Nine Scottish Gaelic Folk Songs Sung by Julie Fowlis

Updated on October 9, 2017
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Linda Crampton has loved music since childhood. She enjoys playing the piano, singing, and listening to classical, folk, and early music.

A view of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, where Julie Fowlis was born
A view of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, where Julie Fowlis was born | Source

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 west coastline of North Uist
The west coastline of North Uist | Source

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.

Life Today

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.

Peaty moorland and small, freshwater lochs are common on North Uist.
Peaty moorland and small, freshwater lochs are common on North Uist. | Source

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 two websites listed below may be useful for finding English translations of the lyrics for Julie Fowlis' songs.

  • 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

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    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Natalie. I appreciate your visit and comment. I enjoy exploring Celtic music, too!

    • Natalie Frank profile image

      Natalie Frank 2 months ago from Chicago, IL

      I have just "discovered" Celtic music in the past couple of years, mostly from Ireland. Thanks for giving me someone new to listen to! Great article!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Suhail. I hope you enjoy the songs.

    • Suhail and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 7 months ago from Mississauga, ON

      Great hub, Linda!

      The closest I come to Scottish Gaelic songs is by listening to Loreena McKennitt. I only listen to hard rock / heavy metal and other than that it is only her that I can listen to.

      I will go through these 9 songs too.

      Regards,

      S

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit, Dora. I'm happy to share the music. I enjoy listening to it.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 7 months ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for sharing information and appreciation for Julie Fowlis and the Scottish Gaelic lyrics. Something else entertaining!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, William. I agree with you. She is a talented singer.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Martie. Julie Fowlis does have a nice voice. It's certainly very pleasant to listen to. Thank you for the visit and the comment.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 8 months ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Very nice. Very talented.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 8 months ago from South Africa

      Julie Fowlis has a beautiful voice. I find the resemblance between Scottish folk songs and Indian music quite interesting. Very interesting hub!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, watergeek. Thanks for telling your choir about the music. I think the songs would be enjoyable for a group to sing.

    • watergeek profile image

      watergeek 8 months ago from Pasadena CA

      I'm going to pass this onto the choir I sing in. This is great music and she's a great singer. Thanks for sharing her with us, Linda.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Larry.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 8 months ago from Oklahoma

      Interesting read!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Bill. A Scottish-Irish background sounds interesting! Thanks for the visit.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 8 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Seems like I should listen to her since I'm Scottish-Irish. Thank you for some background music while I work on my craft today.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Flourish. I lived in Britain in my childhood and early teens but never visited Scotland, which I've regretted for a long time. I'd love to explore the country.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 8 months ago from USA

      Beautiful music and I learned so much, especially about different instruments I've never heard of before. I visited Scotland about 7 years ago and both saw and heard several of the instruments and we even bought a tin whistle but its tune isn't so sweet for beginners.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Manatita. I appreciate your comment, as always.

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      manatita44 8 months ago

      You present this very well and is able to draw the reader into the music of folk and beauty. The videos are varied but very melodious. The woman has a charming personality. Thank you!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the comment, Louise. I like her voice, too. I love the types of songs that she sings.

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 8 months ago from Norfolk, England

      I've never heard of her before. But she does have a lovely voice. I'll look for more videos of her on You Tube. Thankyou. =)

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