Monday, 15 October 2007

NationalModSpot : GaelicFilles 1


Once again, I totally forgot that this year's Royal National Mod is on at the moment, in Fort William. The National Mod is like the Scots Gaelic equivalent of the Welsh Eisteddfod, with competitions in singing, poetry, piping, and clarsach playing, amongst others. I was hoping to have a new Capercaillie album to post about by this point, but it hasn't materialised yet,so instead, in honour of the Mod, I'll write a few posts about my favourite female Gaelic singers.

First up, Karen Matheson,both solo and as a member of Capercaillie. The band were the first Gaelic music I came across; you can read more info in my previous post here .

Karen has released three solo albums; 1996's The Dreaming Sea, Time To Fall (2002) and Downriver, in 2005. TDS is a mixture of English and Gaelic songs, while TTF and Downriver are almostly exclusively Englsh and Gaelic respectively. I much prefer Karen's Gaelic singing so I haven't bothered to buy TTF yet; the other two CDs are quite distinct in style. TDS has more of a "pop" production, whereas Downriver has a more organic "live" feel. My favourite-ever Karen song is on the latter record, "Crucan Na bPaiste" (Burial Place Of The Children). This is a song written by the Irish novelist Brendan Graham for a character in one of his novels. The burial place referred to in the title is a children's graveyard in County Mayo in Ireland, and the song is a mother's lament for her dead daughter. Karen's singing perfectly evokes an atmosphere of sorrow, which is enhanced by a gorgeously sad uilleann pipe solo.

"'Ic Iain 'ic Sheumais" from TDS is one of many versions of this song, a battle song from North Uist. "Rithill Aill" is a mouth-music song which took me a while to get into, but once I did I loved it, due to its fantastic rhythm.

The main benefit I have drawn from discovering Capercaillie and Karen is that they introduced me to Gaelic poetry, particularly the works of Domhnall Ruadh Choruna (1887-1967) and Sorley Maclean (1911-1996), admittedly with varying degrees of success; Domhnall Ruadh Choruna was mainly a poet of war, but he wrote one of the finest Gaelic love poems, indeed one of the finest Gaelic poems full stop, "An Eala Bhan" (The White Swan). "An Eala Bhan" is a war poem in the sense that it is set in the trenches of WW1 and describes conditions therein, but it is addressed to a girl back home in North Uist -the White Swan of the title.
Capercaillie have recorded the poem set to music twice; on their debut Cascade and on 1993's Secret People . The melody is as beautiful as the words.

For a long while "An Eala Bhan" was my favourite Gaelic poem, and it's still in the top 3, but I can't really "get in to" Choruna's other work. In contrast, I love Sorley Maclean's poetry in general. Karen Matheson has recorded "Calbharaigh" (Calvary), and Capercaillie have recorded Am Mur Gorm (The Blue Rampart), which is from the sequence "Dain Do Eimhir agus Dain Eile" (Poems to Eimhir and Other Poems), Maclean's most famous work. Donald Shaw set it to music and added an English verse on 1998's Beautiful Wasteland. The poem is incredibly evocative anyway, but Shaw's music (ignoring the English verse, the purpose of which I don't know) captures the rhythm of the words perfectly.


"Crucan Na bPaiste" (mp3)

" 'ic Iain 'i Sheumais" (mp3)

"Rithill Aill" (mp3)

"An Eala Bhan" (Cascade version) (mp3)

"An Eala Bhan" (Secret People version) (mp3)

"Am Mur Gorm" (mp3)

Extra: "The Tree" (mp3)

Official Karen Matheson website (link)
Official Sorley Maclean website (link)
Official National Mod website (link)

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