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Songs of the Hebrides
And other Celtic Songs from the Highlands of Scotland some collected and all arranged for Voice and Piaonforte by Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser, Gaelic Editor, Kenneth MacLeod (1909)


THE Hebridean Celt is not of them who cannot sing because they are in a strange land; on the contrary, he never really finds his voice until he has wandered far from the Western Sea and the Isles. True, his singing is not always appreciated in his new surroundings, and in that case he goes apart into a quiet nook, near a waterfall, and there, under the stars, croons to himself the music of his folk. And as the old familiar sounds come rolling from the heart to the tongue, and from the tongue to the ear, he is no longer a stranger in a strange land—he is piloting a boat through the Western Sea to the creek in which, as a boy, he bathed, having dived from the flat rock with the queer name. How fragrant the night is now!—just the sort of night that comes fresh from the heart of the Good One. The sail is full of the homeward breeze; the waves leap and lap against the sides of the boat; the stately mountains glide past; the seagulls fly overhead ; the lights along the shore beam softly and kindly, as if in welcome; and, ere long, to the best of luck is added the joy of danger. To the right is the Black Reef, to the left the Death-Rock, and, in the channel between them, the tangle is peeping through. But, there! the steering hand has lost none of its old cunning; a few turns of the helm and the boat heaves through, and is soon bounding into the creek. Across the slippery weed-covered rocks leaps the exile, and before him lies the well-beaten track of his youth, and of his father’s youth. In the passing, he has time to notice the two or three old boats lying upside-down on the beach, and the heaps of mussel and limpet shells near the cottage door, relics of a generation of fishing; and then up goes the door sneck, and into the reek and the light of the peat steps the wanderer. How the kindly folk of the ceilidh spring up! all wonder and gladness, and—Faili air an /hear a thainig dhachaidh—Welcome to the man who has come home. But the night is short and must not be wasted; the man who has come home has much to hear and learn ere the flowing tide floats his boat again. He has forgotten the last three verses of Aiuin Duinn, o hi shiubhlainn leal; he sees here a woman who has good reason to remember them; he must get her to sing the old song, the glory-song of pain, till the lost verses get a grip of his heart. And while he remembers—there is yon queer twirl in luraibh o hi, iuraibh o ho—he must learn it before he leaves. There is another thing too—another thing!—yes, scores and scores of other things, both songs and tales, which, if not picked up now, may go down into the grave to-morrow with this old woman or with that old man. If only time would dawdle a bit in the passing! But time never does when the Celt is supremely happy; and with a start and a shiver, the man who has come home suddenly realises that the ceilidh and the kent faces and the old songs and the Western Sea have all vanished, leaving the stars cold and the air chilly and the waterfall hoarse. And as the exile turns his face towards the home which is not home, his night-wish (and the old folks say that a night-wish always comes true) is something like this : if only the songs and tales of yon ceilidh were gathered into a book, so that they might be safe, for a while at any rate, from the sneaking fingers of that black thief Time !

The writer, as an Islesman, considers it a privilege to have been asked to give a little help in the making of such a book. Such material as he has contributed forms part of a collection of unpublished ballads and legends, partly handed down in his family, and partly picked up by himself in various isles. In the old leisurely days all the folk were collectors, though they knew it not, and as recently as fifteen years ago the gleanings of the past could be picked up with little trouble by youngsters born under a lucky star and on lucky soil—or in the parish of Small Isles

