to choose from—led to delay after delay. His desire to construct a heroic persona for a Highland people who were often despised and ridiculed as little better than savages surely also contributed to the interminable process of editing and publishing the work. Both issues bring us to the 1976 article by Robertson, which showed how the final versions had moved some way from the originals. It looked certain that Carmichael had added meter to the verse, invented “Gaelic” words and phrases, sprinkled the text with archaisms, and simply made bits up.
Things could have ended here, with the book left to die a painful and ignoble death. But the case for Carmina being a hoax isn’t clear cut at all, and the controversy has broader implications on the field of folklore and mythological study. Consider the work of those other extraordinary folklorists—the Brothers Grimm. Jacob Grimm was a scientist and philologist. His brother Wilhelm was a literary scholar with an agenda. The latter wanted to rebuild Germany’s confidence and help it to become a unified nation with tangible origins. It was Wilhelm who did almost all the work, and his “true” tales from the folk tradition went through multiple edits at his hands. He created, in other words, a new reality. His aim was to rebuild Germany through traditional tales—the kind that build national identity. Had the brothers just written down the stories verbatim (as many on the scientific side of the folklore brigade said they should), who would have read them? No one outside the academy, doubtless. We need art to help us to inhabit reality.
The truth is that Carmichael wasn’t breaking all the norms of folklore collectors at the time.
The same dilemmas and concerns were at hand in Scotland at the time of Carmichael’s enterprise. Writers like John Francis Campbell meticulously wrote down exactly what they heard and published it sans alteration. These sorts of efforts are now nearly impossible to read. The truth is that Carmichael wasn’t breaking all the norms of folklore collectors at the time. Many folklorists of Carmichael’s day held that it was acceptable to “cook” the raw material they worked with. To be sure, some of his work is fairly well done: the longest prose stories are pretty obviously altered. At the same time, the prayers and incantations seem to be closer to the originals that Carmichael would have heard firsthand.
Hoaxers cover their tracks, but Carmichael kept all his notes, and he was forthright about the way he conducted his writing and fieldwork. (These original manuscript entries are what Robertson judged against the final product in his 1976 article.) Many of his story-hunting trips were perilous and exhausting, often for little success. At one point it is claimed he was badly beaten by a crofter. Who would take such risks if they were going to make everything up? He could have just stayed home.
If not an outright hoax, was Carmichael’s work a plot, encouraged by a cabal of clergymen and powerful academics riding the wave of fresh interest in Celtic studies, to create a convenient fiction of the Gaelic “spiritual man?” It is certainly true that Carmina leaves out a lot of inconvenient pagan material. Carmichael’s modifications present a unified and winning character of the people of the Highlands and Islands.
The archetype of the Spiritual Celt was convenient, to say the least. The bigger and more important question is whether or not the idea of any unified Celtic Christianity is itself preposterous. In truth, the people—either Catholic or Protestant—held the usual mix of beliefs, rationalities, and superstitions. They may not have recognized the kinds of ideas Carmichael was attributing to them.
In light of these various inaccuracies and misrepresentations, is it still worth reading the work? Is it possible to forgive the man who wanted to hear the voices from the past and to preserve a fast-disappearing world for posterity? Undoubtedly, yes: Carmina Gadelica is still important. It speaks to some of our deepest needs. When feelings of peril and uncertainty arise within the soul, a Carmichael prayer like the following might touch even the hardest heart:
Be Thou a smooth way before me,
Be Thou a guiding star above me,
Be Thou a keen eye behind me,
This day, this night, for ever.
I am weary, and I forlorn,
Lead Thou me to the land of the angels;
Methinks it were time I went for a space
To the court of Christ, to the peace of heaven.
I love the prayers and incantations of Carmina because they have the deep ring of truth—as all good art does. Indeed, art often feels more real than reality itself, as Henry James wrote about in The Real Thing: “I liked things that appeared; then one was sure.” And as James’s onetime painting teacher, William Morris Hunt, counseled his students, “You are to draw not reality, but the appearance of reality!” Carmina is one of the most beautiful books of poetry and prayers ever created, and it’s likely thanks largely to Carmichael’s editorial interventions.
Carmichael knew the voice of the Highlanders and Islanders in his heart, and he could write it down precisely because he had heard it and grown up with it. Yes, this helped the cause of rehabilitating the people of Northern Scotland, but that was a by-product, even if Carmichael’s well-heeled friends were happy for it to be thus. Carmichael refines some of the roughness of the originals—he smooths edges. If he hadn’t, we would not be reading his book now, because in doing so he allows the words to cross through generations.
How do you feel when you read something like this from Carmina? Have we been taken in?
God of the moon, God of the sun,
God of the globe, God of the stars,
God of the waters, the land, and the skies,
Who ordained to us the king of promise.
It doesn’t feel fake. But is that enough? Michael Mitton, who has written about Celtic Christianity, explained to me that the reason it feels so real is that it meets one of our great needs: to see the God of gentleness, kindness, and poetry. Carmichael’s prayers feel exactly like a homecoming, even if you aren’t a Celt. That’s good enough for me.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 7, on page 37
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