Article on Gaelic puirt-a-beul (mouth music)

Illustrated via the song 'S ioma rud a dhith orm (other titles: Mòr a' Cheannaich, Domhnall dubh an Domhnallaich)

By Craig Cockburn for The Adult Learning Project, Scots Music Group

For further information. I have also written an article on traditional Gaelic singing in general which you might also find interesting.

'S ioma rud a dhith orm is a Gaelic puirt-a-beul. Puirt = tunes, beul = mouth. The literal translation is "mouth tunes" although it is usually written as "mouth music" in English. This port is a Strathspey, a form of music native to Scotland, for the origins see this explanation of the Strathspey from Reeling in the Strathspey (Will Lamb) and The origins of Scotland's national Music (Will Lamb). Puirt-a-beul is a song written primarily for dancing to. The lyrics are of secondary importance - the rhythm in this song is the most important aspect and takes precedence over the rhythm and stresses of the Gaelic. The lyrics in puirt (plural of the word port = dance tune) are often humorous, frivolous or meaningless vocables, but nonetheless have been carefully crafted to make the rhythm of the song work correctly. In MacCormaig's 'Hebridean Waulking Songs' it was stated that the order in which such vocables are sung is what identifies each waulking song from every other waulking song, and determines how it is sung, and not the verses. Hence, the 'refrain' is the key to each song, and carries a kind of 'oral code' from which the singers derive the way to sing each song, perhaps the same is also true of Puirt a beul vocables. Some Gaelic singers do not believe in publishing translations of puirt-a-beul. This song though is probably from Lewis and has been popularised by appearing on several albums (e.g. Capercaillie's Crosswinds) . The origins of puirt are unclear and are often thought to have resulted from the banning of pipes after the 1745 uprising - even though there is no basis for this assumption, or the religious opposition to musical instruments (at its height in the mid 19th century). It is important to realise how interwoven puirt-a-beul is with both fiddling and various forms of dance - the song, tune and dance all go together as an entity. In Cape Breton, the Gaelic speaking fiddlers all know the words to the songs they play. For these musicians, puirt-a-beul is not a substitute for fiddling but an inseparable component of it. For you can't know a tune properly (i.e. with its inherent Gaelic rhythm intact) unless you know the words which give it that rhythm. This is why many fear for the future of Cape Breton fiddling, which seems so strong with so many talented young fiddlers around. Puirt was not used only for step dances (see here for a example of Step Dancing) but for country dances as well-there are tunes and tempos for jigs, reels and Strathspeys. There is a Cape Breton dance and port about a loom weaving. In this dance, the dancers are squatted or crouched and leap up to simulate the rise and fall of the harnesses on the loom, whilst others weave in and out to indicate the shuttle flying back and forth. In Cape Breton people also perform step dances around a row of lighted candles, which they extinguish one by one with the soles of their feet while dancing.

Following the persecution and ethnic cleansing of Scots to other parts of the colonies (often referred to as "The Clearances") puirt has spread beyond Scotland, Ireland and Nova Scotia to other parts of the world and is said to have influenced Appalachian music and bluegrass. For examples of puirt from many cultures, see the Celtic Mouth Music record

Christine Primrose has recorded the song with "Mac-talla". Mouth Music got it from a 78 recording by Calum Cameron. Calum is active in the Edinburgh Gaelic scene. Mac-talla are the particularly good group for traditional Gaelic song and their renditions of puirt-a-beul are excellent.

The song is sung by repeating each verse followed by the chorus twice. There are two "versions" to the song. One version has mostly vocables or nonsense words for the chorus except when the chorus is sung for the second time, the last line of the chorus is replaced by the last line of the previous verse. This is the version recorded by Capercaillie and Mac-talla. The other version has real words for the chorus and the chorus does not change after each verse. This is the version in "Eilean Fraoich" and the Mod music. The tune itself is published under three titles - 's ioma rud a dhith orm (= I need many things), Mór a' Cheannaich (Morag, daughter of the merchant) and Domhnall dubh an Domhnallaich (black haired Donald MacDonald). Mórag is cognate with the English name "Sarah". The alternate forms, Morag, Moraig and Mhorag are simply different grammatical uses of the same name.

In the Mod music, this song is followed by a reel Mur a bitheadh Domhnull. This is another Lewis song, also available in the book "Eilean Fraoich".

