About Gaelic Song And Music
The text on this page, and some text in the Instruments page, was created by very well known singer and presenter Mary Ann Kennedy and her colleagues for the Education Scotland website Orain na h-Alba [Scotland's Songs].
She included many recorded examples of Gaelic singers.
We thank her for permission to use it here. We do not have permission to use any of the recordings on that site, but you can find the whole Scotland's Songs website material with recordings etc on the Wayback Machine HERE
Gaelic Ballads and Lays
In Gaelic, there is a store of the ancient ‘story’ ballads which are probably the oldest songs in the language that are still sung today, with vividly told tales and dramatic themes. Many of them were preserved as waulking songs (work songs for working cloth) and while elements of the stories may have changed over the centuries as they passed from singer to singer, the basic stories remain intact.
The oldest of these songs in the Gaelic tradition are probably the Lays (‘Duain’) and Ballads that recount stories associated with legendary Gaelic heroes such as Fionn MacCumhail (Finn MacCool), Cuchullin and the elite war-band of the Fèinne. You may be familiar with some of the stories, as the Fingalian legends have been told and re-told over many centuries. But these songs represent the only traditional passing on of these tales still alive today, and they are very special. The songs are stories, often very long, but the telling of them would have been the equivalent of watching a movie today, and the action scenes in many of them would work very well on the big screen!
Some of the tales are universal – they have parallels in other traditions. ‘Am Bròn Binn’ is the story of the King of Scotland (or Fionn) who dreams of the most beautiful woman beneath the sun, and the company of his men will not suffice until he finds her. His lieutenant, Fionn-falaich, offers to find her and travels long and far until he finds her, imprisoned in a tall, castle. This story has many parallels, from the legends of King Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere, to the fairy-tale of the long-haired Rapunzel.
But in the version of ‘Am Bròn Binn’ still sung today, there is no happy-ever-after for the hero. Fionn-falaich approaches the beautiful young woman, sitting in her chair and dressed in fine silks:
“Fhleasgaich a thàinig on chuan, gur fuar do bheannachadh oirnn,
Teann nall do cheann air mo ghlùin, ‘s seinnidh mi dhuit chruit is ceòl”.
Ghoid i’n claidheamh geur fo crios, thilg i dheth gun fhiosd’ an ceann;
Sin agaibh deireadh mo sgiùil, ‘s mar a sheinneadh am Bròn Binn.’
“Young man that came from over the sea, you are not welcome here,
Come lay your head on my knee, and I will play harp and sing for you”.
She snatched the sharp sword from her belt, and sliced his head from his shoulders;
That is the end of my tale, and as the Sweet Sorrow would sing it.
It’s thought that these ballads were created sometime between the 10th and 15th Centuries and composed in the old classical Gaelic language which would have been common to both Scotland and Ireland at the time. The enemy in all these songs is the Norseman or Viking – and in the case of Duan na Muildheartaich, even the terrible monster that the Fèinne must conquer is Norse! In this ballad, the Kings of Ireland and Norway have decided they must do away with the Fingalians, as they represent a threat to their power, and the Norse king sends an uilebheist, a monster, to destroy them. This song tells how Finn MacCool and his warriors win the day.
Songs or Poetry?
In the Gaelic tradition, all Gaelic poetry was intended to be sung, right up until the early part of the 20th Century, when modern poets such as Sorley MacLean began to write contemporary poems with no melody associated with them. However, many of these older ‘poem-songs’ were also preserved in books without melodies attached to them, and so a lot of songs continued to exist as poems alone.
The other big change that took place was in the early 1970s, when Calum and Rory MacDonald from the band Runrig started to write contemporary songs inspired as much by the English rock and pop songs they were listening to as by the Gaelic traditions they grew up with. The words for these songs were lyrics rather than poems.
Gaelic songs of love, courtship and loss
A huge number of Gaelic songs concern love, courtship and loss. Some of the most beautiful Gaelic songs are love songs, and although people popularly think that there are only ‘miserable’ love songs in Gaelic, not all of them end up with an unhappy ending by any means. ‘Dòmhnall nan Dòmhnall’, ‘Bothan Àirigh am Bràigh Rainneach’ and ‘A Mhàiri Bhàn Òg’ are all good examples of ‘happy’ love songs.
