Who will play the silver whistle?

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gillebride_outlander

Figure 1:Gillebride as the time-travelling* Gwyllyn the Bard in episode 103 of Outlander (accessed from here on 30th May 2019)

Gaelic oral tradition is old; it dates to at least the fourth century when there was little cultural distinction between Ireland and the West coast of Scotland, with the first records of colonisation of Argyll from Ulster (Smith 2001: 31) This essay will analyse what the Gaelic oral tradition is and how it is so inextricably linked within Gaelic identity itself by using the example of Jacobite song and its lasting impact as political, sociological and, of course, historical phenomenon. A case study of one song, An Fhìdeag Airgid (the Silver Whistle) is presented to demonstrate the process of transmission from approximately 1745 to today, including variations and locations. Although it is a waulking song, thereby importantly recording the thoughts and feelings of working-class Gaelic women, this is not a focus of this essay.

It will show how technology of the last seventy years or so has made a considerable impact in the transmission of song, which raises the question of whether it has helped shape modern views of traditional Gaelic song and cultural identity, and notions of tradition. While there are plenty of Jacobite songs in English (e.g. The Skye Boat Song[1]) and in Scots (e.g. Hey, Johnnie Cope) they will not be discussed in this essay. Finally, this essay will conclude with a discussion on the concept of tradition and its relevance to song in the Gaidhealtachd. It is unfortunate that there will not be enough space in this essay to discuss the importance of mòds, especially the Royal National Mòd, in both celebrating and transmitting Gaelic song on an annual basis.

Intangible cultural heritage (ICH) has been written about widely and does not need a better definition than that of UNESCO. It states that: “cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions[2]. It goes on to state how important ICH is for the maintenance and support of cultural diversity, and also states that the cultural manifestation is not the primary outcome of ICH but that knowledge and skills are. Sheridan et al (2011: 173) state that: “much of the content of the [Gaelic] poetry and songs reflects a strong orientation towards the sense of identity and place or origin, ‘dualchas’ in Gaelic, including panegyric verse, love songs and poetry, political and social commentary, work songs, lullabies and satirical verse.” Jacobite song, which was clearly created as political and social commentary by people living through the events, is an excellent example of Gaelic dualchas and thereby is part of the intangible cultural heritage of the Gaidhealtachd.

The study of song lyrics is particularly important in a culture of oral transmission to not only make sense of the daily lives of any one particular culture but also to understand how they viewed events as they were unfolding. Sheridan et al (2011) state that: “Scottish Gaelic song, poems and stories have been carried through oral transmission for many centuries reflecting the power of indigenous peoples to preserve cultural heritage from generation to generation without recourse to a written code.”

Jacobite song records a seismic political and social upheaval – most importantly-through the eyes of those who lived it, as can be demonstrated by looking at the lyrics of many Jacobite songs. It could be argued that this upheaval still resonates strongly today in the identity of the Gaidhealtachd.

Bonnie-Prince-Charlie-2-5c30fcffigure 2: I should hope anyone reading this blog would know who this is (accessed from https://www.historyextra.com/period/georgian/10-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-bonnie-prince-charlie-and-the-jacobites on 31st May 2019

Gaelic oral tradition is old; it dates to at least the fourth century when there was little cultural distinction between Ireland and the West coast of Scotland, with the first records of colonisation of Argyll from Ulster (Smith 2001: 31)

This essay will analyse what the Gaelic oral tradition is and how it is so inextricably linked within Gaelic identity itself by using the example of Jacobite song and its lasting impact as political, sociological and, of course, historical phenomenon. A case study of one song, An Fhìdeag Airgid (the Silver Whistle) is presented to demonstrate the process of transmission from approximately 1745 to today, including variations and locations. Although it is a waulking song, thereby importantly recording the thoughts and feelings of working-class Gaelic women, this is not a focus of this essay.

