Nine Scottish Gaelic Folk Songs Sung by Julie Fowlis
Scottish Gaelic Songs
Julie Fowlis is a popular singer of folk songs in the Scottish Gaelic language. She also plays traditional instruments. She performs in Scotland and beyond, entertaining and often indirectly educating listeners. She's won some major music awards in Britain and is periodically a radio and television presenter.
I don't understand Scottish Gaelic, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying songs sung in the language. I enjoy the vocal sounds, the melody, the rhythm, and the instrumental accompaniment. A listener may not be able to appreciate the meaning of a song if they don't understand the language. As Julie Fowlis says in the video below, however, music is a universal language.
There are English translations available online or on the video itself for the songs presented below. A translation may not be completely accurate, for a variety of reasons. The tunes are enjoyable to listen to even without completely understanding the lyrics, however.
The songs that Julie Fowlis most often performs are traditional folk songs from the past. She generally sings in Gaelic. The ae in the word Gaelic is usually pronounced like the a in the word gallant.
A Brief Biography of Julie Fowlis
Julie Fowlis was born in 1979. She grew up on the island of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides in a community where both English and Gaelic were spoken. Her mother spoke both languages but her father spoke only English. The language used in her home was generally English, but some Gaelic was used as well. Today Julie is completely bilingual.
When Julie was a teenager, she and her family moved to mainland Scotland because her father had obtained a job there. After leaving school she attended the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, where she received a degree in music. According to her Facebook page, her studies focused on the oboe and the cor anglais. Today the tin whistle and the bagpipes seem to be her main instruments.
After graduating from university, Julie attended a college called Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in order to improve her knowledge of the Gaelic language. She then obtained a job with an organization called Fèis Rois. Fèis Rois provides classes in Gaelic music performance and language for the general public. After several years at the organization, Julie left to concentrate on her performance career.
The Outer Hebrides is a chain of islands off the northwest coast of Scotland. North Uist is one of the islands. Lochmaddy is its administrative centre.
Julie is married to Éamon Doorley, a musician who often accompanies or plays with her. He also performs traditional Irish music. The couple has two children, who are both girls. Julie is involved in music research as well as performance. One of her projects is the collection of traditional songs from North Uist and other parts of the Hebrides. The songs are generally collected in an oral form from people who remember them.
Julie exhibits a warm and cheerful personality in videos, as can be seen in the two interviews in this article. This probably contributes to her continuing success on television and radio shows.
An Interview With Julie Fowlis
English Translations of Gaelic Lyrics
Although Gaelic songs can certainly be enjoyed without understanding the lyrics, understanding the meaning of the words adds another dimension to the enjoyment. Hopefully the translations that are shown in this article are reasonably accurate. I sometimes find that although the individual lines in a translation may make sense, the connection between them doesn't. There is something missing, perhaps in people's ability to translate Gaelic, a lack of understanding of the historical culture or of the traditions followed in the creation of songs, or the fact that some of the original lyrics were altered over time or haven't survived at all.
Thig crioch air an t-saoghal ach mairidh ceol agus gaol. (Scottish Gaelic)
The world will come to an end, but music and love will endure.— celticlyricscorner.net
Smeorach Chlann Domhnaill (The Mavis of Clan Donald)
Smeorach means thrush (a type of bird). In some parts of Scotland, a song thrush is known as a mavis. The song below is sung from the point of view of a thrush that was reared on Clan Donald land. As is the case for many traditional folk songs, the original author of Smeorach Chlann Domhnaill is unknown.
In the first verse the thrush is drowsy and says that he is full of sorrow. In the next verse he appears to be wide awake and more optimistic. In the remaining verses the bird praises the "land of heroes, land of poets" where he lives. We learn that the land is "delectable" and that the clan contains brave, seafaring people.
Hùg Air A' Bhonaid Mhòir (Celebrate the Great Bonnet)
Julie Fowlis' rapid-fire presentation of the lyrics in this nonsense song is impressive. Nonsense songs are fun compositions that consist of lines that don't make sense or are illogical. They generally have a fast tempo.
In Celebrate the Great Bonnet, a set of lines is repeated multiple times. The first section of the song repeats two verses about a bonnet. The next section repeats two verses about fish traps. The third section returns to the bonnet topic.
Celebrate the great bonnet
Add to it, leave it alone
More on the other bonnet
There's not half enough on it— Unknown
O Noble Youth Who Has Left Me
The title suggests that this song is one of sadness, but the tune is strangely cheerful. A woman sings about the fact that a "noble youth" has left her. She seems to have kept her fondness for the man a secret. A woman at a spinning wheel knows the truth, however. She appears to be hiding the man, who is a Campbell.
The rhythmic song is thought to have been sung during work to make a job easier and more enjoyable. It belongs to a category known as waulking songs. Waulking was a process used to prepare cloth for use. It's described in more detail below.