‘A Mhàiri Bhàn Òg’ is special because we know who the couple was – the poet Duncan Bàn MacIntyre wrote this for his new young bride, and he remained devoted to Màiri for the rest of their lives together. In later life, when someone suggested to Duncan that this old lady wasn’t at all as lovely as his poem had claimed, Duncan replied to them: ‘Chan fhaca tus’ i le na sùilean agamsa’ – ‘You haven’t seen her through my eyes’.
But of course, some of the most beautiful love songs are searingly painful songs of unrequited love or loss, such as ‘A Mhaighread Òg’ (also known as Òran an Amadain Bhòidhich), ‘Iain Ghlinn Cuaich’, ‘Cumha do dh’Uilleam Siosal’, ‘Mo Ghaol Òigfhear a’ Chùil Duinn’ and many others. The 19th Century Lewis poet, William MacKenzie, made several songs after the death of his wife Mary and after he himself emigrated to Canada. In ‘Màiri Nighean Alasdair’, William tells of how he hates being separated from his wife, who is buried back home in Lewis. It is said that when she died, he pulled one of his own teeth and placed it in the coffin with her, so that they might always be together.
Cianalas – the indefinable feeling
Many people say that it’s not possible to translate the word ‘cianalas’ into English, but it means a love for and a longing for home. There are probably as many songs in Gaelic about love of home and place as there are about romantic love. This is no doubt due in part because so many Gaels had to leave home at some point in their lives, whether forcibly during the Highland Clearances, or through economic migration – seeking a better life in the New World, or even by coming to Glasgow and other big lowland cities for work or education.
Songs such as ‘’S Gann gun Dìrich mi Chaoidh’, ‘A’ Choille Ghruamach’ and ‘S Cian nan Cian bho dh’Fhàg mi Leòdhas’ all tell their stories of exile and longing very vividly. One of the most beautiful songs of cianalas is by Màiri Mhòr nan Òran, the 19th Century Skye poet, Mary MacPherson. Big Mary of the Songs spent many years in Inverness and Glasgow and was strongly associated with the Crofters’ campaign for land reform in the 1870s and 80s. It was only in her 50s, when she was wrongly imprisoned for stealing from her employer, that she started to compose songs. In ‘Nuair Bha Mi Òg’, she remembers fondly her home in Òs on the Isle of Skye and laments how things have changed.
Toirt na mo chuimhn’ iomadh nì a rinn mi
Nach fhaigh mi’m bann gu ceann thall mo sgeòil:
A’ falbh sa gheamhradh gu luaidh is bainnsean
Gun solas lainntir ach ceann an fhoid;
Bhiodh òigridh greannmhor ri ceòl is dannsa,
Ach dh’fhalbh an t-àm sin, ‘s tha’n gleann fo bhròn:
Tha’n tobht’ aig Anndra, ‘s e làn de dh’fheanntaig,
Toirt na mo chuimhne nuair bha mi òg.
Bringing to mind all the things I did,
So many that I can’t recount them all in this tale:
Going in winter to waulkings and weddings
With no lantern-light but the lit end of a peat;
The beautiful young folk would be singing and dancing,
But that time is past, and the glen is now gloomy:
What remains of Andrew’s house, now full of nettles,
Brings to mind when I was young.
Mary did however get to return to Skye and lived out her final years there.
In ‘A’ Choille Ghruamach’, the 19th Century Tiree poet John MacLean writes about being in Canada in a place completely different from the island he left and warns his friends and family back home to beware of the great things promised by the agents that tried to entice people into signing up for emigration. John’s island of Tiree is small and sandy with almost no trees, and to end up in a part of Canada that was all forested must have been quite a culture shock for him. No wonder he described it as ‘the gloomy forest’.
Many of the older Gaelic lullabies are very simple in structure and very short. Many of them also use vocables. One particularly touching example is called 'Bà Bà mo leanabh beag'. It was composed at the time of the potato famine in 1848, which caused great suffering in parts of the Highlands. Although it’s short, this little song gives a mother's account of her own situation and expresses her fears for her child.
