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BRIGH Productions


1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 12 – trad. arr. Gillies, McGuire, MacKay;
6 – trad., verses
2, 3 C. Ferguson, arr. Gillies, McGuire, MacKay;
7 – trad. arr. Gillies, MacKay;
8, 13 – trad. arr. Gillies;
9 – poem Lady Nairne / music trad. arr MacKay;
14 – words C Ferguson / music trad;
15 – words Rev. John MacLeod / music trad;
16* – Brian McNeill: Grian Music;
17 – poem Valerie Gillies / music trad;
18* – Paul Kelly: Mushroom Music;
19 – poem Prof. Douglas Dunn / original music MacKay, McGuire;
20 – words / music Rev. George L Murray, arr. Gillies, McGuire, MacKay.
All tracks: Brìgh Music except those marked *.
Produced Anne Lorne Gillies. Recorded, edited and mastered Kevin Bree at Dunlop, Ayrshire. Cover design Kevin Bree. Sleeve-notes: Anne Lorne Gillies. Manufactured in Scotland. Cover "Leaving St Kilda", painted by Frances Walker


An Long Hirteach - St Kilda Mail-Boat - Songs from St Kilda - Evacuated 1930
1. Leac na Gàdaig / On a cliff-edge (1’52") featured: ALG + RM, EM
2. Gura thall ann an Sòaigh / It was over in Soay (4’02") featured: ALG, RM, EM
3. Cas na caora Hirtich o / The St Kilda sheep’s shank (2’34") featured: ALG + RM, EM, DM, BE
4. Do dhà shùil bheag bhiolach / Your two beady little eyes (3’03") featured ALG + RM, EM
5. Òran luaidh Hirteach / St Kilda waulking-song (2’08") featured ALG + RM, EM
6. Thulgag bhòidheach / Lovely "Tulgag" (2’28") featured ALG + RM, EM, DM
7. Cha b’ e sgioba na Faiche / Not the crew of the "Faiche" (3’14") featured ALG, RM
8. Na trì Nèill chalma / The three brave Neils (3’46") ALG
9. The Lady Grange (3’ 08") featured ALG, RM
10. ’S truagh a Rìgh nach mi bha thallad o / I wish I was over there (1’55") featured ALG + RM, EM
11. Iorram suirghe / A courtship rowing-song (4’06") featured ALG,
12. Òran na h-ighinne Hirtich / The St Kildan maiden’s song (3’23") featured ALG + RM, EM, DM, SA
13. Mo ghaol òigear a’ chùil duinn / I love the brown-haired young man (3’57") featured ALG
14. Rè an t-samhraidh bha mo dhùil ris / I waited for him all summer (3’31") featured ALG + RM, EM
15. Tàladh cailin an fhuilt òr-bhuidhe / Lullaby for the golden-haired girl (2’30") featured ALG + RM, EM
16. Ewen and the gold (7’36") featured ALG + RM, EM, BE, SA
17. St Kilda waulking-song (1’11") featured ALG, RM, EM
18. From St Kilda to Kings Cross (3’15") featured ALG, POK
19. St. Kilda's Parliament - 1879-1979: the photographer revisits his picture (7’10") featured ALG, RM, EM
20. Tuireadh nan Hirteach / The Lament of the St Kildans (4’22") featured ALG + RM, EM, SA
BRIGH BR003 [63’63"]

The sad tale of the St Kildans is well known – from the early privations of isolation and enforced self-sufficiency to the final departure of the entire population of 36 souls in August 1930 on the ‘Harebell’ – leaving behind their culture, and a way of life that the twentieth century had long consigned to history. In 1931 the island was sold to the Marquess of Bute, and is now a bird sanctuary.

In this recital Anne Lorne Gillies has seized upon the almost story-book legend of ‘The St Kilda Mailboat’ (a message in a bottle floated on the waves to land on the mainland, or in Scandinavia) to frame a varied selection of songs and tales of St Kildan origin brought in this guise into today’s world, the ancient melodies beautifully spun in the instrumentation of clarsach, flute and others.

The idea was born on a summer cruise on the dark waters surrounding the isolated outcrop – the sleeve-design a stark evocation of those fearsome rocks and of "the endless grey sea-sorrow and murmuring miles/The windy riders trampling the waves that flow/From the sombre west….(*)

And what a wealth of music and story – tales of exile, of loves and losses, of joys and sorrows – all related to the daily activity of a community whose only means of expression were the rhythms associated with the physical activity of work – waulking the wool, rowing the boats, telling of the surge of the surrounding seas – and events associated with these hazard as well as love songs, and the light-hearted puirt a beul. Many of the songs tell stories, with chorus in which the islanders might join in at the ceilidh.

This is not music to rush with. It is contemplative – and no listener need fear ignorance of the language. The Gaelic is here blended with the consummate artistry of Anne and her group into the sound of the music until the very phonetics of the language become in a sense a part of the instrumental texture. Clarsach and flute – cello (particularly beautiful in the St Kildan maiden’s songs –Track 12): pipes and keyboard – all create a web of colour, full of Celtic longing.

Nostalgic? Perhaps – the disc does end with a lament, a poignant song of exile ‘Tuireadh nan Hirteach’. Yet there is something robust in these lovely melodies.

This CD is a ‘must’ for all lovers of song.

Colin Scott-Sutherland

And a further review from Rob Barnett

Brigh, Anne Lorne Gillies and her fellow bardic musicians send out this earnest of one of the world’s remaining precious wild places. St Kilda is part of the Western Isles on the 'oir' of the Scottish isles. The Kilda group are 52 miles to the west of Harris - out in the Atlantic. Kilda is now the lonely haunt of bird-life and the home of a military station working with the Benbecula base on missile-tracking. Until the 1860s it had its own population and culture. You can find out more in the booklet notes reproduced in full below with grateful thanks to Brigh for their permission..

'An Long Hirteach', the title of the album, is translated as 'The St Kilda Mail-Boat'. This is not a reference to a real boat. It refers to a water-tight container in which a message is placed attached to a sealed inflated sheep's-bladder for buoyancy. These twenty songs are sent out onto the ocean to find their mark wherever Gaelic culture has put down roots of memory or enchantment.

The songs are sung either in Gaelic or in English. All the sung words are given in the booklet but there is no literal translation although the essence of each song is given in English along with background notes.

