UNESCO honours Gaelic archive

A treasure trove of Gaelic historical and cultural documents has been recognised as one of the world’s most important archives.

The Carmichael Watson Collection in the Centre for Research Collections in the University Library is one of nine archives that have been registered with the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme for 2014.

The remarkable archive has as its centrepiece the papers of the pioneering folklorist Alexander Carmichael.

Between 1860 and his death in 1912 Carmichael collected a vast amount of folklore, local traditions, and objects from people throughout the Scottish Highlands, particularly in the Outer Hebrides where he lived, worked, and brought up his family between 1864 and 1882.

Celebrated archive

The Carmichael Watson Collection consists of 26 field notebooks, 5 transcription books, and many thousands of loose folios.

These papers contain an extraordinary range of material, from legends of loch monsters and second sight to epic clan battles, Gaelic insults, and crofting customs.

Many of the spiritual items collected by Carmichael - prayers, blessings, and charms - were edited and printed by him in his masterwork Carmina Gadelica, the first two volumes of which appeared in 1900.

Remarkable collection

The Collection joins 41 already listed on the UK register. Included in the awards for 2014 are manuscripts by William Shakespeare, the entire Royal Mail archive (including its enormous stamp artwork collection), the first ever TV-style interviews in 1916 from the Hepworth Cinema Collection, and 130 Roman curse tablets from Bath - the earliest known surviving prayers to a deity in Britain.

In May 1948, Edinburgh University received the Carmichael Watson Bequest, bequeathed by two Professors of Celtic: Carmichael’s son-in-law Professor William J. Watson, and Watson’s son, the late Professor James Carmichael Watson.

The University's archives of the songs, stories, and lore of the people of Scotland, in manuscript and on tape, are one of its greatest treasures. One of our fundamental goals is to unlock these amazing resources, making them available to people worldwide, not least in the communities where they were gathered in the first place. It’s a great encouragement for us to receive such a prestigious award, and we would like to pay tribute to the many descendants and relatives of those who gave lore, and to the family of Alexander Carmichael himself, for all the help they have given us over the years.

Dr Domhnall Uilleam StiùbhartSenior Researcher at the Carmichael Watson Project