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Gaelic in modern Scotland
Gaelic in modern Scotland

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6.2 Gaelic music and song

From rock to pop and rap, from waulking songs (òrain luaidh) to mouth music (puirt-a-beul), from harps (the clàrsach), to bagpipes (pìoban), psalm singing (sailm) and opera, the generic term ‘Gaelic music’ knows very few boundaries.

Generally speaking, Gaelic music and song is divided into categories such as ‘traditional’ and ‘popular’, with distinctive categories such as psalm singing and waulking songs giving the language a wide range of interpretation and styles. Its strong oral tradition means that highly personalised and dynamic versions of sometimes ancient lyrics have been the norm and the transcription of melodies is a relatively modern feature.

Waulking songs, for example, are characterised by refrains, composed of meaningless vocables or a mixture of vocables and words, or of words alone. These work songs were used to lighten the work-load as women were waulking or handling tweed.

Figure 42 A waulking song group in South Uist.

Click here [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] to hear a waulking song.

Leading the singing

Gaelic psalm singing, by way of contrast, presents a unique style of singing Scottish Psalter tunes in unison. The style is characterised by the precentor, or lead singer, giving out the psalm line by line, being followed by the congregation.

Modern interpretations of this genre have seen internationally acclaimed performances of Gaelic Psalms world-wide and a series of CDs has been issued capturing live, unrehearsed examples of what has been described as ‘the only church music in the British Isles with any soul’.

Listen to the audio clip below for an example of psalm singing, recorded in the Free Church Seminary, Stornoway.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Psalm singing
Psalm singing
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Instrumental music

There are three musical instruments directly associated with Gaelic musical tradition: the clàrsach (harp) the fiddle and the bagpipes. All three have undergone something of a modern revival with a new, dynamic generation of tradition bearers challenging the more conservative delivery of the past, whilst at the same time maintaining the integrity of the tradition.

The clàrsach is now synonymous with a particular stream of Celtic musicianship whilst fiddling has become one of Scotland’s most vibrant musical scenes.

Listen to some solo harp playing by Wendy Stewart from her CD ‘About Time’ by clicking here.

The links between Gaelic singing and piping are inextricable. Generally speaking there are two types of pipe music: ceòl mòr – ‘great music’ –

referring to the classical music known as ‘pibroch’; and ceòl beag – ‘small music’ – the marches, airs and dance tunes such as strathspeys, reels jigs and hornpipes.

Scotland now has its own National Piping Centre, the national centre of excellence for the instrument and its music, based in Glasgow, near the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. The Piping Centre incorporates rehearsal rooms, an auditorium, an interpretation centre, reference library and a hotel and conference facility. Its patron is Prince Charles. You can listen to pipe music on The National Piping Centre website.

The cèilidh – home of Gaelic music and song

Wherever there is a gathering of Gaelic speakers, there is usually a cèilidh, or ‘gathering’ with song or music at the centre of the activity. A cèilidh can be either formal or informal – a meeting of friends where stories and tales would be told and songs are sung. In more recent times, the cèilidh has become a mixture of dance and formal entertainment and part of a wider public entertainment scene, although it still remains and important part of community life as a means of visiting friends and keeping up to date with local affairs.

Ceilidhs’ have effectively become ‘concerts’ and are often the centre-pieces and highlights of major festivals and events such as Celtic Connections in Glasgow each January, the Hebridean Celtic Festival in the Hebrides and Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton.

Go to the following sites for further information:

Royal National Mod

The Royal National Mod (‘Am Mòd Nàiseanta Rìoghail’ in Gaelic) is the annual national Gaelic festival of song, arts and culture and the equivalent of the Welsh Eisteddfod. Organised by An Comunn Gàidhealach (The Gaelic Association), it includes a competitive element as well as a very lively ‘Fringe’. It was first held in Oban in 1892 and continues to be the highest profile annual event showcasing Gaelic culture.

Fèisean nan Gàidheal

The Gaelic word for a festival or feast is ‘Fèis’. This word is now synonymous with the Fèis movement which is a grouping of Gaelic arts festivals the primary function of which is tuition. Each Fèis provides an opportunity for individuals (mostly young people) to acquire and/or develop their skills in aspects of the Gaelic arts from song to dance, drama and traditional music on a wide range of instruments.

The first Fèis was held on the island of Barra in 1981. The National Association of Gaelic Arts Youth Festivals was established in 1991 and now hosts nearly 50 events with around 5,000 participants throughout Scotland annually. The movement is now one of the most successful arts initiatives in Scotland and accredited with giving major impetus to the revival and increasing popularity of Gaelic and Scottish music and song amongst young people. For more information visit the following website.