Some of the older songs described as 'lullabies' are songs composed for infant clan chiefs. One of the most well-known of these is that composed for the Donald Gorm MacDonald of Sleat, who died in 1617. According to tradition, the song was composed by his foster-mother. In it, the blessings she sings him show the influences of Celtic pre-Christian faith, rooted in the natural world, the heavens and the elements. She says:
May you have the strength of the universe
And the strength of the sun
And the strength of the black bull
Which jumps the highest.
The song goes on to describes Donald's wonderful ship which has:
Three willow masts
A golden rudder
A well of wine
And a well of fresh water.
Another lullaby of this type was that composed for young Kenneth MacKenzie of Kintail, who was born in 1569. The composer says of MacKenzie:
You would buy wine for your horses
And shoe them with shoes of gold.
It was not just the aristocracy however who composed songs which expressed hopes for their children's future prosperity. In this lullaby, the composer speaks of her child's wedding which will be attended by the children of Ulster and the children of the king, adding that it would not be strange if the MacDonalds were there too.
One of the most famous lullabies in Gaelic is the song known as 'Beloved Gregor'. It is also known as the Glenlyon Lament. It was composed after the execution of Gregor MacGregor by the Campbells in 1570. Gregor was beheaded in front of his wife and child. In the song, Gregor's grief-stricken widow describes the horror of what happened, as she sings to her child.
Little songs used as dandling songs, were quite common in the oral tradition, although there are relatively few still in existence. They were sung by anyone bouncing a child up and down on his or her knees. This cheerful little song from North Uist is a good example of this type. It says:
Gee up on the horse,
The horse going to Vallay.
The high tide will catch us,
It will catch us by the legs.
It will catch us by the head.
Gee up on the horse,
The horse going to Vallay.
Songs once accompanied every kind of work Scottish communities. There were songs for waulking tweed, for spinning wool, for rowing, milking, churning, bringing home the cattle and many other tasks. All these songs were designed to help pass the time and make the work involved a little less hard. With many of these songs, the work involved was very repetitive, and so these songs have a strong rhythmic pulse.
Of all the work songs in Gaelic, by far the greatest number still popular are waulking songs. Other kinds of songs, such as rowing songs and some of the ancient ballads have also been preserved as waulking songs. Most waulking songs had set words but there were some songs where the women would improvise the words, often with great humour and at the expense of other women around the table or other members of their community.
Waulking songs were used by groups of women who had gathered to help shrink newly woven tweed cloth by beating the wet cloth on a table or board. The threads of cloth when it has just come off the loom are still quite open and loose and the cloth needs to be tightened to make it useful. The cloth was pounded on boards by a team of eight to twelve women, seated with an even number on each side of the waulking table. The combination of working the cloth and the ammonia in the stale urine that they used to wet the cloth would help pull it in until it had reached the desired width and thickness. The work was long and hard and the songs helped to make this a little easier. The waulking was also a great social occasion with ‘crac’ and humour interspersing the songs.
A huge number of waulking songs and other Gaelic songs have been collected over the years from the islands of South Uist and Barra, and many of the archive recordings of traditional singers’ versions of these songs come from these islands. In a short excerpt from two waulking songs from the island of Barra, recorded in the 1960s, the women were pounding a dry blanket instead of a length of wet tweed, but you can hear on the recording how the song helps the hard work be enjoyable too. You can hear the typical call-and-response pattern of a waulking song where one woman leads the song by singing the verse lines, while the rest of the women join in the choruses. The refrains are usually made up of phrases of meaningless vocables like 'Eile le ho ró ho hù o'. These are like fingerprints – each chorus pattern is unique to its own waulking song.
There are many songs in the oral tradition which were associated with tasks, both individual and communal. As cattle were of vital importance to the economy of the Highlands for hundreds of years, it is not surprising that a large number of milking songs have survived. Like many of the old lullabies, these songs tended to be short and simple in structure, and were designed to soothe the cows, so that the precious milk could be obtained.
