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A view of the island of Scalpay, near Harris in Scotland.
The Hebridean island of Scalpay, near Harris, where around 80% of locals are Gaelic speakers. John Peter Photography / Alamy

Gaelic psalm singing: why the ancient tradition is in danger of disappearing

There’s just something about Gaelic psalm singing that moves me. It doesn’t matter where I am. If I hear it, it just brings me back to my youth in Staffin. It brings me back to happy events … and very sad events. It was, is and always will be powerful in my eyes.

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

Most Gaels, whether religious or not, will recognise the sound of Gaelic psalmody (psalm singing) as a truly emotive heartbeat of their communities and the sound accompanying the happiest, most mundane and most devastating of times. But this stirring singing tradition that has evolved over centuries is now in danger of disappearing.

When UNESCO highlighted back in 1996 the critical situation of language loss around the world, and the extent to which many minority languages are endangered, our eyes were opened to the serious implications of language homogenisation, and the huge loss of language and cultural diversity that comes with it.

Ever since the The 1872 Education (Scotland) Act, when compulsory schooling in the English language was introduced to the exclusion of Scottish Gaelic, there have been concerns for the decline of the language.

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:

What I think about Gaelic just now, is how wicked it was that the language was suppressed. And … to such a degree that people believed that it was no good. And that was deep in the psyche. It still is.

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

School and church

While the education system failed to support Gaelic in schools, one of the institutions which 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, while Gaelic was being stamped out in schools, churches – both Catholic and Protestant (Presbyterian) – took the opposite approach.

Services were almost exclusively conducted in Gaelic (with Latin used in Catholic churches) within Gaelic-speaking communities and singing was also in Gaelic. Back in the 19th century it was considered so important for Presbyterian ministers to be able to address congregations in their mother tongue that schemes were put in place by the Church of Scotland to train Gaelic-speaking youth for the ministry. Even as far back as 1708 there were policies to ensure that Gaelic-speaking ministers were stationed in Highland parishes.

Today, ironically, the roles have been reversed. Gaelic and English bilingualism which in the past was given little or no credit, is now recognised as hugely beneficial to learning across the school curriculum. Scottish Gaelic is thriving in our schools, giving hope that this language confidence will continue to grow into the future.

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

Even in the strongest of Gaelic-speaking areas such as the island of Scalpay, near Harris, where up to 80% of the population are Gaelic speakers, there is no longer a regular Gaelic service held at either of the two churches on the island. And this decline of language use in religious life has had a knock-on effect on some of the most beautiful and unique forms of Gaelic musical expression, contributing to a sharp decline in congregational singing in the Gaelic language.

Soundscape of life

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

Fifty years ago, Gaelic psalmody was a soundscape to a way of life in the Presbyterian Hebridean communities and the only form of musical worship heard in churches. In those days, churches were filled with hundreds of people gathered to take part in this singing tradition.

After the first world war when emigrant ships left from the island of Lewis for the new world, taking so many young people away from their land of birth, this psalmody was sung by those on land and on sea, as the final parting act before the waves and wind drowned out the voices.

This singing, in its traditional context, has become critically endangered. Today, Gaelic services are few and far between in Hebridean parishes and those still taking place have reduced hugely in numbers. English language services tend to have predominantly English singing, although there may be an occasional Gaelic psalm or hymn among them.

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

Gaelic spiritual singing wouldn’t be the first to become obsolete in its original context, and this may well become a reality if no steps are taken to ensure that it is safeguarded.

Gaelic work songs such as “waulking” songs have already been repurposed as performance pieces to be sung on the concert stage, as have bothy ballads, sea shanties, and African-American worksongs. Gaelic spiritual psalms and hymns are also finding their way into the performance 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 way to express culture. The deep spiritual connection it has with its people and the role which music plays in this, must be recognised and supported into the future if we are to keep some of the most precious aspects of Gaelic culture alive.

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