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 now in the hands of 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 of the people. 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. Our modern eagerness to separate sacred and secular would have seemed laughable to those early converts. 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 were more than willing to adapt the prayers, blessings and invocations Celts wove into the fabric of their daily life. As Brooke says, “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 heart, saining was a matter of consecration, but 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. Continue reading