The stamp of honest authenticity is strong throughout although the musicians may have had little in the way of original material to go on. Even so integrity beams out from each track. Thankfully there is none of the tartanry or synthetic Celtic overlay. One often feels as if one is listening across the years to what might well have been sung on this Atlantic outlier. There are no synthesisers ... no drum machines. Principal presences are Anne Lorne Gillies' God-given voice (sometimes recalling that of Rita Connolly), composer Eddie McGuire's flute, Rhona Mackay's clarsach and occasional contributions from cello, bodhran, bagpipes (sparingly), guitar and keyboards. There is some multi-tracking to produce a chorus of Anne Lorne Gillieses as in Oran luaidh Hirteach and Taladh cailin an fhuilt or-buidhe - the latter a pummelling rhythmic waulking song complete with pounding bodhran. Similarly powerful, and rhythmically driven, is The Three Brave Neils - a rowing song or Iorram. Another Iorram, speaking of green depths and clear clean cold waters, is Iorram suirghe, speaking of spring, young love and the return of birds to the isles.

The Lady Grange has a narration by Anne Lorne Gillies to the atmospheric sound of the clarsach. Similarly St Kilda's Parliament - Douglas Dunn's 1981 poem exalted by the music and by Ms Gillies' unaffected voice. Eddie McGuire's flute sobs out its final statement.

Even in the extremes of tragedy (the loss of a woman’s son, ‘Donald, my three brothers, my aunt's only boy and my own husband’) the dignity of expression is strongly held just on the edge of uncontrolled grief in the Cha b'e sgioba na Faiche (Not the crew of the Faiche). Dark bardic realms provide the accompanimental haunting for the eerie lullaby Do dha shuil bheag bhiolach.

One of the finest songs but rather commercial, perhaps in a ‘Simon and Garfunkel’ way, is Ewen and the Gold. It tells the tale of the restless St Kildan who travelled the world repeatedly leaving loved ones behind never to find rest from the memory of the waves breaking upon St Kilda. The song is by Scots songwriter Brian McNeill. A very fine piece of creativity. Similarly populist superb is a song whose eloquence finds the piercing way into your tear ducts From St Kilda to Kings Cross is a superb piece with a waulking song used as poignant counterpoint.

Microphone placement is close in to the instruments and singer. Dynamic extremes are not ironed out.

Rob Barnett



St Kilda, with its jagged cliffs and boiling seas, is Britain’s remotest inhabited island group. It lies 52 miles to the west of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. The principal island is known in Gaelic as Hiort or – more properly – Hirt. Gaelic-speaking communities lived in Hirt until their evacuation in 1930. According to the Skyeman Martin Martin, who visited the islands in 1697, about 180 people lived in Hirt and they were an exceptionally lively and musical people.

The St Kildans fished the seas, grew barley and oats, and kept cattle and sheep – both on Hirt and on the neighbouring islands, Soay and Boreray: dark-coloured Highland sheep, hardy and agile as goats on the rocks. But the main source of food and oil were the seabirds – gannets, fulmars and puffins. During the breeding season from March to September the young men were suspended over the cliffs on hand-made ropes, carrying nooses on rods with which to catch the birds.

For centuries the St Kildans had little contact with the outside world apart from the agent sent annually by their distant landlord MacLeod of Dunvegan, in Skye, to collect the rent (mostly in kind – feathers and oil) and ministers who came from time to time to baptise infants and marry courting couples. It was not until the 19th century that a permanent church and school were built, and ministers and teachers imported for the enlightenment of the people. And thereafter, under the influence of a succession of well-meaning Presbyterians, the St Kildans grew devout, their singing confined to the worship of God or the excusable outpourings of the bereaved.

The 19th century heralded other outside influences too. Summer cruises brought steamer-loads of tourists to stare at the inhabitants and buy the handicrafts they made; folklorists sailed in on the lookout for stories, and photographers made lasting records of the people – pictures like the Aberdonian George Washington Wilson’s famous "St Kilda’s Parliament", in which the men line the one "street" of the Village Bay township to stare at the camera. Boats that came to fish in St Kildan waters began bringing supplies to the islanders: food, fuel, building materials and furniture. The islanders began gradually to lose the self-sufficiency and worldly innocence (for want of a better word) which has tempted some commentators to portray the precarious St Kildan way of life as Utopian. In any event, the seeds of discontent were sown. In 1852 thirty-six St Kildans emigrated to Australia, and though many died on the voyage, there is to this day a thriving suburb of Melbourne named St Kilda.

In the early 20th century a variety of factors conspired to undermine St Kildan morale: the continued emigration of its young men; influenza and other imported illnesses; food shortages; and above all a new awareness of their own isolation and vulnerability. During the First World War the islands suddenly gained strategic importance for the distant British Government. But after the War the naval supply ships ceased to call leaving the islanders with a heightened sense of abandonment. On May 10th 1930 a petition was penned by the school-teacher / missionary Dougald Munro, requesting Scottish Office assistance to evacuate St Kilda and transfer the remaining thirty-six inhabitants "elsewhere, where there would be a better opportunity of securing our livlihood" (sic). The letter was signed by all the indigenous islanders and counter-signed by another concerned incomer, Williamina Barclay (Queen’s Nurse). Soon afterwards Munro entered his last comments into the school register:-

"June 13th: perfect attendance this week. June 20th: attendance good. Donald Gillies lost two attendances through having to help at the sheep shearing. June 27th: attendance perfect for last week. School closed today with a small ‘treat’ which the children seemed thoroughly to enjoy. Today very probably ends the school in St Kilda, as all the inhabitants intend leaving the island this summer. I hope to be away soon."

On 29th August the St Kildans sailed away on the Government sloop Harebell, taking with them some of their furniture, looms and spinning wheels, and all their memories and language; leaving only the vestiges of a once-robust way of life and, of course, the birds. A Bible was left open in each house, along with a small heap of oats. In one house the Bible was open at Exodus.

In 1931 St Kilda was sold to the Marquess of Bute, a keen ornithologist. He bequeathed the islands to The National Trust for Scotland in 1957. Recently it became Scotland’s first World Heritage Site, in recognition not so much of its significance to Gaelic culture as of its importance as a bird sanctuary.

