TOBAR AN DUALCHAIS: Spiritual tradition of Gàidhealtachd’s female bards

Catriona Campbell of Barvas, Lewis, composed spiritual songs which would never be used in church worship but were popular in the community. (c) Nan Smith

Tobar and Dualchais includes some wonderful examples of spiritual songs composed by female bards, writes FRANCES WILKINS….

The Gàidhealtachd is full of outstanding female bards and singers, and this has been the case throughout history.

Names including as Sìleas na Ceapaich (c1660-1729), Mary MacDonald (1789-1872) and Màiri Mhòr nan Òran (1821-1898) continue to live on as some of the most impressive and prolific Gaelic bards. In the Highland tradition, the worldview of poets is steeped in spirituality, and they comfortably bring elements of the sacred into secular compositions and secular imagery into their sacred verse.

There are a wealth of compositions, by both women and men, that focus specifically on the spiritual, and “dàin spioradail” (“spiritual poems”) form a substantial corpus within Gaelic verse.

In the Presbyterian tradition, while women may lack a voice or authority in the church domain, the domestic environment has been quite different.

Many women have actively composed and sung spiritual songs, and precented psalms in their homes and in their communities. A number of the songs are still sung today.

Tobar and Dualchais includes some wonderful examples of spiritual songs composed by female bards.

Here, I’ll explore the music of four women who were known for their bàrdachd, including the writing of spiritual songs, and whose music can be found in the archives.

These are Sìleas na Ceapach from Keppoch, Mary MacDonald from Mull, Catriona Campbell from Lewis, and Christina Morrison from Scalpay, Harris. 

Sìleas na Ceapaich (C) Scottish Poetry Library.

Sìleas Nighean Mhic Raghnaill (Sìleas na Ceapach) (c1660-1729), was from Bohuntin, near Keppoch in Inverness-shire. She was a woman of high social status and the daughter of Gilleasbaig Mac Mhic Raghnaill, the 15th chief of the MacDonalds of Keppoch.

She went on to marry Alexander Gordon of Camdell, the hereditary factor to the Duke of Gordon, and reside with him in Beldorney Castle in Banffshire. She was a prolific poet and greatly admired in her time.

Most of her compositions, in vernacular Gaelic, were passed down through oral tradition. 

Sìleas na Ceapach composed on many subjects including politics and religion, and was particularly well known for writing laments. Her Roman Catholic faith was clearly present within her spiritual song compositions and one her hymns, ‘’S e do Bheatha Mhoire Mhaighdean’ (‘Hail to Thee, Virgin Mary’) was popular in Hebridean Catholic communities well into the twentieth century.

Tobar and Dualchais alone has at least nine version of the hymn, recorded from various contributors in Benbecula and South Uist.

One example is Fanny MacIsaac from Torlum in Benbecula, who was recorded singing the hymn in October 1950 (TAD ID 26401) and another is Marion Campbell from Frobost in South Uist in 1957 (TAD ID 44595).

The hymn is addressed to and in praise of the Virgin Mary, as are a number of hymns in the Catholic tradition, but in this composition she also tells the story of the life of Jesus from birth until his death on the cross.

The full hymn is an impressive 40 quatrains sung as twenty 8-line verses. While I didn’t hear the hymn during my own fieldwork on the islands in 2021-2023, I notice that it does feature in the hymnbook, Seinnibh dhan Tighearna (no.77), which was published in 1984 and is in use in churches on the islands. 

There were a number of popular Christmas hymns composed in the Gaelic tradition. Perhaps the most well-known of all is ‘Leanabh an Àigh’ (Child of Joy), written by Mary MacDonald (1789-1872) from the Isle of Mull and sung to the traditional tune, Bunessan, which is named after the village where she lived.

The melody went on to become famous worldwide as the tune of the popular English hymn, ‘Morning Has Broken’.

However it has changed hugely since ‘Leanabh an Àigh’ was composed in the early 1800s. An example of a version which must be quite close to the original is sung by Donald Morrison (1885-1986), a crofter and fisherman who was born and raised in Ardtun, Bunessan – very close to where Mary MacDonald had lived.

This was recorded by Calum Iain MacLean in 1953 and is the only recording of the hymn that I could find in the Tobar and Dualchais archive (TAD ID 4768).


Most of Mary MacDonald’s songs existed only in oral tradition and were never written down. Because of this, there is very little we know of the breadth and depth of her writing, and much is believed to have been lost.

However there are a couple of other example of her writing in Tobar an Dualchais including a short extract of ‘Ciamar a Dh’fhaodas Mi Gun a Bhith A’ Labhairt Air’ (‘How Can I Not Talk About It’) (TAD ID 4800), and a humorous song, ‘Sìoman Donn, Fada Donn’ (TAD ID 353).

Both were sung by Neil MacLean, a crofter and forestry worker, also from from Ardtun, Bunessan, in 1953 and recorded by Calum Iain MacLean.

It is amazing to see that the recordings of her songs all came from the place where she had lived, showing an ongoing appreciation of her poetry in the place of her birth.

