Às A’ Chladach… | The Art of Being Unable to Not Give ’Er
By Cailín Laing (Colleen Lynk)
The North Shore of Cape Breton is a stretch of small communities located along the shoreline in Victoria County, running from St. Ann’s Bay to Wreck Cove. With the majority of the people who settled in the area coming from the isles of Lewis and Harris, the North Shore is home to many of its own unique traditions and a beautiful, distinct dialect of Gaelic. The North Shore is known for its high energy and often comedic songs, the local bards that would compose them, and the talented singers who kept them alive. The most well known were The North Shore Gaelic Singers, a group of men from the area who would often sing together, who famously performed on a stage that would later feature Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. They also made many appearances at local events and milling frolics, where I have heard that it was often a requirement to nail the tables to the floor to prevent them from jumping around with just how passionately the cloth would be beaten.
I can vividly recall the first time that I had the joy of experiencing a true North Shore song at the milling table. Though this experience took place quite far along into my Gaelic journey and was hardly the first time that I had sat in on a milling, it felt as though I was sitting at the table and beating the cloth for the very first time. It was as if I had no control over my hands as the cloth moved, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of wonder and amazement. This is a feeling that has stayed with me to this day. Perhaps the love for these songs is something I inherited, as my great grandmother Margaret MacLean was born and raised in Goose Cove by a family proud of their Gaelic and of their strong Harris roots. Perhaps it was simply the catchy tune and the undeniable pull of the rhythm. Regardless, the heart, the liveliness, and the spirit of the North Shore radiated through the song as it was sung and inspired a phrase that still follows me to this day: he was just so unable to not give ‘er, you know?
The song that had initially sparked my interest in the songs of the North Shore is one that many others are also likely quite fond of: An t-Each Ruadh aig Roland Steele. This humorous song was composed by Hector Carmichael of Munro’s Point and Garrett MacDonald of Meadows Road. Utilizing the power of exaggeration, the song discusses the state of Roland Steele’s horse, specifically who is responsible for the poor craftsmanship of his shoes, while also commenting on the general condition of the horse who appears to have not been properly cared for during the winter – though Roland himself claims differently.
Nuair a ràinig e an stòir,
Bha ’n t-each na lon a falluis aig’,
‘S ann thuirt Bessie às an stòr
‘Lord, how that horse was travelling’
Gur e Hector bha gu cruideadh,
Sid a mhill na casan aig’,
G’an cuir air le tairnean bàta
Gur h-ann a b’fheàrr a dh’fhannadh iad
Sid far an robh am beathach lively,
Falbh a dhriveadh sgoilearan,
Nuair a ràinig e an Cobh,
Cha mhòr bhitheadh ann air tòiseach air.
When he raced up to the store,
The horse was in a pool of sweat,
Said Bessie in the store,
‘Lord, how that horse was travelling’
It was Hector that used to shoe him,
He’s the one who spoiled his feet,
For he shod the horse with boat nails,
So that they’d last a longer time.
And he was a lively horse once,
Driving children to the school,
When he came into the Cove,
There’s none would be ahead of him.
Listen to a recording from Music of Cape Breton, Volume 1 / The North Shore Singers
Also on An Drochaid Eadarainn as an audio file and video.
An t-Each Geal, also known as An Oidhche Bha Luadh Ann, is another North Shore song that I fell in love with recently during my stay at The Gaelic College for An Cùrsa Bogaidh 2019, where instructor Emily MacDonald played a recording of a version sung by Malcolm Angus MacLeod of Skir Dhu that can be found on An Drochaid Eadarainn. Composed by Norman ‘Lazuras’ MacDonald of the North Shore, this song describes a night where some young men in the community had borrowed a white horse from their neighbour to pull their sleigh and take them to the local milling frolic. The song also touches on how the milling frolics often served as a place for young people to meet and court, with the different versions calling out some of these matches by name.
’S an oidhche bha luadh ann
A rinn na balaich gluasad;
Gun n’ chum iad chun an tuath i,
Mo thruaigh mar a dh’éirich.
’S ann shuas aig àite Tharmaid
Siod far na thachair garbh riuth’;
Thuirt Beileag Mhór, “Gu dearbha
Tha ’n fhearg air a’ bhéist ud.”
’S ann an uair sin dheònaich ’ad
Gun dhéidheadh Aingidh còmhla riuth’;
’S ann aig Niall Beag bha spòrs orra,
’S na boys air na reins.
The night of the milling
Was when the boys got moving
And then they headed northward
A pity how it happened.
’Twas down at Norman’s farm that
They ran into trouble
Then Morag said, ‘Indeed now,
That beast is surely crazy.’
And ’twas then that they agreed
That Angus should accompany them,
And little Neil had lots of fun
With those who were driving.
[These lyrics are from the An Drochaid website]
Listen to an alternative version on Sruth nan Gàidheal.
Other lively tunes commonly sung around the North Shore that I believe are deserving of mentioning and that I find myself singing quite often are:
- A Mhorag ‘s na ho ro Ghealaidh
- ‘Illean Àigh
- Ma Bhuannaich thu Nighean Ghrinn
- O a Hu a Nighean Dubh Nighean Donn
My hope is that this post might inspire others to explore and learn more about the wonderful world of North Shore Gaelic and the songs and traditions of the area. More information about the North Shore and these traditions can be found on the An Drochaid Eadarainn website, including more songs, music, proverbs, and stories. With Gael Stream now partially restored, many other audio recordings from the area are once more accessible online. For Apple Music and Spotify users, Cape Breton Music Volume One: Gaelic Tradition in Cape Breton is available for streaming. This album includes a variety of high quality audio recordings of the North Shore Gaelic Singers themselves. To learn more about the men of The North Shore Gaelic Singers and the milling traditions of the area, a lovely article was published in Cape Breton Magazine on December 12, 1978 and is available to view in full on their website. Cainnt mo Mhàthar, a website featuring audio and video recordings of interviews with native Gaelic speakers from throughout the province, also provides an opportunity to hear more examples of the North Shore dialect.
To keep the conversation going and the list of songs growing, I would love to hear from all of you: what is YOUR favourite North Shore Gaelic song? Or, if this post was your introduction to the North Shore, which of the songs featured did you enjoy the most?