The milk was used to make cheese and butter, which were valuable supplements to the diet. The butter was made in a churn, and in this churning song from Barra, there is a reference in the words of the song to the sound made by the milk as it splashed around inside the churn, as the churn-staff was moved up and down.
Before the advent of electricity and machines that took over many of these hard, repetitive tasks, corn for making bread had to be ground using a quern - two large round stones with holes in the top of the upper stone, one for the corn and one for the wooden stick used to turn the stone. A few examples of quern songs have survived in oral tradition:
Wool for making tweed had to be carded, combed and handspun, using a distaff or a spinning wheel. The songs used for spinning with a wheel often had long choruses which allowed the thread to be drawn out.
Once the wool had been spun, it had to be taken to a weaver to be woven into tweed, and finally the cloth was waulked by the women of the village. Waulkings, as a part of community life, had ceased to be held many years before, although many of the women taking part in this re-created waulking would have been very familiar with the work.
Many groups still sing waulking songs today and sit round the table beating a cloth, although they are no longer actually carrying out the work of waulking. The subjects of waulking-songs are many and varied. These include laments, historical events, and praise of clans and chiefs. Some waulking-songs are arguments in verse between bardesses representing different clans. Even some of the ancient heroic ballads have been adapted for use as waulking songs. Love is one of the commonest themes in waulking-songs.
The final stages of a waulking provided an opportunity for singing 'clapping songs' as the finished tweed was rolled up. Among these were humorous, improvised matchmaking songs, in which the names of those present were linked with those of unlikely members of the community. One popular example asked,
"Who will I bring with me on the Irish ship?"
Rowing, like waulking, was a task which required a well-co-ordinated team. This was an task done by the men, and some of the songs associated with the work have survived, often however as waulking songs as the slow heavy rhythms of rowing songs transferred well to the waulking.
There are many stories and songs in Gaelic about fairies and other supernatural creatures. In Gaelic tradition, fairies are dangerous creatures, best avoided by humans. Many song tell of fairies who lived in a green mound called a fairy hill or 'sìdhein'. The word is quite common in place-names e.g. Strontian which is Sròn an t-Sìdhein in Gaelic. It was said that the following song was composed by a girl enticed into a fairy hill and imprisoned there. She is describing conditions there, and is crying to her sister for help.
A phiùthrag ‘s a phiuthar, hù rù, ghaoil, a phiuthair, hù rù,
Nach truagh leat fhèin, ro hol ill eo, nochd mo chumha hù rù
Mi’m bothan beag ìosal cumhang,
Gun sgrath dhìon air, gun lùb tughaidh,
Ach uisge nam beann sìos na shruth leis,
‘S Heabhal mhòr nan each dhruimfhionn.
Sister, little sister, my love, my sister,
Can you not pity my grief tonight?
I am in a little bothy, low and narrow,
Completely exposed, with not a scrap of thatch on it,
But the water of the hills running down like a stream,
And mighty Heaval* of the white-maned horses.
*Heaval is the main hill on the island of Barra.
The story linked with another song tells of a girl called Morag who had a child by a fairy lover. Her family were very unhappy and made her leave the child close to the fairy hill where his father would find him. The father of the child pleads in vain with the girl to return to him, promising to give her anything she wants.
According to oral tradition, the song 'Sealgair a' choilich bhuidhe' ('The Hunter of the Yellow Grouse'), was composed by a fairy woman who had a human lover. He used to pretend to his family that he was going hunting, when he went out to visit the fairy woman. Eventually, his family became suspicious of his actions, and two of his brothers followed him, and soon found out what he was doing. As soon as he had parted from the fairy woman, one of his brothers shot him dead with an arrow. In the song, the fairy-woman tells of her feelings on finding the body of the man. It is sung here by........
Fairies could sometimes be messengers as in another song. The story linked to the next song tells of a man who was trying to fetch a midwife to attend to his wife. To do so, he had to cross a ford. Unfortunately, the man fell asleep as he waited for the tide to turn, and he was wakened by a fairy woman telling him the sad news that his wife had died.
According to tradition, fairies could not cross running water. In another song the fairy in the next example is on one side of a stream, while the man she is trying to entice is on the other. It is said that the man called "Ràghnaill" referred to in the song was a man called Ranald MacDonald of Gellovie in Badenoch.
