Silicon Glen, Scotland  > Gaelic song

Traditional Gaelic song and singing sean-nós

I thought I'd write this to help people sing and understand Gaelic song and traditional Gaelic singing better. This article has been praised by various people involved with traditional Gaelic singing, including lecturers and former lecturers at the School of Scottish Studies. Much of what is written here deals with Gaelic song, but in many ways traditional Gaelic singing in Scotland has strong links with traditional Irish singing and traditional Scots singing too so I hope this article is also of interest to traditional singers beyond Scots Gaelic.


For the purposes of singing Gaelic song, I believe there are two main categories:

  1. Dance tunes (puirt) and work songs (includes waulking songs, rowing, reaping and other work songs). Rhythm takes precedence (rhythmic songs)

  2. Everything else (psalms; sean-nós; etc). Gaelic takes precedence. Musically these are not defined rigidly by a fixed rhythm (interpretive songs).

In the first type, the rhythm is paramount. The rhythm must fall at exactly even intervals otherwise the dance won't work, or the work song won't achieve its purpose. This causes "false stresses". In Gaelic, the stress is nearly always on the first syllable. An example of a false stress occurs in the waulking song "Mhurchaidh bhig" (on "Music from the Western Isles"). Gaelic stresses are marked with G, music only with M

GM         GM     GM      GM 
Mhurchaidh Bhig a chinn a chonais
GM   G   M       GM     GM
chan ioghnadh tu dhol a dholaidh

The M by itself causes an unnatural stress on the second syllable of the word "ioghnadh". As this isn't where the Gaelic stress is usually then this is a false stress. However, it is perfectly OK to do this, because this is a rhythmic song and in rhythmic songs the rhythm takes precedence. This rather obvious rule for this type of song is often forgotten in formal Gaelic singing where you get people singing strathspeys you couldn't possibly do a strathspey to and waulking songs with erratic rhythms. The point of puirt is to dance to, not to listen to the lyrics, nor to admire the singer's breath control. Some Gaelic singers treat puirt reels as the singing equivalent of playing the fiddle at top speed and sing at a speed which would be hopeless to dance to. There is thus a strong link between puirt and dancing. Puirt is not limited to Gaelic, there are Scots dance tunes too - "tail toddle" was a puirt used by Ewan MacColl as a test piece. The important thing about this type of song is to not run out of breath so you have to take a big breath at the end of a verse and lose either words or the rhythm. If you can get away with only breathing at the end of a verse or chorus then great - otherwise take small breaths at commas or the end of lines so the rhythm is constant. The step-dancers have really done a great job in linking the fiddle music to dance to produce a constant driving rhythm, the same should apply in song too. Often the lyrics in puirt are silly or meaningless, however they have often been skillfully chosen to blend with the tune of the puirt and complement it.

For interpretive songs, the Gaelic always takes precedence. The music gives you the notes, the Gaelic the note lengths. False stresses are always wrong in this type of song. In this category the timing of the song may vary (Uamh an Oir - Cave of Gold; Tocher 47) the timing changes between 6/8, 2/4 and 5/8, sometimes only for a few notes. This is fairly common in traditional singing. Again Gaelic formal competition singing unfortunately breaks this rule frequently. Take the tune well known to pipers "Tuireadh Iain Ruaidh" (Lament for Red Iain). The music I have is pipe music to which words have been added. The music hasn't been altered to fit the words and so most people sing this in a musical, but un-Gaelic style as the rhythm does not fit the language and there are false stresses. The opening two words are "thug" (assigned a minim) and "thu" (assigned a crotchet). The key to singing interpretive songs is to speak the words and listen to the lengths you give the words. Then use this to phrase the music, whilst keeping the actual written note values. So for this song, the phrasing is more like rest-quaver-quaver or possibly rest-crotchet-crotchet but certainly not minim-crotchet as that's not the way people would say the words. Hence the way a Gaelic speaking piper would play this may well be different to a non-Gaelic speaking piper who simply has the music to go by.

Not only did pipe music adopt untraditional stresses when words were added, but songs and tunes also adopted untraditional stresses when they were written down and used in competitions. This is mentioned in Morag MacLeod's chapter on Gaelic song in "The Democratic Muse" when she writes

"This became an annual, competitive event known as the National Mod. Unfortunately, since few or no Gaels were musically literate, the music for these competitions was written by outsiders, and the performances were judged by outsiders. It takes a long, long time to learn about a different musical tradition. These people thought - we are all British after all - that it was easy. Scales and rhythms were adapted to the well-tempered Western European norm. They probably decided that deviations from this were just native errors."

Also notable about interpretive songs is that grace notes seem to be much more common in this type of song than in the fixed-metre rhythmic songs. Grace notes are a personal thing and Lewis singers tend to use more than most, but unless you were trying to copy a piobaireachd exactly, grace notes are entirely up to the individual in Scots Gaelic singing - a complete contrast to Irish Gaelic singing where they seem far more widespread. Irish Gaelic singing is completely dominated by freeform songs (seann-nós), whereas Scots Gaelic has both fixed-metre work/dance songs as well as freeform. Work songs are very rare in Irish singing.

