Singing Gaelic psalms: why the ancient tradition is in danger…


(MENAFN – The Conversation)

Alec “Bhaltos” MacDonald, Gaelic teacher and translator, Skye

Most Gaels, whether religious or not, will recognize the sound of Gaelic psalmody (psalm chanting) as a genuinely emotional heartbeat of their communities and the sound accompanying the happiest, most mundane and more devastating. But this moving singing tradition that has developed over the centuries is now threatened with extinction.

When UNESCO highlighted in 1996 the plight of language loss around the world and the extent to which many minority languages ​​are under threat, our eyes were opened to the serious implications of language homogenization and the Huge loss of linguistic and cultural diversity that results with that.

Ever since the Education (Scotland) Act 1872, when compulsory schooling in English was introduced to the exclusion of Scottish Gaelic, there has been concern about the language’s decline.

Morag MacLeod, a Gaelic scholar who worked for many years at the University of Edinburgh, expressed her thoughts in an interview earlier this year, saying:

Gaelic is a wonderful, unique and poetic language – a language which, when you dig deep, has ways of expressing thoughts, feelings and observations that you simply won’t find in English. Poets such as Dugald Buchanan, Mairi Mhòr nan Òran and Sorley MacLean are among the most famous writers of the Gaelic language who demonstrated this in their work.

School and church

While the education system failed to support Gaelic in schools, one of the institutions that nurtured the language was the church. In many places in the Highlands, the church remains at the heart of community and religious life. For centuries, and until recently when Gaelic was eradicated from schools, churches – both Catholic and Protestant (Presbyterian) – took the opposite approach.

Services were almost exclusively conducted in Gaelic (Latin being used in Catholic churches) within Gaelic-speaking communities and singing was also in Gaelic. In the 19th century, it was considered so important for Presbyterian ministers to be able to address congregations in their native language that programs were set up by the Church of Scotland to train Gaelic-speaking young people for ministry. Even as early as 1708 there were policies to ensure that Gaelic-speaking ministers were stationed in parishes in the Highlands.

Today, ironically, the roles have been reversed. Gaelic and English bilingualism, which in the past was little or not recognised, is now recognized as extremely beneficial for learning across the whole school curriculum. Scottish Gaelic is thriving in our schools, giving hope that this linguistic confidence will continue to grow in the future.

However, now the opposite has become the case in the churches. While the church may be aware of the need for Gaelic speaking priests and ministers in the Highland and Island communities, there are no more language policies in place and not enough clergy to meet the needs of the Gaelic communities.

Even in Gaelic-speaking areas such as the Isle of Scalpay, near Harris, where up to 80% of the population speak Gaelic, there is no longer a regular Gaelic service organized in either other of the two churches on the island. And this decline in the use of the language in religious life has had a ripple effect on some of the finest and most unique forms of Gaelic musical expression, contributing to a steep decline in congregational singing in the Gaelic language. .

soundscape of life

One tradition in particular, which has been greatly impacted, is that of Gaelic psalmody: the beautiful, evocative style of singing whose origins date back to the years following the Scottish Reformation of 1560. The congregations were mostly illiterate, and unaccompanied singing was led by a male singer, known as the cantor, who sang the line the congregation was to follow.

Fifty years ago, Gaelic psalmody was a soundscape of a way of life in Presbyterian communities in the Hebrides and the only form of musical worship heard in churches. At that time, the churches were filled with hundreds of people gathered to participate in this singing tradition.

After the First World War, when emigrant ships set sail from the Isle of Lewis for the New World, carrying so many young people away from their native land, this psalmody was sung by those on land and sea, as the last act of farewell before the waves and the wind drowned out the voices.

This song, in its traditional context, has become critically endangered. Today, Gaelic services are rare in parishes in the Hebrides and those still held have drastically diminished in number. English services tend to have mostly English chants, although there may occasionally be a Gaelic psalm or hymn among them.

In Catholic churches, a similar decline is underway with the singing of some of the most exquisite Gaelic verse – hymns which were composed on the islands from the late 19th century.

Gaelic spiritual chanting would not be the first to become obsolete in its original context, and it may well become a reality if steps are not taken to ensure its safeguard.

Gaelic work songs such as ‘waulking’ songs were once repurposed as performance pieces to be sung on the concert stage, as were African American ballads, sea shanties and work songs. Spiritual psalms and Gaelic hymns also find their way into the performing repertoires of musicians and composers in this way. But in a secular context, the sacred role of Gaelic psalmody is being lost.

Language is a means of expressing culture. The deep spiritual connection he has with his people and the role that music plays there must be recognized and supported in the future if we are to keep some of the most treasured aspects of Gaelic culture alive.


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