Gaelic’s haunting psalmody was a soundscape to a way of life

Photos were taken by Mairi Martin as part of the ‘Psalm Boat Project’ on Lewis

FRANCES WILKINS is a lecturer in Ethnomusicology at the Elphinstone InstituteUniversity of Aberdeen and a professional musician, who lives in Breakish on the Isle of Skye. As a field researcher, Frances specialises in Scottish and Northern Canadian singing and instrumental traditions. Her most recent research project, funded by the Carnegie Trust, explores the sacred song traditions of the West Highlands and Western Isles. 

Tobar an Dualchais and the Gaelic Sacred Soundscape

Gaelic psalmody is a beautiful, haunting form of music which is unique to the Scots Gaelic speaking world, now mostly within West Highlands and Western Isles and the Gaelic diaspora in our major cities, but in the past spanning across the Gàidhealtachd. The tradition dates back to at least 1659 when, in the wake of the Scottish Reformation, Gaelic translations of the Psalms of David were first published, to be sung unaccompanied and led by a male precentor (fear togail an fhuinn or salmaiche), who ‘put out the line’ (‘cur a-mach na loidhne’) so that everyone in the congregation could follow, regardless of  their reading ability. The prescribed psalm tunes would originally have been the same as those for English psalms, using the popular ballad meter, and had names including London New, Kilmarnock, Glasgow and Moravia. However, because this meter wasn’t familiar to the Gaelic ear, the tunes were adapted hugely over time. The tradition has gained recognition internationally as a highly stylized, unique form of musical worship which can be heard in Scotland’s Gaelic-speaking Presbyterian churches, particularly on Lewis, Harris, North Uist and Skye. The Gaelic psalmody tradition developed over the centuries to become a unique form of singing with each syllable of each line encompassing many notes. With a characteristically slow tempo, voices drift in and out, creating a swelling effect often described by those in the tradition as a musical reflection of the world around them, the ebb and flow of the waves and the movement in the sea, the stark nature of the land and sea-scape reflected in the singing. 

But psalmody was not just heard in churches, and was often heard as part of the soundscape of everyday life. Calum Martin from Callanish in Lewis, told me of his memories of family worship as a child, which took place daily in the morning and evening. Every household would assemble together to sing an extract of a psalm, read a portion of scripture and participate in family prayer. Children would be summoned in from their play to take part, and the whole neighbourhood would resonate with the sounds of each family as they performed their daily rituals. Another tradition, which has been researched and celebrated in recent years by those involved in Pròiseact Bàta nan Salm (the Psalm Boat Project), was the singing of psalms by people returning by boat from communion services. This happened on several sea lochs in Lewis and Harris. The sound of psalm singing filled the air as the boats left for home turning in separate directions to different settlements along the coast, is something that is remembered by many people, often as a poignant memory of a time when spirituality resounded at the heart of the communities. 

Searching through the catalogue of Tobar an Dualchais I have found numerous examples of sacred singing from these islands from a variety of sources. One example the stunning precenting of Murdina MacDonald from the village of Ballantrushal (Baile an Truiseil) on Lewis. Murdina was born in 1920 and was recorded singing an incredible 174 psalms and spiritual songs between 1955-1969 by field workers including Thorkild Knudsen, Abby Sale, Morag MacLeod and Francis Collinson. Considering the immense interest in her singing, I found it surprising that I could find so little about her life except where she was born and lived, but the fact that she precented so well outside the church (women were not permitted to precent in public worship), shows another side to the psalmody tradition which wouldn’t have been visible in public life. 

Murdina is often joined by the singing of her parents, Marion MacDonald and Angus MacDonald, and her sister Effie MacDonald, (although they are not to be confused with the secular singing MacDonald sisters from the same part of Lewis). She was also included in two albums of music from the Western Isles in the Scottish Tradition series of the School of Scottish Studies back in the early 1970s. In the early 2000s, Murdina and Effie’s singing was discovered in the archives by the groundbreaking musician and composer, Martyn Bennett and must have made quite an impression on him as he used a sample of them singing a psalm together as the basis for his track, ‘Liberation’, which he included on his last album, Grit, in 2003. Murdina sang a wealth of Gaelic hymns too, especially on the recordings made by Morag MacLeod in the late 1960s, including Tha do Rìoghachd Làn do Ghlòir (‘The Kingdom is Full of Glory’) and Latha a’ Bhreitheanais (‘The Day of Judgement’), written by Peter Grant, plus one hymn in English, The Gospel Ship, an extract of which is below:

            What is this ship yon sailing in, this wondrous ship of fame

            This ship is called the Church of God, and Christ the Captain’s name

            Come and join the happy crew, that’s bound for Canaan’s shore

            The captain says thre’s room for you, and room for millions more.

            Murdina MacDonald, recorded by Morag MacLeod
(TaD ID: 74746)

There is also just one very short extract of her speaking, where she reveals to Abby Sale the distinction between the hymns she is singing, and the psalmody of the established church:

            They don’t sing hymns here, it’s psalms they use. They’re really sacred songs,                         

            it’s not for church. They’re clearly – well, godly people. Do you know what          

            that is? Putting into verse their feelings, That’s the best way that I can describe 

            them. But you see they don’t sing in the church, they don’t sing hymns here in 

            the church, just the psalms.  (TaD ID: 44185

Of course, society has changed hugely since these times, and Gaelic Psalmody is far from the common sound it once was in this part of the world. The tradition is moving away from the churches and being reinterpreted by performers, composers and arrangers for Mod competitions and in folk and classical music, the most recent interpretation of the tradition hauntingly portrayed in the recent work of Craig Armstrong and Calum Martin on their album, The Edge of the Sea (2020). But in terms of everyday life, I would like to finish this article with ‘Psalm Tunes’, a poem written by Donald Meek which I think captures this huge societal change beautifully and evocatively. 


They defined our Gaelic souls,

those pentatonic plainchants

of our unadorned simplicity,

our fullness of heart rising,

yes, and falling softly

in their notes of grace.

Memory precents them now,

as I sing silently through

those distant years,

recall their friendly cadences,

their shapes, their names

so alien, so far away,

and yet so inseparably close.

My great-grandmother lives

in ‘Moravia’, her favourite;

Kilmarnock’ brings my father

back to life in Balemartine;

I hear him in the old chapel

in Cornaig as he sings

with MacDougall the Headmaster

a duet to ‘Glencairn’;

my mother practises ‘Martyrdom’

on the garret on the old organ;

‘Glasgow’ sets my feet tapping

to Neil MacArthur’s port-a-beul

as I behold diminutive Ben Hynish 

rising as the Mountain of the Lord,

congregations elevated through

‘London New’, ‘Kilmarnock’,

‘Walsal’, ‘Old Hundredth’,

and ‘Evan’ closing the evening

‘a lovely tune to end a service’,

as my father often said.

And as I sing silently,

I see and hear and sense

a boy learning to play

the black notes over and over,

going through his sol-fa,

proud to recognise ‘Moravia’, 

his great-grandmother’s melody,

identifying with the Gaelicness

of that comforting soul music 

now but a distant whisper

in an island full of new noises,

Glasgow, London, Kilmarnock,

aye and even Moravia

having come to stay,

tuneless cuckoos in bare nests

with no Gaelic

for the soul.

Donald Meek (2020)