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An Introduction to the Gaelic Music Tradition


Copyright © 2000 Michael Newton 
(Adapted from Féis Bhostoin 2000 booklet) 
Last update: May 9, 2000
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Although there are not as many materials about early Gaelic society as we would like, we do have descriptions of life in the Highlands and Islands which were written by natives, other descriptions written by travelers, and brief snapshots in Gaelic poetry.

The most elegant celebrations of song, music, and dance were in communal halls of the Highland chiefs while they were still connected to their people (that is, before the dismantling of Gaelic society in 1746 and thereafter): 

When the Hebridean chiefs and captains returned home after a successful expedition, they summoned their friends and clients to a grand entertainment. Bards and shennachies flocked in from every quarter; pipers and harpers had an undisputed right to appear on such public occasions. The bards sung and the young women danced... The whole tribe filled the Chieftain's hall.

Song and music were present at nearly all times in people's lives, whether they were at work or at rest. Reapers swung their scythes to the rhythm of the songs that they sang, and at other times they were spurred on by a bagpiper playing in the middle of the field with them; men rowing boats sang choral songs to keep time on the oars; women fulling cloth sang songs to pass the hours and to keep the movement of the cloth synchronized with one another; and so on. No matter what the task - grinding corn, spinning wool, milking the cow, or churning butter - there was a selection of songs that accompanied the activity and matched the speed at which it was done. There were also songs sung to soothe the restless child, and songs sung to put adults to sleep, and music played to wake one in the morning.

A male choral song was generally called an iorram, and this was later most specifically applied to rowing songs. The heavily-rhythmic songs that women sang while fulling cloth are called òrain lu(adh)aidh. A song with a group chorus was generally called a luinneag, and these were very popular at gatherings. An account from the latter half of the eighteenth century tells us about how people entertained themselves at the céilidh, when people would gather together at a neighborhood house. These were generally held in the winter months: 

Their luinneags, with the chorus of the band, are inconceivably agreeable to the ear; and the manner of turning the hands and handkerchiefs, when united in the circle, is no less entertaining to the eye. Vocal and instrumental music make up their entertainments. In their agility in the dance, they stand almost unrivalled by any people. In Lewis... they are animated with such life as to meet in companies, regularly every week, at stated places, where both young and old take their turn at this agreeable pastime; when they exercise themselves with amazing alertness and spirit. Their musicians receive regular salaries. The violin is more used on these occasions than the small pipes. This last, with the great pipe, is mostly used in the field, at weddings, funerals, and other public meetings.

This account is also important because it tells us that violins, small pipes, and the Highland bagpipes were all played in Gaelic society, and it implies that there was no fundamental difference between the repertoires of these instruments. 

All sorts of things could happen at the céilidh house: people sang songs, played music, danced, challenged each other with riddles, told legends, related folktales, recounted anecdotes from their lives, discussed genealogy, debated community issues, and made plans for the future. It was a traditional Highland education, in which everyone of all ages participated and had something to contribute. This allowed the collective wisdom and value system to be transmitted from one generation to the next, and it gave a sense of collective purpose and identity to young and old. 

An early nineteenth-century writer recounts the Gaelic passion for music and dance: 

...they were, and still are, enthusiastically fond of music and dancing, and eagerly availed themselves of every opportunity of indulging this propensity. Possessing naturally a good ear for music, they displayed great agility in dancing. Their music was in unison with their character. They delighted in the warlike high-toned notes of the bagpipes, and were particularly charmed with solemn and melancholy airs, or Laments (as they call them) for their deceased friends... while their sprightly reels and strathspeys were calculated to excite the most exhilarating gaiety, and to relieve the heart from the cares and inequities of life.

We occasionally have such scenes depicted in Gaelic poetry, as in this song from early nineteenth-century Lochaber: 

An uair a dh'éireadh còisridh bu choinnealt 
A dhanns' gu lùthmhor ri pronnadh nam pong, 
Gum b'éibhinn cridhe do mhnà-comuinn, 
Do chròilein mhaoith, 's iad gu tomanach donn; 
A ghearradh leum air bhòrd loma, 
Dol seach a chéile mar ghoireadh am fonn... 