In the middle of the nineteenth century a smack crossed from the Island of Eigg to the mainland once in the week, weather and inclination permitting, for the few letters and the one newspaper brought by the stage-coach from Fortwilliam to Arisaig: about a fortnight later, somebody sailed across from Rum to Eigg to see if any letters had arrived by the packet-boat within the previous month; in the course of another week, more or less, a shepherd from the west side of Rum, looking for stray sheep, unexpectedly found himself in the seaport clachan of Kinloch, and while there might remember to ask if there were any letters for the neighbouring Isle of Canna; on the following day the folk of Canna saw a fire on a certain hill in Rum, a sign that their letters had somehow or other found their way to the shepherd’s house, and some time before the end of the week somebody who had probably never in his life received a letter sailed across the Sound, and returned with the mail-bag as soon as he felt in the mood for returning. Those were the days of song and tale, for no man was the slave of time or of the penny post, and to be in the mood for a thing was but a short step from the thing itself. Canna Isle, now so unknown owing to quicker transport by steamers which are always passing by, was then the midway port between the Outer Isles and the mainland, and, as such, was a veritable mart of lore and music. The folk of the isle never hung pot of fish or potatoes on crook without putting into it the stranger’s share, and seldom, if ever, went that share unclaimed. The herdman, night, which brings all creatures home, brought the boats of all the isles into the harbour; and for kindness received the strangers ever paid handsomely, if not in gold, at any rate in song and tale. The writer owes something to Canna Isle and to the boats which struck sail in its harbour. He owes even more to his native Eigg; the little island, six miles by three and a half, which now dreams, in the Western Sea, of the time when it was an independent kingdom, with a queen of its own! In its day it has been the scene of dark deeds, picturesque ceremonies, and plots without number. The martyrdom of St. Donnan in the sixth century, the crowning of a Lord of the Isles in the fifteenth, and the burning of all the inhabitants by the Macleods of Dunvegan in the sixteenth, are but the outstanding events in the history of an island which for centuries was the recognized centre of the Clanranald territories, and which, further back, in the days of the Island Kingdom, had been a favourite rallying-point for the Western clans, when in the mood for plots. Such a place was the natural home of tale and ballad, and tales and ballads there were, as plentiful as the blaeberries—so plentiful, indeed, that a man might live his full fourscore years in the island, and yet hear something new at the ceilidh every night of his life. The writer was fortunate enough to spend his boyhood in Eigg just before the old order of things had quite passed away. Several of the folk could boast that their parents had been taught a little reading and writing, and a great deal of poetry by Raoghall Dubh, son of the famous bard, Alastair Mac Mhaighstir Alastair; while everybody in the island over sixty years of age had been themselves pupils of Iain og Morragh, poet, musician, dancer, courtier, and, last of all, dominie. Ranald Macdonald is known in Gaelic literature as the compiler of a valuable collection of poems published in 1776, but if the Eigg tradition may be trusted, “Little worth were the things in the book compared with the things which were not there at all; sure, it is books, and books to excess, he might have sent out; never was his kist of meal as full as the one in which he kept the bits of paper and the old skins brimful of writing.” If only the bits of paper and the old skins (probably the missing Clanranald manuscripts) had been preserved

Even more interesting than Ranald Macdonald was Iain Og Morragh. The son of a Skye laird, he spent his early years in a Government situation in London; but high living and a warm heart soon brought him within sight of the debtor’s cell, and to save himself he had to escape to his native Skye, where for the next few years he told and retold wonderful stories of Court life and the Princess Caroline. Eventually his friends got him appointed to the parish school of Small Isles, and there, for over a generation, he played the fiddle, composed and collected! songs, and taught the youth of Eigg the Spanish ambassador’s deportment and the Princess Caroline’s curtsey. “He was a treasure of a teacher,” said one of his old pupils; “on dull or rainy days, his first words to us always were: ‘Ye children of other folk, what brought you here to-day? My curse on gloom! it was ever a bad teacher—let us to the fiddle and the dance.’ And on bright sunny days he was equally sensible: ‘Is it not a great sin, children of my heart, to be packed in this narrow room like puffins in a hole, while the sun is so warm and radiant outside, and the bird-world so frolicsome!’ And, indeed, we were always of the same opinion ourselves, and, in the twinkling of an eye, out we all were on the green sward at the foot of the hill, laughing on the threshold of a beautiful day of song and dance. Och! och! the young, foolish days! But my thousand blessings on Iain Og Morragh—may his soul have found rest  ”Wise old master! if he failed to make the youth of the island bad Saxons, he made them at any rate good Gaels, ready on the slightest provocation to rush into song, and dance, and tale. Eigg was in those days, and until recently, a nest of antique Celticism. Every inch of it was alive with legends and otherworld beings. Mysterious tales made the caves and the kirkyard a terror by night; the sealwoman crooned on the reefs; the mermaid bathed in the creeks; the fairies sang and piped in the knolls; the water-sprite washed in a certain burn the shrouds of the dying; the kelpie hatched plots in the tarns against beautiful maide
ns; the spirits of murdered baby-heirs sobbed in. gloomy nooks; mystic boats, “with a woman in the prow ever weeping, and a woman in the stern ever shrieking,” glided into the bays at twilight; and on the first Monday of each quarter, a fire-ship passed the island at midnight, with “a long lean black creature on board, a fiddle in his hand, and he ever playing, and dancing, and laughing,” while ’tween-decks lost souls clanked their chains, and shrieked, and cursed. Such was the Eigg night under the stars. Within doors, however, at the ceilidh, the folk told the tales and sang the ballads of the Fayne, or of the less ancient heroes, the Lord of the Isles, Macleod of Dunvegan, and “our own treasure, Clanranald,”—with, for Sundays and holy days, beautiful legends of Iona and Oronsay. But ever, whether on holy or on other eve, as midnight drew nearer, the tales and the songs, and the distant roar of the Western Sea grew weirder, until at last song and tale ceased, and the fire smouldered, and the cruisie-light flickered, and the folk whispered, while over the ceilidh crept the shadow of night and the mysteries hiding therein. “Sweet is the lark at dawn,” said the Eigg folk, “but sweeter the cock at midnight.”