Bliadhna nan Òran/The Year of Song

The year 2010 was the Year of Song on BBC Radio nan Gàidheal and BBC ALBA and throughout the year an unparalleled line-up of music-related programmes were broadcast, with a different song chosen for each day of the year.

Its website allows users to access content quickly and simply by means of four key sections: songs, writers, themes and singers. The site currently offers the opportunity to listen to over 800 songs with supporting lyrics, 360 excerpts from radio programmes, and over 550 video clips. Biographical information is also available for over 500 singers and writers.

All 365 Song for the Day programmes are also available, including audio and accompanying verbatim transcripts for each.


Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches is a collaborative project which has been set up to preserve, digitise, catalogue and make available online several thousand hours of Gaelic and Scots recordings. This website contains a wealth of material such as folklore, songs, music, history, poetry, traditions, stories and other information. The material has been collected from all over Scotland and beyond from the 1930s onwards.

The recordings come from the School of Scottish Studies (University of Edinburgh), BBC Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland's Canna Collection. The material includes stories recorded by John Lorne Campbell on wax cylinders in 1937, folklore collected all over Scotland by Calum Maclean in the 1950s; Scots songs recorded by Hamish Henderson from travelling people in the 1960s and archival material broadcast by BBC Radio nan Gàidheal. You can access the website here.

Stellar quality

A number of individual performers of Gaelic music and song have gone on to become award-winning, internationally-acclaimed artistes. Singer and musician Julie Fowlis and rock band Runrig are two of the most notable.

Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis has attracted UK-wide attention and a significant following built on success in music awards and at festivals throughout Britain and Ireland.

Ignoring much advice to pursue a career in more mainstream music, Julie has remained true to her roots and the Gaelic language. She performs all her material in Gaelic, finding her inspiration and creativity from the music, history and culture of her homeland.

Since being presented with her award as BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year 2008 (the first ever Scottish Gaelic singer to win this prestigious award), the Daily Telegraph predicted that ‘Fowlis could be the first Scottish Gaelic crossover star in the making’

The singer has compiled a remarkable CV in a very short time. She is no stranger to awards and distinctions, winning Gaelic Singer Of The Year and Album Of The Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards 2007. She won Album of the Year a second time in 2010. She has also been repeatedly nominated for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year. Her single 'Blackbird' was also playlisted on BBC Radio 2, the first Scottish Gaelic artist to achieve this distinction. She was also the first Scottish Gaelic artist to appear on the legendary show 'Later…with Jools Holland’ in 2007.

She is perhaps most proud of her award as Scotland's Gaelic Ambassador - ‘Tosgaire na Gàidhlig’, bestowed by the Scottish Parliament in 2008/2009, the first person to ever receive this honour.

The Scottish rock group Runrig, formed in Skye in 1973, have been, along with Capercaillie, the highest profile exponents of Gaelic music on the popular stage. Runrig have released more than 15 albums, with a significant amount of their material in Gaelic. The group released a written collection of 115 of their songs with illustrations in 2000.

Runrig’s material draws heavily on locations, history, politics and people unique to the bands roots in the western isles of Scotland. Their fan base is world-wide ranging from the United Kingdom, to substantial audiences in Denmark, and Germany, and more traditionally ‘Scottish’ areas such as Nova Scotia. In 2006 Runrig played their first concert in the United States, at a benefit for the charity ‘Glasgow the Caring City’ in New York City.

Runrig’s iconic re-recording of the song Loch Lomond (Hampden Remix) to raise funds for the BBC's annual Children In Need appeal included the 'Tartan Army' (Scotland's Hampden Football Supporters), and pop star Rod Stewart on backing vocals. It reached number 9 in the UK Singles Chart. In the summer of 1995, Runrig made history by putting a Scottish Gaelic song, An Ubhal As Airde, into the UK Top 20. It entered the chart 10 at number 18. The band has been inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame, through the Scottish Traditional Music Awards.

The start of 2011 saw a new Gaelic band Mànran attempt to recreate Runrig’s success with a Gaelic song Làtha math (‘A Good day’). The song met with limited success, reaching number 61 in the UK charts, selling nearly 5,500 copies, but it was number 1 in the UK singer/songwriter chart and the band had 55,000 hits on its website on the day after the song’s release.

The opera Hiort: St Kilda

Gaelic music and song was launched onto the international stage by Pròiseact nan Ealan, the Gaelic National Arts Agency. The specially commissioned opera Hiort: St Kilda, with music by Jean-Paul Dessy and David Graham, and libretto by Iain Finlay MacLeòid, told the story of the people of the St Kilda islands and how they dealt with day-to-day life before the islands were evacuated in 1930. Hiort is St Kilda in Scottish Gaelic.

The power, emotion and appeal of this story connected Gaelic with European culture at many levels and set Gaelic language and culture, as well as Gaelic broadcasting, on a unique international stage.

