Open again

We’re open again! Find a place to visit near you.

See all stories
9 Jul 2020

Bho mhoch gu dubh – from dawn to dusk

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie, Canna archivist
Two images; the one on the left is a black and white photograph of a woman sitting at a spinning wheel outside in front of a house; the one on the right shows the spinning wheel on top of a cupboard.
Peigi Macrae of South Uist spinning in Canna House garden and the wheel today in Canna House
The Canna archives contain many examples of Gaelic work songs, and the recordings, manuscripts and images taken by Margaret Fay Shaw tie the stories of these songs together.

In musical terms, most world cultures have their own traditions of songs sung to accompany labour of some sort. There are two main reasons for singing while you work – in group situations it can improve efficiency by co-ordinating people working together, but also, crucially, it relieves the monotony of what may be a tedious or physically demanding job, which in turn helps to improve the workers’ morale.

The islands of the Outer and Inner Hebrides are no exception to this tradition and Canna House holds thousands of various types of Gaelic work songs. John Lorne Campbell, together with music ethnologist Francis Collinson, produced three seminal volumes of work songs in Hebridean Folksongs (1969). These books provide us with the lyrics, melodies and translations of the songs, as well as vivid descriptions of the situations where the songs were sung and of the people who sang them.

Black and white photograph of two older men in glasses holding an open book between them.
John Lorne Campbell and Francis Collinson

It was a hard life in the Highlands and Islands in centuries past – a life filled with many kinds of work. But Hebridean folk were not ones to succumb to the pressures of heavy work, and so to make their work lighter they would sing.

These songs give us a picture of their lifestyle; to them the songs may have been a ‘hobby’, but to us they are a mirror of their lives. And although their lifestyle was somewhat different to ours, we can understand, through the songs, that their feelings and emotions regarding work were just as similar as our own.

Black and white photograph of two fishermen on a boat with wicker baskets full of fish.
Barra herring fishermen, 1935

Although the men had their own type of work song, usually songs connected to the sea, it was perhaps the Hebridean women whose work changed most over the centuries. They were under enormous pressure with all the work entailed in keeping home and croft, since the men were often away fishing. This means that we have an incredible store of songs connected with the work of both home and croft and the animals associated with them.

Black and white photograph of a woman standing in a field, holding a scythe in one hand and an armful of a harvested crop in the other.
Bean Aonghais Ruaidh (Mrs Angus Campbell) of South Lochboisdale, bringing in the harvest

There’s a Gaelic proverb – ‘s ann às a ceann a bhlioghas a bhò’ (it’s from the head that the cow is milked) – meaning that you get from the cow what you feed her, and there are many references to cows giving a better milk yield when their milker sang to them. Milking songs form one of the largest groups of Gaelic work songs and very often the subject of the songs is the cow herself. Cows were always treated with respect and looked after well, as their milk was one of the mainstays of the croft larder. They were also prone to knocking over the pail if the milker stopped singing or didn’t sing the cow’s favourite song!

The picture below was taken by Margaret Fay Shaw c1930, of her landlady Peigi Macrae milking Dora the cow on the North Glendale croft in South Uist. And here is Peigi singing Till an Crodh, Laochain – ‘Turn the cattle, my lad ... You will get a playful wife, Turn the cattle, get the cattle, you will get a beautiful wife.

Black and white photograph of a woman milking a cow in front of a traditional Hebridean thatched croft
Peigi milking Dora the cow

A common feature of many Gaelic work songs is the ‘repurposing’ of a song and it’s not unusual to find a milking song being used for spinning, or vice versa. The rhythm of the milking action is reminiscent of the hypnotic motion of a spinning wheel .

Spinning songs are often made on the topic of the spinning process itself. In the main picture, taken by Margaret Fay Shaw in the garden of Canna House, Peigi Macrae is spinning at the wheel with Pooni the Siamese cat at her feet. Margaret wrote of Peigi:

‘She’s a beautiful spinner and the wheel in the hall, which looks to be only a museum piece, is brought to the fireside, and Peigi spends her days making yarn for socks and pullovers.