Besides using language rules to determine how to sing a particular song, it's also been suggested that the unwritten voiced vowel (called svarabhakti) is thought to have influenced music and given rise to the "Scotch-snap" which prevails in strathspeys (see Shaw p44-46 in references at end). I'm unconvinced of this theory - while double syllable Gaelic words such as "orm" & "agam" fit this snap well, so do many double syllable Scots pronounced words such as "barn", "farm" etc. The svarabhakti also exists in Italian. Why should the strathspey form originate in Gaelic as opposed to Scots and why is it such a relatively recent form? I favour more the explanation that puirt-a-beul was mostly composed as an aid to remembering pipe tunes - a ceol-beag version of cainntaireachd. Although people could dance to puirt-a-beul, in practice this was rarely done. Combined with the fact that very few puirts have a known author this would seem to back up the theory that puirt was a "throwaway" invented as a memory aid by pipers and was not particularly worthy of putting your name to.

Some hints

Regarding rendering a song, there are two main rules I go by:

  1. Assume your audience knows Gaelic, even if they don't. Therefore you have to be authentic in your pronunciation and respect the stresses and syllable lengths of the words despite what the music says. Assuming the audience knows Gaelic (even though they usually don't) means that you can't be careless with pronunciation. Karen Matheson in Capercaillie (an advanced learner) does an excellent job of delivering the vocabulary authentically, as does Mairi Sine Lamond (also a learner). The Rankin Family on the other hand do not. I suspect the Rankins would sell fewer records if more people spoke Gaelic. Karen Matheson is an excellent singer, technically extremely proficient however I keep getting the feeling that she sings a bit too high for her voice as she lacks a something of the breadth of tone found in other singers such as Christine Primrose and Donnie Murdo MacLeod.

  2. Cater for the people who don't know Gaelic. You can render a song with any particular arrangement you like - modern or old or on any sort of instrument and the golden rule is "absolutely anything works provided it doesn't distract the audience". So for me, singing a waulking song with an irregular rhythm is a distraction as is bad Gaelic. So is giving a song an inappropriate treatment and here's where the non-Gaelic speakers come in. Delivery of lyrics consists of using words to express the thoughts and particularly emotions present in the writer's mind when they wrote the song. The emotions should still carry even though the lyrics may not be understood. When Mac-talla sing "Griogal cridhe" (a modern version of Cumha Ghriogar - Gregor's lament) you know it's a sad song even if you don't understand Gaelic, a great arrangement. When the Rankins sing "Mo run geal dileas" it becomes a skipping song rather than a song about someone on his deathbed. I get distracted by the lyrics clashing with the arrangement, hence it doesn't work for me. Similarly their recent "ho-ro mo nighean donn bhoidheach" usually gets a quick treatment however as a love song, would suit a slow treatment too. The Rankins however slow it rather much, to a speed more suitable for the chap on his deathbed on "mo run geal dileas". Mary and Rita Rankin sing "Chi mi'n Geamhradh" (a song about one lover sadly leaving at the end of summer) as if it's a march! So, when someone's sung a song, as a non Gaelic speaker about what they thought the song was about emotionally and see how close they get. Even try singing the words in English if there's a version available and if the arrangement doesn't work in English, don't think you can get away with the same arrangement in Gaelic just because less people speak the language - word will soon get out! A good example of this is the musical climax on the line "mo leabaidh dean suas" in the popular song "An Aitearachd Ard" (the great sea surge). In Gaelic "mo leabaidh dean suas" means "make up my bed" and is a metaphor in this song for "prepare my grave". There is no way you'd ever put stress on a line like this in English, yet many people put stress on this line because it seems to fit the music. They are merely showing they don't understand what it is they're singing about. Isbhel MacAskill does a lovely version of this song and puts the right emphasis on this song, which is about homesickness and dying. The way most people sing this is like the sea beating on the shore - I suspect though that the song was written from the dying person's point of view rather than the sea's! For work songs, this rule can be bent however, many waulking songs may be musically cheerful but deal with death, despair and so on. The reason for this apparant contradiction is that of course the primary function of a work song is to work to and the story of the lyrics takes second place.

    For the Scots tradition, a little easier to understand for non-Gaelic speakers, I would recommend Dick Gaughan. He's the best example I know of someone who sounds emotionally in touch with the true meaning of the lyrics and convinces the audience of the power of the song. Each interpretation is authentic and original and true to the lyrics and it is quite possible to believe it was Dick himself who experienced the events rather than the author of the song.


