10 Gorgeous Gaelic Voices
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When I was 19, a Gaelic song changed my life forever. I heard “’S Fliuch an Oidhche” by Catherine-Ann MacPhee on the Thistle and Shamrock radio program. My immediate reaction was: What is this language? It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard? I must learn more!
Hearing that song started me down a lifelong path with Scottish Gaelic language and culture. I was lucky to be able to start learning the language informally that year. Next I spent a year on exchange at the University of Aberdeen taking first-year Gaelic. From there I continued to pursue Gaelic when and where I could, eventually attending graduate school and researching Gaelic revitalization efforts.
Gaelic music has been a constant in my life since hearing that very first song. In the days before the internet, I bought Gaelic albums through mail order catalogues. I also noticed when taking Gaelic classes that the teacher would teach us a song or two along with the grammar. It didn’t take long to realize the central place of music and song in Scottish Gaelic culture. The bardic tradition, the cèilidh house, waulking or milling songs, hymns and psalms, archival recordings of oral traditions, the Mòd, fèisean, music festivals, are all a part of contemporary Gaelic culture. Songs from centuries ago are still learned and sung, alongside classics from the past few decades and new compositions.
Different kinds of songs and events may be favoured in Scotland and Nova Scotia; for example, Gaelic choirs are popular in Scotland, while milling frolics are popular in Nova Scotia. Music festivals like Celtic Connections in Glasgow and Celtic Colours in Cape Breton are perennial favourites everywhere. Gaelic songs are essential to Gaelic communities on all sides of the ocean.
If you’re interested in Scottish Gaelic and don’t have people nearby who can teach you, then commercial recordings of Gaelic song are a good place to start. Read the English translations from the insert while listening. Then after you start to learn the language (online or in person), you can study the Gaelic lyrics and try to pronounce them. Don’t bother looking for sheet music – there isn’t any unless you join a Gaelic choir. Gaelic teachers will give you a handout with the words, and then you pick up the tune by listening. Picking a favourite commercially recorded song and studying it in depth can be rewarding, as is comparing two different commercially recorded versions. Finally, if you are lucky, maybe you can engage in learning together in a class, singing with others, and possibly performing at social events. It doesn’t matter if you have a good singing voice or not, this process will help you learn the language and tune into Gaelic culture at the same time.
For those of you wondering where to dive in, I present a list of ten gorgeous Gaelic voices – Gaelic singers and groups whose work I love. My list consists mostly of albums released in the past decade or so, but also includes a few classics. The singers and groups in this list are fluent Gaelic speakers who also use the language outside the recording studio, and have released more than one album.
The tracks on these albums consist mainly or entirely of Gaelic songs. I do dearly love jigs n’ reels, but I prefer my Gaelic music “hardcore” (as I jokingly call it), not watered down with a ton of instrumentals or English songs, and not overproduced with layers of sound muddying the vocals.
It’s easy to listen for free online these days, and I urge you to check out free samples to see whose voices and arrangements speak to you the most. But if you like the music, then I urge you to support the artists’ livelihood by buying their work. Buying the music in this case also supports the Gaelic language.
This list is not comprehensive – there are many other wonderful Gaelic singers out there, as well as instrumental groups with Gaelic-speaking members. I may create more lists in the future, so if you have suggestions of your favourite Scottish Gaelic singers and groups, leave a comment below or drop me a line!
I have met many of these artists through various Gaelic activities over the years, and I am Facebook friends with some of them. I have also recently worked with one on a non-music-related project, and another performed at a literary event that I organized. None of the artists requested to be included in this list, and I have not received any consideration from artists or recording companies to write this blog post. If you purchase any albums through Amazon by clicking on the links below, a small percentage of the purchase price will go to support the costs of running the Gaelic Revitalization blog, at no cost to the artist. Mìle taing.
Originally from the Isle of Barra in the Western Isles of Scotland, Cathy-Ann now lives in Ottawa, Canada. She is the artist whose singing got me into Gaelic in the first place. The song “’S Fliuch an Oidhche” is on her first album, Cànan nan Gàidheal.
This is something of a Gaelic “supergroup” which has featured at different times, Art Cormack, Mary Ann Kennedy, Blair Douglas, Chaz Stewart, Maggie Macdonald, Bruce MacGregor, and Ingrid Henderson. Their website at Macmeanma records explains, “The name of the band was taken from a Highland tour back in 1991… [which] went under the name for the itinerant musicians and poets that used to travel from place to place offering entertainment in exchange for hospitality.” | Artists’ website
Fiona J. MacKenzie
Fiona has won numerous Gaelic singing competitions in Scotland. She currently is the manager and archivist of Canna House on the Isle of Canna, owned by the National Trust for Scotland. Canna House is the former home of John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw and still houses their library, archives, and collections. | Artist’s website
Gillebrìde is from the Isle of South Uist and Gaelic was his first language. He is a Mòd Gold Medal winner and teaches Gaelic at the University of Glasgow. He also happens to star as Gwyllyn the Welsh Bard in the Outlander television series by Starz. | Artist’s website
Raised in Conall, Argyll, Joy won the Mòd Gold Medal in 2010 and in 2015 was named both Traditional Singer of the Year and Traditional Inter-Celtic Dance Champion at the Pan Celtic Festival. She is also a Gaelic language instructor, and will be offering a great-looking Gaelic conversation course this summer at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. | Artist website
Raised in the Isle of North Uist and Ross-shire, Julie is best known to the English-speaking world for singing the English theme song “Touch the Sky” from the Disney/Pixar film “Brave”. (A Gaelic song from “Mar a Tha Mo Chridhe” was also featured in a trailer for the movie.) | Artist website
Gach Sgeul (Every Story), 2014
Uam (From Me), 2009
Dual, 2008 – Collaboration with Irish singer Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh in Irish, Gaelic, & English
Mar a Tha Mo Chridhe (As My Heart Is), 2005
Kathleen, from the Isle of South Uist, is a smoky-voiced singer who is known in the Gaelic world for working on BBC Alba (Gaelic television) and in film, but who might be best known outside the Gaelic world for singing on Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” film soundtrack. | Artist information
Margaret is from the Isle of Lewis and for many years has specialized in pibroch song, a genre related to Highland bagpipe music. She has collaborated with noted piper Allan MacDonald on two of her three albums. She is currently offering workshops at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in Scotland (on my bucket list)! | Artist website
Mary Jane Lamond
Mary Jane grew up in Ontario, Canada while regularly visiting her grandparents in Cape Breton. She lives in Nova Scotia and has done an enormous amount of work to bring Cape Breton Gaelic songs to a wider audience in Canada and internationally. In addition to performing, she works with various Gaelic language revitalization programs in Nova Scotia. On her latest album she has formalized her collaboration with Cape Breton fiddler Wendy MacIsaac. | Artist website
Seinn, 2012 – with Wendy MacIsaac
Òrain Ghàidhlig, 2000
Làn Dùil, 1999
Suas E, 1997
Bho Thìr nan Craobh, 1996 – An iTunes purchase link is provided, as the version being sold on Amazon is a bootleg that does not profit the artist
Runrig was first formed in the Isle of Skye in 1973. The three albums of theirs listed here are my favourites; they are a bit like the classic rock of the Gaelic world. These albums feature lead singer Donnie Munro (who retired from the band in 1997 and was replaced by Canadian singer Bruce Guthro). Some of the songs on these albums have become new classics, learned by children in school and beloved by contemporary Gaelic singers. Consider these albums an essential part of your Gaelic cultural education. | Artists’ website