On the Gaelic musical term “org(h)an”

The word org(h)an and associated derivates appear in Gaelic texts in the 17th and 18th centuries. The glossary of the poetry anthology Bàrdachd Ghàidhlig prepared by William J. Watson in 1918 translates this word as “organ” (i.e., the musical instrument), although the Latin/Greek term organum is also listed without comment. Subsequent editors and translators of Scottish Gaelic literature (so far as I am aware) followed the assumption that the term always refers to a musical instrument. There are several possibilities of exactly which instrument was meant at differing times by various authors, such as the virginal, but identifying specific instruments is not the aim of this short article.

I became aware some time ago, however, that the Gaelic term is by no means so semantically restricted. Like the Latin/Greek term, it cannot only refer to a musical instrument but to the ability of an instrument to effect polyphony. The term organum appears in Latin texts in Insular Celtic contexts with both meanings, as Burstyn notes:

The medieval usage of the term organum, as, indeed, of other musical terms, was looser and less specific than is generally assumed. In the 12th century, organum was frequently used as a covering term for polyphony (both vocal and instrumental, as is clear from Gerald’s use of the term to describe Irish harp playing.) (Burstyn 1983: 137).

The term was borrowed into Middle Gaelic with the same semantic ambiguities, as is clear in the entries for orghan in the Dictionary of the Irish Language (http://edil.qub.ac.uk/search?q=orghan). Note, for example, the usage in the 12th/13th-century Acallam na Senórach: “ceol ┐ orghan ┐ sianorgan ban Erenn.” This clearly refers to a type or quality of music, rather than an instrument.

The same sense of “polyphony” or “rich aural texture of multiple notes” can be found in a number of Scottish Gaelic texts (mostly of the 17th and 18th centuries). It is my hypothesis that an understanding of the term as an aural description (rather than just an instrument) fell out of use as English displaced Gaelic in formal environments that would have previously supported native professional learned classes. The bias against the use of musical instruments in Presbyterian congregations may have further accelerated the obsolescence of this semantic range of the term.

The following is a list of occurrences of the term (mostly from Bàrdachd Ghàidhlig) which I have close to hand from Scottish Gaelic sources. I will mark each one with either “instrument,” “aural” or “double entendre” (as composers deliberately play with lexical ambiguity):

  1. “Òran Mór MhicLeòid” by An Clarsair Dall: “Iad gu h-organach ceòlmhor cluth” – aural
  2. “An Crònan” by Màiri Nighean Alasdair: “’S binne na gleus organ” – instrument?
  3. “Cumha MhicLeòid” by Màiri Nighean Alasdair: “nan ceòl orghan” – aural
  4. “Moladh Chinn-tìre” (prob. William MacMurchy): “Organ as glòrmhoire ’s a’ chruinne” – aural, double entendre?; “Nuallan a tonna mar orgain” – instrument?
  5. “Do Dhomhnall Gorm Òg” by Iain Lom: “Is orghain Lìteach” – instrument?
  6. “Biodh an Uidheam Seo Triall” by Iain Lom: “Le an cluinnte orghan teud” – aural
  7. “Màiri Nighean Deòrsa” by Alasdair Òg Mac Fir Àrd na Bighe: “Is leat gach buaidh orgain” – double entendre?
  8. “Gaoir nam Ban Muileach” by Mairghread nighean Lachlainn: “Organ ’s clàrsach bu bhinne” – instrument
  9. “Gaisgeach na Sgéithe Deirge” (heroic oral narrative): “no le organ nam manach” – aural

I will leave it to a more ambitious scholar to analyze all of the usages now accessible via the incredible resources at DASG. Begin your research by simply clicking this link: http://dasg.ac.uk/corpus/concordance.php?theData=organ&qmode=sq_nocase&pp=50&del=end&uT=y&del=begin&del=end&uT=y


Shai Burstyn. “Gerald of Wales and the Sumer Canon.” The Journal of Musicology 2.2 (1983): 135-150 .

William Watson. Bàrdachd Ghàidhlig: Gaelic Poetry 1550-1900. Inverness: An Comunn Gaidhealach, 1976 [1918].

4 thoughts on “On the Gaelic musical term “org(h)an”

  1. Michael, are you aware of the word “organ” appearing in Edward Bunting’s manuscript note book from the 1790s, labelling certain bass strings of Gaelic harps?

    e.g. http://cdm15979.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15979coll9/id/146 shows the gamut of a harp
    http://cdm15979.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15979coll9/id/216 shows the sequence of tuning the strings (p.150)
    http://cdm15979.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15979coll9/id/222 also shows the tuning sequence (p.156)

    These pages are ostensibly in English (he writes “sisters” instead of “na comhluighe”). Bunting was an organist, but I have asked organists what they make of this annotation without any luck. perhaps it is related to your word.

  2. Uncrossed wires, I see where you are going now. Moladh Chinn-tire though is probably not by ‘anon’. It is a near certainty that it is by William MacMurchy (the MS its from is his), who was of course a musician apart from his other talents. Organ seems to crop up twice there but the whole poem is a musical tour de force as if he was trying to get as many musical terms in as he could, some with no or little ‘acclimatization’.
    For example ‘chorus’ and both ‘minim’ and ‘beus’/bass, probably do not crop up in any other Gaelic verse other than loan words.

    • Thanks, Keith. I will edit the note accordingly. I seem to recall “minim” or some related term showing up in one of the Gaelic song-poems in the sequence of dis-/praise, but I can’t remember now which one.

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