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Songs of Gaelic Scotland
by Anne Lorne Gillies

Birlinn Ltd
West Newington House
10 Newington Road
Edinburgh EH9 1QS
ISBN10 : 84158 018 X
ISBN13 : 978 1 84158 018
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On the opening page of this beautifully produced volume is a Gaelic quotation:

Riaghladh goirid air an or, ach riaghladh fada air an oran
(Shared gold goes not far, but a shared song lasts a long time)
(Carmina Gadelica vol.5 p.62)

These lines enshrine the very spirit of this exciting book. It is an anthology – a very personal anthology from an artist whose whole life has been spent in the spiritual land where these songs were born. It is a collection in word and song that springs from these pages as a vital living thing – by no means the relics of a dead and departed culture as some might have us believe has been the lot of the Gael

What is a Gael? Sorley MacLean’s reply "One who has the language" is the very essence - and there is that subtle inference in the title of this book. It contains a panorama in song - of an ever wider panorama - not of Gaelic songs of Scotland but of the songs of Gaelic Scotland (1) which in breadth, poetic beauty and variety would suggest an indigenous people, living life to the full yet untrammelled by the electronic gadgetry of today. There is humour, there is sorrow, there is love – and there is conflict. There is also a not unexpected ‘earthy’ quality which might even today raise an eyebrow – caithris na h-oidche pp.475-9!

Gaelic song, refusing to be entombed in dusty volumes on darkened shelves, lives happily within this volume which is a joy both to read and to sing. Despite the erudition of its compiler this is no stuffy academic treatise: its purpose, serious enough, discharged with wide-ranging scholarship, yet leavened with Anne Lorne Gillies’s vibrant personality that blows through these pages like the westering wind over the sands and shores (‘Traighean’) of the isles of the West.

It has been done before. In her exhaustive bibliography of around 175 items, there are at least a dozen major collections. But there is not one remotely like this!

If one were to ask the man-in-the-street to mention Gaelic songs only the names of Marjorie Kennedy Fraser and Hugh Roberton might be mentioned – together with the ‘Eriskay Love Lilt’, perhaps the Isle of Mull – and more likely ‘The Road to the Isles’ (sic) or even ‘Campbeltown Loch’!

But here she has selected real treasure! Many will find old favourites as well as never before published songs and tales – all set in a chronology of musical (vocal) expression dating back to the 17th Century - a historical commentary that provides a convincing perspective – and all in a text enlivened by the warm and enthusiastic personality of one who has known her subject and its material since childhood.

After a very informative preface and general introduction the songs, with commentary and translation are divided into sections exemplifying the life of the Gaelic peoples – ‘Songs of the Sea’ – ‘Songs of Clan and Conflict’ – ‘of Land and Exile’ - Songs of Love - ‘of courtship and conviviality’ – that we may read and sing with equal delight, the whole run through with a Celtic undercurrent.

The melodies are followed by the poems – in Gaelic and then in the compiler’s own translation. "I have tried" she writes "... to translate the Gaelic verse in a way which will help to unlock its meaning to non-Gaelic speaking readers without sacrificing every last ounce of poetic style and linguistic nuance. And so wherever possible I have made each line of Gaelic correspond with the same line in English, and chosen word–for-word translations of the Gaelic even when this sounds a little bit stilted, rather than attempt[ting to poeticise the English. But there is simply no substitute for the original." (xvii)

Gaelic song is an oral tradition – and the inflexions in the melodic line are often varied by individual performers and also varied to suit the subject of the particular verse. In performance she follows the golden rule of all Gaelic singing - that is ‘that the singer should sing the words as nearly as possible to the way they would be spoken’ (and the true Gael speaks always with a lovely musical lilt to the voice!)

Gaelic song is an oral tradition and the melody was generally unaccompanied. (In her many recordings Anne has shown great discernment in the provision of accompaniment – usually restricted to clarsach, pipe and fiddle. Nonetheless instrumentation and simple harmony has marked many of the numerous recordings which she instances in her discography.

Inevitably she takes issue with Kennedy Fraser – not so much in the settings themselves which, cloaking the attractive tunes in what was basically a very simple harmony and instrumentation, so delighted the Victorian drawing rooms; but in the violence done to the original melody, smoothing out the decorative embellishments and Celtic ornamentation. (2) A comparison with the popular ‘Eriskay Love Lilt’ of Kennedy Fraser, and the original ‘Gradh geal mo chridh’ makes this abundantly clear.

Altogether this is a book from which Gael and non-Gael alike will derive lasting pleasure. It is a hefty volume, but substantially and beautifully bound in dark buckram. It is good to see the title upright on the spine, for I abhor the gymnastics necessary to find titles on bookshelves that inevitably face the wrong way! The dust cover too is an attractive and appropriate photograph of a lone shieling at Auchindrain in Argyll.

I hear that this book has been awarded the Ratcliff prize for valuable contributions to folk material.

Colin Scott-Sutherland


  1. In the Declaration of Arbroath and the later Treaty of Northampton it is enshrined that the King is thought of as the King of Scots (i.e. of a people) not King of Scotland (as an overlord of land).

  2. Arnold Bax once commented that folk song has been ‘tamed by the professors’


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