Ged Tha Mi ’s a Choill’ Am Falach| Although I Am Hidden in the Forest
By Cailín Laing / Colleen Lynk
In the 1800s, Nova Scotia saw the arrival of thousands of families from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland to Cape Breton, Antigonish, and Pictou County. Increasing rent costs, eviction and displacement by unsympathetic landlords, and a lack of religious freedom in regards to Catholicism are just some of the factors that caused so many Gaels to leave their homelands. The dangerous journey across the Atlantic was long and arduous and the majority of these families arrived with little to no money. Upon arrival in Nova Scotia, the hardships continued with harsh winters, crop failures, and many who had rarely ever seen a tree being required to clear forest land shortly after stepping foot on the soil.
Despite the many adversities faced by the Gaels of Nova Scotia, however, strong communities were formed that allowed the various unique dialects of Gaelic and specific cultural traditions of their homelands to endure outside of Scotland. The tradition of bàrdachd [poetry] and song endured so strongly on this side of the Atlantic that it allows us to really take a look at the emigrant experience as expressed by those living at the time, as well as their descendants.
Arguably the most well known piece of bàrdachd discussing the hardships that the Gaels faced upon arrival in Nova Scotia was written by Bard MacLean, or Am Bàrd Thighearna Chola (The Bard of the Laird of Coll). Born in Tiree in the year 1787, John MacLean emigrated to Barney’s River, Pictou County in 1819, shortly after his first works of poetry were published. It is here that he composed A’ Choille Ghruamach (The Gloomy Forest), also known as Òran do Dh’ America (A Song to America), a song that expresses his true feelings after leaving his homeland. MacLean speaks of the loneliness he feels being so far from where he was raised and the difficulties he faces in adjusting to the weather and the ways of life in Nova Scotia. He also warns of the deceit of the Emigration Officers, who were promising happiness and prosperity should the Gaels leave their homelands.
’S tha mise ’m ònar ’s a’ choille ghruamach,
Tha m’ inntinn luaineach, cha tog mi fonn.
Am meadhon fàsach an Abhainn Bhàrnaidh,
Gun dad as fheàrr leam na buntàta lom.
Mun dèan mi àit’ ann ’s mun cur mi bàrr ann,
’S choille ghàbhaidh chuir far à bonn,
Le neart mo ghàirdean gum bi mi sàraicht’,
Is treis a fàilig mu fàs a chlann.
’S nuair thig na dròbhairean ’nis gan iarraidh,
’S ann leis na breugan a nì iad feum.
Gun focal fìrinn aca ’ga ìnnse
Ach cruithidh dìteadh mar their am beul.
Dè ’s fheàrrd’ bhi ’g innse gu bheil ’s an tìr seo
Gach nì as prìseil a tha fo’n ghrèin
Nuair chì sibh ’n t-àite sin gun dad a chì sibh
Ach coille dhìreach toirt dhibh nan speur.
I’m here alone in the gloomy forest,
My mind wanders, I cannot raise a tune.
Everything is barren in Barney’s River,
With nothing better than the bare potato.
Before I build a place here, and I plant a crop,
And fell the dense forest,
With the strength of my shoulder, I shall be tired
And my strength failing before the children grow.
When the drovers come to entice them,
It’s with lies they succeed
Without a word of truth,
But the case stated as they voice it.
What is the use of saying that in this land
There is everything that is precious under the sun
When you came to the place you cannot see anything
But the tall forest blocking out the skies.
A version of A’ Choille Ghruamach can be heard on Sruth nan Gaidheal sung by John Shaw of Indian Brook, Nova Scotia. The above words are from a transcription of a recording in the MacEdward Leach Collection.
Another powerful song that discusses the plight of the emigrant comes out of the North Shore of Cape Breton. Composed by a man who was originally from the Isle of Harris, Cha Mhòr Nach Cho Math Dhuinn Sguir a Bhi Strì (It’s Just as Well That We Stop Striving) expresses his frustration with being unable to grow his crops in the harsh climate of the North Shore. He laments that were he back in his homeland of Harris, things would be much easier.
’Nuair chuir mi an t-eòrna ’s bu chor dha bhi fàs
’S ann na laighe gu h-iosal na shineadh air lar
’S ged a dh’èireadh a’ ghrian air chan èireadh e’n àird
’S ann a thòisich e crìonadh ’s cha b’fhiach e dhuinn strac.
Ach nam bithinn ’s na Hearadh far na chleadh mi bhi òg
Chan fhaicinn de’n ghaillionn ach frasagan reòdht’
Is tonnan na mara gan sadadh mar cheò
’Dol suas feadh an fhearainn ’s bu mhath leinn bhi fòp’
When I planted the barley, it should have grown
It lay flattened to the ground
And though the sun shone, it did not revive it
It started to wither and was of no use.
