An Athollman’s Bagpipe Song in Defense of Gaelic

Gaels all over the Highlands, even as far east as Strathardle, managed to cling resiliently onto their language and culture until the tumultuous changes of the nineteenth century. English pushed aggressively against Gaelic during the nineteenth century, but not without some resistance.

One of those Perthshire Highlanders who defended his native language and urged others to stand fast in this era was Archibald Farquharson (1800-1878), a native of Moulin (close to Pitlochry). He became a minister, settled in Tiree, and remained a steadfast champion of his native tongue until his death.

One of his publications, printed in 1868, is a 40-page booklet entitled An Address to Highlanders Respecting their Native Gaelic. Towards the end of the booklet, he includes a three page song-poem inciting the Gaels to stay true to their language. He includes an interesting note to this poem which begins by explaining a traditional taunt of rivalry that the Athollmen used against  the men of Strathardle (a couplet with internal rhyme). He then uses this jibe as a starting point for a new song-poem which remains strikingly authentic in its form and content. It is a wonderful example of how tradition can be creatively reshaped in the defense of Gaelic.

Farquharson reshapes the traditional taunt to mock the Strathardle folk for forsaking Gaelic in favour of English, thus becoming unslaved to the language of their former enemies. This demonstrates what is so clear in many other sources, that the Gaelic language was absolutely central and key to Highland identity.

It is also interesting that this song is described as being played on the bagpipes, another example of the common belief that the bagpipes were able to imitate the human voice (and hence that any musician aspiring to play the music of the Highlands needed to understand the Gaelic language).

This provocation quickly turns the Strathardle men back toward their natural Highland allies and goads them to be faithful to their native language. The animosity quickly melts: they are reunited in brotherly love, and share in the bounty of their culture with music, conviviality and nourishment. Lowlanders are depicted in contrast as lying literally in darkness, shivering with the cold. This is one of many examples of temperature being used metaphorically in Gaelic (not unlike in English) as corresponding to emotional state: warmth (affection and kindliness) in opposition to coldness (lack of welcome and friendship).

I give below the original text with my translations into English in square brackets.


The Atholites used to provoke the Ardleites with a tune which they played on the bagpipes when leaving them—Bodaich dhubh Srath Àrdail, gun d’fhàg sinn ’nan cadal iad—The black churls of Strathardle, we have left them asleep.

In the Free Church of Kirkmichael, Strathardle, there has been no Gaelic preached for several years, and it is going and almost gone in the Established Church. I wish with all my heart that a company of the Atholites would cross over with a piper at their head, and play the following on the street of Kirkmichael :—

Bodaich dhubh’ Srath Àrdail,
Cha Ghàidheil iad ach Sasannaich!
Thréig iad mar na tràillean
Cainnte bhlàth an athraichean.

[The black churls of Strathardle,
They are no Gaels, but Englishmen!
Like slaves, they have abandoned
The warm language of their forefathers.]

And that they on their part would play the following:—

Tosdaibb, bithibh sàmhach!
Chan àill leinn sibh bhith magadh oirnn;
Bheir ar cridh do’n Ghàidhlig,
’S a-chaoidh gu bràth, cha dealaich ri’;

’S nuair thig [i] rìs do ar tìr,
Le ceòl pìob is cridhealas,
Aran grinn, ’s comhdach’ ìm’
Agus cìr-mheala leis,

Gheibh sibh uainn gu càirdeal
A shàsachadh ur stamagan;
Is seinnibh do’n Ghàidhlig
Na h-Àrdlaich ’s na h-Athalaich.

Nuair bhios Goill mar na doill
Is an oidhch a’ laidhe orr’, 
Gu ro thruagh, crith gu luath,
Is le fuachd ’gam meileachadh,

Bidh sinne air ar blàth’chadh,
’S a’ Ghàidhlig ’gar teasachadh,
Is caoimhneas, gean is càirdeas

Sìor fhàs ann ar n-anamaibh.

[Hush, be quiet!
We don’t like for you to be mocking us;
Take our hearts to Gaelic
And never ever leave it;

And when it returns to our land,
With bagpipe music, and merriment,
Elegant bread with a coat of butter,
And a honey-comb with it,

You will get enough from us, kindly,
To satisfy your stomachs;
And sing to Gaelic,
The people of Strathardle and Atholl,

When the Lowlanders are like blind-people
As the night-time falls on them,
Very pathetically, shivering madly,
And fainting with the cold,

We will be warmed up,
With Gaelic providing our heat,
And kindness, goodwill and fellowship
Constantly growing in our souls.]

Although my native country, I am quite ashamed of them.

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One Comment

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