Another pitfall is oversinging. Many Mod performances and some recordings (e.g. Griogal Cridhe on the Whistlebinkies 'Inner Sound') are just over the top. Many Gaelic songs are folk songs written by ordinary people, not opera pieces written by classical composers. Sure there is classical Gaelic singing and the "oran mórs" which are musically and lyrically more challenging but try to be true to the song and the tradition not a classical singer unconnected with Gaelic. Listen to some of the well known singers such as Calum Kennedy, William Matheson, Ishbel MacAskill, Art Cormack, Christine Primrose, Cathy-Anne MacPhee, Flora MacNeill, Iain MacKay, Paul MacCallum, Kenna Campbell, Mary Smith, Mary Anne Kennedy, Donnie Murdo MacLeod, Murdo MacDonald, Norman MacLean, Finlay MacNeil, Ann Martin, Margaret Stewart, Julie Fowlis and hear the emotions being conveyed and the authenticity and uniqueness of the rendition. There are also up and coming stars with excellent Gaelic such as Rich Hill (of Keltoi) and Mairi Sine Lamond who are definitely worth listening to. For groups, I would recommend Runrig (Gaelic rock), Capercaillie, Sileas (Clarsach) and Manran.

Try and find a class by an established Gaelic singer or Gaelic song teacher such as Morag MacLeod, Morag worked at the School of Scottish Studies, part of Edinburgh University or Dr Margaret MacKinnon who has coached a large number of solo singers to victory at the National Mod. Note that my list of "greats" includes people who have recorded since the 1970's. There were great singers before them, (e.g. Angus Macleod, Morag's brother) but I don't know as much about those singers. Take care when looking at singers from earlier times though as some of them may have been influenced by fashions of the time or leftovers from Victorian Celtic-twilight nonsense. The White Heather Club and Music Hall were quite prominent earlier this century and you need to be sure that what some people regard as being good Gaelic singing then really was authentic Gaelic singing and not someone pandering to commercial fashions at the time.


Some notes on style. Lots of people think that a nasal style is the only way to do authentic Gaelic singing, particularly for men. I disagree. A nasal style is a valid style but so is an open style. Personally, I think a nasal style is often used by people who incorrectly think that's the only way to sing traditional Gaelic songs, or to try to cover up weaknesses in their voice. Some Eastern European singing which I've done is very nasal, far more so than Gaelic but that is part of that tradition. In Gaelic, both open and nasal styles are valid and the open styles seem to be much more popular with the leading singers, e.g. Cathy-Anne MacPhee, Art Cormack, Ishbel MacAskill. Do what suits your voice. The highly ornamental and nasal style in Irish sean-nós singing is closely related to pipe music, and the tendency to maintain a note in sean-nós singing at the end of lines seems to imply a continuous note throughout, like a drone. Perhaps this is related to the nasal style in Scots Gaelic singing.

Be careful if you're a man and singing a woman's song that this is really what you want to do and vice versa. It isn't necessarily wrong, but it is wrong to not know if you're singing a man's or woman's song as it'll affect the way you tell the story of the lyrics. Some people call all waulking songs women's songs - this isn't strictly true as although it was women's work in Scotland, waulking was done predominantly by men in Nova Scotia (although it is called "milling" there). Continuing from what was said earlier about puirt being written as a memory aid by pipers, it would seem likely that most of the authors of puirt were men. It is a little surprising therefore that puirt these days is particularly popular with women singers and male solists tend to prefer other styles of song.

Top 20

Finally, please avoid the Gaelic "top 20". If you were recording in English, would you want to do a song which has already been recorded umpteen times? If not, why do it in Gaelic - Gaelic audiences deserve no less than English audiences. This means avoid "Fear a' bhàta", "Mile marabhaisg air a' ghaol" and "An Aitearachd Ard" for instance. Tocher is an excellent source of material much of which has not been made commercially available on record yet. The School of Scottish Studies has 8,000 tapes recorded since 1951 and manuscripts going back hundreds of years. There is plenty of material out there, including tobar an dualchais, so don't just copy what's on someone else's album! If you want to hear traditional Scottish singing, try getting the Scottish Tradition series of recordings available from Greentrax records. If you'd like to subscribe to Tocher, there's more information on this page at the top. If you're looking for recently written material, I'd recommend Eilidh MacKenzie as the finest young composer of traditional Gaelic songs today. Some of the earlier Runrig material is also good. Another excellent source of material is the tapes of the sean-nós final at the National Mod - the songs at this competition are the competitor's own choice and are all previously unpublished. These tapes can be obtained by writing to:
An Comunn Gaidhealach, Balnain House, 40 Huntly Street, Inverness, IV1 1EY. Phone: 01463 709705 Fax: 01463 715557109

I hope this article has been of interest and use. Please send any comments on it to me at the e-mail address below.


Thanks to Allan MacDonald and Art Cormack for some initial information which helped me to write this article.

Further Reading

I couldn't find many books on Scottish Gaelic singing, but the two Irish books below have some relevant information for Gaelic singers, particularly the Ossian publications one.

Celtic line graphic

Craig Cockburn

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