There are echoes of other Isles, too, in this book. Eriskay, sacred to the memory of Father Allan Macdonald, makes itself seen and heard in the introduction ; and the music of many isles and many seas lilts and sobs throughout the pages. In Uig, Skye, one may still see the little cottage which gave shelter long ago to the literary legacy brought from Dunvegan by one of Clann a’Chomhairlich, “The Counsellor’s Family,” and carried later to the Island of Eigg by a woman who never forgot song or tale, and whose favourite by-word2 was: “A short giving with the gold, a long giving with the song; not far goes the golden coin in a crowd—to a world of folk goes the song.” In that same cottage is a room in which Janet Macleod and a girl-friend once imprisoned a famous old songstress, the only woman in Uig who knew the spinning-song given in this book; nor did they set her free until they had memorised, behind the barred door, the long tricky chorus. The writer, for one, has reason to bless that little cottage on the shores of the Western Sea. Nor is it the only one. On a certain headland in North Uist there stands a crofter’s house, overlooking a wide ford, beyond which lies a small island utterly unknown to the outside world. “This an inhabited island!” exclaimed a stranger who once found himself there, though how he knew not, “there is nothing here but white sand making a poor attempt to grow sea-bent; a score of solan-geese could eat up the whole place in a week! ” But the solan-geese know better; so also do the women who milk the cattle, and the men who sow and reap the barley, and the lads who ride the sturdy little ponies across the fords. On moonlight nights, if the tide be suitable, the men folk of the little isle cross over to Uist, each going his own way according to the errand he is on, and some time before midnight they all form again in the headland house overlooking the ford. A youth is placed at the western window to watch for the appearing of certain reefs above water—the rider’s reef,t if ponies are handy, the footman’s otherwise ; the rest of the company are in the humour for a ceildih, and if wit and humour, tales old and new, ballads of the brave long ago and satires on the latest wedding or the latest heresy hunt, can make a ceilidh, then here is the best in the Outer Isles—the ceilidh which never yawns. Time and tide are left waiting outside, and the reefs become dry, and wet again, ere the men rise to go; and as the last of them rides or wades across the ford, one feels that here is a world, in the world, of which London is not the centre, and gold not the god, and in which a man has time to remember that he is soul as well as flesh. The writer owes something to the house overlooking the ford. In another isle there stands, or let us say there stood, within sight and sound of the Outer Sea, a tack-house known to a lucky few as the House o’ Music. To a Gael the soil around was historic ; Flora Macdonald had played there in her young days; and in a certain ale-house, the ruins of which were now overgrown with nettles, the Clanranald gentlemen had, in the days of romance, toasted through the long weary years the Old Cause and Our King over the Water. But to get at the secret of the place one had to be a guest in the House o’ Music ; on a lucky night too, when visions could be seen in the peat fire, and when the songs were sung and the tales told by a Celtic patriarch, and by another, a woman pictured in the old lines :—

Bu bhriagh a sheinneadh i chruit,  
Beautiful her music on the harp,

’S gu’m b’ fhearr na sheinneadh, a beus.
Beautifuller than her music, her goodness.

