Before 1700, a clan chief normally retained a hereditary bard, whose job it was to compose songs in praise of the chief. Because few at that time could read or write, songs provided a means for conveying historical information and legendary tales.
Gaelic songs diverge
Free from the constraints under which the older bards worked, the poets of the 17th/18th centuries broke new grounds with songs about love, life, politics and nature. Songs by poets, such as Alexander Macdonald and Duncan Ban Macintyre, are still performed to this day at 'The Mod'.
Work songs too were composed to accompany everyday activities such as spinning, waulking tweed, milking cattle and rowing. The rhythm of the songs complimented the rhythm of the work being done. Mouth music (puirt à beul) was composed to mimic the rhythm of dance tunes. It may have been composed to assist fiddlers and pipers in learning a tune or to provide dance music where musical instruments were lacking.
Singing in the Church
The Church encouraged distinctive singing styles. Gaelic psalm-singing based on the 'giving out of the line' by a presenter was, and still is, widespread in Presbyterian churches across the Western Isles. Its sound is quite unique and deeply moving. There is also a strong tradition of Gaelic Hymn writing, particularly in the dominantly Catholic areas of the Uists and Moidart.
'Runrig' and beyond
Towards the end of the 20th century groups such as Runrig and Capercaillie, who composed and performed their own material, boosted the Gaelic songwriting tradition. Their fusion of pop, rock and traditional created a new sound in Gaelic music. This has inspired other Gaelic songwriters to experiment further.
Collectors and arrangers of Gaelic songs
Who knows how many Gaelic songs would have been lost to posterity if it had not been for the work of people like Marjory Kennedy-Fraser (1857-1930) and Margaret Fay Shaw (died aged 101 in Dec. 2004). Both women collected and arranged a large number of songs from the Hebrides, many sung regularly at 'The Mod'.
The Royal National Mòd, held in a different part of Scotland every year, is the biggest singing event in the Gaels' calendar. Thousands attend the competitions, concerts and cèilidhs and it gives opportunity to find out more about Gaelic culture and singing. Many learners of the language are attracted at the outset by the singing.
If a book listed in the bibliography below is available from the Highland Libraries it will be indicated by a book icon -
Folksongs of Britain and Ireland
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