Courtesy of Proisect nan Ealan, the Gaelic National Arts Agency
Figure 43 A scene from the opera Hiort: St Kilda

The Belgian production of the opera, St Kilda: L’île des Hommes-Oiseaux, was performed at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre as a highlight of the Edinburgh International Festival 2009. It was one of five productions performed simultaneously in Scotland, France, Germany, and Austria, as well as Belgium. An element of the production was also broadcast live from St Kilda to all 5 locations. The Belgian production was restaged and toured to France in late 2008.

The Belgian production presented a unique interpretation of the St Kildan story. It was shown live to the world in a special broadcasting project which brought six European countries together.

Gaelic in the charts

Perhaps the most famous success for a Gaelic singer in the popular music charts was the 1981 song Japanese Boy, sung by Aneka (real name Mary Sandeman), which reached number 1. She was well known for the Oriental image she adopted for the song. After her brief foray into pop she established herself as an accomplished singer of Scottish traditional music under her real name.

Figure 44 The cover from Aneka’s popular 1981 song Japanese Boy

Studying Gaelic music

The department of Scottish Music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland offers the only honours degree in Scottish traditional music in the world. The course offers a broad based training to talented traditional musicians, enabling them to pursue a variety of careers, or further study. A degree in piping is run in collaboration with the National Piping Centre, which is internationally recognised as a centre of excellence in Highland bagpipe teaching.

Mary Ann Kennedy is one former student of RSAMD who has gone on to become a major figure on the Scottish music and broadcasting scene. She now lives in Lochaber where she and her husband run Watercolour Music Studios. A traditional music background and a classical training coupled with 15 years’ experience working with the BBC has established her as a major figure in the Scottish music scene, equally respected as a performer and as an authoritative commentator on world, classical, traditional and folk music.

Mary Ann's musical career covers several roles as performer, producer, writer and teacher. She has won several major awards, including the Concours Internationale de l'Harpe Celtique and both National Mod Gold Medals. Her band, Cliar, won the all-time Best Album accolade at the inaugural Scots Trad Music Awards, and earned her a Saltire Award.

Her broadcast credits include radio work for BBC Radio Scotland, BBC Radio 3, RTE and BBC Radio nan Gàidheal, and presentation and performance on BBC Scotland, BBC2, TG4 and BBC4, fronting major series and specials on world and traditional Scottish and Irish music.

James Graham from Lochinver has similarly excelled as a young traditional musician since undertaking the RSAMD BA Scottish Music course. James belongs to Assynt in Lochinver, Sutherland and started competing at local Mod competitions as a 9 year-old.

Now an accomplished piper and singer, he studied Gaelic song under the tutelage of Kenna Campbell, one of a number of key figures passing on their skills and traditions. In 2004, James won the BBC Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year award. He was the first male performer and first Gaelic singer to take the prize. In 2007 he won the Gold Medal at the Royal national Mod and has gone on to release a number of acclaimed CDs.

James has also completed a further two years of study at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, where he took an HND in Gaelic language and culture.

He has continued to develop his work as a live performer and has worked on a number of award-winning television and radio programmes, including Transatlantic Sessions 4.

Community events

Ceòlas is a music and dance summer school featuring expert tuition in piping, fiddling, singing, Scotch reels and quadrilles, step dancing and the Gaelic language. It is set within the Gaelic-speaking community of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Ceòlas explores the vital connections between Scottish traditional music, Gaelic song and dance while allowing ample opportunity for participants to enjoy all these art forms in cèilidhs and in homes, the places which fostered them.

Where Gaelic music is ‘cool’?

In 1999, recognising the wealth of traditional music activity generated by the Fèis movement and others, Highland Council led a plan to establish a residential Centre of Excellence specialising in traditional music. The bid was successful, and the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music - Sgoil Chiùil na Gàidhealtachd - was established at Plockton High School in Wester Ross in May 2000 with funding of £500,000 over three years from the Scottish Executive’s Excellence Fund, with additional input from The Highland Council.

The choice of location was significant. Plockton, on the west coast of Ross-shire just opposite the Isle of Skye, is at the heart of a wide community which has long been known for its support of traditional music and Gaelic culture. Both the school and the wider community have good track records of achievement, particularly in piping and in Gaelic medium education.

The Plockton project is unique amongst the centres of excellence set up at the time in that it concentrates specifically on one genre of music - traditional music. That that genre is has been regarded by many people as testament to the huge growth in popularity and intrinsic importance and value of Scotland’s native musical culture. It was also decided early in the life of the project that it would not be strictly vocational.

Many graduates of the school, which survived a funding crisis in 2011 due to a public campaign of support, have gone on to pursue highly successful careers as the professional musicians.