Sgrìobh mi ‘s a’ bhlog mu dheireadh agam gu robh mi ‘dol a dh’innse dhuibh beagan mun teicneòlas a tha sinn a’ cur gu feum. Seo agaibh e, agus tha mi an dòchas gum bidh e feumail dhuibh. I wrote in my last blog post that I was going to tell you a bit about some of the technology that we put to use when transcribing. Here it is, I hope it will be of interest!
I find one of the most useful pieces of technology, when I’m transcribing, is having the ability to slow down a recording. Here are a some programs and a website for varying playback speed, and transcribing, that I have tried:
Express Scribe: This is a program that I purchased (there is a free version) that allows you to upload an audio file and type into a screen that is part of the program. I liked the speed control and a very nice feature is that when you press play after pausing the audio it rewinds a few seconds which saves a lot of time. BUT you can’t adjust the font and the type is quite small if you are working on a laptop. Also, if you have the free version it constantly asks you to download other programs. I think there are better options.
This is a very clear platform which also nicely slows down audio and rewinds a few seconds when you hit “play” after pausing the audio. (I don’t think I can transcribe without that feature now!)
It’s quite simple to upload audio
from your computer to the website.
The website will save your text
every five minutes to your web browser and will keep up to 100 copies (You just
have to push the history button on the right side of your transcript)
You can use “command” J to insert a ‘timestamp’…this
is useful if you just want to move on and come back later to something you didn’t
When you exit the page and return you often have to upload the audio again.
You have to be careful to copy and paste your work to an offline location on your computer in order to save and share.
Initially we found the the keyboard shortcuts were not ideal, for example the stop/start command was the ‘escape’ button at the top left of the keyboard. But since then we realized that you can customize your shortcut keys by going to the settings page
As I discovered, it seems that you have to avoid some of the keyboard short cuts that are used by the operating system, like command b (bold), command w (new window), command o (open) command t (new tab) etc. which limits the characters you can use.
Here is what I am trying, with some mnemonics that I made up to go with them.
Play/Pause. Command e (éirich)
Skip backwards – command a (air ais)
Skip forwards- command h (air adhart)
Rewind to start – command r (a-rithist)
Speed down- command m (nas maille)
Speed up- command l (nas luaithe)
Working with offline on your computer Quicktime and Windows Media Player will also give you the option to slow down audio:
Quicktime (for Mac):
Open Quicktime and open the file you need to alter; Click on the Window menu and open Show A/V controls; Use the controls at the bottom of the A/V window to alter the speed.
You can rewind a few seconds by
pulling back the “Jog Shuttle” toggle (bottom left).
Windows Media Player (for PC): (I work on a Mac laptop so don’t have access to this program so I can’t tell you if it has a similar function to “Jog Shuttle”…maybe someone can let us know?)
Open Windows Media Player and open the file you need to slow down; Click on the view menu and go down to Play Speed Settings; Click on this and the setting open at the bottom of the screen allowing you to speed up or slow down the music.
The nice part about working offline on your computer is that you will always have access to the files and it is easy to share your work-in-progress with friends by sharing it in a Google Doc. We’ll be exploring this idea further in a future post exploring the concept of the ‘transcription céilidh’ and ways you can use technology to facilitate group transcription. After all, as I like to say, it takes a village to transcribe a song…
Feasgar math dhuibh uile. Tha fios aig an fheadhainn a tha eòlach orm gu bheil mi gu math measail air rannsachadh agus a’ fuasgladh thòimhseachain. Tha na beachdan a leanas a’ dol a bhith ro shìmplidh do chuid agaibh ach tha mi ‘n dòchas gum bi ‘ad feumail do chàch…
Those who know me know that I’m very fond of research and untangling puzzles. Today I invite you to join me on a trip ‘down the rabbit hole’ (my preferred sort of journey). In other words… searching for Gaelic song texts on the internet.
I’ve was so fortunate that I was often able to learn songs from tradition bearers and my peers ‘air chèilidh’, through visiting. I’m also aware that experience isn’t readily available to everyone. But, we have the good fortune to have a wealth of recorded material from which to learn.
I was a student at St. F.X. when I first started to work on learning Gaelic songs. I didn’t have the means to go and visit my elders often, but I did have access to recordings. This was back in the era of cassettes, and just a bare bones internet, so I found it helpful to go The Father Brewer Celtic Collection at St. Francis Xavier University and go through published song collections to see if I could find a setting of the song that would give me a base from which to begin transcribing the version I had on tape.
Although it doesn’t replace the valuable experience of meandering through books in the library, the internet is now an extremely useful tool for searching for song texts as so many Gaelic publications have been uploaded to the internet in the form of searchable PDF’s. It’s amazing, really, what you can find!