When the brilliant company would arise 
To dance vigorously to the pounding of the notes, 
It would warm the heart of the female company, 
The tender circle of them with their bushy, brown hair; 
Who would leap on bare wooden floors, 
Passing each other as the music called for it... 

What is the connection between song, music, and dance?

When we investigate any culture's musical tradition, we should first study its folksong tradition: the voice is the most fundamental musical instruments, and most folk music has its origins in song traditions. This, in turn, has its basis in language. 

One of the special features of Gaelic is its time-significant vowel system. Vowels can either be short or long in the amount of time that they are held, and these lengths are semantically significant: the only different between bàta [boat] and bata [stick] is that the former has an initial
'a'-sound which is held longer than the latter. 

This vowel system, along with the obligatory initial-syllable stress, forces speech utterances to conform to a particular rhythmic pattern. This contributes to Gaelic's characteristic cadences and speech rhythms. 

Contrary to popular belief, music is not a 'universal language', but is culturally-specific. It can vary widely in form, content, style, and purpose in different societies. We must not blindly accept the aesthetics of Western Art Music, the dominant musical tradition in Europe for several centuries, if we are to understand the music of other cultures with different musical traditions. 

The first thing to be noted is that virtually all Gaelic poetry was meant to be chanted or sung, and thus there is no fundamental distinction between poetry and song. The same words were used for the poems and songs, and for performing them. 

Another important concept is that people sang songs because they wanted to communicate specific thoughts about their communities and the issues that were important to their communities. The Gaelic poet and performer had a social responsibility to engage with their society and to give it a voice. Songs had a social purpose and were functional in everyday life, they were not prized merely for their aesthetic beauty. As one nineteenth century song collector noted, 'The words occupy the first place, the music only the second... The words and music implicitly follow the idiosyncrasies of the language.' 

Many of the most characteristic Scottish melodies are Gaelic in origin, and even famous Lowland songsters such as Robert Burns set his songs to Highland melodies. Even though many of these Gaelic tunes made their way to the Lowlands from the seventeenth century onwards, their characteristics kept them recognizable, as Martin Martin assures us: 

There are several of 'em who invent Tunes very taking [ie, popular] in the South of Scotland and elsewhere: some Musicians have endeavoured to pass for first Inventers of them by changing their Name, but this has been impracticable; for whatever Language gives the modern Name, the Tune still continues to speak its true Original: and of this I have been shew'd several Instances.

Some of the songs contain vocables, which are sounds without any semantic meaning. They are, however, not just random, but are significant as mnemonics for remembering the melody, and they appear in song choruses and in canntaireachd, the traditional aural notations used for representing and teaching bagpipe music. Margaret Fay Shaw, who collected folksongs in the 1930s, tells us: 

Folktunes cannot be noted down correctly unless one understands the language in which they are sung. The short and long vowels, the stressed syllables and the contractions form the length of the notes of the tune. I never heard my friends in Glendale hum or sing an old tune without words. To them the words and the air were inseparable. I once mentioned that I thought a neighbour had the air of a song, and the reply was, 'How could she have the air and not the words?'

Because the Gaelic words so accurately represented the rhythms of the tunes with which they were associated, Gaelic songs could be used to teach and remember tunes. There is a genre of Gaelic song called port-à-beul, literally meaning 'a tune from the mouth', which is the song equivalent of instrumental music such as reels and strathspeys. There are many such songs, some of them ribald, some of them ridiculous, but all of them fun and suitable for dancing.  

A nineteenth century song collector advises his readers to learn these songs if they want to learn authentic Highland melodies: 

'Every old reel and strathspey, being originally a port-à-beul, has its own words. Now, if you wish to play with genuine taste, keep singing the words in your mind when you are playing the tune.'