But if I were in Harris, where I was brought up
The stormiest weather was just showers of hail
The waves of the ocean blew them like mist
Spreading over the land and it was good to be out then.
The entirety of the words to this song as well as a snippet of the tune can be found on the website for the MacEdward Leach Collection.
Though various accounts such as these tell us of the difficulties that had initially faced Gaels in Nova Scotia, there have also been a number of compositions that highlight the resilience of the people, the strength of community, and the beauty of hearing Gaelic endure within these newly formed settlements. Interestingly enough, one of these compositions was written by none other than Bard MacLean, the composer of A’ Choille Ghruamach.
Bithibh Aotrom ’s Togaibh Fonn is a stark contrast to A’ Choille Ghruamach, using much of the same language to paint quite a different picture of Gaelic life in Nova Scotia. Now living in Antigonish County and just after having been invited to a Spring Ball exclusive to Gaelic speakers in the area, Bard MacLean praises the strength and vigour of the Gaels.
Bithibh aotrom ’s togaibh fonn,
Cridheil, sùnndach gun bhi trom,
’G òl deoch-slàinte na bheil thall,
Ann an Tìr nam Beann ’s nan Gleannaibh
Fhuair mi sgeul a tha leam binn,
Dh’ ùraich gleus air teud mo chinn,
’S bidh mi nis a’ dol ’g a sheinn,
Ged tha mi ’s a choill am falach.
’S raoir a fhuair mi sgeul air àigh
Dhùisg e m’ìnntinn suas gu dàn
Bhi ’gam iarraidh dh’ionnsaidh bhàil
Aig na Gàidheil thùs an Earraich
’S òlaibh air na Gàidheil threun
Rachadh aigeanach air ghleus
’S a bha fuasgailteach gu feum
Sealgairean na fèidh ’s nam beanntan.
Be merry and raise a song
Light-hearted, happy, not at all gloomy
Drink the health of those far away
In the land of the glens and mountains.
Last night I heard sweet news
That tuned the strings of my mind
And I will now begin to sing
Since I am hidden in the woods
Last night I found happiness
That awakened my mind to verse
To be asked to the dance
That the Gaels hold in the beginning of Spring.
Drink to the hardy Gaels
Who tackled anything with vigour
Who were ready to give a helping hand
Hunters of the deer on the hills”
The above text is from the MacEdward Leach Collection. An audio recording of Peter Jack MacLean of Rear Christmas Island singing Bithibh Aotrom ’s Togaibh Fonn can be found on An Drochaid Eadarainn. There is also a video of Peter Jack singing this tune available on Cainnt Mo Mhàthar. This song is still quite commonly heard around Nova Scotia.
Another well known tune that praises the beauty of Gaelic Nova Scotia was composed by Malcolm Gillis of South-West Margaree, born in 1856 to a family with roots in Morar. In Na Cnuic ’s na Glinn, also known simply as Am Bràighe, Malcolm speaks of the love and admiration that he holds for Margaree, the people living there, and for his language.
Na cnuic ’s na glinn bu bhòidhche leinn
’S iad cnuic is glinn a’ Bhràighigh
Mu’n tric bha sinn ri mànran binn
’S e chomunn ghrinn a b’fheàrr leinn
Chan ’eil àite ’n diugh fo’n ghrèin
’S am b’fheàrr leam fhein bhi tàmhachd
Na Bràigh na h-Aibhneadh measg nan sonn
O’m faighte fuinn na Gàidhlig.
The hills and glens that to us are most beautiful
Are the hills and glens of the uplands
Where we often sang sweet melodies
In the company we liked best.
There is no place under the sun today
Where I would rather stay
Than the hills of Margaree, among the heroes,
Where the melodies of Gaelic can be heard.
An audio recording of Am Bràighe can be found on Sruth nan Gàidheal, while the above text is taken from the MacEdward Leach Collection. Another version of this song was composed about the Isle of Skye by Rev. Norman MacDonald upon hearing Malcolm Gillis’ own composition, which is available for streaming on Tobar an Dualchais.
Through examining the varying experiences expressed within these songs we can see not only how resilient the Gaels have had to be in order to keep their spirits, communities, culture, and language alive despite exile and emigration to a foreign land, but also just how vital the impact of having these strong communities was to creating space where this resilience could truly flourish. The same could be said of the importance of community to the Gaels in Nova Scotia today, where we are fortunate enough to be able to come together and sing these songs of the people who came before us proudly as a way to keep their words and experiences alive.