Transcribing a song is an extremely useful exercise in building language skills and intimately getting to know a song and a singer. However, you can sometimes give yourself a head start on the transcription process by searching for a song online before you start.
(Clicking on any gold coloured text in the following example will give you a link to follow)
For example, I went to Gael Stream, the online platform for Dr. John Shaw’s Cape Breton Folklore and Folk Song Collection, housed at St. Francis Xavier University, and looked for a song I wasn’t familiar with (and there are plenty). I chose An t-Òigear Uallach, sung by Dan Joe MacNeil of Deepdale, Inverness County.
I suggest that if you can make out an unusual line from the song, searching for that line is the best way to narrow your search results. Those of you familiar with Gaelic song will know that searching for “O gur mise tha fo mhulad” [Oh, I am miserable] is going to give you too many results. (I tried it and got 2,600!)
In the case of this song, I thought that searching just the title in quotation marks might be specific enough, and I was right! A quick internet search showed me that this song was published in An t-Òranaiche but also appeared in Am Filidh , a collection of songs composed by Seumas Munro.
Sure enough, there was An t-Òigear Uallach, with just a few variations in the text as it was sung by Dan Joe MacNeil on Gael Stream.
I have to say, it isn’t always this easy to find such a close text and quite often you will have to do lot more transcribing. We’ll be posting more about some tips for that process in future blog posts.
As that went so swimmingly, and I hadn’t hardly even broken sod, I decided to see what I could find out about Seumas Munro. I searched his name (also in quotation marks) and found a short biography of a Seumas Munro in this jewel of a book :
On page 36 A. MacLean Sinclair writes…“Seumas Munro was born at Fort Inverlochy(?) around the year 1794. He was a school master for a long time at Blàr Odhar. He was educated, and full of music and poetry. He died in 1870. He was never married. The Gaelic Grammar that he put out is extremely valuable. For rules of writing Gaelic correctly it is the best one there is.”
As the song featured in MacLean Sinclair’s book is not An t-Òigear Uallach, I wasn’t sure if we were talking about the same Seumas Munro, SO (I did warn you this was going to be a trip down a rabbit hole, but I promise to stop soon…truly) I went to the National Library of Scotland, which is a complete wonder, and I did a search for Munro’s book “Am Filidh” and got this search result:
So you can see that “my” Seumas Munro also published a Gaelic primer, so it might be the Seumas Munro that A. MacLean Sinclair describes? If anybody has more information on the author of “Am Filidh” do let us know.
Time to come up for air. Hope you enjoyed the trip and that someone decides to start singing this song!
As my time with Language in Lyrics is winding down I find myself reflecting on what a fulfilling experience this has been for me. I can still recall with great detail the evening that I first received the news that I would be joining the team for the summer. It was the last evening of my month long immersion course at Colaisde na Gàidhlig, after having applied and completed my interview from my room on campus. I was sitting on the floor in Taigh Céilidh already feeling somewhat overwhelmed with emotion. I was feeling so blessed in my life to be surrounded entirely by a community of Gaelic for what was the 25th consecutive day. I was feeling thankful to have received a small handful of thoughtful gifts from my dear friends, including the most beautiful green ukelele I had ever seen. At the same time, I was sad to be leaving these friends, Cape Breton, and the immersion experience behind the following afternoon to head back to my life in Halifax. As we all chatted, sang, and played music, my phone buzzed with the notification that a new email that had just come in.
“Fhuair mi an obair! [I got the job],” I exclaimed. “It really is like Christmas for Cailín,” echoed back.
When learning about the various different tasks that I would be doing while working on the project, my excitement only grew. Not only would I have the opportunity to work with different resources to collect and input song data, but I would also be collecting quotes and idioms to create graphics and keeping a blog about the topics that interested me. This would provide me with the opportunity to learn more about Gaelic song, the bards that composed them, the communities that kept them alive, the traditions behind them, and the language itself. I would then be able to utilize my passion for writing as a tool to share the passion that I have for Gaelic. As someone whose heart yearns for my language and culture every waking moment that it is not actively present in my life, this was a dream come true.
I was very fortunate in my work with the project to be able to spend time entering data for Gaelic song collections from areas of Cape Breton that I had not previously done a lot of research on myself. This gave me the opportunity to widen my scope of knowledge in regards to Gaelic song and specific local characters, stories, and traditions. I would often play the audio recordings that were included with Guthan Prìseil, a wonderful collection with many of the songs being sourced from the Iona and Christmas Island areas of Cape Breton, while I was reading the pages and collecting data. Sitting in my living room and hearing the voices of the Gaels who came before me ebb and flow throughout the room as I read about their lives was truly a magical experience.
