The Carmichael Watson Project, Celtic Languages and the Mystery of Loch Ness

Carmichael Watson

A nameless blogger (there’s no credit page) has started a blog at lochnessmystery.blogspot.com that has an interesting post on the Carmichael Watson Project at Edinburgh University Library. As the Watson Project’s page puts it:

The Carmichael Watson collection in Edinburgh University Library, centred on the papers of the pioneering folklorist Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912), is the foremost collection of its kind in the country, a treasure-chest of stories, songs, customs, and beliefs from the Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland. It offers us fundamental insights into the creation of Carmichael’s greatest work Carmina Gadelica, an anthology of Hebridean charms, hymns, and songs, and a key text in the ‘Celtic Twilight’ movement.

[Link.]

This is of interest to our anonymous blogger — a boldly-stated Nessie believer whose header asks if you’re “Tired of Nessie debunkers? …You’re in the right place!” — for fairly obvious reasons:

The connection between creatures such as the Loch Ness Monster and the semi-mythical Water Horses of Highland folklore has long been discussed and held to be a continuous theme by various crypto-researchers (myself included).

A new source of such stories has now been made available online and free to the public by the University of Edinburgh in the form of the Carmichael Watson Project. Carmichael Watson wrote the well known work on Highland culture and folklore entitled Carmina Gadelica published in 1900 but this is a mere fraction of his total research which is now available online…

[Link.]

Carmichael, as it turns out, was a prominent enough Scots Gaelic scholar that some people get pretty hopped up about him, and others are on a first-name basis with the guy:

Carmichael is chiefly remembered today for his great work Carmina Gadelica, illustrating the charms, blessing, and prayers of the Gaelic speakers from whom he collected a great deal of oral material. Carmina made an immediate impact on reviewers, one of whom stated it was ‘a great religious work, piously perfected by man, every fibre of whose body and being vibrates to the beauty of holiness’.

Niggling doubts remained, however, concerning just how much Carmichael had edited and polished the original texts he had collected in order to present them in print. During the mid-1970s these doubts came to the fore in a heated scholarly debate over Carmina’s authenticity: the fiercest debate in Gaelic scholarship since Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’.

Holy crap! That’s a fierce debate! That’s like…well, I imagine it to be somewhat like a baby-oil throwdown in the ring at Sam’s Strip Club on Mud Wrestling Tuesdays, crossed with an old Pink Floyd song!

Anyway, the Watson project has images of Watson’s notebooks making it a treasure trove for Scots Gaelic historians:

The Carmichael Watson Project has for the first time identified original field and transcription notebooks. They are available as images and as full transcriptions in the hope that this will encourage more scrutiny of Carmichael’s editorial methods but also to research the texts as they appeared originally. All these notebooks allow a better understanding of Carmichael’s achievement in recording and preserving for posterity he remarkably rich Gaelic cultural heritage of the people of the Highlands and Islands.

So, here’s why I care about Scots Gaelic. Being of Irish extraction myself, I’m fascinated by the lingering legacy of minority languages in countries that have been essentially colonized for hundreds or even thousands of years. The Irish language has largely survived to the modern day. It has significant variations from the ancient tongue, but through the entire history of the island there have remained “Gaeltachts” where Irish was spoken as a first language all the way down the years. (Irish is what the Irish call something I grew up calling just “Gaelic.” I didn’t know anything about it except that it was an extinct tongue and people used to put it on tchotchkes hanging on their walls under cheesy paintings of drunken leprechauns hanging on to one blade of grass so they would not fall off the face of the Earth).

The Irish language was the subject of a vibrant late-20th century rebirth that created a generation of Irish-speakers. When I was in Galway about 15 years ago, you could actually hear Gaelic spoken on the street. Galway, including the Aran Islands, is one of the Gaeltachts, the main others being County Donegal and the Dingle Peninsula. and it’s one of the few places in Ireland where there are fluent Irish speakers who use it as a mother tongue, though I’m told no one or almost no one speaks Irish only without also speaking English.

However, that might not be true. I’m reminded of a bizarre incident during that late 1990s visit of mine, in which my parents and I asked directions from an aged gentleman on the road from Dublin to Galway who seemed like he didn’t speak English. He didn’t seem to be deaf because he listened intently to what we said, but then just looked at us with an affable Irish country smile and shrugged happily to indicate he hadn’t the foggiest idea what we were saying. However, this does not necessarily indicate he was a non-English speaker (He was clearly not an immigrant…unless he’d just immigrated from Fairyland).

This doesn’t necessarily indicate that the guy didn’t speak any English, though. I had very much the same experience in Dublin, where relatively few people seemed to speak Irish as a matter of daily social interaction. Given that my parents and I look about as Irish as one can look, Irish people encountering us socially seemed to expect us to speak in some human language. We would say something in our American accents, and the Irish folks would look like we’d just begun speaking in tongues. We’d get a blank look until they put it together that we were barbarians — that is to say, Americans — they would adjust their listening skills for the accent and speak back to us in their Irish rendition of English — at which point we would stare at them blankly until we managed to sort out the rapid-fire, joyous, affable cant of the Irish accent. Given that Dublin seemed to be one of the places with a far milder accent than other parts of Ireland, it is a telling fact to me that I couldn’t understand a damn thing anybody said at first pass.

I got used to the Irish accent after a while, but I still find it fascinating to listen to an Irish person talking to the English or to Americans, or to a mixed group — and then hear them talking to other Irish people. The accent comes back instantly, and the speed of the speech amps up about 400%, as if they’re proclaiming to their fellows, “Thank God I don’t have to say it in the Slow Talk, eh?”

Scots Gaelic — which Wikipedia calls Scottish Gaelic presumably to distinguish it from the Germanic Scots language, spoken in the Lowlands and parts of Ulster (I always heard Scottish Gaelic called Scots Gaelic — I’m not sure why) — has not fared as well in the modern era. While there are estimated to be about 20,000 to 30,000 speakers of Irish Gaelic as a mother tongue, and 1.66 million speakers with some fluency, Scots Gaelic is spoken by fewer than 70,000 people.

The other four of the “six living” Celtic languages are Welsh, Breton, Manx and Cornish. Welsh has about 750,000 speakers worldwide (including about 5,000 in one province in Argentina). Estimates of Irish speakers range from about 650,000 worldwide to 1.7 million plus. Breton is spoken by about 200,000 in Brittany — northern France, and Cornish and Manx are both highly endangered. Cornish has only about 3,000 speakers and Manx, from the Isle of Man, has 1,700 speakers.

All of these Celtic languages, plus the extinct ones, have rich folklore and traditions, and of the six only Irish and Welsh are not, to some extent, endangered.

Even Manx is not endangered so dramatically as many Siberian, Caucasian or African languages, which are on their last legs.

But as many linguists have said, every lost language is a lost way of thinking. Every language vanished from history is a disappeared way of seeing the world.

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