A great Gaelic song day

It was rather late in the day when we had notice that there was to be a Gaelic song workshop to be held in Abriachan, which is on Loch Ness-side and therefore a 2 hour drive from here. Unfortunately, due to the short notice, I was the only person from this area or from our choir that was able to go – but go I did, all on my own, and what a good time I had!

I have in the past been to that area, at least to Drumnadrochit and down to Fort Augustus, but I had never been to Abriachan before. I had been assured that it is a beautiful, magical place with lovely views but as Sod’s Law would have it, the day was really misty and although I had remembered my camera, there was no chance of a good picture:-( I could see through the mist that it is very pretty, rolling countryside with some lovely broadleaved woodland. The trees had that fresh, early leaf sheen about them and the cherry blossom looked as beautiful as cherry blossom can when seen in rather a dull light.

The woods looked mysterious in the mist - I am sure there are trolls living in them!

As I said, I am not at all familiar with the area around Drumnadrochit and it turned out to be a good job that I had left in time for the journey to take 2 ½ hours as per the AA software, as I got lost, or at least mislaid, three times before I eventually found the venue. The run across the Dirigh couldn’t have been better – there was very little traffic and most of that was heading west, and the light was superb with the sun shafting through the clouds down on to the mountains. The moor looked as wild and as bleak as it can, which is why I love it so. It was when I turned off the Inverness road towards Drumnadrochit that my troubles started! At one point, having had to turn around several times and having asked a couple of very helpful people to put me back on track, I found myself right down beside Loch Ness, having sailed straight past the turn off to where I should have been…

I have to say that I find Loch Ness really a rather boring stretch of water. It is very big and very deep; so much so that I believe you could stand the population of Europe in it with room to spare if it wasn’t full of water! You can really see how a Monster could live in it undetected; and how sad it would be if they could prove beyond doubt that Nessie did exist 🙂 It’s the mystery that counts, not the fact. At the end of the day, there are quite a few lochs which fall higher on my favourites list than Loch Ness; no.1 being of course Loch Assynt, which is a loch which cannot be bettered for beauty and interest anywhere:-)

Children are obviously encouraged to add their artworks to decorate the woodland

Anyway, after all this getting lost and feeling more and more agitated and desperate for a cup of coffee – I had left the house at 7.45 – I did find the Forest Walk car park and the venue for the day. Phew…

I really wanted to go to this workshop because the tutors were two of the “greats” of the Gaelic world – Rona Lightfoot and Maggie MacDonald. Rona is frequently described as a “tradition bearer”. She is a singer and was one of the foremost pipers of her day (she will be judging at our Games Day piping competition this year) and is a fund of stories, both traditional and otherwise. Maggie I have seen at various events when the Inverness choir and our own choir have crossed paths, and is a member of the Campbell of Greepe singing dynasty. Her mother came to the workshop as well, and she was not slow in correcting anything she felt was going astray with our rendition of the songs!

There were only a few folk already there when I arrived, still shaking a bit after getting so lost in the mist! I knew only one person in the room and that was Alice, a Native Speaker from Harris who is connected with our choir. I also found that one of the other people there had Gaelic, as of course has Rona, and we did make a start using both languages. But then a whole load more people arrived which was great from the singing point of view, but not so good for the Gaelic! Not that that mattered at all as we were there for the songs…

Rona took the first part of the day giving us several Òrain Luaidh or waulking songs. These were essentially working songs, sung when the women got together to full their cloth. When it first comes off the loom the cloth, any wool cloth not just tweed, is very open and needs bashing about to pull the warp and weft together to create a durable and wind-proof cloth. It wouldn’t last long without this rough treatment! Nowadays, the cloth is sent by the weavers to a fulling mill to be finished, but in times gone by this was women’s work, and very heavy work is was too as the cloth has to be wet. Then the cloth was soaked in stale urine before fulling, nowadays you would use a bit of detergent! This work goes back centuries. I have a print of an engraving dating back to the 18th century when the cloth was being fulled with feet, the women sitting on the ground with a board in front of them rather than at a table which was how it was done more recently. In this engraving the women are obviously singing as they worked!

The songs were written by the women themselves, were very gossipy and they would often add their own verses as they went along. The verses were normally about their menfolk and were not always of the most genteel! They are just wonderful to sing, such fun…

Maggie took the afternoon session which was Port-a-Beul or mouth music with a few other songs thrown in for good measure. We learned the song “Bean’n Droch Nàire” which is the mouth music for “Cock of the North”, the pipe tune of the Gordons and the Queen Mother’s salute which was always played to greet her when she arrived in Scotland. The words translate as “Grumpy Old Woman”! Did the Queen Mum know this? Who knows, but I think she would have had a good laugh about it!

We also sang a song called “Cluinn mi na h-eoin” which is all about birds, and Maggie told us an interesting titbit about it. The words finish rather strangely with a verse which mentions good news. Why? No-one can have thought much about it, and the song always finished with this odd non sequitur. However, one day it occurred to someone to go back to the original source, and he turned the page over! Lo and behold on the back were a lot more verses which celebrated the happy return of the Scot’s Greys from Ireland. On what small things can life turn…

The nesting boxes are very colourful, but I think unused!

Anyway, we had a wonderful day with a truly excellent lunch, all of which was organised by Christine Matheson under the auspices of the Highlife Highland. On leaving, I managed to realise that I turned the wrong way out of the wood before I had gone too far (!) and I got home in the 2 hours I had expected the journey to take. I must admit though, that having been among all those trees all day, it was a relief to be back in my own land of moor and mountain where there are no trolls lurking 🙂

Next day was Bird Race day and couldn’t have been more different weather-wise! More on that next week…

[Photos by Clarinda]

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