Beinn Eadarra in the Trotternish area of Skye was said to be haunted by a headless ghost called Colann gun Cheann. There is a song associated with this legend which begins:
Is fhada mi an cùl Beinn Eadarra
Is fhada mi am Bealach a’ Mhorghain
Long am I at the back of Beinn Eadarra
Long am I in the Pass of Morghain.
This unpleasant ghost acquired a reputation for throwing his head at unfortunate travellers going through a narrow pass, and killing them.
Another song linked with the island of Skye is ‘Uamh an Òir’, ‘The Cave of Gold’. The story of it tells how a piper played as he entered a cave. He did not return, as in the cave he encountered a terrible monster. The piper's words are:
Is truagh a Rìgh gun trì lamhan
Dà làimh ‘sa phìob, ‘s tè ‘sa chlaidheamh.
It is a pity that I do not have three hands
Two for the pipes and one for my sword.
There are also many little songs that acted as charms to bless, protect or ward off evil. You can read many of these in a large collection of Gaelic prayers, charms, hymns and songs called ‘Carmina Gadelica’ by Alexander Carmichael.
Pibroch Songs and Canntaireachd
Pibroch or Ceòl Mór sounds quite slow and stately and a single piece of music can be several minutes long. It is an elaborate theme and variation form with very specific rules on the different variations, which progress in increasing complexity until the theme of the pìbroch returns ar the end. Pibroch is played by on the Highland bagpipes only, by a solo piper, and is considered one of the most difficult genres of music in the piping repertoire.
Pibrochs are usually written for solemn events or occasions. They include:
- Salutes - tunes addressed to someone of importance
- Gatherings - tunes used to gather members of a clan
- Laments - tunes expressing sadness at someone's death and tunes connected with
The tune 'I Got a Kiss of the King's Hand' is said to have been composed in 1651 by a member of the most famous piping family in Scotland, the MacCrimmons of Skye. They were, and still remain, the pipers to MacLeod of Dunvegan in gthe north-west of the island. When King Charles II held a review of the Scottish army at Stirling, he was told that MacCrimmon was known as the Prince of Pipers, and the King let the piper kiss his hand. The piper was so pleased he composed this tune on the spot.
A pibroch begins with a theme called an ùrlar or ground, which is then varied throughout the piece. These variations become gradually more complex and rhythmic as the piece goes on. At the very end, the basic theme is sounded again. One thing that makes the variations more complex is the amount of ornamentation that the piper must play. Ornamentation consists of the little notes called 'grace notes' that are not part of the main melody. These notes are essential to all pipe music. Each variation has a particular name related to the kind of ornaments used in it – the names are all Gaelic.
In the examples, the small notes are the grace notes and the large notes are the main melody. You will see that the time signature changes between and within variations. Because of the amount of ornamentation, we can only give a few bars of some of the variations.
We show the first few bars of the ùrlar, which has 16 bars, and three of the seven variations which are played in this tune. You will hear the first six bars of the urlar, followed by the same 'line' played in the seven variations, then the ùrlar again to finish. The order of performance is ùrlar, dìthis, dìthis doubling, taorluath, taorluath doubling, crunluath, crunluath doubling, crunluath mach, then ùrlar again.
Pibroch Ùrlar (Ground)
Ceòl Mòr or Pibroch as it is sometimes called is a Gaelic art form. It’s not surprising then that there are songs in Gaelic oral tradition which have strong links to Ceòl Mòr. Some of these songs have a direct connection to pibrochs that are still well-known and performed by modern pipers. The pibroch known as ‘Lament for the Children’ was written in the 17th Century by Patrick Mòr MacCrimmon after the death of seven of his eight children from smallpox, all in the same year.
There is also a Gaelic song version related to the Lament, called ‘Fhir a’ Chinn Duibh’, ‘Black-haired Lad’ – it is thought the words of this may relate to the loss of the favourite son amongst the seven.
