The Carmichael Watson Project

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About the Project

Phase IV

As a result of a generous Research Project Grant from the Leverhulme Trust, Phase Four of the Carmichael Watson Project, Carmichael in Context: the material worlds of a Celtic Collector, is now underway. In this phase the team is investigating a hitherto neglected side of Alexander Carmichael's work: his engagement with material culture. Carmichael in Context asks what the objects acquired or described by Carmichael might tell us about themselves, their environment, their owners, and their collector.

Alexander Carmichael is best known today as a collector and editor of texts. In island tradition, however, he is portrayed not so much as a recorder of oral culture than as an avid and not always welcome forager of objects from all and sundry. The Rev. Angus MacDonald, writing about the only tartan suit left in North Uist, notes sardonically: Carmichael went off with it. It is now in Edinburgh waiting for the crack of doom. Carmichael went off with many things. (GB 237-97/CW133 fo.151v) Towards the end of his stay in Uist, Carmichael himself was considering publishing his life’s work in three parts : The 1st say, the Geology and fauna; the 2 social and domestic; and the 3d antiquities (GB 237-97/CW362 fos.173v–174). In this plan, oral texts occupy only a subordinate position.

Carmichael was deeply involved with the material environment, collecting objects and artefacts, documenting natural history, and recording and sketching antiquities and natural landmarks. His initial curiosity deepened into a profound awareness of the material context of island life, and an enduring fascination with how material culture and oral culture intersect and mutually interact in island communities. By focusing on his material collecting practices and extending our existing online manuscript catalogue by cataloguing, indexing, and photographing all of Carmichael’s objects, the project aims to re-present Alexander Carmichael as ethnographer and antiquarian, transforming our appreciation of the life and work of this key figure of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Scottish and Celtic culture.

The project focuses upon a) the portable curiosities Carmichael acquired for his personal collection, now housed in the West Highland Museum, Fort William; b) bulkier objects which he despatched to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, now in the National Museum of Scotland; c) descriptions of and references to material objects in Carmichael's field notes and notebooks. Through cataloguing, research work, and dissemination, we aim to inspire a deeper awareness of folklore collecting's material context.

Our fully-searchable, illustrated online catalogue will allow users to recreate virtually one of the great Victorian ethnographic collections in Scotland. We hope you might share our fascination with the intriguing and often beautiful objects in Carmichael’s collections, their stories, and those of the individuals and communities from where they came.

Phase III

The Carmichael Watson project aims to unlock this invaluable collection, one of the world's major folklore resources, for the benefit of academic scholars and the wider community through a methodical, phased approach.

As a result of an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) grant Phase Three commenced in July 2009. This phase expanded upon the exploratory work carried out during previous phases.

Phase Three saw an intense research and dissemination programme alongside development of the existing online resources, focussing on Carmichael's field and transcription notebooks. Every item recorded in Carmichael's notebooks was catalogued and indexed so that the catalogue now sits alongside full text transcriptions, encoded using TEI, enabling users to locate relevant material quickly and to link to related items. Using EAC (Encoded Archival Context) a series of capsule biographies was created for important individuals mentioned by Carmichael. Contextual links have been provided for places mentioned using the following services: Geograph and Flickrwrappr, which show photographs taken by members of the public near to the location and Geonames, which provides a satellite view of the area and highlights other places nearby on Google maps. Each service is represented with an icon next to the indexed placename.

The Project also received a grant from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust (NMCT) to repair and conserve the notebooks involved in Phase Three. The treatments have improved the physical condition of the notebooks considerably.