Oh woman at the spinning wheel
You know how my heart is
A young Campbell in your possession
I will not get a baptism in Uist
Until I reach the yellow-haired man— Unknown
Instrumentation in the Songs
Julie Fowlis is often accompanied by a tin whistle, a fiddle, a guitar, a bouzouki, and a bodhran. The tin whistle is a fipple flute, like a recorder. It's made of metal but has a plastic mouthpiece. The bouzouki is a plucked string instrument that is frequently used in traditional Irish music. It has a pear-shaped body and a long neck. The bodhran is a frame drum that is also popular in Irish music. Frame drums have a depth that is less than their width. They are often held by the hand, rested on the lap, or held between the knees.
Julie Fowlis Discusses Gaelic and Her Music
The Shruti Box and the Water Horse
Julie occasionally uses a shruti box in her music. The shruti box is a portable, harmonium-like instrument that is driven by a hand-operated bellows system. When it's closed, it looks like a rectangular box. The bellows is located on one side of the box. A set of reeds is located on the other side. A plug covers the hole over each reed and is moved out of the way to allow a sound to be heard. The instrument can produce a drone in a range of pitches.
In the song below, Julie sings a song while using a shruti box. The song describes a young girl's meeting with a supernatural creature known as a water horse. This creature was sometimes thought to be a shape shifter, which may apply in this case since the girl calls the creature "Love". She begs the water horse to allow her to return unharmed to her family.
North Uist and the Hebrides as a whole are said to be wonderful places to observe wildlife. Seals are often seen in the area. The first song below includes the belief that seals were actually beings called selkies. When these beings left the water, they could discard their skin and change into a handsome man or a beautiful woman.
Two Songs About Seals (Gaelic and English Lyric Display)
Mo Bhean Chomain
Mo Bhean Chomain appears to be a love song. Most of the lyrics describe the beauty of a woman and how the singer loves being in her presence, although strangely the first two lines of the song are "I am under no obligation to the woman who is my darling and my love". In the last verse the singer seems to support this statement, since he says "Now I have to go home, My sweetheart I have to leave behind". I don't know whether this indicates a temporary or a permanent separation.
The video of the song below is especially interesting because it includes historical photos of life in the Hebrides. The video refers to a process called waulking, which is also known as fulling. In this process freshly woven cloth is washed and beaten, which makes it softer and thicker. Waulking in the Hebrides was traditionally performed by women, who often sang songs as they worked. In the second interview video above, Julie mentions that waulking songs are one of the types that she is collecting and digitizing.
Tha Mo Ghaol Air Aird A'Chuain
In the song below, a man listens to a young girl praying for the safe return of the man she loves, who is on a sea voyage. He approaches the girl and takes her hand, telling her not to worry because her loved one is safe. Then we learn that he is the man that the girl loves and that he has returned safely from his voyage.
The performance of the song took place in the beautiful Dunfermline Abbey. The abbey is part of the Church of Scotland, a Protestant denomination. The town of Dunfermline is located in the county of Fife in mainland Scotland.
Scottish and Irish Gaelic
Irish and Scottish Gaelic are related languages and share some similarities. People who speak the languages say that most Scottish Gaelic speakers can't understand much Irish Gaelic that they hear and vice versa, however.
The song below is an Irish Gaelic song. Part of it has been translated into Scottish Gaelic. Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh sings the Irish part and Julie Fowlis sings the Scottish section. People who at least partially understand the languages say that verses 1, 3, 4, and 7 are in Scottish Gaelic and verses 2, 5, 6, and 8 are in Irish (a term that is used more often than Irish Gaelic). The lyrics of the song may have been based on a poem written by Sean "Clarach" Mac Domhnaill, an Irish writer who lived from 1691 to 1754.
The only English lyrics that I've seen for the song have been on an Irish language forum. Although it's hard to interpret the meaning of every line in these lyrics, it's clear that the song is in part a prayer to Christ to return Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) to Britain. Although the support of Scottish people for the prince is often described in history articles, he was also supported by people from Ireland. In the song, Charles is considered to be the lawful king. With his return, the lyrics say, life in Ireland will become good again and Catholicism will thrive.
Julie Fowlis and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
An Interesting Pursuit
Exploring songs written in other languages can be a very interesting pursuit. I enjoy the process not only because I like music but also because it gives me a glimpse of other cultures. In addition, it often stimulates me to explore other countries and their geography, history, and language. This can be an absorbing activity, especially with so many resources available on the web. Most of us can't afford to travel to all the places that attract us. Although visiting a place in real life is often ideal, a virtual tour can be both an entertaining and an educational substitute.
References: Finding English Translations of Lyrics
The websites listed below are useful for finding English translations of the lyrics for Julie Fowlis' songs.
- This University of Notre Dame webpage has Gaelic and English lyrics for songs plus notes written by Julie.
- A visitor to Celtic Lyrics Corner can choose an artist or a song title and then see the original and the English lyrics for a song. This works well for many songs, but the site hasn't been updated for a long time.
- Google Translate recognizes Scottish Gaelic. In my experiments, it's been more successful at translating some phrases than others. It could be helpful, however.
© 2017 Linda Crampton