It will show how technology of the last seventy years or so has made a considerable impact in the transmission of song, which raises the question of whether it has helped shape modern views of traditional Gaelic song and cultural identity, and notions of tradition. While there are plenty of Jacobite songs in English (e.g. The Skye Boat Song[1]) and in Scots (e.g. Hey, Johnnie Cope) they will not be discussed in this essay. Finally, this essay will conclude with a discussion on the concept of tradition and its relevance to song in the Gaidhealtachd. It is unfortunate that there will not be enough space in this essay to discuss the importance of mòds, especially the Royal National Mòd, in both celebrating and transmitting Gaelic song on an annual basis.

Intangible cultural heritage (ICH) has been written about widely and does not need a better definition than that of UNESCO. It states that: “cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions”[2]. It goes on to state how important ICH is for the maintenance and support of cultural diversity, and also states that the cultural manifestation is not the primary outcome of ICH but that knowledge and skills are. Sheridan et al (2011: 173) state that: “much of the content of the [Gaelic] poetry and songs reflects a strong orientation towards the sense of identity and place or origin, ‘dualchas’ in Gaelic, including panegyric verse, love songs and poetry, political and social commentary, work songs, lullabies and satirical verse.” Jacobite song, which was clearly created as political and social commentary by people living through the events, is an excellent example of Gaelic dualchas and thereby is part of the intangible cultural heritage of the Gaidhealtachd.

The study of song lyrics is particularly important in a culture of oral transmission to not only make sense of the daily lives of any one particular culture but also to understand how they viewed events as they were unfolding. Sheridan et al (2011) state that: “Scottish Gaelic song, poems and stories have been carried through oral transmission for many centuries reflecting the power of indigenous peoples to preserve cultural heritage from generation to generation without recourse to a written code.”

Jacobite song records a seismic political and social upheaval – most importantly-through the eyes of those who lived it, as can be demonstrated by looking at the lyrics of many Jacobite songs. It could be argued that this upheaval still resonates strongly today in the identity of the Gaidhealtachd.

An Fhìdeag Airgid is an excellent example of this, as are the tragic songs by Iain Ruadh Stiùbhart about Culloden, Latha Chùil-lodair and Oran Eile air Latha Chùil-lodair[3]. History teaches us that the events of the Forty-five impacted daily life for many years after and changed the Gaelic way of life for good. David Forsyth (2017: 4) argues that “the events of the ultimately unsuccessful attempt by Princes Charles to regain the throne of the three kingdoms for his father have been woven into romantic notions of Scottish history and Scottish identity.” This is certainly true when looking at the vast catalogue of Jacobite songs which have been recorded by the School of Scottish Studies, only a fraction of which appears on Tobar an Dualchais, and arguably also when reading anything in the historiography on the Jacobitism.

There has been a tradition of collecting material from oral traditions and transcribing folk song in Scotland for several hundred years (Macaulay 2012). Robert Burns collected songs for The Scots Musical Museum between 1781 and 1796 (Macaulay 2012). James Hogg was responsible for collecting Lowland folk songs for Sir Walter Scott in 1802/3 which Scott then used for publication later. He also published his own collection of Jacobite songs – translated from Gaelic into English- in 1819 with a second edition of the Jacobite relics published in 1821. It is interesting to note that during his research for Highlands Songs of the Forty-five, John Lorne Campbell did not find any original Gaelic songs which Hogg claims were sent in to him and then translated into Gaelic (Campbell 1984). MacQuoid (1888) states that Hogg struggled to translate the songs from Gaelic into English, altered some songs and entirely composed others by himself; which songs though are unclear as Hogg does not differentiate in either volume. It is therefore interesting that he should write in his introduction of The Jacobite relics of Scotland; being the songs, airs, and legends of the adherents to the House of Stuart that: “It has always been admitted, that our Jacobite songs and tunes are the best that the country ever produced.” (Hogg 1819:1)

The Gaelic academic John Lorne Campbell, who was responsible for a great deal of collection and publication of Gaelic song amongst many other things, wrote in 1933 that his seminal work, Highland Songs of the Forty-Five, was “an attempt to show what their [Highlander] thoughts and feelings, as revealed in their vernacular poetry, really were.” (Campbell 1984: xi).