What was slightly unexpected to me was just how much I would learn through gathering quotes and idioms to create graphics with. Spending quieter days reading excerpts pertaining to the history and customs of various time periods, despite not always being related to specific songs or communities, provided depth and context to the entirety of the work I had been doing. At the same time I was unintentionally gaining knowledge about my own personal interests. It was through this process that I was able to learn more about Òrain Leannachd (Courtship Songs) and the true (often humorous) character of how they functioned at the milling table in the North Shore, a concept that I had previously heard of only in passing. I also had the pleasure of happening upon many other anecdotes that revealed much about the history of my people and my home, including one involving a man who had composed songs about his experience staying in Sydney upon arrival from North Uist. This was something small yet so personally significant to me as someone with North Uist roots hailing from Glace Bay.
Perhaps the most fulfilling of all has been channeling the excitement of learning and growing into writing these blog posts. It is a blessing to learn indeed, but an even greater blessing to share. I am so grateful to all who have taken the time to follow my journey throughout the weeks. I have genuinely felt the love and support of my community as the time has so quickly passed by.
In conclusion, this experience is one that has enriched my life greatly and I will forever remember the gift that it has been for me to be able to contribute to a project so meaningful to my community and so important in preserving and creating access to our language, culture, and specifically our songs.
It seems quite harmonious that I have spent the final days of my work with Language in Lyrics in the same place that it had began. Colaisde na Gàidhlig has been a huge cornerstone of my journey over the last few years, both providing me with a wide range of knowledge and allowing for the formation of truly invaluable relationships with others in my community. As I sat in MacKenzie Hall each evening, the sweet fiddle tunes of other passionate students surrounding me as I quietly worked away, my heart felt so full and warm. The timing of this journey was no accident: this is where I was always meant to be.
On May 30th, 2016 I attended an event at one of my local libraries for what is known here in Nova Scotia as Mìos nan Gàidheil, or Gaelic Nova Scotia Month. The event was a talk given by Gaelic Affairs head, Lewis MacKinnon, in which he spoke about cultural stereotypes and the Gaels, providing a great deal of historical context and information. After listening to the presentation, as I was still processing everything that I had learned, I asked a question of Lewis that I couldn’t have truly understood at that time: What does it mean to be a Gael?
Subconsciously for me, I believe that this question was an attempt to understand my own identity. I had learned so much about the places that my family had come from and who they were at the core of their Gaelic identities, and it had left me wondering what that meant for my own. What words could I use to refer to someone in my situation, having grown up with vague cultural traditions in place but a lack of meaningful language to describe them? My father’s mother was certainly a Gael. A handful of my mother’s great grandparents were Gaels. But what was I? And what could I become if I were to channel this confusion and curiosity into breaking the chain of colonization and shame?
I asked one follow-up question that evening: where could I begin to learn Gaelic in Halifax?
My first class through Sgoil Ghàidhlig an Àrd-Bhaile, the local Gaelic Society in Halifax, took place in January 2017 at the home of Laura Stirling, who has since become a dear friend and my greatest mentor. The class was quite small and it was done through total immersion in the language, involving lots of repetition and hands on learning. This was a stark contrast to the formal language learning that I had been used to. However, as I sat there with nine years of French education and yet not a word of French coming to mind, I decided to commit myself to the experience. At the end of the winter session I was feeling quite comfortable with what I had learned.
I was somewhat
dismayed, however, when it turned out I would not be able to take a beginner
class in the next session. Laura assured me that she had faith in my ability to
move forward and added that, should I feel uncomfortable during the first
couple of classes, I could always pull out until the Autumn session.
When I arrived to the first class of the following session, I immediately felt overwhelmed. There were quite a few people there and they appeared to already be quite familiar with one another. As Laura went around the circle asking each student how they were to start off the evening, I also noticed that each person seemed to be worlds ahead of where I was with my Gaelic at that time.
I had three major worries: Would I be accepted as a newcomer? Would my lack of Gaelic hold others back in their learning? And would I truly be able to succeed if I already felt so unprepared? Despite these questions, I didn’t want to give up so easily. It wasn’t long before I knew that I had made the right decision. One evening, during some friendly banter between students, one of the women placed her hand on my shoulder and exclaimed that, well, I was one of them now. I can distinctly remember the feelings that I had had upon hearing those words. I felt accepted, I felt supported, and I felt the roots of true community as they began to plant themselves firmly into my life.