The pibroch known as "The piper's warning to his master", is another of the most famous pibrochs we hear today, and its background is an interesting one. It was made for a man called Colla MacDonald. He was also known as Colla Ciotach (Left-handed Colla). He belonged to the branch of the MacDonalds in Islay and Kintyre. Colla was at sea in his galley one day, and decided to send his piper and some of his men to capture a castle on the mainland of Argyll. Unfortunately, they were captured by the Campbells. Some of the men were killed, and others including the piper were imprisoned.
Some time later, Colla's galley was seen, sailing into the sound near to the castle. The Campbells were delighted when they saw their enemy coming, and they told the piper to play a tune, as if to welcome his master. They did not realise that Colla would recognise from the tune that he was in danger. When Colla and his men heard the music, they realised immediately that something was wrong, and made their escape. It is said that the piper had his hand cut off as a result of his action. This is the beginning of the pibroch.
Canntaireachd (which means chanting) was the pipers’ way of singing music for the pipes, and the different sounds and vocables reflect both the melody and the ornamentation of the music. It was used by pipers to pass music on from one person to another at a time when it would not have been written down. There are very few people alive today who can still sing this special kind of bagpipe-related music. One person who can is Rona Lightfoot. Rona is a piper as well as a singer, which gives her an advantage when it comes to singing canntaireachd.
Mary Morrison from the island of Barra was a celebrated singer of canntaireachd. She wasn’t a piper, but she took the canntaireachd singing and made it a virtuoso speciality of her own.
Some pibroch-songs are very short, for example the song 'Maol Donn', whose subject is a cow lost in a peat bog.
There are also songs in the oral tradition which have similarities to Ceòl Mòr, though they cannot be linked to a specific Pibroch that we recognise today. One of these is the song ‘Chuir iad mise dh'eilean leam fhìn’ (‘They left me alone on an island’).
There are many examples in Gaelic tradition of the lively dance-songs known as Puirt-à-beul. Puirt-à-beul means ‘tunes from the mouth’ and they’re also known in English as Mouth Music. ‘Puirt’ is the plural of the word ‘port’ and so a single dance-song would be known as a ‘port-à-beul’. These are not so much songs as instrumental tunes that are sung.
The words of the puirt are often like canntaireachd, and reflect the pitches and ornamentation of the tune as it would sound on the pipes, and the patterns and sounds of the words can also act as a memory aid for the tune itself. The words can be humorous, satirical or risqué, and many refer to local people or events.
The words are often set to existing bagpipe or fiddle tunes, most frequently strathspeys and reels, but there are also many puirt-à-beul versions of marches, hornpipes, 6/8 and 9/8 jigs and various ‘crooked’ or irregular length tunes. There are also examples of puirt which are irregular in rhythm.
Puirt-à-beul follow the same structures as instrumental dance tunes – instead of verse and chorus, they will mostly consist of an ‘A’ part and a ‘B’ part, each part usually being repeated, and the whole tune is often sung round more than once. It is very unusual to sing only one ‘port’, rather a set of two or more ‘puirt’, usually changing from one dance type to another, e.g. from Strathspey to Reel to Jig.
This popular strathspey talks about a man with a wife, a house with a river nearby, a pound of white soap, and a dirty shirt. The tune has 2 beats to the bar and has the dotted rhythm which is typical of the strathspey. There are two sections in the port and each of them is repeated.
Sometimes puirt words cleverly mimic the way in which the tune would be played on a particular instrument. This is the beginning of the Strathspey for the bagpipes known to pipers as "The Devil in the Kitchen".
Puirt are usually sung in sets as we hear in the following example which has a strathspey followed by a reel. Both of the following tunes are well known to pipers. The words of them mock ordinary men who pretend to have status and so wear dirks (short knives), as were worn by the aristocracy. The theme is one which is used in several puirt in the oral tradition. The strathspey is called ‘Thomson's Dirk’, and the reel is ‘MacAlasdair's Dirk’. Notice how the reel is much faster than the strathspey. The singer here is Kenna Campbell, whose family are famous for singing puirt-à-beul .