In 1951, the School of Scottish Studies was founded at Edinburgh University by Calum Maclean, Frances Collinson and Hamish Henderson. More recently the School of Scottish Studies has gone on to create an amazing resource online with BBC Alba, the National Trust for Scotland, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and EDiNA, Tobar an Dualchais http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk, which has done a great deal to disseminate Gaelic song, music, stories, folklore, poetry, traditions and history. The impact of Tobar an Dualchais on the study of Gaelic oral tradition as well as contemporary Gaelic culture is huge.

An Fhìdeag Airgid (the Silver Whistle) is a very popular song in the Gaelic tradition and it usually appears in larger collections of published Gaelic song as well as on recordings by famous Gaelic singers. It is known as a waulking song from the Western Isles, although it has changed over time, and it is believed that it is possibly based on older stories[4].

There are multiple versions of this song which were recorded by contributors to the School of Scottish Studies from the first electronic recording in the Outer Hebrides in 1938, with most being recorded in the 1950s and 1960s. These versions appear in the appendix as they are a clear example of what happens when lyrics (as well as melodies) are transmitted orally in families and local communities at ceilidhs. They also clearly demonstrate how different singers have learned different amounts of lines and verses; the various versions of the song vary in length from four lines to thirty-seven lines.

The lyrics, as sung and taught by Gìllebride MacMillan, Karen Matheson and Flora MacNeil are presented here for discussion:

Co a sheinneas an fhìdeag airgid?

Who will play the silver whistle?

Seist – Chorus (repeated after every verse)

Ho ro hu a hu il o [same vocables]
Hi ri hu o, hi ri hu o

Mac mo rìgh air tighinn a dh’Alba

Since the Son of the King has come to Scotland

Air lang mhar nar trì chrann airgid

On a great ship with three mast of silver

Air long rìomhach nam ball airgid

On the handsome vessel with silver rigging

Tearlach òg nan gorm shùil mealach

Young Charles with the blue bewitching eyes

Fàilte, fàilte mian is cliù dhuit

Welcome, welcome, may you be desired & famous

Fìdhlearachd is radha a ‘uil dhuit

May there be fiddling & the choicest music before you

Co a sheinneadh? Nach seinninn fhìn i?

Who’d play it? Who’d say I’d not play it myself?

Co a sheinneas an fhìdeag airgid?

Who will play the silver whistle?

All versions of the song appear to have been written in 1745, just after Princes Charles Edward landed at Eriksay on 23rd July 1745. There is certainly no other prince who returned from exile in the eighteenth century, so it seems inconceivable the songs could be about anyone else. The fact that he landed at Eriksay and all versions of this song are from Eriksay and surrounding islands further consolidates the argument that the song, and its variants, were written in the summer of 1745.

The songs most certainly demonstrates praise for him, much in the same way that earlier songs praised clan chiefs and makes particular reference to his eyes – there is a reason he is often known by the moniker Bonnie Prince Charlie- as well as pure excitement that he has arrived.

The reference to the ship with silver masts and silver rigging, which varies between songs, could be seen as him arriving on a noble steed as a hero to the rescue or perhaps as a vessel suitable for someone of such a rank.

The actual ship that the Prince arrived on in July 1745, the Du Teillay, certainly did have three masts and plenty of ropes and pulleys but it is improbable that they were made of silver, gold or French silk as described in the songs. The use of silver, gold and silk within Jacobite material culture[5] is very evident and clearly nods at the divine right of kings.
The Prince will receive the very best of Highland hospitality. There will be the best music played for him. Some of the versions list the clan chiefs who will welcome him and how they will welcome him with the finest food and drink; for example tripled distilled whisky and brandy from abroad is mentioned. Finally, the singer demonstrates loyalty to his cause; playing of the silver whistle signifying a call to arms for the Princes’ army.

The song has received worldwide transmission through Gillebrìde MacMillan singing the song on the TV series Outlander in 2014. This is arguably the most watched single performance of the song.