The first "St Kilda mailboat" was sent out as a distress signal in 1876, when food was short and a visiting journalist wanted to be "rescued". A letter was placed in a watertight container, with a sheep’s bladder to act as a float, and set loose to sail wherever the prevailing Atlantic currents would carry it. Since then St Kilda mailboats have been launched from time to time, more for the amusement of visitors than as a genuine signal of distress; many have been washed ashore in Scotland or Scandinavia. We send our mailboat forth on behalf of the Gaelic-speaking people who once lived in Hirt. And we hope it may reach, and be enjoyed by, some of their descendants across the world – and of course those who love music and culture everywhere.

For although the St Kildans’ songs ceased long before mechanical recording (indeed, long before Hirt itself was evacuated) and were written down by people with widely-differing agendas, Rhona, Eddie and I have utilised every ounce of our understanding of Gaelic culture in creating these 21st century interpretations of what remains. The culture which emerges was clearly vigorous, hardy, full of human follies and foibles, laughter and sorrow, and unmistakably Gaelic. And it was without doubt exceptional in the sweetness and uniqueness of its music.

My thanks are due to many people:

  • Firstly, of course, all the musicians: Stephen and Duncan, Peggy and Ben, and especially Rhona and Eddie, without whose skill and understanding this Mailboat would never have set sail in the first place.

  • To the National Trust for Scotland, on whose summer cruise our project was born, on a summer’s day when the three of us performed St Kildan songs on board the "Black Prince" with the jagged stacks of Hirt, Soay and Boreray providing a spectacular backdrop. NTS has been a continued source of help and encouragement ever since.

  • To the eminent Scottish artist Frances Walker, who also happened to be a passenger on the "Black Prince" that day, and whose exhibition Passing Islands celebrates not only Scotland’s stunning periphery but her own lifetime of visual and spiritual exploration.

  • To Joan MacKenzie and the late Rev. William Matheson from whom I learned my first St Kildan songs by word of mouth more than forty years ago; and to those who helped add to my repertoire more recently: Cathlin MacAulay at the School of Scottish Studies, Edinburgh; Mary Smith, Lewis; Margaret Fay Shaw, Canna, and, above all, Calum Ferguson, Lewis, who has spent years of his life researching St Kilda and its people.

  • To the modern poets, bards and songwriters who gave enthusiastic consent for their work to be used – Prof. Douglas Dunn, Valerie Gillies, Brian McNeill, Paul Kelly, Calum Ferguson, and the widow of the late Rev. John MacLeod.

  • To the Gaelic scholars whose expert weather eyes I borrowed from time to time – including John Alick MacPherson, John MacInnes, Ian Macdonald, genealogist Bill Lawson, and my long-suffering brother Prof. William Gillies.

  • To the members of Melbourne’s St Kilda Historical Society who helped me to extend the musical search to the Southern Hemisphere, especially Janet Revill, Carmel Shute, and Ronald McCoy.

  • Most of all, to the people of St Kilda and their descendants, wherever they are. I hope we have represented them as they would have wished.

Ceud mìle taing dhuibh uile.


1. Leac na Gàdaig / On a cliff-edge

The chorus of this hilarious song imitates the call of the sea-birds upon which the St Kildan economy depended: source of the oil, feathers and food which kept them alive and with which they paid the annual rent to their faraway landlord. Catching birds and collecting eggs was a perilous business, dodging sharp beaks and strong wings on sheer cliffs high above the crashing Atlantic waves. And no island courtship was complete without a gift of eggs to prove the suitor’s love, courage, and ability to support a wife. But the hapless bachelor in this song has brought no eggs, despite all the Sundays his girl has wasted entertaining him. She is now so fed up she would willingly give him a helping hand – by dangling him over Gàdag cliff on the end of a well-greased rope! I learned Leac na Gàdaig as a student at Edinburgh in the 1960s, from the marvellous Lewis-born singer Joan MacKenzie.

Hion dail-a horo hì hù hion dail-a là, hion dail-a horo hì hu-ru-ru-i, hu-ru-ru-i, hion dail-a horo hì hù hion dail-a là ● Tha fleasgach anns a’ bhaile seo ris an can iad Dòmhnall, ’s ged gheibheadh e ’n saoghal gu saoithricheadh e mòine. Is ged a bhithinn bruidhinn riut

’s a’ brìodal riut an còmhnaidh, cha tugadh tu na h-uighean dhomh nuair shuidheadh tu Didòmhnaich. Is truagh nach robh mo leannan ann an ìochdar Leac na Gàdaig, acainn air a smioradh agus mise bhith gu h-àrd oirr’.

2. Gura thall ann an Sòaigh / It was over in Soay

But the laughter dies abruptly in this powerful portrayal of the exigencies of life in St Kilda. A young man from Hirt has slipped and fallen to his death while working in the neighbouring island of Soay. The rocks are saturated with his blood and his body is being torn apart by the waves while his family watches helplessly: his normally modest mother rushes to the scene without even stopping to cover her hair; his sister and brother cannot control their weeping; and his widow describes the terrible scene and her predicament without the man who provided for her. Her share of the birds now scream in the skies, and the angels have her share of the eggs. I adapted this fine song from a version in the Gesto Collection of Gaelic Song, and it is published in my collection Songs of Gaelic Scotland (Birlinn).

Gura thall ann an Sòaigh dh’fhàg mi ’n t-òganach gleusta, urradh dhèanamh mo thacar ’s tabhairt dhachaigh na sprèidhe, tabhairt dhachaigh na sprèidhe. ● Ged a chaidh thu sa chreig ud cha b’ e ’n t-eagal a lèir thu, ’s ann a rinn do chas sraonadh, ’s cha do dh’fhaod thu rithist èirigh.’S ann bha t’ fhuil air a’ chloich ud, bha do lot an dèidh èirigh, bha thu muigh air bhàrr stuaighe, ’s muir gad fhuasgladh o chèile. Nuair a thàinig do mhàthair cha do chàirich i ’m brèid oirr’; nuair a thàinig do phiuthar bha sinn dubhach le chèile. Nuair a thàinig do bhràthair cha do chaomhainn e ’n èigheadh: bha sinn dubhach is cràiteach gad amharc an cèin uainn. Tha mo chuid-s’ de na h-eunaibh anns na neulaibh ag èigheach, tha mo chuid-s’ de na h-uighean aig a’ bhuidhinn as treubhaich’. ● Gura thall ann an Sòaigh dh’fhàg mi ’n t-òganach gleusta, urradh dhèanamh mo thacar ’s tabhairt dhachaigh na sprèidhe, tabhairt dhachaigh na sprèidhe.

