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Behold the Hebrides
Songs of Labour


LABOUR-SONGS are a distinct characteristic of most early peoples; and all over the world we find that the persistence of rhythm has produced certain well-defined attempts at song-making. Where a number of individuals have been accustomed for centuries to perform exactly the same work at the same time, it is evident that they laboured together to the rhythm of some familiar melody, the time of which was adapted to suit the particular requirements of the task in which they were engaged.

Thus it is more than probable that the ancient Phoenician builders of the Temple at Jerusalem, and the skilled stone-masons who were employed by the Kings of Egypt to construct the great pyramids and the stupendous Temple at Karnak, sang songs so as to secure concerted effort. Otherwise they might never have been able to place their huge monoliths in position at all.

A sense of rhythm exists even among the most primitive peoples. The dance, for example, was always orderly and rhythmical among savages, and was performed to music which was nothing more or less than a series of noises in strict time. The ‘Corroboree Dance’ among the Australian bushmen thus produces a sense of solidarity and determination, and renders the performers capable of acting conjointly and accurately. They dance until they work themselves into hysteria, and often drop down dead with exhaustion rather than betray any signs of fatigue.

Grosse tells us that it would be economically suicidal for primitive communities if such dances and extravagant music which accompanies them served no useful purpose.

Few folks have become more imbued with what the venerable Dean of Lismore terms the ‘tyranny of rhythm’ than have the dwellers in the Western Isles, for their labour-songs are among the finest of Hebridean music. If Samuel Johnson had been as efficient a musician as he was a casual annotator, he would never have displayed his ignorance of Hebridean sea-music by saying that ‘they have now an oar-song in the Hebrides,’ because songs of the sea, such as rowing, rieving, and sailing songs, were sung in the far-off Hebrides many centuries before Dr Johnson was thought of.

Associated with the more domestic forms of labour, we have an endless variety of Hebridean milking and churning croons; while spinning and weaving songs are still very much in evidence throughout the Outer Isles.

Perhaps the most popularly known labour-song in the Hebrides is what we call in Gaelic the 0ran Luaidh. It is sung by the women in the more remote islands when they are waulking or fulling the cloth, an operation to which reference has been made elsewhere. Indeed, in some districts the women are noted for their quaint renderings of waulking songs, the time and phrasing of which are often as irregular as they are unique and interesting.

In the main, however, Hebridean songs of labour are simple and unpretentious. The singers sing them naturally and unaffectedly, and derive as much pleasure from them as they can without making any attempt at being too precise and over-technical.

Simplicity is the essence of all artistic folk-song; and nowhere is this simplicity more naively and ingenuously illustrated than in the humble homes of the Hebridean peasantry.

Picture to yourself the solitary Highland lass whom Wordsworth beheld reaping alone in a western harvest-field one late autumn afternoon. As she reaped she sang a strange little melody, whose melancholy wail filled the poet with such intense emotion that he straightway resolved to record the incident in verse.

He tells us that no nightingale nor cuckoo-bird he had ever heard sang so sweetly as this solitary reaper, who, bending over her sickle, broke ‘the silence of the seas, among the farthest Hebrides.’ ‘Will no one tell me what she sings?’ he inquired impatiently. Wordsworth suggested that the theme of her song might have been sorrow or grief or, perhaps, a tender memory of bygone days. At all events he hearkened to her long, and was loth to pursue his journey, for, although he did not understand the meaning of her lay, he was deeply intrigued and enchanted by it. She sang ‘as if her song could have no ending.’ He watched her long ‘singing at her work, and o’er her sickle bending.’

Eventually the poet wended his way far up the face of the hill, where the melody of the harvest-field lingered with him long after the reaper had ceased to sing.

In his Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland Dr Johnson describes a harvest in a small field in the Island of Raasay, where he observed that the swing of the sickles was regulated by a harvest-song in which all the harvesters took part. ‘They accompany in the Highlands every action, which can be done in equal time, with an appropriate strain, which has, they say, not much meaning, but its effects are regularity and cheerfulness.’

Johnson noted that the Hebrideans invariably sang at their work, and suggested that the ancient proceleusmatic song, which encouraged the rowers of galleys to exert themselves, must have been a refrain of this nature. It is in this passage that he mentions the oar-song already alluded to.

Towards the end of the ‘Choric Song,’ Tennyson speaks of his lotus-eating mariners smiling and discovering

.....a music centred in a doleful song,

Streaming up, a lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong,
Like a tale of little meaning though the words are strong;
Chanted from an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil,
Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil,
Storing yearly little dues of wheat and wine and oil.

I wonder if Tennyson, when likening the sailors’ song to a ‘tale of little meaning,’ had in his subconscious mind the description of the harvest-field in Raasay, where Johnson said the Hebrideans reaped the corn to the rhythm of a strain that had ‘not much meaning.’ It is quite reasonable to suppose, however, that Tennyson may have thought that, as a rule, sailors’ chanties were meaningless; he may never have seen Johnson’s description of the harvest-field in Raasay.

There is no time in the Hebrides; and there is no eight-hour day. The mainstay of the crofter is the harvest of the sea; and his primary toil, therefore, is regulated according to weather conditions. He must labour when the winds and tides are favourable.

Notwithstanding the several economic drawbacks, which are tending gradually to exterminate the people, no one with any sense of poetic charm and beauty would deny that the Hebrides are wrapped in a wild, uncanny mysticism.


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