My efforts started small and continued with the help of Laura and many of my fellow students. I knew that I would be asked how I was at the beginning of class, so I would use that opportunity to practice a different phrase each evening. When I would leave class, I would go home and speak to my cats in Gaelic using the new words and phrases that I had learned that week (they hardly ever answered). I would spend the days in between classes attempting to narrate my life with my limited yet growing vocabulary and listening to milling songs and puirt-à-beul while doing housework, cooking, and traveling. I followed every resource for Gaelic in Nova Scotia on social media. This small, final step proved to be a true catalyst to my learning.
In November of 2017 I took a leap of faith and signed up for a weekend immersion at the Gaelic College. I arrived ‘Glace Bay early’, which is entirely the opposite of what I now know as ‘Gaelic Time’(!) I was nervous to be away from home and to try to build connections with so many new people in the community. All of the worries that I had experienced previously began to come back in this new environment. I once again continued on, though, having some lengthy conversations in English and a few scattered chats in Gaelic. It wasn’t until the second night that I had experienced my second ‘one of us’ moment. I was sitting in MacKenzie Hall with a handful of other young women, chatting exclusively in Gaelic and trying my best to keep up. They were all encouraging and supporting me as I fumbled through the conversation. I didn’t think I could really have an unscripted, colloquial conversation in Gaelic with only ten months of learning under my belt, and yet there I was. I wasn’t speaking perfectly, I couldn’t say everything that I would have been able to in English, but that was no longer a worry: I had some Gaelic, I was using it, and people were understanding me.
Shortly after arriving home, I was inspired to commit myself to doing more than just one class a week. I signed up for an intermediate class with Beth-Anne MacEachen during Sgoil Ghàidhlig’s Spring session while still continuing to do a weekly class with Laura. During this time I also participated in my second immersion weekend at the Gaelic College and attended the Gaels Summit in Mabou, which involved six hours of travel and spending most of two days alone (outside of the event) in a place that I had never been to before. I believe this is where I truly started to build my reputation as someone dedicated to, and passionate about, what I was starting to consider my language and my community.
In the last year or so, I have truly devoted myself to growth: attaining a higher level of fluency, gaining wider cultural knowledge, and building strong connections to others in the community. I have attended various sessions at the Gaelic College, social immersion weekends, a handful of one-day immersions, a variety of cultural events and workshops and two Gaels Jams. I have had the opportunity to participate in the creation of a Gaelic film, and most recently completed An Cùrsa Bogaidh, a month-long immersion course offered by The Gaelic College, living on campus for the entirety of the course. I realize that I am blessed to have had access to so many wonderful, enriching experiences. It is through these that I have discovered what I consider to have been the most integral part of my learning: the transmission of language and culture through community and the development of a meaningful connection to my people. Being able to read tha gaol agam oirbh feels little in comparison to having so many people that I could say it to, and hearing the songs that pour passionately out of the mouths of my friends at a céilidh will always surpass even the most pristine professional recording.
The roots that had begun to plant themselves into my life over two years ago are now steady and growing. I am ‘at home’ wherever I hear the sweet sounds of fiddle music accompanying a chorus of ‘’s fhada bhon uair sin!’ and ‘ciamar a tha thu?’. I am a Gael. And I am forever grateful to everyone that has played a role in leading me to this answer since that day on May 30th, 2016.
This event will be held at the main campus of the Gaelic College in St. Ann’s. The Gaelic College is where all the Celtic Colours artists stay during the festival so it will NOT be possible to stay on after Oct 11. If you are planning to stay in Cape Breton beyond Oct 11, please look for accommodations as soon as possible as they will fill up.
You will find the most accommodation
options in Sydney (where this is also local transportation and inexpensive
taxis; there will also be concerts within the area most nights of the
festival). The following hotels and motels are all in or close to the centre of
Please also check booking.com and AirBnB for other options. Note that there are many “Sydneys” (North Sydney, Sydney Mines, Sydney River, Sydney Forks) – these are close to Sydney but NOT the same as Sydney. You will require a car to get from these places into Sydney. Let us know if you are at all unsure about the locations of accommodations you are considering.
Baddeck is only a 20 minute drive from the
Gaelic College and an hour from Sydney. It is a charming town centrally located
on the island. It is also possible to take a free shuttle bus from Baddeck to
the Gaelic College every evening where Celtic Colours’ after-hours Festival
Club is held. It is possible to take a shuttle bus from Baddeck to Halifax. A
taxi from Baddeck to Sydney will cost about $125.
Port Hawkesbury is located near the
causeway linking Cape Breton Island to the mainland. It is about a 90-minute
drive from Sydney. It is possible to take an intercity or shuttle bus from Port
Hawkesbury to Halifax.
There are many other accommodation options
(primarily motels and B&Bs) located across Cape Breton. Just be aware that
you will need a car to reach most. Check the distances from accommodations to
Celtic Colours events that you want to attend.
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
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.
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.
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:
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?