Moving forward to the twentieth century, the 1949-52 awakening in Lewis and Harris, witnessed a great outpouring of spiritual song compositions.

Many songs emerging at this time were written by people who were entirely new to bàrdachd. Catriona Campbell (née Smith) from the west side of Lewis and Christina Morrison from Scalpay, Harris, were two such writers. Catriona Campbell was born into a crofting family in Upper Shader, Barvas, in 1931.

She was converted during the awakening as a young woman and was moved and encouraged to express her feelings in song. Later she married and moved with her family to Stornoway, working as a cleaner in the Post and Sorting Office.

Song writing stayed with her throughout her life and her spiritual compositions including ‘O Mo Chlann’ (O My Children), which was written about her hopes for her children, and ‘O ’S E Ìosa Fear Mo Ghràidh’ (‘O, Jesus is My Beloved’) are still sung to this day.

She was a beautiful singer too and was recorded by the BBC singing ‘O Mo Chlann’.

The recording is unfortunately not available on Tobar an Dualchais but it is still in the BBC archives and is available to be requested on programmes such as the Friday night ‘Dùrachdan’ on BBC Radio nan Gaidheal.

Tobar an Dualchais does currently have one recording of ‘O Mo Chlann’ sung by Torquil MacLeod from Stornoway who sang it at the Royal National Mod in Lairgs in 2002 (TAD ID 96558).

Torquil explained to me during an interview in 2022 that ‘Catriona composed many spiritual songs which would never be used in church worship, but would be sung in companies, in gatherings.

When you read her poetry and sing her songs, they resonate with you. It’s not just the language, there’s a great spiritual input in them.

They speak from the heart.’ 


 ‘O ’S E Ìosa Fear Mo Ghràidh’ is a hymn about the love and support offered by Jesus Christ. It is described by Magaidh Smith, from Achmore, Lewis, as showing ‘The faith which underpins this community’, and is one of Campbell’s better-known compositions.

It is one of the many Revival songs framed around ‘Fear mo Ghràidh’, ‘The Beloved’ of The Song of Solomon (5:1-4). Rachel MacLeod of Berneray, Harris, was recorded singing this in 1980, at the age of  71, by Ian Paterson, also from Berneray, who was at that time a lecturer and fieldworker for the School of Scottish Studies (TAD ID 105508).

The fact that this song was sung as far south as Berneray shows that Campbell’s composition was not just known in her local community but had spread out to other parts of the Hebrides. 

Christina Morrison (1886-1972), a hymn writer from the island of Scalpay, Harris, was from a family of well-known bards from the island.

Her husband, Donald Morrison (1886-1952) was known to have composed outstanding hymns, and her son, DR Morrison, was a journalist, writer and highly respected poet who was crowned bard at the National Mod in 1958. Christina herself was a gifted poet.

Her hymn, ‘Tha an Gràdh Seo Cho Laidir’ (This Love is So Strong’), which describes the ways that God’s love is shown to us humans, has become very popular. It begins, ‘This love is so strong, death can neither touch it nor overcome it’.

Morag MacLeod, the folklorist from Scalpay, states that ‘Any preacher could be well pleased to have produced such a sermon. in terms of popularity, the song would equal ‘Amazing Grace’ in proportion to the comparative potential audience size.’ (MacLeod, 2023).

There are four recordings of the song in the archives of Tobar and Dualchais, two of which were recorded by Morag MacLeod herself.

They are all beautiful examples of the song, such as the versions sung by Morag MacLeod (not the same person) in 1957 (TAD ID 101171) and Christine Morrison in 1940 (TAD ID 67279), both from Stornoway.

The song is clearly suited to solo singing and stands out as a unique composition and contribution to the corpus of Gaelic spiritual songs.

There are many other wonderful female bards in this tradition, and their influences have been long-lasting.

Some of their work has remained at a local level while the poetry of others, such as Mary MacDonald’s Leanabh an Aigh, has become widespread across Scotland and beyond. Spirituality has been so integrated with daily life in the Highlands that it is hard to detach one from the other.

The spiritual poetry of female bards can give us a precious insight into the concerns and experiences of Highland women at the time as well as shed light on their personal approaches to religion and spirituality.

Frances Wilkins is senior lecturer in ethnomusicology at the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen and a professional musician, who lives in Breakish on Skye.

The website contains some 50,000 oral recordings on songs, music, poetry and factual information made in Scotland and further afield.

Dr Frances Wilkins has spent the last six years undertaking fieldwork in the West Highlands and Western Isles and exploring sacred and spiritual singing from the region.

Research to highlight traditional forms of Gaelic singing has now been turned into an exhibition which will tour Hebridean communities in 2024 and 2025.

The exhibition has been at Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway since 20th January – and will be on show at the Kinloch Historical Society in Balallan (Lewis) until 17th June.

The exhibition will then tour other Hebridean communities including Portree (Skye), Lionacleit (Benbecula) and Ness (Lewis). Visitors can learn more about sacred song traditions of the region and explore sound recordings, film, objects, and a digital archive, soundmap and interactive virtual tour.