Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Eun Bheag Chanaidh - A Little Bird Blown Off Course

We're raised to think that it is not always the best idea to say you want to go to something before knowing what it is, but, generally, things work out swell in this world. I'd say it's best to wait before volunteering to accomplish things for other folks until you know what they want of you, but, I'm of the opinion that you can safely leap into most invitations without hesitation when travelling in order to maximize your experiences. I have to admit, I haven't thought over that last statement very long and there's a chance I would take it back if I gave it a few minutes but, in this moment, after last night, I think it stays.

That was a stumlby introduction.

The moral is?

Last night was joy-inducing, moving, toe-tap-inspiring, and...
sigh, it was altogether lovely.

If I was an atheist, I'd have to begin this with, “Last night by chance...”

But, the great thing is I don't really believe in chance. I think things happen for a reason or with a purpose. So, me ending up at this show? Meant to be!

Then, perhaps I can start this off with, “Last, I was destined to be at...”

I know that sounds a bit froo-froo, but that's the phrase a women I was talking with last night used.

I had just been kicked out of my hosting situation (I can't think of a nicer way to put it, “They asked me to leave two days early because I was that awful.”) and, because of that, I ended up at this concert.

I like music.
I like classical music.
I like blues music.
I like jazz... music.
I like pop music.

And I especially like folk music.
And I like Gaelic music.

Which is what tonight was.

Tonight was a show that was, I'm trying to get this right, somehow sponsered or put on by the National Theatre of Scotland for/with the Blas Festival (maybe?) and they had brought it to our tiny little town. They were bringing the arts to the Highlands, including Ardgay, where I was for the night.

It was a Gaelic show.
Simple as that.
But, few things are that simple so I get to keep on writing.

When I write out Gaelic, I have a feeling most of you, sadly, read it as GAY-lick. Now, GAY-lick would be correct if we were in, say, Ireland – but I'm not and you're not and we're not and I'm referring to Scot Gaelic which we pronouce GAH-lick. It might be good to say that out loud a few times to get it in your head.

Around 2010, I think it was, I became a member of Seirm. Seirm was a traditional Scot-Gaelic music group in Seattle with a choir, fiddles, pipes (the wee ones), one cello (me), and a sea or harps. With this group, I got to know the old language of Scotland that had been threatened to fade, but was slowly being revived. I predominantly was the rhythm, driving songs along with steady bow strokes, but eventually those songs started to get in my head and I could sing along.

Not long after, I got enrolled in the Gaelic school in Seattle which was a beautiful opportunity and I'd love to say I can speak Gaelic now. While the words are familiar when I hear them spoken, now, I'm no where near even being able to express myself in the simplest of matters. The class was once every two months and it all slipped past me and has since forth slipped away.

For years, I've dreamed of becoming semi-fluent in Gaelic – at least conversation-wise. I would love to pick up this language enough to be able to be a part in passing it on and teaching it to others. I've dreamed of coming to Scotland where I could find ways to practice it daily with others.

Now, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who not only knew what Gaelic was, but the kids were fluent in it. Around 52 students attend Gaelic school and are learning the language day by day.

I was delighted when I could sing part of a waulking song to the eldest daughter of the family I'm staying with, and she was able to understand me! Up until then, everyone who had heard had heard it only as just foreign sounds. She knew I was talking about an “early May morning.” This fourteen year old understood it better than I could.

Now, also for the first time in my life, I was able to sit and watch Gaelic come alive on stage, without me being on the stage.

This was a 20-years-brewing vision of Fiona Mackenzie. I could copy-out word for word what the program said of her, but that still wouldn't fully give you a taste of this vibrant human being. To put it simply, as they put it, “Fiona is a performer and teacher of Gaelic song.” But, oh, she is so much more.

We paid for our tickets and the girls took seats in the front row – I followed. By this point, I knew it was a Gaelic show, but that was still it. I was tickled to find Gaelic-language guides on the tables. I had just been handed a program when the show began.

It was sort of like being dropped into an ice-cold pool in the sense that, for a second, it knocks the breath out of you in surprise. But, unlike that larger-than-life slushy-sea, it immediately warms you and reaches out from your heart to your toes and makes you want to do any number of dances.

The show began with a short sound clip of an old women, likely in South Uist, singing PiLi Liu. Before your attention could diverge, Fiona took over and the sound clip faded.

Fiona's voice is one I'm going to try and make sure each of you hear.
It was purse. It was expressive. It was alive. It hit you in all the right places.

And, it was in Gaelic, which made it all the sweeter.

Backing her up was a talented band of Scots. We had Signy on percussion (on everything but your standard drum set), Alistair on the keyboard and harmonium (I think), Patsy on the fiddle and cello, and Innes on the guitar and mandolin.

They made the music come to life.

I'd never heard Gaelic music like this before.

I'm pretty crap at writing out what I heard or how it made me feel. It was good, though. I've been to a lot of concerts and this was one of my all-time favourites.

This what I wanted from Scotland in coming here. This is what I asked of it and was afraid I wasn't going to get a single taste of. Now, it was as if someone had put down a full plate of Gaelic in front of me and said, “Child, enjoy!”

Likely, some of my favourites were the ones that were the puirt e beul which is mouth music. Way back, the pipes and other music of Scotland were banned so the folks went ahead and made up their own music with their mouths. The words don't always make sense once you translate them but they've got this remarkable sound to them when spoken, or sung, aloud. The words are chosen for the sound they make in relation to each other and roll the tongue about and make your mouth smile.

Somehow, this group made Fiona's vision come true as the audience was easily moved by the music and never bored – something that can be hard to accomplish when singing in a language that the audience knows not. It was a multimedia experience and they showed old photographs and films.

It was all centred around the documentation of Margaret Fay Shaw. She was, “one of the most notable 20th century collectors of authentic Scottish Gaelic song and traditions.” She was born in 1903 in America, Pittsburgh, and ended up in Scotland, devoting a lot of her life to documenting rural life. She managed to gather a lot of songs too and that's what we heard tonight.

I wish I could better explain this all but I think a Google search would leave you feeling far more educated.

I'm grateful I got asked to leave the farm. Had I not been asked to leave, I wouldn't have gotten to experience this which meant so much to me. To see Gaelic come to life on stage is always moving. It makes me want to punch my fists in the air and take, “Take that, time! Gaelic is coming back!”


  1. Lovely to meet you at Ardgay! Hope your travels are wildly exciting and successful! Glad you enjoyed the show.


Your words make me grin.

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