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A research guide to the Carmichael Watson Collection

Portrait of Alexander Carmichael

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.

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'.

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

The value of the collection goes far beyond literary studies. It offers exciting potential for interdisciplinary cooperation between local and scholarly communities, for collaborative research in history, theology, literary criticism, philology, place-names, archaeology, botany and environmental studies.

In May 1948, Edinburgh University received the Carmichael Watson Bequest, bequeathed them by Professor William J. Watson, and his son, Professor James Carmichael Watson, a grandson of Alexander Carmichael. The collection consists of around 1400 printed volumes and the part known as the Carmichael Watson Collection, mostly manuscript materials including Alexander Carmichael's all-important field and transcription notebooks.

Regarding the physical extent of the collection, it consists of 60 boxes, 149 volumes (including note and transcription books), 6 envelope folders, and 1 tube or metal cylinder - altogether taking up 9 linear metres of library shelves. The collection contains materials from a roll-call of the cream of Gaelic and Celtic scholars from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Dr Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912), exciseman and pioneering folklorist; Professor William J. Watson (1865-1948), holder of the Chair of Celtic at the University of Edinburgh, onomastician and co-founder of the Scottish Gaelic Texts Society; Professor James Carmichael Watson (1910-42), who succeeded his father in the Chair of Celtic at the University of Edinburgh and whose promising career was cut short by his death during the Second World War; Elizabeth (Ella) Carmichael (1870-1928), the daughter of Alexander Carmichael and second wife of Professor William J. Watson, who edited The Celtic Review in conjunction with Professor Donald MacKinnon; Rev. Alexander Cameron of Arran (1827-88), pioneer Celtic philologist; Professor Donald MacKinnon (1839-1914), first holder of the Chair of Celtic at the University of Edinburgh; Alexander Macbain (1855-1907), Celtic scholar, philologist and lexicographer; Rev. Archibald MacDonald of Kiltarlity (1855-1948), historian and genealogist; Father Allan McDonald (1859-1905), priest, poet and folklorist; Rev. Angus MacDonald of Killearnan (1858-1932), historian and anthologist; and Rev. Charles Robertson of Jura (1885-1927), linguist and onomastician.

The Carmichael Watson Collection - from items CW1 through to CW 576 - has been catalogued and is available online. Items from 1 to 487 were catalogued by the Rev. John MacKechnie (1897-1977), a Celtic scholar in his own right, who inexplicably stopped there. The remaining items - from 488 to 576 - were catalogued by Dr Laura Sugg, then undertaking doctoral research about Dr Alexander Carmichael. In addition to this, Dr Anna Frater described in detail the contents of items 488-506. Items 1-522 in the Carmichael Watson Collection have been microfilmed as part of SHEFC-funded project.