He was asked to choose two Jacobite Gaelic songs to perform in the scenes he was in (playing a bard performing for the clan chief and his guest) and the musical director Bear McCreary chose a shortened version of An Fhìdeag Airgid. The song is known by Outlander fans worldwide and while they may not understand the lyrics, they sing along with the vocables at Gìllebride’s performances at Outlander conventions as well as during workshops which he runs on Jacobite songs[6].

Gìllebride learned the song as a child living on South Uist. His family attended ceilidhs every weekend in his village of Mingary, which is where he learned most of his repertoire of traditional songs as well as from family members.

Ceilidhs and family members have always been the most common method of oral transmission.

Nan MacKinnon, who was a Gaelic singer from Vatersay and contributed one of the versions of the song to the School of Scottish Studies archive, learned most of her repertoire from her mother, who was originally from Mingulsay, and her grandmother before her (Tocher vol 7: 1971). Flora MacNeil also learned most of her songs from her mother and her aunt (McLean 2017).

Gìllebride’s performance on Outlander is an excellent example of how transmission of traditional Gaelic oral culture has been modernised. Before him, Flora MacNeil (a Gaelic singer originally from Barra who moved to Glasgow in the early 1950s and was then discovered by ethnomusicologists Hamish Henderson and Alan Lomax) “sang forgotten songs in her native Gaelic tongue, spreading them out far and wide, effectively saving them from extinction.” (McLean 2017)

The modernisation of transmission arguably started when John Lorne Campbell started recording stories on wax cylinders in 1937[7] and continued with the recordings of the collectors such as Calum MacLean into the 1950s and 1960s. Following the post-war folk revival in Scotland, more and more singers performed in small venues and the traditional Gaelic songs received a wider audience across all of Scotland; thus increasing the audience from small rural communities to the larger conurbations of Edinburgh, Glasgow and so on.

The most significant change in transmission came in 1972 when the School of Scottish Studies Archives released the Scottish Traditions 3: Waulking Songs from Barra album, as this was the first time that an album was released containing these songs- including a version of An Fhìdeag Airgid- and therefore available to the general public. The album sleeve contains not only the lyrics in Gaelic but also in English as well further information on waulking and its place in Gaelic culture.
Although the BBC has been transmitting programmes in Gaelic since 1923, BBC Radio nan Gaìdheal has been transmitting as the main Gaelic language radio station since 1st October 1985. Gaelic song has always had an important place in the programming, which further aided transmission, however it is still not received in some areas of Scotland on a radio (although it is available as a radio station on the television). Like all BBC radio and television channels, it has a very good presence today on the BBC’s website: https://www.bbc.co.uk/radionangaidheal.

The BBC website also has a sizeable section on Gaelic song which contains recordings of the Mòd from 1894 – 1990 as well as a catalogue of song and artists: http://www.bbc.co.uk/alba/oran/.

Although there have been huge advances over the past seventy years or so in the transmission of Gaelic oral tradition, including song, thereby widening the audience, it could be argued that BBC policy discriminates against Scottish Gaelic and that in this day and age there should be match funding across minority language areas.

There has been a BBC Gaelic language TV station, BBC Alba, only since 2008 and it does not broadcast as much as other BBC television stations. The BBC Welsh language TV station, S4C, has been broadcasting since 1982 and has a current annual budget of £76 million[8]. BBC Radio nan Gaìdheal has an annual budget of £3.8 million[9] and BBC Alba received £9 million in 2016[10]. Scotland has a population of 5.4 million and Wales 3.13 million (in 2016), yet there clearly is unfair and unequal distribution of licence fee payers’ money in favour of Wales. This clearly has a knock-on effect for not only the learning of Scottish Gaelic but also for potential audience sizes, and therefore reducing possible further transmission of Gaelic song.

The word ‘tradition’ has appeared numerous times during this essay so far. It is therefore important to include a section on the relevance of the notion to aid understanding of how Jacobite song is clearly intangible cultural heritage, which is referred to in the introduction and how the notions of tradition and heritage are inextricably linked together. While it is interesting to find that tradition has been defined by biologists, different disciplines of the social sciences will be presented here.