3. Cas na caora Hirtich o / The St Kilda sheep’s shank

An entertaining piece of puirt-a-beul – vocal dance-music – in praise of the nimble St Kildan sheep: friendly, resourceful, fleet-footed, fiercely protective of her lambs, and with such prettily coloured dark wool that it needs no dye in order to make a smart pair of trousers! I learned it from Margaret Fay Shaw’s wonderful book Folksongs and folklore of South Uist.

Cas na caora Hirtich o, Hirtich Hirtich Hirtich o, cas na caora Hirtich o b’ e siud a’ chas bha sgiobalta! ● Siud a’ chaora bha grinn: dh’fhàsadh an dath air a druim. Cha d’ dh’iarr i crotal no sùigh ach snìomh na clòimh gu briogaisean. Siud a’ chaora bha luath: nuair a thigeadh i mun cuairt cha robh aon san taobh-tuath an uair sin chuireadh it’ aiste! Chaidh an t-uan-sa leis fhèin null ann an-siud leis an sprèidh: sin nuair chaidh i-fhèin na bèist nuair theann a seinn ri gliogadaich! Siud a’ chaor’ san robh sgeun: cha do chleachd i bhith air sliabh – ’s ann aig baile bha i riamh, is grinn am feur a dh’itheadh i.

4. Do dhà shùil bheag bhiolach / Your two beady little eyes

In this eerie lullaby – guaranteed to keep any infant wide awake! – everyone in the township has gone up to the hill pasture except one woman who tends her baby and looks forward to the return of her man, and a bird whose beady little eyes peep out from a crevice in the rock. Perhaps recognising a kindred spirit, the woman promises not to betray the bird’s presence. Calum Ferguson, whose book Hiort far na laigh a’ ghrian is an invaluable source of information on every aspect of St Kildan culture, says it was recorded from a Harris woman in the 1950s: the singer – Janet MacLeod – had learned it in its original dialect from the St Kildans who visited the whaling station before the First World War.

Do dhà shùil bheag bhiolach (bhiorach: St Kildan dialect) gam choimhead tron toll ’s cha leig mi ort, cha leig mi ort. ● Tha càch aig a’ bheinn ’s tha mis’ aig a’ chloinn ’s cha leig mi ort, cha leig mi ort. ● Ma thig Ailean gu baile ’s gu ruig e dh’alam (orm) bidh sinn aoibhneach ò, bidh sinn aoibhneach ò.

5. Òran luaidh Hirteach / St Kilda waulking-song

In St Kilda the wool was plucked from the sheep, then carded, spun and woven. Finally, as was the custom throughout the Hebrides, the women waulked (or "fulled") the cloth, singing rhythmically while thumping it heartily until it shrunk in size, becoming thick and matted and weatherproof enough to protect the men who braved the seas and scaled the cliffs. In this waulking-song a girl praises her sweetheart – hunter of the birds, sailor of the waves – promising to make him fine warm tweed and a pair of moccasins fashioned from the necks of gannets, and to share with him her grandfather’s finest gear. The words are in Carmina Gadelica, the treasure-trove of vernacular Gaelic songs, prayers and lore collected by Alexander Carmichael (1832 – 1912). As its tune has been lost I borrowed the melody of a Uist waulking song: after all the Uist people and the St Kildans seem to have been mutually supportive, as we shall see below (track 8). In recent years this song was re-fashioned into a poem in English by my sister-in-law, the poet Valerie Gillies (cf. track 17).

Agus ò iorrach a’ chuain, agus ò ’s na hiùra bhòaich, agus ò iorrach a’ chuain. Dhèanainn an clò bàn cho blàth dhut, an snàth mar an sìoman reamhar. Dhèanainn dhut an cuaran iteach, a luaidh ’s a liostaidh nam fearaibh. Bheirinn dhut a’ mhogais phrìseil ’s am ball-sinnsir bh’ aig mo sheanair. Mo ghaol sealgair a’ bhigein ’s moiche thig thar linne choimhich. Mo ghaol maraiche nan tonn, is mòr am fonn bhiodh air a mhalaidh.

6. Thulgag bhòidheach / Lovely "Tulgag"

This is a song in praise of a boat that took the men of Hirt over to Soay and the other islands to tend their animals and hunt birds. Calum Ferguson points out that the St Kildans chose names for their boats which reflected their smallness: "Thulgag" is no more than a "Little Dent" in the ocean, and "Faiche" (in the next song) is a "Little Hole on the Shore where Crabs and Lobsters Hide". But of course the importance of their boats to the community was immeasurable. The melody and first verse are traditional St Kildan. Verses 2 and 3 were added by Calum himself, and published in Hiort far na laigh a’ ghrian.

Thulgag bhòidheach, thulgag bhòidheach, thulgag bhòidheach null gu Sòaigh. Thulgag eile seo, thulgag eile seo, thulgag eile seo null chun nan eileanan. Ruiteag air sàl i, ruiteag air sàl i, ruiteag air sàl i, aotrom, àlainn. Cuinneag fo ràmh i, cuinneag fo ràmh i, cuinneag fo ràmh i, aonrag aighearach. Cuideachd an eunlaith, cuideachd an eunlaith, cuideachd an eunlaith, aoibhneach, sgiamhach. Greadhnachas beadarach, greadhnachas beadarach, greadhnachas ciatach, eun a’ ceilearadh.

7. Cha b’ e sgioba na Faiche / Not the crew of the "Faiche"

But of course when small open boats sailed in wild seas disasters could happen all too easily, even to the most experienced and skilful of crews. And such losses had a hugely disproportionate impact on the tiny St Kildan community. Here the drowned victims included "my son Donald, my three brothers, my aunt’s only boy, and hardest of all to bear, my own husband". The dignified, almost pragmatic way in which the tragedy is recounted creates a lament far more heart-breaking than any wild outpourings of grief. This song is published in Hiort far na laigh a’ ghrian.

