From Oban to Skye, from the Outer Hebrides to St. Kilda they traveled: two Aberdeen photographers intent on capturing and preserving the life of a remarkable people. The beautifully colored lantern slides of George Washington Wilson and Norman Macleod, an iconic collection put into book form by Mark Butterworth, were produced in the late 1880s, fifty years before color photography came to Scotland.
Even as Wilson and Macleod pursued their photography, Alexander Carmichael was traveling the highlands and islands from Arran to Cithness, from Perth to St. Kilda, collecting traditional prayers, invocations and blessings. Between 1855 and 1899, he compiled his Carmina Gadelica (Gaelic Songs), magnificent examples of Celtic tradition combined with Christian faith.
After St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland and St. Columba’s missionary journey to Scotland, a unique culture, theology and spirituality began to evolve: one not at all inclined toward our modern separation of the sacred and the secular. In the words of Avery Brooke, “Celtic Christians seldom left the spiritual behind in the living of their lives, nor the world behind in their prayers.”
Tolerant of Celtic beliefs and practices, Christian missionaries wove adapted Celtic prayers, blessings and invocations into the fabric of their daily lives. As Brooke writes in his introduction to Celtic Prayers:
Christ was the Chieftain of Chiefs, but the old tales, songs, customs and runes – not to mention the crops, the fish, the daily work and nightly sleep – were sained, or marked with the sign of the cross, just as were fæiries, banshees and people.
At its heart, saining was a matter of consecration, though not in our modern sense of setting aside, or apart. We tend to understand consecration as removal from the realities and routines of daily life, but for the people of the Isles, consecration elevated and hallowed every ordinary circumstance.
Certainly there were morning prayers and evening prayers in Celtic devotion, invocations of the saints and hymns to Jesus. But far more than obviously religious prayer was woven into the fabric of Celtic spirituality. There were rituals to mark the passing of the days and cycles of the year. There were blessings for households, for the smooring of fire at night and for the rekindling that lifted up morning fires.
There were songs for heifers and milk cows, prayers for protection of cattle, and songs of praise for the ocean and moon. There were blessings for fishing, hunting, and reaping; prayers for travel, and prayers for sleep.
Celtic prayer was less something to ‘do’ than an attitude to nourish: an attitude at once grateful and receptive. Like hearth embers nurtured each morning and protected each night with ritual and prayer, the spark of divine presence, the mysterious ember glowing at the heart of the world, was meant to be tended by a grateful humanity.
Among the blessings and invocations collected by Carmichael are “The Clipping Blessing,” “The Loom Blessing,” and “The Consecration of the Seed.” The words shimmer with reflected light from a nearly forgotten time, charmingly embraced without hesitation or embarassment. In “The Clipping Blessing,” the petitions hardly could be more specific.
Go shorn and come woolly,
Bear the Beltane female lamb,
Be the lovely bride thee endowing,
And the fair Mary thee sustaining,
The fair Mary sustaining thee.
Michael the chief be shielding thee
From the evil dog and from the fox,
From the wolf and from the sly bear,
And from the taloned birds of destructive bills,
From the taloned birds of hooked bills.
In the Outer Isles, on the Island of Uist, Carmichael tells us:
When the woman stops weaving on Saturday night, she carefully ties up her loom and suspends the cross or crucifix above the sleay. This is for the purpose of keeping away the brownie, the banshee, the ‘peallan’ and all evil spirits and malign influences from disarranging the thread and the loom. And all this is done with loving care and in good faith, and in prayer and purity of heart.
Again, the concreteness of the petition and the certainty that even the smallest detail of life concerns the divine is made clear:
In the name of Mary, mild of deeds,
In the name of Columba, just and potent,
Consecrate the four posts of my loom,
Till I begin on Monday.
Her pedals, her sleay and her shuttle,
Her reeds, her warp, and her cogs,
Her cloth-beam and her thread-beam,
Thrums and the thread of the plies.
Every web, black, white and fair,
Roan, dun, checked and red,
Give Thy blessing everywhere,
On every shuttle passing under the thread.
Thus will my loom be unharmed
Till I shall arise on Monday.
Beauteous Mary will give me of her love,
And there shall be no obstruction I shall not overcome.
Finally, in “The Consecration of the Seed,” the intimate relationship between early Christian and Celtic belief is laid bare. Carmichael notes that “three days before being sown the seed is sprinkled with clear, cold water, in the name of the Father, and of Son, and of Spirit, the person sprinkling the seed walking sunwise the while.” The baptismal and Trinitarian influence is clear, while “sunwise walking” refers to pre-Christian ritual.
I will go out to sow the seed
In name of Him who gave it growth;
I will place my front in the wind,
And throw a gracious handful on high.
Should a grain fall on a bare rock
It shall have no soil in which to grow;
As much as falls into the earth,
The dew will make it to be full…
I will come round with my step,
I will go rightways with the sun,
In the name of Ariel and the angels nine,
In the name of Gabriel and the Apostles kind.
Father, Son and Spirit Holy
Be giving growth and kindly substance
To every thing that is in my ground
Till the day of gladness shall come.
To hear these invocations, blessings, runes, and dedications is to experience the Celts’ love and deep respect not only for life, but for language. Filled with power, intimately lodged in the hearts of the people, spoken out of silence to hallow and elevate every aspect of life, the words themselves were understood as gifts to be cherished. In a morning prayer collected by Carmichael, this phrase stands out:
Praise be to Thee, O God, for ever, for the blessings thou didst bestow on me – my food, my speech, my work, my health.
Praising God for food, work and health is understandable. Including speech as a blessing worthy of praise is more remarkable. Perhaps praise for the gift of words comes more naturally to those steeped in oral tradition; perhaps isolation and difficult conditions increase a community’s gratitude for speech.
Whatever the motivation, it cannot be denied that Celts always have nurtured and cared for language because they recognize language as a gift as necessary as fire and powerful as the sea.
To live in a world where language is being reduced by our technologies and desecrated in advertising, politics and human relations is remarkable. To have contempt for language, to willingly reduce the heart of our humanity by refusing the power of words, is utterly astonishing. And yet, it happens.
In the midst of our remembrance of St. Patrick and our celebration of all things Irish, it would be well to remember the people of the lamb, loom, and seed. Celtic peoples offer us a legacy far greater than green beer, shamrocks and River Dance. They offer a vision of life lived whole, life well-attuned to the universe and content with ordinary days. Above all, they offer to us the possibility of sained speech: words spoken and received with dignity in order to celebrate and consecrate our lives.
Be the cross of Mary and Michael over me in peace,
Be my soul dwelling in truth, be my heart free of guile.
Be my soul in peace with thee, brightness of the mountains.
Morn and eve, day and night, May it be so.