It is important to look at different disciplines interpretation of tradition and not just focus on the folklorist approach. The American sociologist, Edward Shils, was the first academic to write at length about tradition in 1981. [11]He argued that past practice or belief is transmitted by a parent/teacher/authority which is learnt and re-enacted by agents through at least three consecutive generations.

Transferring patterns of belief and images/models of conduct from are transferred “ the past into the present” in which these are respectively rethought and embodied into actions, to be taken into the future. It is questionable whether Shils was correct in his argument that transmission was required through three generations; most disciplines and indeed the Oxford English Dictionary states that it just requires transmission of custom or belief between one generation to the next[12]

At the about same time, Gavin Sprout (1980: 54) was writing about folk culture, arguing that it “does not resurrect the experience of the past, but recycles it into the present. It is a bit more living and less traditional than is commonly supposed, and often what we hear reflected in music and language is not the past’s imagination but the present’s […] if you are to seek historical significance and insight in folk music, you must also ferret out the experience of the past quite independently.”

American folklorist and ethnologist Dorothy Noyes defined tradition in an article in 2009, stating that as a word and a concept it is ambiguous. She argues that tradition is a communicative transaction, a temporal ideology -something being passed down in time from one generation to another- and communal property. She also states that focussing attention on oral traditions provides academics with insight into the study of tradition itself. (Noyes 2009) It is clear to see how this fits in very well with a study of song and Gaelic oral tradition and how it clearly can be defined as intangible cultural heritage.

In 1981, John Lorne Campbell wrote in the introduction to Hebridean Folksongs vol III that song is an integral part of life in the Outer Hebrides and that waulking songs in particular were very nostalgic to the old way of life in the Highlands, thus very popular, and did a great deal to keep the memory of the events of the eighteenth century alive (Campbell 1981:6). This clearly includes the events of the Forty-five and Jacobitism, as well as what followed afterwards. Jacobite songs, which record the thoughts and feelings of Highlanders during a short, but definitive, part of history remain integral to the modern Highlander’s sense of self. Jacobite song resonates clearly today in the popular imagination and it could be argued particularly in a time of political upheaval where people look to the past, to their cultural heritage and traditions for comfort and to help make sense of the present. Although they are records of past events, the sentiments are just as relevant today as they have always been.

Footnotes
[1] This song would make an interesting study by itself as an example of an invented traditional song. It wasn’t written until the 1870s yet it is arguably the most well known Jacobite song today.

[2] Accessed from https://ich.unesco.org/en/what-is-intangible-heritage-00003 on 2nd May 2018

[3] Transcriptions of both songs can be found in Gaelic and English in Campbell, J L (1984) Highland Songs of the Forty-five

[5] See Forsyth D. (2017) for plenty of examples of Jacobite material culture in silver, gold and silk from last year’s NMS Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites exhibition

[6] Everything relating to Gìllebride’s performance and how he learned the songs is taken from a conversation I had with him last week (April 2018)

[7] Referred to on http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/more;jsessionid=8CD66735CF98904E721438C0438BA9DC

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S4C#Funding_and_regulation

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBC_Radio_nan_Gàidheal#Funding

[10] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/04/14/how-does-the-bbc-spend-its-5bn-in-licence-fee-money/

[11] This book is no longer in print nor was accessible to the author so Jacobs, S. 2007, “Edward Shils’ Theory of Tradition”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, vol. 37, no. 2, pp. 139-162 was used

[12] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/tradition

Bibliography
Campbell, John Lorne (1984) Highland Songs of the Forty-Five. Edinburgh: Clark Constable

Campbell, J.L.D., Collinson, F.M., MacCormick, D. & McDonald, A.R.F. (1981) Hebridean folksongs III, Clarendon Press, Oxford, England.