It is interesting to note that these puirt-à-beul are not properly considered songs in Cape Breton tradition, as they are deceptively simple, even childish, mnemonics for melodies. This is also a reflection of the high standards that people had for good poetry and the richness of the song tradition which had hundreds of songs in the repertoire. 

Because the song style and the musical style are so closely related, it has been observed that proficiency in the Gaelic language is almost a prerequisite for being able to mastering the genuine Highland musical style: 

One endearing charm of our Scottish music lies in the fact that the words associated with each particular air are inseparably interwoven with them. It is a common belief that no piper who cannot speak Gaelic can ever acquire any efficiency on the instrument.

The correspondence between song words and melody is strengthened by the belief that instruments can be used to communicate: 

Of old the Highlands believed that their pipers could actually communicate all requisite tidings by making the instrument almost speak the same as if by words. There are several traditions of parties having been rescued from danger and death by the distant warning notes of the pìob mhòr. In this there is nothing incredible to any who know the surprising execution with which pipers of skill can handle their chanters.

A great compliment to a fiddler was that he was able to make his fiddle as expressive as the human voice in conveying the emotion and message of the song he was playing. One nineteenth-century writer said of a fiddle player, 'I never heard any one who could make the fiddle speak Gaelic so beautifully!' 

Thus the song style has created the distinctive Highland musical idiom, whether one plays it on the pipes, fiddle, or any other musical instrument. This does not mean, however, that all tunes necessarily have associated words, only that the idiom has in its origins a close association between natural speech rhythms and musical style. Someone who is well versed in this idiom can still composed music in it without being a Gaelic speaker him or herself. 

Allan MacArthur, who was one of the last Gaels in the immigrant community of Newfoundland, explains the importance of dance in the musical idiom: (when interviewed by folklorist Margaret Bennett in the 1960s):

A lot of them tunes that they played, the old people... they used to know them in Gaelic, you see. They would sing it and then play it for step-dancing. When you know the words and the air of that, that's just as good as the [written] notes, pretty near. I couldn't play by note, but by ear, you see. But for fast tunes, and the old tunes, and when you know the Gaelic words of it, well you had the run of it, you see, if you were to keep time for the step-dance.

Thus the timing of dance was also an important regulator for Gaelic musical style. 

What are the origins of Gaelic dance traditions?

Song and dance are virtually universal features of folk cultures, although each culture may have its own unique style and means of expression. 

It has been noted that the words for dance in various forms of Gaelic, rince and dannsa, are borrowings from French. The word for reel, ruidhle, is likely to be Northern English in origin. This does not mean that there was no tradition of dance in Gaelic society previous to these mainstream European social customs, but rather that there was a perceived difference to previous Gaelic concepts of what dance was. 

Like many other cultures, the early Gaelic form of dance was a sort of ritual drama, performed at seasonal festivals or during other ritual activities. A death-and-resurrection dance drama called Cailleach an Dùdain appears to have been primarily associated with Michaelmass, and another dance commonly called Croit an Droighinn which was performed at harvest. Warriors performed the sword dance to demonstrate their agility, and it had magical implications. A number of the dramatic dances in fact imitate animals and emphasize the physical strength and dexterity of the dancers, which is common in the dance traditions of many cultures. A special dance of mourning was danced at funerals. 

Social dancing was an innovation of French court culture which eventually made its way across Europe during the medieval period. Unlike dramatic dances, it emphasized the courtly ideal and courtship, and was associated with good manners and education. In this style of dancing people moved silently in time to the regular beat of the music according to pre-ordained patterns on the ground. This type of social dance probably came to Scottish and Irish Gaeldom in the seventeenth century, when the fiddle and appropriate dance music seems to have been introduced. In the process of adapting itself to Gaelic society, this music soon took on the features of the Gaelic musical idiom described in the section above. 