She sings all the time she spins and I hear such tunes that I rush in to ask her – what one’s this? Or what’s that? But she’s now well past the one I fancy and there’s no going back. If you can’t find a line of the words she can never find it. What treasures have gone into the yarn and the socks she knits! The wheel is the secret of bringing it to her memory songs without number, stored in her mind from childhood, the exquisite little songs never heard at concert or ceilidh.’

By far the largest corpus of Gaelic work songs is made up of ‘òrain luaidh’ or ‘waulking’ songs. Waulking is the process of fulling or finishing a newly woven tweed by soaking it and thumping it rhythmically to shrink and soften it by a team of around eight women. But there’s no one type of waulking song – the process of waulking involves several stages of work and each stage has its own variation of song. The main, vigorous, songs (the ‘bualadh’ or ‘beating’) would have verses sung by one woman with the other waulkers joining in on the chorus of ‘vocables’, which are meaningless words of sounds to fit the rhythm. This also helps the singers to memorise the lines.

The Inverclyde Waulking Group undertaking a waulking on Canna in 2019.

Once the cloth had been waulked to the correct thickness, the waulkers would sing an ‘òran pasgaidh’ or ‘folding’ song, usually a slower, more mesmeric type of song, followed by an ‘òran basaidh’ or ‘clapping’ song – a joyous celebration of the end of toil. Here is good friend and principal contributor of songs, Annie Johnston of Barra, recorded by John Lorne Campbell in 1938. This is a waulking song with references to the MacNeils of Barra. The composer says that if she had power, she would share out various islands on the west coast of Scotland, which includes Canna.

Black and white photograph of a woman and man sitting on a garden bench in front of a house.
Annie Johnston and John Lorne Campbell at Canna House

Margaret Fay Shaw was unable to take images of waulkings in the Hebrides, generally because they were usually held indoors and the lighting wasn’t good enough. But in Canna House we’re lucky enough to have images of waulkings on Eriskay, taken c1890 by engineer and historian Walter Blaikie. 

Black and white photograph of a priest watching a group of women waulking cloth on a table outside in front of a house.
Picture of Roman Catholic priest, poet, folklore collector and activist Father Allan Macdonald of Eriskay and Fort William, taken by Walter Blaikie

Other work songs include songs for singing while churning butter, harvesting crops, weaving and even for lulling a baby to sleep – often very hard work to achieve! Here is Mrs John Currie (Peigi Nill) singing a lullaby O Ba, Mo Leanabh, o ba, o ba (O Ba, my baby), recorded by John Lorne Campbell in 1954.

A good example of a man’s sea song was given to Margaret Fay Shaw in 1934 by the Reverend Murdo Macleod of Daliburgh, who helped her with her learning of Gaelic. This is Fail o ro mar dh’fhàg sinn (Fal o, as we departed), a description of a perilous sea journey, with a rhythm to encourage hauling the ropes on deck. Although we don’t have a recording of the Rev Macleod singing it, this transcription of his song has been used by thousands of singers and choirs over the years.

The legacy of the songs in the Canna archives leave us not only with the voices of those who sang them every day as well as their faces, but also gives us a glimpse into the lives of Hebridean people and their daily routines. The rhythms of the songs reflect the rhythms of their lives and their stories, and the richness of the language reflects the richness of their traditions. We’re fortunate that Margaret and John Campbell had the foresight to preserve and record a lifestyle that no longer exists. But the People for whom the lifestyle was their reality do still exist and they still sing the songs.

Well-known poet Kathleen Raine was a frequent visitor to Canna House and encapsulated the value of song and heritage in her poem dedicated to singer Màiri Macrae, sister of Peigi:

‘The song is older than the singer, shaped by the love and the long waiting, who sang before remembered time to teach the unbroken heart its sorrow ... Already old when love is young. The song is older than the sorrow.’

Photograph of a woman reading a book in a room at Canna House.
Kathleen Raine in Canna House

Emergency Appeal

We need your help, more than ever. Please help us protect Scotland’s heritage. 

Help now