Forsyth,David ed. (2017) Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites. Edinburgh: NMS

Hogg, James (1819) The Jacobite relics of Scotland; being the songs, airs, and legends of the adherents to the House of Stuart Edinburgh: William Blackford

Jacobs, S. 2007, “Edward Shils’ Theory of Tradition”, Philosophy of the Social

Sciences, vol. 37, no. 2, pp. 139-162
Macaulay, Cathlin (2012) Dipping into the well: Scottish oral tradition online Oral Tradition 27/1 (2012) 171 – 186

McLean,David (2017) ’Flora MacNeil: the Queen of Gaelic music’The Scotsman, 26 April. Available at https://www.scotsman.com/200voices/cultural-icons/flora-macneil-queen-gaelic-music/ (accessed 02/05/2018)

Noyes, Dorothy (2009), “Tradition: Three Traditions”, Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 46, no. 3, pp. 233-268.

Pittock, M. & American Council of Learned Societies (1994), Poetry and Jacobite politics in eighteenth-century Britain and Ireland, Cambridge University Press, New York; Cambridge, [U.K.]

School of Scottish Studies Archives (1971) Nan MacKinnon Tocher 7 201-202
School of Scottish Studies (1993), Scottish tradition vol. 3: waulking songs from Barra, Greentrax Recordings, East Lothian, Scotland.

Sheridan, Mark, MacDonald Iona, Byrne Charles G. (2011) Gaelic singing and oral tradition International Journal of Music Education 29 (2) 172-190

Smith, Donald (2001) Storytelling Scotland: a nation in narrative. Edinburgh: Polygon
Sprott, Gavin (1980) Traditional Music – the Material Background in Cowan, Edward ed. The People’s Past Polygon

Notes

Collection of An Fhìdeag Airgid at the School of Scottish Studies archives
Archive reference
Location
Contributor
Notes

1938.03.12
Castlebay, Barra
Anna MacDougall
37 lines sung plus verses (first ever electric recording in Outer Hebrides. John Lorne Campbell).

1955.01
Ledaig, Barra
Flora MacNeil
9 single line verses with refrain between each verse. This is the version recorded by her later on and by Karen Matheson and Gìllebride MacMillan

1956.08.08

1956/94/1
Vatersay
Nan MacKinnon
22 single line verses with refrain between each verse
Transcribed in the SoSS Archive – lyrics follows

1957.016
1957.10.11
1967.149.A
Barra

Captain Donald Joseph MacKinnon
Transcribed in Campbell et al. ‘Hebridean Folksongs’ vol 3 (p220). 3 separate recordings of same song.

1958.05.09
Stornoway
Joan MacKenzie
16 single line verses with vocables between lines.

1959.079.B4
Linburn, Midlothian
Unknown
7 single line verses. Not a traditional Gaelic version of the song. Operatic version with harp accompaniment. Not same melody. Anomaly

1965.110.10
Barra
Barra Waulking women. Lead singer – Kate Buchanan
On Scottish Traditions 3: Waulking songs from Barra

Transcribed. Lyrics follow

1970.08
Barra
Kate MacNeil & Caitriona MacNeil
Transcribed in Campbell et al. ‘Hebridean Folksongs’ vol 3 (p220). Slightly different melody

1986.11.07
South Uist
Mairi MacInnes (daughter of Flora MacNeil)
Radio performance on BBC.

1988.10.21
Barra
Fèis Barraigh
Song was sung by children as a part of a performance recorded by the BBC.

Recordings of An Fhìdeag Airgid
Year
Information
Accompaniment
1972
It was first published as a song on an album by the School of Scottish Studies on their Scottish Tradition 3: Waulking Songs from Barra in 1972. It was performed by Kate Buchanan and chorus
Unaccompanied

1974
Mary O’Hara performed the song on her album Mary O’Hara’s Scotland
Unaccompanied

1994
Flora MacNeil on her 1994 album Craobh nan Urbal:Songs from the Western Isles
Unaccompanied

1995
Capercaillie – Glenfinnan: Songs of the ‘45
Piano

1997
Karen Matheson – Dreaming Seas
O Mo Dhuthaich by Anne Lorne Gillies
Piano
Unaccompanied/Wind instrument

2015
Gìllebride MacMillan and Bear McCreary – Outlander season 1 volume 2
Harp

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