Cha b’ e sgioba na Faiche ghabh Diciadain an t-aiseag – gur e sgeula nan creach mura beò sibh: gur e chùm sibh cho fad’ uam am muir àrd ’s a’ ghaoth chas oirbh, chòir nach fhaod sibh an ceartuair thoirt seòl dhi. ● Gur e turas gun bhuannachd thug air falbh an duin’ uasal, gus an t-aon mhac thoirt uam-sa – seo Dòmhnall; dh’fhalbh mo mhac ’s mo thriùir bhràithrean, aon mhac piuthar mo mhàthar, ’s sgeul as cruaidh’ thig no thàinig – m’ fhear-pòsta. ● ’S e chuir mi tharraing na luatha ’s a thoirt leis air an ruamhair na fir a bhith uam ’s gun bhrath beò orr’. Mi gun sùgradh, gun mhire, ’m shuidh air ùrlar a’ ghlinne: tha mo shùilean a’ sileadh ’s tric deòir orr’.

8. Na trì Nèill chalma / The three brave Neils

Heisgeir, off North Uist, was evacuated a few decades after Hirt. This rousing rowing song describes the feats of three stalwarts – all named Neil – who, we are led to believe, sailed overnight from Heisgeir to Hirt with only the stars to steer by ("the Great Bear, the Huntsman, the Dog Star and Orion’s Belt") carrying with them a Uist bull and some fuel, and returned home next day bringing with them a St Kildan bull, some Soay sheep and feathers! According to Donald Fergusson’s book From the farthest Hebrides, this hair-raising journey was undertaken annually. It would be a rare example of mutual support, not to mention ecological farsightedness, if true – and perish the thought that a Uistman should ever indulge in tall tales! However Fergusson’s grandfather emigrated from North Uist to Cape Breton in 1841, and while his memory of Hebridean tradition is remarkable it also seems somewhat uneven, so a pinch of salt might be salutary here! I confess to having re-written many of the lines in Fegusson’s book in an attempt to repair their splendid rhyme-scheme. This required educated guess-work, but I took the precaution of passing the results under the nose of a scholarly North Uistman, who approved not only of my prosody but also of my theory that no self-respecting Neil would ever have set sail from Uist to St Kilda without first fuelling himself heroically in the inn at Port Roy – if there was one at the time!

I ho i hiù hò nuair chàradh iad brèid, i ho i hiù hò ’s sa bhàthadh iad ràmh, i ho i hiù hò! ● Bho Heisgeir gu Hirt, bho Hirt gu Heisgeir, na trì Nèill chalma ri falbh ’s ri tighinn, gun fheum ac’ air iùl ach Mùig a’ Mhathain, an Sealgair, ’s an Cù, is Clàr na Sgalaig. Gu seinn mi air cliù nan diùlnach cridheil, mac Iain ’ic Raghnaill, mac Tharmaid ’ic Iain, ’s na shuidh aig an stiùir mac Dhùghaill Ghobha, ’s i treabhadh nan tonn gu fonnmhor fodhairt. Cha bu dhiùbhail dhan triùir ud suidhe mun bhòrd is bonn-a-h-ochd òl san taigh-òst’ am Port Ròaidh; cur fodhpa gu h-aighearach, daingeann an dul, a muineal ri ròiseal, sròn fulasg ri muir. Nuair ràinig iad Sòaigh ri bòc-thonn frasach bha feud a’ Ghlinn Mhòir fan comhair air cladach: fir faire muir làn nach sàraich fairge ri falbh ’s ri tighinn na trì Nèill chalma.

9. The Lady Grange

Of all the visits made to St Kilda over the centuries, none was more bizarre than that of the 18th century Scots aristocrat Rachel Erskine, Lady Grange, whose imprisonment in Hirt is still remembered with horror in the Hebrides. Lord Grange was Lord Advocate of Scotland and a closet Jacobite. In 1730, fearing his wife might betray his loyalties, he declared her dead and had a coffin filled with stones and buried with due ceremony. Meanwhile the lady was smuggled through the Outer Hebrides to St Kilda where she was incarcerated for nine years. She was then shipped across to Skye where she died in 1742. In a letter to the King, headed "St Kilda, 1738", she wrote: "you know I am not guilty of any crime except that of loveing my husband to much, he knowes very well that he was my idol and now God has made him a rode to scourgeth me" (sic). A tiny beehive-like stone hut still standing in Hirt is believed to have been her cell. In this poem the Jacobite poetess Carolina Oliphant (Lady Nairne), a devout Christian born in Perthshire in 1766, tries to make some sense of this iniquitous event. Rhona MacKay’s clàrsach solo is a variant of Rè an t-samhraidh (cf. track 14). We first recorded this poem on an earlier album, White Rose o’ June, the songs of Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne, Brìgh CD 0002.

10. ’S truagh a Rìgh nach mi bha thallad o / I wish I was over there

This song may presage stirrings of discontent in St Kilda. A young girl dreams of sailing far away to the land where her sweetheart has gone to make a new life: a land very different from Hirt, where deer roam the hills, the trees are alive with birds, and great chieftains lead their brave heroes to glory in battle. My mother taught this song to me when I was very young: she herself learned it from the Columba Collection of Gaelic Song.

’S truagh a Rìgh nach mi bha thallad o anns an tìr sa bheil mo leannan o: Boch oirinn ò, boch oirinn oirinn, boch oirinn ò. Tìr nam beann, nan gleann ’s nam bealaichean,eòin air gèig is fèidh san langanaich,far am biodh na h-uaislean dhan dual a bhith barrasach, rachadh dhan bhlàr ’n coinneimh nàmhaid mar dhealanach:bha mo leannan fhèin ann ’s gur beusach fearail e;’s truagh nach mi bha seòladh thairis leis.

11. Iorram suirghe / A courtship rowing song

This most unusual Iorram, or rowing-song, celebrates spring, young love, and the return of the birds to the islands. It was published in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica. Born in the island of Lismore, Carmichael travelled throughout the Highlands and Islands in the course of his work. In 1865 he visited an old St Kildan woman called Oighrig (Effie) MacCrimmon, a bearer of much island tradition. Iorram Suirghe, she told him, had been composed by her own father and mother as a "love-duet" before their marriage – though, sadly, both her father and grandfather were killed on the cliffs shortly after the wedding. After whetting his appetite with Iorram Suirghe Oighrig begged Carmichael to come back next day so that she could pass on more songs to him. But the island’s minister forbad him to "trouble" the old lady again: she was nearing the end of her life, he insisted, and should be turning her mind to less temporal matters! And so Carmichael left the island sadly – and the rest of her songs died with Oighrig.