The Lyrics

These lyrics are a compilation of all the lyrics I know. I have retained the acute accents (which were officially abolished by the Scottish Education Dept in the 1990s) as I believe they help learners understand the pronunciation.

Rann 1/Verse 1

'S ioma' rud a dhìth orm
	        There are many things which I need (ioma' is short for iomadh) 
A dh' fheumainn fhìn mu'n dčanainn banais 
					     Before I can have a wedding feast
'S ioma' rud a dhìth orm		    There are many things which I need 
A dh' fheumainn fhìn mu'n pòsainn 	              Before I can get married


I bhi a bhi ù bhi à bhi
	   (eevee ahvee oovee ahvee   -- meaningless vocables, quite common in 
						     choruses of puirt-a-beul)
Air do shlaint' a Mhór a' Cheannaich!
			       To your health, Morag, daughter of the merchant
I bhi a bhi ù bhi à bhi 				(meaningless vocables)
Siud ort fhéin a' Mhórag!				  Here's to you, Morag

Rann 2/Verse 2

(this is the chorus in the other "Mod" arrangement)
Fàinneachan is grìogagan				       Rings and beads
A bheirinn fhinn do Mhór a' Cheannaich	     I would give to Mor a' Cheannaich
Fàinneachan is grìogagan				       Rings and beads
A bheirinn fhinn do Mhórag				 I would give to Morag

Rann 3/Verse 3

Domhnall dubh an Domhnallaich	       Black (haired) Donald of the MacDonalds
       (Note: Domhnallach is a more usual way of saying "MacDonald" in Gaelic)
A nochd an tòir air Mór a' Cheannaich
				    Is tonight chasing after Mor a' Cheannaich
   (Toir, meaning to chase or pursue is the source of the English word "Tory")
Domhnall dubh an Domhnallaich   			Black Donald MacDonald
A nochd an toir air Móraig    			Is tonight chasing after Morag

Rann 4/Verse 4

Aonghas Mac-a'-Phìobaire 			       Angus, son of the Piper
'S e fhéin a' strì ri Mór a' Cheannaich
			      It's he who is struggling with Mor a' Cheannaich
Aonghas Mac-a'-Phìobaire 			       Angus, son of the Piper
'S e fhéin a' strì ri Móraig		  It's he who is struggling with Morag

Rann 5/Verse 5

Dh'oladh sinn is dhannsadh sinn				We drank and we danced
Air oidhche banais Mór a' Cheannaich		 On the night of Mor's wedding
Dh'oladh sinn is dhannsadh sinn				We drank and we danced
Air oidhche banais Mórag		       On the night of Morag's wedding

Rann 6/Verse 6

Dh' aindeon 's dé na chuala mi			       Despite what I've heard
Cha toir mi fuath do Mhór a' Cheannaich		I won't hate Mor a' Cheannaich
Dh' aindeon 's dé na chuala mi			       Despite what I've heard
Cha toir mi fuath do Mhóraig				    I won't hate Morag

Published sources

"Tog fonn!", Gaelic songs and dance tunes, Taigh na Teud, Breacais Ard, Skye (words and music, no translation)
"Eilean Fraoich", Lewis Gaelic songs and Melodies, published by Acair, Stornoway (words and music, no translation)
An Comunn Gaidhealach, music for 1994 Royal National Mod puirt-a-beul competition. Arranged for 4 part choir, (words and music, no translation). Contact An Comunn Gaidhealach, Balnain House, 40 Huntly Street, Inverness, IV3 5HR.


Capercaillie, "Crosswinds" album (Green Linnet)
Sileas, "Beating Harps" album (Green Linnet)
Mac-talla, "Mairidh gaol is ceol" (Temple)
Mouth Music, "Mouth Music" (Triple Earth)

A correct pronunciation of the words of the song is possibly available from the Lothian Gaelic choir in Edinburgh. The choir sang this song at the 1994 Royal National Mod in Dunoon.

Notes by Craig Cockburn when he was a member of Scots Songs and Ballads Group, The Scots Music Group, The Adult Learning Project, Edinburgh and joint Director, The Gaelic Learners' Association, Inverness. First published 1993.

Further Reading
Education Scotland
BBC Bliadna nan Oran (year of song)
Large collection of puirt a beul lyrics

Thanks also to Nicholas Freer, Eosa O' Murchu and Colin Campbell who helped with the research and all those on Gaelic-L!

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