Research Fellow 2020 supported by University of Glasgow Library

I work as Senior Lecturer at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, University of the Highlands and Islands, the Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye, where I am Course Leader in the MSc in Cultar Dùthchasach agus Eachdraidh na Gàidhealtachd/Material Culture and Gàidhealtachd History. My research draws upon the history, literature, material culture, ethnology, oral tradition, and popular customs and beliefs of the early modern and modern Scottish Gàidhealtachd. At present I am investigating the manuscript and material collections of the major but controversial Highland folklorist Alexander Carmichael (1832–1912), as well as the life, work, and legacy of the Hebridean traveller, ethnologist, and author Martin Martin (c. 1665–1718). Recently, I have been lucky enough to cooperate with generous colleagues at the Universities of Glasgow and Aberystwyth in two fascinating research projects, one examining the life and times of the Welsh author and traveller Thomas Pennant (1726–98), the other analysing the collection of Gaelic songs and lore made by the Rev. James McLagan of Blair Atholl (1728–1805). This has focused my attention on the effects of Enlightenment thought and perspectives on the culture of the Scottish Gàidhealtachd, and how far we might be justified in envisioning a specifically Highland Enlightenment contemporary with and complementary to the Agricultural and watermill-powered Proto-Industrial Revolutions then transforming the environment of the region.

Why sermons? Perhaps we have forgotten how all-pervasive was the practice of listening to, reading, and discussing sermons in early modern British culture. As an illustration of their popularity, it has been estimated that during the eighteenth century seven pages of English sermons were printed for every one of English fiction. Sermons were part of everyday life and popular conversations. Using MacNicol’s collection, and drawing upon the recent torrent of scholarship examining the genre in Britain, Ireland, and further afield, I intend to reconsider sermons’ significance within Gaelic literature, and as a source for Highland history. The Rev. Donald MacNicol of Lismore (1736–1802) was one of the most scholarly – and beloved – figures of the late eighteenth-century Highland Enlightenment. His under-appreciated Remarks On Dr Samuel Johnson's Journey To The Hebrides (1779) offers a critical riposte and corrective to Johnson’s often mordant travelogue, while Mo shùil ad dhèidh, the love song he composed to his future wife Lilias Campbell, is still sung at cèilidhs today. Though some of their contents have unfortunately gone missing, MacNicol’s Gaelic song collections in the National Library of Scotland and Edinburgh University Library are an essential source for Highland literary history.

It is extraordinary, and extremely fortunate, that so many of MacNicol’s sermons – comprising some 250,000 words in total – have survived and been preserved in the University of Glasgow Library. Because of its unequalled extent and quality, the minister’s collection offers us exceptionally valuable insights into the changing nature of early modern Scottish Gaelic, and into the perspectives, mentalities, and beliefs of its speakers, during an era of remarkable socio-economic and cultural transformation. As well as the collection itself, MacNicol also left us an index giving the place, date, text, language, and often type of every sermon he preached – and often re-preached – during his ministerial career from 1766 to 1802. We can thus date the surviving sermons and trace how MacNicol’s prose and his interests changed over nearly four decades. Also, the frequency with which individual sermons were preached, in particular the ‘high-status’ ones delivered when away at communions, allows us to speculate as to which ones the minister thought worked best with congregations.

In sheer range and in quality, the Rev. Donald MacNicol’s sermons are a unique resource for Gaelic language, literature, and history. The University of Glasgow Visiting Research Fellowship will give me a valuable opportunity to examine the sermons in detail and make sense of this hitherto obscure collection. I am looking forward to working with Special Collection librarians and with colleagues at Glasgow University on how we might make MacNicol’s collection available to a wider audience.