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Elizabeth Catherine Carmichael (1880-1928)

Celtic scholar, Gaelic advocate and acclaimed editor.

Elizabeth Catherine Carmichael
Elizabeth Catherine Carmichael, University Art Collection, EU0971

Early life

Born Elizabeth but more commonly known as Ella, she was a leading light in Highland and Celtic circles in Edinburgh from her student days in the 1890s until her death in 1928. She was, moreover, one of the stalwart ladies of Gaelic scholarship – both directly, through her personal contributions to the discipline, and indirectly, as the daughter and amanuensis of the Gaelic folklore collector Alexander Carmichael, as the wife of William John Watson, Professor of Celtic at Edinburgh, and as the mother of James Carmichael Watson, who succeeded his father in the Chair of Celtic.

Born in her father’s native Lismore, she spent most of her early childhood in the Uists, where he was an Inland Revenue Officer. Although she received her secondary schooling in Edinburgh, she never lost her sense of belonging to the Highlands, nor her facility in speaking Gaelic. In 1892 she started at the University, and distinguished herself in Professor Donald Mackinnon’s Celtic classes between then and 1895.

Scholary activities

Her involvement in promoting Gaelic causes began in 1894, when she helped to found the Celtic Union. She also showed crusading zeal in another area: finding herself debarred as a woman from joining the University Celtic Society, she promptly founded the Women Students’ Celtic Society, which flourished until the mores of a later age enabled an honourable merger to take place.

Despite her more sociable commitments, she did not neglect her Gaelic literary studies. After helping her father transcribe and edit the material for his Carmina Gadelica (published in 1900) she was a prime mover in the scheme to launch the Celtic Review, a scholarly journal which she then edited from 1904 to 1916, in a highly creditable way.

Family life

In 1906 her marriage necessitated a move to Inverness, where Watson was Rector of the Royal Academy; but they returned to Edinburgh three years later on his appointment as Rector of the Royal High School, a post he filled until his translation to the Chair of Celtic in 1914. The Watsons’ home (at first in Spence Street, and latterly in Merchiston Avenue) became a hospitable resort for all with Highland or Celtic connections. Even so, Mrs Watson found time to continue with her scholarship and good works. After her father’s death in 1912 she worked for many years on a revised edition of Carmina Gadelica, which appeared, shortly after her death, in 1928.

Of her two sons, the elder died in childhood, but the younger, James, fulfilled his mother’s deepest hopes, carrying all before him academically, and matching her enthusiasm for Gaelic language and literature. Her death, after a period of illness, came at a relatively young age; it deprived her of the joy of seeing her son follow in his father’s footsteps, though it also spared her the tragedy of his premature death on war service in 1942.

Related links

Gaelic at the University of Edinburgh

Additional sources

Gillies, William, "Elizabeth (Ella) Catherine Carmichael Watson (c. 1871–1928)", in John H. Burnett et al. (eds.), The University Portraits. Second Series (Edinburgh: Eyre Spottiswoode, 1986), pp. 204–6.

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