Digitisation of 30-year-old Gaelic New Testament readings

David Murray, left, and Donald Macleod, who will be digitising the recordings, at Garrabost Free Church. ''Picture by Sandie Maciver of SandiePhotos
David Murray, left, and Donald Macleod, who will be digitising the recordings, at Garrabost Free Church. ''Picture by Sandie Maciver of SandiePhotos

Tape recordings of the New Testament being read in Gaelic by members of a Lewis congregation around 30 years ago are to be digitised, cleaned up and preserved for all time, thanks to support from Point and Sandwick Trust.

The community wind farm charity donated the remaining £1,800 needed for the project, which has been organised by David Murray, the session clerk to Garrabost Free Church.

The New Testament readings were done by members of the congregation of Knock Free Church, now merged with Garrabost Free Church, in the late 1980s.

There were 40 sets of 17 tapes and they will be made widely available – online and hopefully in CD format – once the digitisation and restoration is complete.

Up to 20 members of the congregation had taken part in the readings and David Murray said it was important to preserve the original recordings – rather than redoing them which would have been easier on a practical level – because of the quality of the speakers’ Gaelic.

CLASSICAL GAELIC

Ian Mackenzie, co-ordinator of the original project, said it was “excellent” they were being saved.

He added: “I didn’t think there was a full set of them left! It’s about 30 years since I did that.”

David Murray, from Upper Bayble in Point, said: “The recordings were made at a time when Gaelic was the prominent language and the speakers on the tapes were all native Gaelic speakers.”

David, who teaches Gaelic and religious education through the medium of Gaelic in Sir E Scott, stressed the value of the resource for Gaelic learners and RE scholars, as well as the church and the wider community. It would be hugely helpful with pronunciation and also, for example, for those participating in Gaelic Bible reading at the Mod.

The Gaelic Bible was not translated from the English, as David pointed out, but was instead translated directly from the original Greek and Hebrew.

“It is the higher register of Gaelic. It’s your classical Gaelic and it’s probably Gaelic in its purest form.”

This difference in origin means there will be slight differences in meaning and nuance between the Gaelic and English Bibles – another reason why the Gaelic Bible is valuable and to be made more accessible to those who have poorer sight.

Gaelic readings of the Old Testament already exist in digital format, having been recorded later on, but Point’s tape recordings of the Gaelic New Testament are thought to be the only ones that exist.

GREAT VALUE TO STUDENTS OF GAELIC

David said: “It’s a great resource and the value to students of Gaelic can’t be overstated.

“It’s a rich archive of native Gaelic reading and it’s a resource that we don’t want to lose.

“The Old Testament was recorded in the late 1990s – Hamish Taylor from Harris was one of the men involved – but they didn’t do the New Testament. This is, as far as I’m aware, the only audio recording of the Gaelic New Testament anywhere.

“This is a community project, taking a historic resource and doing something with it – cleaning it up and improving the quality – so that it becomes available to everyone who wants to access it. We’d like to have it available on a website and would also like to make it available on CDs.”

The project is being run under the auspices of the Garrabost Free Church Deacons’ Court, with David responsible for organising the outside funding.

Gaelic development agency Bòrd na Gàidhlig awarded it £3,200 from its Taic Freumhan Coimhearsnachd (Community Roots Support) fund and the remainder was sought from Point and Sandwick Trust.

With its founding principle of promoting social, educational, cultural and environmental wellbeing, the community wind farm charity was more than happy to help, recognising the immense cultural and educational value of the project.

Donald John MacSween, General Manager of Point and Sandwick Trust, said: “This is a project of immense cultural importance to our Gaelic community and the recordings, once digitised, will be of huge value to those Gaelic speakers who can no longer get out to church or who are unable to read their own Gaelic Bibles.

COMMUNITY TREASURES

“The original project was inspired and we are pleased to have been able to help safeguard this resource for future generations. These recordings are community treasures.”

The technical work is to be done by Donald Macleod, beginning with the digital recording of the taped readings, which can only be done in real time. They will then be cleaned up – removing the coughs, splutters and a background hiss – before being arranged into sound files of chapters.

Where sections are missing or otherwise need redone, they will be reread – by original speakers if possible — and recorded again. It will be time consuming but David said it would make “a huge different to the quality” and would be “the best quality we can get”.

The original readings were recorded inside Knock Free Church, using the pulpit microphone or the precentor’s box microphone.

David added: “I’ve known this has existed all along. I had some of the tapes when I was young. So when someone mentioned how it would be wonderful to have an audio version of the Gaelic New Testament, I knew there was one and thought ‘where is this resource?’ and began making inquiries.”

He admitted: “It would have been a lot easier to do it as a new one. But we don’t want to lose what was already done. We want to preserve that resource because of the nuance of the pronunciation that people have. There’s an authenticity about it. At the time it was recorded, you had native speakers who were skilled in the reading of the Gaelic Bible and we wouldn’t have that today.

“We could have left it to history and made a new one but we thought this was important to preserve.

“It was a very successful and innovative project for its time. It took months. They really did well and it’s worthy of being preserved.”

He stressed the importance of having the project done by a local Gaelic speaker, who could recognise when a verse was missing. Donald, he said, had that “technical expertise and Gaelic expertise”.

OLD READINGS GET NEW LEASE OF LIFE

For some of the original readers, it is exciting to learn the old readings are to get a new lease of life.

Ciorst Macleod from Garrabost, a retired head teacher, remembers reading Matthew, taking chapter about with Kennag Macrae.

“You just read the chapter in your best Gaelic,” she said. “You were anxious that you’d have the correct pronunciation and when we were reading it was important to get through the whole chapter without any mistakes. We kind of enjoyed it, once you got going.

“My own mother was registered as blind at that time and she did certainly use them at home. She enjoyed it.”

Donald Macleod, another of the readers, welcomed the restoration of the recordings, as the Gaelic text is “more expressive” than the English.

Reflecting on its value, he said: “I think more of it now than I did at the time because now I realise the Gaelic isn’t used so much in church as it used to be. People will still benefit from it as well.”

Ian Mackenzie said that, at the time, the tapes “went all over to the world, to South Africa, America, Australia…”

Among those who used them were Dr Collins, the one time Principal of the Free Church College, who would listen to a chapter in the morning and in the evening.

Forty sets of tapes were made altogether and the money raised, between £800 and £1000, went back to the Deacon’s Court to reimburse them for the costs of buying the tapes initially.

Ian recalled what had prompted him to make the tapes.

“I could see the cailleachs and bodachs that were struggling to see and they weren’t able to read their Bibles and I knew they would want it in their own language.

“I got the people together; I don’t know how many weeks we did it.

“I knew I was doing God’s work. I was quite convinced of it.”