Just as the isolated regions of the Highlands and Islands could develop their own dialects and other distinctive traits, so did the evolving dance tradition differ slightly from place to place. A traveler records of a visit in Argyllshire in 1784: 

So goodly a scene and so mostly a set excelled anything I had before met with. They were dancing a country dance when we entered. They company consisted of about fourteen couples, who all danced the true 'Glen [Orchy] kick.' I have observed that every district of the Highlands has some peculiar cut; and they all shuffle in such a manner as to make the noise of their feet keep exact time.

We don't have very much detailed information about the foot or body movements of dancers and how they performed their dances, but we have occasional intriguing references such as the following: 

Tha a h-uile té cho togarrach 
'S i bogadh ris na beiririch 
'S gun dannsadh i cho sodanach 
'S ged bhiodh i pronnadh eiririch.

Every woman is light-hearted 
As she shakes to the beiririch; 
She would dance as blithely 
As if she were breaking grain seed with her feet.

Sometimes poetry mention the fact that dances have been taught by dancing schools or dancing masters, and as such dances demonstrate a person's gentility and physical prowess. 

Chì mi thall an dannsa 's Griogar ann 
'S ann 's an Sgoil-Dannsa fhuair e na Cigichean, 
Mur bithinn gu tinn gun cluichinn-sa figure ris...

I see Gregor over there in the dancing 
He learned those kicks in the dancing school, 
And if I weren't so sick I would play a figure for him...

While most people lived in simple houses with dirt floors, some of the chieftains had halls with wooden floors. Only such floors would provide the bounce and spring conducive to the rhythmic motion of step-dancing, and we see such floors celebrated in songs to noblemen. In one such example, we also have the small pipe and great pipes depicted as providing the musical accompaniment: 

Daoin' uaisle mu bhòrdaibh dùmhail, 
Ruidhleadh mu seach air an ùrlar, 
Le pìob bheag nam feadan siubhlach 
Le pìob mhòr nam feadan dùmhail...

High-born folks about the tightly-packed planks 
Reeling in turn on the floor, 
With the small pipes of swift drones 
With the big pipes of dense drones...

The ability of everyone in Cape Breton to have floors made of thick planks of wood, since trees were so plentiful, would have been conducive to developing step-dance techniques, as would have hard-soled shoes. The Gaels of the Highlands did not wear shoes often, and hard soles came fairly late. Thus, we should not assume that step-dance in immigrant communities such as Cape Breton did not diverge from its origins in the Scottish Highlands. 

It is very common in folk cultures for music and dance to be simply done, rather than analyzed and scrutinized with complex terminology. This in general is the case with the Gaelic oral tradition, although some terms for dancing steps have survived. Here are a few of them as preserved in Scotland: 

Ceum-siubhail: Forward step, common in promenades and figures. 
Ceum-coisiche: Setting step. 
Leum-trasd: Cross-spring. 
Siabadh-trasd: Chasing-steps, or cross-slips. 
Aiseag-trasd: Cross-passes. 
Ceum-Bàideanach: An old step once popular in Badenoch. 
Fosgladh: Open-step. 
Cuartag: Turning-step. 

Why did the Gaelic musical tradition decline?

It is useful to look at Gaelic oral tradition as an integrated system of song, music, and dance, and other genres, united by language. With this approach, we can better understand how the different genres operated when Gaelic society was functioning as a healthy unit, and how it declined when Gaelic society came under attack. 

Gaels in Scotland were subject to influence from forces in British society which did not always affect Gaelic communities abroad, such as in Cape Breton. This often allowed such immigrant communities to maintain aspects of tradition in a less 'tampered' form than what survived in Scotland. The poverty and massive emigration out of Canadian Gaelic communities, however, eventually took the a toll on communities. The loss of the Gaelic language, and the replacement of Gaelic musical tradition by mainstream English-language aesthetics, have also been detrimental to maintaining the old styles. 

Back in Scotland, a number of factors contributed to the decline of Gaelic oral tradition from the 18th century on: the dismantling of native institutions, the work of 'Improvers', depopulation, and the influence of new institutions based outside the Gaelic world. 