Many of the tunes are very old. The tune of another strathspey – ‘Lady Madelina Sinclair’ was published by the famous 18th century fiddle composer Niel Gow under his own name, although there was another very similar tune called ‘The Braes of Aberarder’ published a few years before. Whoever wrote it, the strathspey remains a very popular fiddle tune today.
There are several sets of Gaelic words to this tune. One popular version version mocks ‘The skinny tailor's wife’. Another port to the same tune begins:
Fhuair mi nead na gurra-gùig ann an cùl na mòna
Fhuair mi nead an fhithich ann ‘s a-rithis nead na smeòraich
I found the nest of the dove in the peat corner
I foud the nest of the raven and again the nest of the song-thrush
Among the Puirt-à-beul which are jigs, the 6/8/ jig is by far the most common, but examples exist of 9/8 jigs, also known as Slip Jigs. The port called ‘Faca Sibh Mairi Nigh’n Alasdair?’, ‘Did you see Mary, the daughter of Alasdair?’ is an example of the latter.
Puirt-à-beul are usually sung solo or with two singers supporting each other. They need good breath control, but above all a good sense of rhythm and a feeling for the characteristics of the dance. John MacInnes and John MacLeod – Iain Peadair and Iain Ruadh – from South Uist were experts at the art of singing puirt, and they were especially good when singing together.
The Jacobites were the supporters of King James the Seventh of Scotland and Second of Great Britain, his son James, 'The Old Pretender', and grandson Prince Charles Edward Stuart,'The Young Pretender'. Jacobite comes from Jacobus, King James' name in Latin. Battles involving Jacobite and government forces included Killiecrankie, Sheriffmuir, Prestonpans and Culloden. After 1746 the Jacobites made little further attempt to regain the throne.
Songs were written at the time in Gaelic and Scots, eg 'The Braes of Killiecrankie' and 'Hey Johnnie Cope'.
There is a very large body of Jacobite songs in Gaelic as many of the Gaelic-speaking Highland clans (though not all) fought on the side of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. Many of the great Gaelic poets of the 18th were Jacobite supporters and composed songs on the subject – they include Rob Donn MacKay, Duncan Bàn MacIntyre, William Ross and Alexander MacDonald, who was present when Prince Charles raised the Jacobite standard at Glenfinnan.
The Sutherland poet Rob Donn did not take part in the rising, and his chief – Lord Reay – supported the Hanoverian side (the incumbent rulers). But Rob was still for the Prince as this ‘Òran do Phrionnsa Tearlach’ shows:
An-diugh, an-diugh, gu reusantach
Dhuinn èirigh ann an sanntachas,
An trìtheamh là air crìochnachadh
Do dhara mìos a’ gheamhraidh dhuinn;
‘S gun deanmaid comunn fàilteach riut
Gu bruidhneach, gàireach, amhranach,
Gu bot’lach, copach, stòpanach,
Le cruit, le ceòl ‘s le dannsaireachd.
Today, today, tis right for us
To rise up in all eagerness,
The third day since the second month
Of winter now has come to end;
We’ll welcome thee full heartily,
With laughter, speech and melody,
And readily we’ll drink thy health,
With harp and song, and dancing too.
One of the leaders of the Jacobite army – John Roy Stewart from Badenoch – was a fine poet. He wrote some very powerful songs in the immediate aftermath of their final defeat at Culloden, such as this one, ‘Òran Eile air Latha Chùil Lodair’, ‘Another Song on Culloden Day’. Here, he praises many of the clans that rallied to the cause, and curses the Hanoverian Prince William:
Gum bidh Uilleam Mac Dheòrs’
Mar chraoibh sheargte fo leòn,
Gun fhreumh, gun duilleach, gun mheòirean gèige.
Gun sòlas, sonas no seanns,
Ach dòlas dona mu d’ cheann,
Mar bh’air ginealach Chlann na h-Èipheit.
May Prince William be
As a withered, stricken tree,
Rootless, leafless and twigless.
Without fortune, joy or luck,
But dire woe on thy head,
Such as fell on the children of Egypt.
