Showcasing importance of Gaelic spiritual singing
With the native language in decline, the haunting and uplifting sound of Gaelic in church is now rapidly diminishing and with this in mind has been the subject of academic research.
Dr Frances Wilkins, a Senior Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen, has spent the last six years undertaking fieldwork in the West Highlands and Western Isles.
She has compiled and recorded Gaelic song traditions, including hymnody, Gaelic psalmody and spiritual bàrdachd.
Dr Wilkins said: “In past centuries the Church played an important role in nurturing the Gaelic language when it was excluded from schools.
“Today, ironically, the roles have been reversed. Gaelic and English bilingualism which in the past was given little or no credit, is now recognised as hugely beneficial to learning across the school curriculum but there are very few church services conducted in Gaelic, and this has contributed to a steep decline in the Gaelic sacred singing tradition.’
Now her research will form the basis of the new interactive exhibition, Seinn Spioradail: Sacred Soundscapes of the Highlands and Islands and will be at Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway from 19th January to 12th April before touring Highland and island communities including Balallan (Lewis) from April - June , Portree June - November 2024, and Lochmaddy from December to February 2025.
Visitors can learn more about sacred song traditions of the region and explore sound recordings, film, objects, and a digital archive, soundmap and interactive virtual tour.
Dr Wilkins says, “While the contexts for singing are currently in decline, the music continues to be a soundscape to a way of life for many people.
“The purpose of this exhibition is to explore how sacred singing was, and continues to be, integral to many aspects of community life, and to highlight the wealth of hymns, psalms and spiritual songs being sung in the region today.”
Gaelic psalm singing is a particular focus in the exhibition and one contributor to the project, Alex ‘Bhaltos’ MacDonald, expressed its importance.
“There’s just something about Gaelic psalm singing that moves me,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where I am. If I hear it, it just brings me back to my youth. It brings me back to happy events … and very sad events. It was, is and always will be powerful in my eyes.’
Many of the sound recordings, photographs and videos made during the project form the basis of a website (www.seinn.org). A CD and book are due to be released later in 2024.
Dr Wilkins adds: “Language is a way to express culture. The deep spiritual connection it has with its people and the role which music plays in this, must be recognised and supported into the future if we are to keep some of the most precious aspects of Gaelic culture alive.”
She goes on to say, “Doing the research in the Hebrides was an incredible experience. I have met so many inspiring people and am very grateful to everyone who has been involved and helped me with the project. I am pleased that my research and its publication is playing a part in the preservation of these unique song traditions.”
“I will be at the opening and look forward to returning to Lewis and meeting some of the project’s contributors again.”
The exhibition opening event will take place Tomorray (Friday 19th) from 5:00-7:30pm at Museum nan Eilean. Entry is free.