Previously in Gaelic society, the nobility acted as patrons of the arts. Under this patronage, the native intelligentsia were able to maintain tradition according to the norms and standards of Gaelic society. What remained of this patronage in the mid-eighteenth century had a hard time outliving the changes to Gaelic society which were set in place in the post-Culloden era. Although many of the high-register traditions survived in vernacular forms in folk culture, the lack of native institutions made them vulnerable. A late-eighteenth century observer says about the music of the bagpipe, for example: 

A considerable part of the pipe music has already perished, owing to its never being noted down, but played by ear; and ere long the remainder is likely to be either lost, or performed in a slovenly manner... In twenty years more it would be in vain to attempt a collection of the popular music of the Highlanders.

Two groups of Improvers attacked the céilidh house, ministers and school teachers. Excessively pious ministers saw it as competition to the Gospel and school teachers saw it as preventing the improvement that an education in English was supposed to bring. Some ministers used their nearly unopposed powers in Highland communities to put a stop to céilidhs, and other 'ungodly' customs. Alexander Carmichael gives us a particularly dramatic account from Lewis which is radically different from the one above: 

It is long since we abandoned those foolish ways in Ness, and, indeed, throughout Lewis. In my young days there was hardly a house in Ness in which there was not one or two or three who could play the pipe, or the fiddle ... A blessed change came over the place and the people, and the good men and the good ministers who arose did away with the songs and the stories, the music and the dancing, the sports and the games, that were perverting the minds and ruining the souls of the people, leading them to folly... They made the people break and burn their pipes and fiddles. If there was a foolish man here and there who demurred, the good ministers and the good elders themselves broke and burnt their instruments, saying, 'Better the small fire that warms on the little day of peace, than the great fire that burns on the day of wrath.'

The massive emigration of Gaels from the Highlands to North America and Australia brought cultural decline and social depression to those who stayed in Scotland. They also took away some of the most talented and active members of the community. 

While new institutions were established to promote different elements of Gaelic tradition, these were typically intended to 'improve' them according to mainstream European notions of musicality and polite society. These societies were generally run by non-Gaels from locations outside of the Highlands. 

The British Army, Highland Games, and Piping Competitions became the new patrons of the music of the bagpipe and with this new patronage came new ideas about music. They produced books written in standard music notation, slowed down the tempos of tunes, and standardized the style. The affectation of great European musical virtuosity created a schism between competition music and normal everyday settings where no such pretensions had previously existed. A late nineteenth century writer says of an earlier bagpiper: 'He held that many of our compositions were being modernised to an alarming extent, even in his time, and he deplored the tendency.' Contrary to the popular myth, the bagpipe was not banned after Culloden or at any other time. All of the evidence surrounding these circumstances has been collected and examined by John Gibson (see the bibliography below). We should rather be looking at the influences of external institutions and the aesthetics of urban culture when trying to explain the change in Gaelic bagpipe music. 

An Comunn Gàidhealach (of Scotland) established an annual song competition in the late nineteenth century. Singers were trained in the operatic, stage style popular in late nineteenth century English-speaking society. This became a standard for the competitions and replaced local
styles in many communities. 

All of these institutions, and others such as the Scottish Country Dance Society, separated the various elements of Gaelic oral tradition from each other and took them in different directions. At no place but the humble home céilidh was there an opportunity for keeping them all in touch with one another. In isolated communities in Scotland and in immigrant communities in places such as Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Glengarry, and Newfoundland, such occasions continued to occur until recent times. 

My thanks to Dr. John MacInnes and James MacDonald Reid for some of the concepts in this essay. 

Further reading:

John G. Gibson, 1998, Traditional Gaelic Bagpiping, Edinburgh: NMS Publishing. 
John MacInnes, 1966, 'The Choral Tradition in Scottish Gaelic Songs', Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness 46. 
Michael Newton, 2000, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, Dublin: Four Courts Press. 
John Shaw, 1992-3, 'Language, Music and Local Aesthetics, Views from Gaeldom and Beyond', Scottish Language 11/12.

On Michael's web site you will also find reviews of books and poetry that he has written and edited

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