Carmina Gadelica is a compendium of prayers, hymns, charms, incantations, blessings, literary-folkloric poems and songs, proverbs, lexical items, historical anecdotes, natural history observations, and miscellaneous lore gathered in the Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland between 1860 and 1909. The material was recorded, translated, and reworked by the exciseman and folklorist Alexander Carmichael (1832–1912). Carmina Gadelica was published in six volumes: Alexander Carmichael himself, with the assistance of family and friends, was responsible for the first two volumes, published in 1900; these were re-edited by his daughter Ella in 1928. Although Carmichael's correspondence suggests that he planned at least one further volume in the series, he was unable to bring this plan to fruition. Further selections from Carmichael's manuscripts were edited by his grandson James Carmichael Watson (1910–1942) and published as volumes III (1940) and IV (1941). A fifth volume, mostly taken up with song texts, was edited by Professor Angus Matheson in 1954. The series was rounded off in 1971 with a sixth volume containing a lengthy glossary and indices, edited by Angus Matheson with the assistance of his brother William. In 1992 Floris Press published a one-volume English-language edition with a valuable introduction by Dr John MacInnes. Floris would reprint the entire six-volume series in 2006.
The genesis of Carmina Gadelica can be traced to ‘Grazing and Agrestic Customs of the Outer Hebrides’, the second appendix Alexander Carmichael contributed to the Report of the Napier Commission in 1884. Francis Napier, 10th Lord Napier, had requested Carmichael to compose a piece on traditional Hebridean land customs based on the chapter on the subject that he had written for the third volume of William Forbes Skene’s Celtic Scotland. Carmichael rounded off his contribution in an unorthodox manner, presenting a selection of rhymes, prayers, blessings, and songs gathered in the islands, intended to illustrate the spiritual refinement and respectability of their crofter reciters. The popularity of ‘Grazing and Agrestic Customs’, and a subsequent paper Carmichael delivered on 24 December 1888 to the Gaelic Society of Glasgow on ‘Uist Old Hymns’, encouraged him to embark upon a much more comprehensive work on the subject.
Initially highly praised as a monumental achievement in Scottish folklore, Carmina Gadelica subsequently has received some criticism for Carmichael's interpretation and presentation of the material. Criticism has ranged from the opinion that Carmichael was excessive in his editing of the source material, to the accusation that some of his sources were fabricated. Some of his translations tend to sacrifice accuracy for a type of Victorian, anachronistic style which was popular at the time of the works' first publication. In other cases it is clear, from comparing his notes to the finished product, that in some cases he may have invented additional lines and verses and incorporated them into the poems he had recorded, without acknowledging these changes.
These criticisms acknowledged, Carmina is still seen as essential to Scottish folklore studies. It is used as a source by respected folklorists such as F. Marian McNeill as well as contemporary students of Gaelic language and folklore.
- Carmina Gadelica vol. I
- Carmina Gadelica volume I: full text at the Internet Sacred Text Archive
- Carmina Gadelica volume II: full text at the Internet Sacred Text Archive
- Carmichael, Alexander (1992). Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations Collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the Last Century. Edinburgh: Lindisfarne Press. ISBN 0-940262-50-9