Moidart-born Alexander MacDonald, possibly the finest Gaelic poet of the 18th Century, also fought for the Jacobite side, and was among the first to join the prince when he made his call to arms at Glenfinnan. He was even called upon to try (unsuceessfully) to teach the prince some Gaelic! Nevertheless, he saw himself as a propogandist for the cause through his poetry, and wrote many inspiring songs during the campaign and afterwards when he continued to write optimistically of a return of the rightful King.
This ‘òran brosnachaidh’ – ‘Òran don Phrionnsa’, ‘A Song to the Prince’ – is not often heard sung solo today, but it is one of the most popular songs in the Gaelic choral repertoire. Choirs are not a natural part of Gaelic music tradition but they have been around for about 130 years and they have become part of the language’s musical world. Here’s one of the most successful choirs – Ceòlraidh Gàidhlig Ghlaschu, the Glasgow Gaelic Musical Association, or the ‘GG’ as they are fondly known.
Far more Jacobite songs were written many years after the warfare of 1689 and the Risings of 1715, 1719 and 1745, when the political cause had died.
By 1780 to be pro-Jacobite was not revolutionary, but was a rather right wing and romantic hankering after the old ways. Such songs include 'My Ain Countrie', 'The Skye Boat Song' and 'Will Ye No Come Back Again?' Many of the newer songs were sentimental and backward-looking.
Prolific creators or rewriters of Jacobite songs based on old models included James Hogg, Lady Caroline Nairne and Robert Burns. Burns published 'It Was A' for Our Rightfu' King', 'The Highland Widow's Lament' and a song about love called 'Charlie He's My Darling'. Lady Nairne wrote lyrics for 'Wi a Hundred Pipers' and 'Will Ye No Come Back Again?' She also wrote a more warlike set of words for 'Charlie is My Darling'.
March tunes had lyrics attached, eg 'The Sherramuir March' and 'Wha Wouldna Fecht for Charlie'. James Hogg wrote Jacobite lyrics for both of these tunes and many others. Hogg published and perhaps wrote 'Both Sides the Tweed', which Dick Gaughan has recently made very popular by writing a fine air for it and changing a few words.
Land Reform and the Crofters’ Struggle
During the 19th Century, many Highland and Island landowners mistreated their tenants – smallholders known as crofters - badly and drove them off their land, preferring more profitable occupants such as deer and sheep. This was known as the Highland Clearances, and many thousands of people suffered great hardship and forced emigration as a result. But the people fought back through movements such as the Highland Land League, and with direct action such as rent strikes and land raids. The crofters eventually succeeded in their campaign for rights to live on and work their land and there is still a Crofting Act in place today, protecting various aspects of crofting life.
The Clearances yielded up many hundreds of songs describing the privations that people suffered, the cianalas that resulted from being forced to make a new life abroad, and many songs were also composed encouraging people to stand up for their rights.
Eoghan MacDhonnchaidh was one of the crofters who gave evidence at the Napier Commission that eventually resulted in the creation of the Crofters’ Act. He wrote one of the most damning songs of this era, about his landlord, the infamous Duke of Sutherland and his cruel factor, Patrick Sellar. The song curses the arrival of the ‘caoraich mòra’, the Cheviot sheep, which were seen as a good source of profit in the inhospitable lands of the Highlands.
Hymns and psalms can be sung in Gaelic in the same way that they are sung in English at church. There is a very powerful old style of unaccompanied psalm singing called 'precenting' which is still heard in some Gaelic presbyterian churches.
The style stems from the 16th Century Reformation of the church, which established the protestant Christian faith and which encouraged worship in a person’s native tongue (rather than Latin) and expressions of worship by individuals as well as the clergy and choir. Because few people would be able to read, a call-and-response style evolved in protestant churches and in Gaelic Scotland this developed into the style of psalm-singing you can still hear today, and it is one of very few cultures where this particular call-and-reponse style of worship still exist.
Each line of the psalm is ‘put out’ by the precentor or leader. The congregation then joins in gradually and slowly sings those words, but with varying degrees of ornamentation and at varying speeds. Although each singer is singing the same tune, the effect is of a continuous sound with different chordal effects being created. This is known as heterophony.
Although the music sounds very complicated, the roots of the melodies being sung lie in straightforward Scottish metrical psalm tunes.