Bhuam cas-chrom, bhuam cas-dhìreach, bhuam gach mìs is cìob is uan; suas mo lon, nuas mo rioba, chuala mis’ an gug sa chuan. Buidheachas dhan Tì thàine na gugachan – thàine ’s na h-eòin mhòra cuide riu: cailin dubh ciar-dubh, bò sa chrò. Bò dhonn, bò dhonn, bò dhonn bheidireach, bò dhonn, a rùin, bhligheadh am bainne dhut; hò ro rù ra rì roideachag, cailin dubh ciar-dubh bò sa chrò, na h-eòin air tighinn, cluinneam an ceòl. ● Nàile, ’s e mo chuat am buachaill’ bhagradh am bata ’s nach buaileadh, cailin dubh ciar-dubh, bò sa chrò. ● ’S tu mo luran ’s tu mo leannan: thug thu thùs dhomh ’m fulmair meala, cailin dubh ciar-dubh, bò sa chrò. ● M’ eudail thus’, mo lur ’s mo shealgair: thug thu ’n-dè dhomh ’n sùl ’s an gearr-bhall, cailin dubh ciar-dubh, bò sa chrò. ● ’S tu mo chugar (chagar) ’s tu mo chearban,

thug thu ’m buit dhomh ’s thug thu ’n gearr-bhreac, cailin dubh ciar-dubh, bò sa chrò.

12. Òran na h-ighinne Hirtich / The St Kildan maiden’s song

This song is also published in Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica, where it is described as a waulking-song. But many Gaelic work-songs seem to have begun life in a more lyrical form before being put to use in the boat or around the waulking-frame. And so it was with great excitement that I discovered that, with a very minor adjustment to the vocable refrain, these words marry perfectly with the lovely air Òran na h-Inghinne published in Ferguson’s Hiort far na laigh a’ ghrian. Carmichael says that the song was "composed by a maiden of St Kilda, who had been carried away and married in Lewis. She was not happy in Lewis, and yearned for her native home and her St Kildan lover."

B’ fheàrr leam na na fhuair mi nithinn bhith ’n Hirt a’ spìonadh nan eun dubha, mar ri sùlaire a’ ghuib liath a bheireadh an t-iasg à druim an t-srutha. Hill ù hill ò hill ò ro bha hò, hill ù hill ò mo ghille dubh, hill ù hill ò hill ò ro bha hò, bu tu mo thrò nan tigeadh tu. ● Òganaich nam brògan àrda, thèid thu dhan bhàthach mun tàr mi suidhe; dhannsadh tu gu làidir, lùthmhor, do dhà ghlùn cha lùbadh lughadh. ● Bheir thu ’m fulmair ’s bheir thu ’n gearr-bhall, ’s bheir thu ’n sgarbh à calg an rubha; thèid thu mhòr-thìr mhòr Chinn t-Sàile mar ri Ìomhair àrd a’ Bhruthaich.

13. Mo ghaol òigear a’ chùil duinn / I love the brown-haired young man

A "brown-haired young nobleman from Islay" visited St Kilda in the mid-19th century, causing a young island girl – believed to have been called Mòr Bhàn, or Fair-haired Marion Morrison – to fall head over heels in love. According to the MacDonald Collection of Gaelic Song the young man was none other than the famous John Francis Campbell of Islay (1821-1885) known as "Iain Òg Ìle", who scoured the Hebrides collecting Gaelic folktales. Whatever the identity of her "Islay lord" he has put the St Kildan girl off all the callow island boys: "curly-haired Donald Gillies" and his friends. And now the gossips of Hirt are whispering that she has fallen pregnant. If only she had learned to write, she sighs, she’d send a letter to Islay to reassure Iain that there is no truth in these rumours. But perhaps it’s lucky for us that she was illiterate! If she had written a letter it would probably have been consigned to the flames of an Islay fire long ago. Instead Marion expressed her most private thoughts in this beautiful song which has survived in the oral tradition for at least 150 years. It is by far the most precious of the many songs I learned from the Rev. William Matheson while his student in the Celtic Department at Edinburgh University in the early 1960s. Words, music, notes etc are published in my anthology Songs of Gaelic Scotland (Birlinn).

Mo ghaol òigear a’ chùil duinn dhan tug mi mo loinn cho mòr; dhùraiginn dhut pòg san anmoch ged bhiodh càch ga sheanchas oirnn; mo ghaol òigear a’ chùil duinn dhan tug mi mo loinn cho mòr. ● Gura mise tha gu h-uallach on a thàinig an duin’ uasal, le mo ribeinean mun cuairt dhomh – cumaidh iad mo ghruag air dòigh. Dhòmhnaill dhualaich ’ic Gillìosa, bha thu uair a bha thu strì rium, ach on thàinig an Tighearn’ Ìleach sguiridh mi gad bhrìodal beòil. Cha dèan mi sùgradh ri gillean, chan fhaod iad bhith rium a’ mire: on an Caimbeulach gam shireadh chan fhaigh iad tuilleadh nam chòir. Ged a gheibhinn-sa an tàillear ’s na chosnadh e dhomh le shnàthad, ’s mòr gum b’ annsa bhith air àirigh togail àil do dh’Iain òg. Ach beul-sìos air luchd nam farchluais, ’s luchd nam brèig chan iad as fhasa – ’s mi gun siùbhladh fad’ air astar dh’èisteachd cantanas do bheòil. Gun do thog iad orm mar sgeulan gun robh mo chriosan ag èirigh; giùlainidh mise siud eutrom o nach dèan e eucoir orm. Ach nam bithinn-sa cho fìnealt ’s gun dèanainn litir a sgrìobhadh rachadh fios thugad a dh’Ìle nach i ’n fhìrinn thog iad oirnn.

14. Rè an t-samhraidh bha mo dhùil ris / I waited for him all summer

With words by Calum Ferguson set to an old St Kildan air, and published in Hiort far na laigh a’ ghrian, this song continues the story of Marion Morrison and her noble sweetheart from over the waves. According to St Kildan tradition the Islayman actually kept his promise and returned to Hirt with the intention of claiming Marion as his bride. But apparently the ship he sailed on had guns on its deck, and the people mistook it for an enemy vessel and ran to hide in the hills. Landing on Hirt, the Islayman wandered disconsolately through the deserted village calling in vain for his lover. Receiving no answer he sailed away, never to return.

