compiled by Brian Ó hEadhra. Anam Communications. 2013. £10.00
Reveiw for Highland magazine: Am Bratach
This wonderful little book should appeal to all who like traditional Gaelic song as well as providing an excellent introduction to those less familiar with the music.The editor has made the music as accessible as possible so that those without knowledge of the language and the music can gain the confidence to attempt to sing and play some of these songs. The bilingual introduction begins by outlining what a traditional ceilidh is, briefly describing the process whereby everyone is encouraged to sing a song, play music, tell a story, and so forth.
The opening section contains the words in Gaelic, followed by English translations, and then the musical notations. There is also a CD on which singers perform the songs in the order in which they appear in the book. Whether you read music or learn songs by ear or just like to read the words; whether or not you can speak and read Gaelic, there is something for everyone here. I enjoyed listening to the Gaelic singing whilst reading the English translations.
The twenty three songs include waulking songs, waltzes, plaintive love songs, laments, supernatural ballads and up-tempo numbers that have the feet stomping and the hands clapping – traditional Gaelic song in all its variety.
There is historical and cultural information on all the songs, as well as some interesting facts that could prove useful in trivia quizzes. For example, the beautiful “Chi mi na Mor-bheanna” was played at the funerals of King George VI and President John F. Kennedy.
The lament “Thoir Mo Shoraidh” describes the last sad journey of the bard's lover. Both the melody and the words capture beautifully the grief of the bereaved.
“Maili Dhonn” - sung in waltz time – is a sailor's love song to his boat. The words describe his joy at being alone on the sea with only his boat for company. He prefers the sound of his boat to poetry, and is happier at sea than he would be rearing cattle and growing crops.
“O Teannaibh Dluth is Togaibh Fonn”, which originates from Gaelic Canada and uses the haunting melody of the traditional English folk song “Barbara Allen”, is about the pain of being separated from the land of one's ancestors.
Supernatural ballads are popular in most traditions, sometimes featuring dead lovers coming back to life as in the English “The Grey Cock”, sometimes involving the dead haunting their murderers as in the Scots “The Twa Corbies”, and sometimes – as in “Tha mi Sgith” featured in this collection – describing a mortal falling in love with someone not human, in this case the love between a fairy and a young woman, sung from the perspective of the fairy.
“Fear a' Bhata” and “Fear an Duin Mhoir” present very different approaches to romantic love. The former describes the singer's yearning for her boatman lover. She sings her fears that he may not return, that she may have been foolish to give him her love. The song ends: “You are in my dreams at night,/And in the morning I ask for you.” The latter is a wonderful, up-tempo celebration of love's pleasures in which “The Laird of Dun Mor is making mirth with Marion” and “The Laird of Dun Beg is making mirth with Mary.”
Everyone will have their own favourites. Mine are “Brochan Lom” and Rob Donn's “Glen Golly”.
On one level, “Brochan Lom” is, quite simply, great fun: a repetitive song with a simple and rhythmic melody, ideal for harmony singing, whose theme is porridge. Its chorus of “Sparse porridge, sparse, sparse, thin and watery porridge” and its stanzas repeating the theme of thin and watery porridge are a reminder of the poverty that afflicted the Highlands & Islands through much of their history.
“Glen Golly” - Rob Donn's eulogy to the land he loved – is one of the classics of Gaelic poetry. Like much of his poetry, it is rooted in the land, and the fauna and flora that feed off it. As so often with Donn, amidst the seriousness there are touches of humour, particularly: “I don't desire your money,/And I'll never join your army;/I won't refuse your dram,/But I'll do no more than that.”
What better way to spend the long, cold, dark January nights than to invite friends around, provide food and drink, and pass this book around inviting people to sing and play their favourites.