One such night always meant another, and another meant a week, and at the end of that time, if the call of the world had to be obeyed, one left the House with the typical Celtic farewell ringing in one’s ear: “Would it not be the beautiful thing now if you were just coming instead of going!” And the “beautiful thing” always did happen sooner or later, for that is the way of the West —a far wandering perhaps, but aye back to the old tune, and the old friend, and the old isle. As for the House o’ Music, such as knew it and loved it long ago can never keep it out of anything they write. The Western Sea is wide, however, and the Isles are many, and the old life and the weird tales and the queer songs and the sore tunes are all for the wanderer; for him who has sailed in the smacks and crossed by the fords and waited the ferry; who has heard runes chanted to the rising sun and to the new moon; who has seen mysterious rites of healing and saining in the dim crusie-light; who has frequented the midnight ceilidh of many clans and districts; who has helped the folk of the shore-clachan to dig for sand-eels in lonely bays under the full moon; who has spent long evenings with the wandering tribes, in the hazel wood, by the side of the burn; and who has camped out with ancient herdmen whose talk was of the old droving ploys : men mixing their cattle and their oaths at the toll-house, and clinking their glasses and joining in the chorus at the ale-house, on their way, by Kintail and Glengarry, by Lochaber and Rannoch, to the lowland trysts.

Cha robh ceol a sheinneadh eoin   Nor music that birds do sing
Moch no anamoch’s a’ choill,   Late or early in the grove,
Cha robh ceol an caol no ’n cuan   Nor music of sound or sea
Nach cual’ an ridire gun mhaill.   But heard the errant-knight anon.

Nearly all the songs and legends in this book have come from the Northern Hebrides—the Isles to the north of Ardnamurchan Point. This in itself is a confession that, even in the Hebrides, what may be called folk-life is gradually disappearing. “What is a feast for a king?” asks an ancient Gaelic by-word; and the answer is: “The sea-ducks of Colonsay, the harping of Oronsay, and the swelling tunes of Jura.” The king would need, however, to be less aesthetic in these days; he might still, indeed, dine off the sea-ducks of Colonsay, but not even his royal will could command the harping of Oronsay or the swelling tunes of Jura. And, before long, the Northern Isles may be equally barren of traditional music. Already the curious old songs are being forgotten, and in tone and colour, and probably in scale, the airs of the folk are changing.

The songs and legends given in this book then are of a life in the passing, and are such as the folk will recognise as their very own. Incidentally, they give a bird’s-eye view of Gaeldom from the misty beginning to the present time. Fionn, and Diarmad, and Grainne are here; whether they be gods become men, or men become gods, who can decide?—at any rate, they love and hate, plot and weep, at a time when day and night have a mouth, and the birds speak, and the serpent is worshipped, and Hades is terrible, not because of its heat, but because of its biting cold. Here, too, is Iona, teaching truth to the living, chanting consolation to the dying, and battling to the death with paganism for possession of the Isles.

And, as if to show the issue of the struggle, we have also here the salt life which reives and prays with equal vigour—always pagan by day and Christian by night. Here, too, is some of the glamour of Jacobite times; the Silver Whistle calling the Gaels, for the sake of the Old Cause and the honour of the fathers, to Prince Charlie’s side; and Flora Macdonald, in a remote isle, stitching her sampler and making a love-lilt to her sweetheart, and then laying both aside to play with Saxondom for a king’s life. And behind the mythological and historical movements, we find here the common life of the folk; work and love, pain and death; and the worst as well as the best of it set to music. Passing strange that drudgery and pain should rush into music as naturally as the sparks fly upward; that a girl milking a cow, an old dame spinning the wool, men rowing a clumsy fishing-skiff, a woman in tears because a seaman has been drowned— that such things should move the folk to song as easily as the dawn sets the lark trilling or twilight the mavis. To a race with soul, however, there is nothing common or tame in the whole range of life, from birth to death.



Full versions of the Gaelic songs are given when they seem likely to be of literary or historical value; in other cases, only a few of the best verses are given—just enough to serve the singer’s purpose. In the matter of dividing the Gaelic words into syllables, consistency has not been aimed at. For instance, a Highlander would naturally write M6r-ag; but for singing purposes Mo-rag conveys the sound better. In this book both methods have been followed, to show that as yet there is no stereotyped way of “syllabizing ” Gaelic words for musical purposes.

Strathloch, Pitlochrie,
October, 1908.

Songs of the Hebrides (pdf)


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