Rè an t-samhraidh bha mo dhùil ris, mo ghean sùrdail ’s mi ga fheitheamh, sùil gu deas a dh’fhaicinn siùil mu Rubha ’n Dùin tighinn dlùth ri fearann. ● Cha b’ e gleusadh fear na fìdhle a rinn inns mo ghràdh bhith tighinn, ’s cha b’ e ceilear dheas na pìoba a thog ruidhle fàilt’ e ruighinn. ● Thog fir sùil-bheachd sgairt le fiamh gu robh na nàimhdean air an stairsnich, bagairt creich’ le daga ’s lann is theich sinn crom ri fasgadh cladaich. ● Bha mo ghràdh a’ ruith nan gleann, mac-talla meallta ris a’ freagairt, ’s a chlaisneachd geur ri guth na h-òigh a thug a bòid gum biodh i leth ris. ● Chualas faram chnag is ràmh is leig mi ràn nuair thug mi ’n aire gu robh mo ghràdh gu bhith à fàir’ ’s a bhratach àrd ’s e tilleadh dhachaigh. ●Dh’fhàg e còirean Hirt gun ghò, Tighearn’ Òg nam pògan meala, dh’fhàg e òigh a’ sileadh deòir an creachadh dòchais chaoidh bhith maill’ ris. ● Nàile! Mise a tha caoineadh beatha gaoil mu sgaoil le sochair, chuireadh aontrachd orm le faoineas ’s mi nis às aonais laoich is tochair.

15. Tàladh cailin an fhuilt òr-bhuidhe / Lullaby for the golden-haired girl

The words of this gentle lullaby were composed by my friend the late Rev. John MacLeod, Minister of the Parish Church, Oban, originally from Lewis. The tune is an old St Kildan air whose words were lost. Words and music are published in Calum Ferguson’s Hiort far na laigh a’ ghrian.

Fail èilidh horo, fail èilidh horo, aghaidh bhòidheach air a’ phàiste, falt òr-bhuidh mo ghràidh-sa, fail èilidh horo, fail èilidh horo; caidil sàmhach gus a-màireach, gràdh blàth an uchd màthar, fail èilidh horo, riro ri-rinn èile, caidil sàmhach a ghràidh – caidil socair chailin bhàn. ● Tha bò bhainne tighinn bhon àirigh le bainne math blàth dhi; thig maorach à tràigh dhi, thig biadh à muir-làn dhi. Leis na gluaisean, leis na dùisgean, mo luaidh-sa, mo rùn-sa; mo luaidh-sa, mo rùn-sa, bi sàmhach gun chùram.

16. Ewen and the Gold

This is the celebrated Scots song-writer Brian McNeill’s version of the true story of Ewan Gillies, a St Kildan who emigrated to Australia with his new wife in 1853, only to leave her behind while he went off in search of gold. Returning with his not inconsiderable earnings he tried to settle down and farm in Victoria, but could not make it pay. Moving his family into rented accommodation in Melbourne he returned to the gold, this time in New Zealand. All the time he was there he failed to correspond with his wife, and by the time he returned she had presumed him dead and re-married. Ewan went off in disgust to join the US army, but soon deserted, lured this time by the goldmines of California. By 1871 he had made enough money to return to Melbourne and "claim" his children, taking them back to be reared in St Kilda. They were warmly welcomed by the islanders, but Ewan stayed barely a month before setting sail once more for America, leaving his children behind. He was to spend a further eleven years in California before eventually returning home. But by this time his old friends were gone, and the younger generation found his stories boring. They earned him the nick-name "California". One woman, however, looked kindly on him: they emigrated together and lived the rest of their days in America.

You caught the line they threw you, you helped to make her fast, you heard the sailors talking in the rigging; when the captain said he’d take another hand before the mast you knew you were halfway to the diggings. So you rode the ocean’s swell to Bendigo and living hell in the camps and the creeks of Castlemaine, for like a million other souls you were haunted by the gold and you’d never know a peaceful day again. And tell me, Ewen Gillies, did you still believe the dream when the hard men of Victoria bought and sold you? When you had to sell the farm that you’d sifted from the seams did you curse the tale the sailor laddies told you?

And did you fight against the call of the island that you knew would never hold you? For all the gold Ewen Gillies ever found could not buy him peace or freedom from the memory of the sound of the waves on St. Kilda’s rocky shore. ● And when the dream was done you’d lost your children and your wife and every single thing you ever had, but you told your friends the gold was still the centre of your life and they told you, one and all, that you were mad. So you wandered through the years never stopping once to rue, and St. Kilda saw your footsteps as you passed; Old Glory even put you in a coat of faded blue till the older glory claimed you back at last. And tell me, Ewen Gillies, did you give the Lord your thanks when He told you where the golden riches lay? Or did you bow your head in prayer on the Sacramento banks and ask Him should you go or should you stay? And did St. Kilda call you home across the mountains at the dawn of every day? Again you made the journey to that bare and barren land to end your days among your kith and kin, to a winter when the Devil held the island in his hand and the shadow of starvation rode the wind. But it’s hard upon St. Kilda for the folks to keep their pride when every season brings them to despair, and to hear you tell the tale of a different ocean’s tide made their bitter burden harder still to bear. So though they knew you for their own you were forced to stand alone in a solitude that no man could endure: they made your home a living grave, until the bravest of the brave was forced to leave the poorest of the poor. So you reached out once again and took hold of the bonnie golden lure.When first I heard the tale of Ewen Gillies and the gold I was filled with bitter anger and with tears to see a traveller return and then be shut out from the fold drove a shaft into the deepest of my fears. For God made Ewen Gillies and God gave him wings to fly, but only from the land where he belonged; but I’d fight with God himself for the light in Ewen’s eye or with any man who tells me he was wrong. For there’s men who use their dreams to tear themselves apart and there’s men who never find a dream at all, but how many find the courage to look deep into their heart to find a dream they can follow till they fall? And when my heart cries out to wander I can hear him answering the call. For all the gold Ewen Gillies ever found could not buy him peace or freedom from the memory of the sound of the waves on St. Kilda’s rocky shore. And on the island the greatest story ever told it was always Ewen Gillies, California and the gold, so far from St. Kilda’s rocky shore.

17. St Kilda waulking-song

Òran luaidh Hirteach (cf. track 5, above) inspired not only this little poem by Valerie Gillies, but also a series of paintings by the eminent artist Prof. Will MacLean. Poem and artworks were exhibited in 1998, and published as a tiny but exquisite book (Morning Star Press. It was a limited edition, but you might find one through

18. From St Kilda to Kings Cross

Emigration from the islands is reflected in several St Kildas dotted around the world, including Melbourne’s fashionable beachside suburb. And it seems from Paul Kelly’s song that the "New World St Kildans" are still inclined to leave home and go travelling – if only as far as Sydney on a bus – while leaving their hearts firmly at home. This is equally true of the distinguished Australian pianist Peggy O’ Keefe who plays on this track. Peggy began her days on a dairy-farm in Warrnambool and trained at the Melbourne Conservatorium. She came to Scotland on a three-month contract in 1962, and has been here ever since! But she still talks with affection of how she began her professional career while living in an apartment in St Kilda.

From St Kilda to Kings Cross is thirteen hours on a bus; I pressed my face against the glass and watched the white lines rushing past. And all around me felt like all inside me, and my body left me and my soul went running. Have you ever seen Kings Cross when the rain is falling soft? I came in on the evening bus, from Oxford Street I cut across. And if the rain don’t fall too hard everything shines just like a postcard, everything goes on just the same.
Fair-weather friends are the hungriest friends: I keep my mouth well shut, I cross their open hands. Want to see the sun go down from St Kilda Esplanade, where the beach needs reconstruction, where the palm trees have it hard. I’d give you all of Sydney Harbour (all that land, all that water) for that one sweet promenade.

19. St Kilda’s Parliament – 1879-1979: the photographer revisits his picture

Douglas Dunn’s powerful poem (published Faber and Faber, London, 1981) imagines how the Aberdonian George Washington Wilson might have felt if he had returned to the scene of his celebrated photograph a hundred years later – almost fifty years after the evacuation of the island. The idea of the "Noble Savage" fascinated Post-Industrial Europe, and poets like Oliver Goldsmith (The Deserted Village, 1770) and Thomas Gray (Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, 1750) idealised rural life "far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife". The modern poet, however, wipes the mist from the lens, challenging on the one hand the romantic portrayal of the isolated St Kildan islands and their history, and on the other the short-sightedness of protecting wild life without even pausing to consider, let alone address, the profound issues of human ecology which resonate throughout the Highlands and Islands, and nowhere more so than in the deserted houses of Hirt.

  1. Tuireadh nan Hirteach / The lament of the St Kildans

This picture of the sadness, disorientation and homesickness felt by the departing St Kildan emigrants was painted by the late Rev. Dr. George Murray from Ness – the northernmost tip of Lewis. Himself an exile, he became minister of the Scots Presbyterian Church in Boston. He portrays the St Kildans as "shepherdless sheep" scattered to the ends of an alien world where everyone, however kind-hearted, speaks a different language and has alien customs. Meanwhile the dear green island of Hirt lies empty in the midst of the ocean: the birds still sing but no bell rings in the cold church, Gaelic is no longer heard, and the graves of the St Kildans’ ancestors are lonely and unattended. The words are published in Creighton / MacLeod: Gaelic Songs in Nova Scotia (Ottowa 1964) and the melody can be found in Calum Ferguson’s book Hiort far na laigh a’ ghrian.

Tha sinne brònach ’s is beag an t-iongnadh is tha sinn cianail an-diugh air fògradh; tha ’n cuan an iar le chuid thonnan fiadhaich gar sgaradh cian bho ar n-àite-còmhnaidh. Tha sinn mar chaoraich an seo gun bhuachaill, ’s sinn sgabt’ measg sluaigh air nach eil sinn eòlach; ach ’s tric ar smuaintean ri snàmh nan cuantan do dh’eilean uaine nan cluaintean bòidheach. Tha Hiort nam fuaran ’s nan sgeirean gruamach am meadhan cuain ’s chan eil duine beò ann: na h-eòin mun cuairt air ri gabhail uabhais on dh’fhalbh an sluagh a bh’ ann uair ri còmhnaidh. Tha ’n eaglais fuar ’s chan eil clag ga bhualadh; cha tionail sluagh ann air madainn Dòmhnaich; cha chluinnear seinn ann no fonn an aoibhneis – tha ’n tìr ri caoidh chionn nach till na seòid ud. Cha b’ e gu h-àraidh a dhol thar sàile chuir sinn fo àmhghair ’s a dh’fhàg sinn brònach, ach mar a sgaoileadh air feadh gach taobh sinn ’s nach fhaic sinn aon air a bheil sinn eòlach. ● Ged tha an sluagh measg a bheil sinn truasail, tha ’n cànan cruaidh ’s tha iad fuar nan dòighean; ’s ann bha sinn suaimhneach far ’n d’ thogadh suas sinn, le Gàidhlig uasal ga luaidh an còmhnaidh. ● Soraidh slàn leibh gun teich na sgàilean: far bheil sibh tàmh cha bhi càch nur còir ann; tha sibhse sìnt’ anns an tìr bu mhiann leibh, is eòin ri sgreuchail mur n-àite-còmhnaidh. ● ’S e sgur dem òran as iomchaidh dhòmhsa: le briathran beòil meud mo bhròin chan innsear. Ceud soraidh slàn leat, o eilein ghràdhaich far an deachaidh m’ àrach ’s bheil tàmh mo shinnsre.

Also available from Brìgh Productions:-
The Lady of the Lake (songs from Sir Walter Scott’s famous narrative poem, including Hail to the chief and Ave Maria, performed by Anne Lorne Gillies and Rhona MacKay)
Brìgh BR001
White rose o’ June (the songs of Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne, including Will ye no come back again, Charlie is my darling, The auld hoose, The rowan tree performed by Anne Lorne Gillies with Rhona MacKay, Alistair McCulloch, Marc Duff, Gordon Cree, Duncan MacColl, Stuart Forbes, Lindsay McCulloch and Rick Standley.)
Brìgh BR002
For more information see
For information about St Kilda see /
For information about the work of the National Trust for Scotland see

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