Psalm 23 in Scottish Gaelic
The 23rd Psalm, the one that starts “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” is a passage from the Bible that many Christians find comfort in. Recently a blog reader from Cape Breton asked me where to find a Gaelic version of Psalm 23. I realized that if you are not already plugged into the Gaelic scene, or don’t own a Gaelic Bible, it’s not all that easy to find. I also remembered that we had taken a video of a small group of us singing the metrical (versified rhyming) version of Psalm 23 at a United Church of Canada conference in Halifax a few years ago. Previously I wrote about the Lord’s Prayer in Gaelic, so this post make a good companion to that one.
Psalm 23 Sung in Scottish Gaelic
I found the video, edited it and posted it to my YouTube channel. But before you dash off to watch it – or after – please read the rest of this post for more information, or it’s not going to make much sense!
The singers are myself, Rev. Ivan Gregan (minister of Port Wallis United Church, Dartmouth, NS, which is my church), and local Gaelic teacher Joe Murphy who is a parishioner of Saint Peter Roman Catholic Church, Dartmouth. Behind us are members of our Gaelic milling group An Cliath Clis (aka A’ Chliath Chlis).
It’s not my best singing, and I didn’t like my haircut, and I wish I’d brought a tripod for my smartphone, and and and. But. At the current time, there isn’t any other video exactly like this online. So in this case, “done” and “accessible” are better than “perfect.”
Tunes and Styles of Singing the 23rd Psalm in Gaelic
“Martyrdom” was the preferred Scottish Presbyterian tune for this psalm in the old days, and that is the tune we used. Nowadays a different tune is used in English congregations, but I like Martyrdom. This is the tune of Martyrdom played on an organ.
Our version is straight unaccompanied singing of the melody, which is a bit different from the Scottish Gaelic precenting tradition of psalm singing. This 1949 recording from the MacEdward Leach collection at Memorial University Newfoundland features Alex MacKinnon and others from Lake Ainslie, Cape Breton, singing the song in a style that bridges the difference between our modern YouTube performance and a “full-on” precenting style.
Precenting style in Scottish Presbyterian churches involves a precentor “lining out” or precenting each line of the psalm, and then the rest of the congregation singing it, with each person adding their own individual ornamentation to the melody. It has a very distinctive sound.
There are good examples of Gaelic precenting from Scotland on YouTube. I couldn’t find a video on YouTube of Psalm 23 being sung in Gaelic to “Martyrdom.” This is worship and it’s done by and for the people who participate in it, not for non-Gaelic speakers’ internet convenience, so you get what you get. 🙂 However, here is an example of Psalm 23 being sung in precenting style to the tune “Evan” at an event in Arbroath for the Free Church (Continuing):
And here is Psalm 23 to “Bays of Harris” sung at the Dowanvale Free Church, Dowanhill, Glasgow:
And here is Psalm 22 to “Bangor” at Back Free Church, Isle of Lewis:
This last one is actually found on the album “Salm, Volume 1” which can be purchased at Amazon.com and also at MusicScotland.com. There is a “Salm, Volume 2” available as well (the Amazon links are affiliate links that support this blog).
The Tobair an Dualchais online database contains audio files with examples of Psalm 23 sung in Gaelic to the tunes “New London,” “St. David,” “Torwood,” “Covenanters,” “Walsall,” “Evan,” “Kilmarnock,” and even “Amazing Grace.” To find them all, under “Advanced Search” enter “Psalm 23” and check the “Gaelic” box.
The Gaelic Metrical Psalm Version of Psalm 23
So if you want to sing the 23rd Psalm in Gaelic, the metrical psalm version (in other words, the version written in rhyming verse for singing by congregations) is the one that you may want to sing. It’s from the Presbyterian tradition.
Psalm 23 and indeed all 150 metrical psalms are found at the back of the Gaelic Bible. The metrical psalms “were first published in full in 1694. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland produced a revised edition in 1826, which is basically the same text which is still used today” (Wikipedia). Fortunately the Sailm Dhaibhidh are now available online in two slightly different versions, this one incorporating updated spelling rules, and the older version that we sang in the video, with slightly different words.
Below is the version incorporating updated spelling rules:
1 Is e Dia fhèin as buachaill dhomh,
cha bhi mi ann an dìth.
2 Bheir e fa-near gu’n laighinn sìos
air cluainean glas’ le sìth:
Is fòs ri taobh nan aibhnichean
thèid seachad sìos gu mall,
A ta e ga mo threòrachadh,
gu mìn rèidh anns gach ball.
3 Tha ’g aisig m’anam dhomh air ais:
’s a treòrachadh mo cheum
Air slighean glan’ na fìreantachd,
air sgàth dheagh ainme fhèin.
4 Seadh, fòs ged ghluaisinn eadhon trìd
ghlinn dorcha sgàil a’ bhàis,
Aon olc no urchuid a theachd orm
chan eagal leam ’s cha chàs;
Air son gu bheil thu leam a-ghnàth,
do lorg, ’s do bhata treun,
Tha iad a’ tabhairt comhfhurtachd
is fuasglaidh dhomh am fheum.
5 Dhomh dheasaich bòrd air beul mo nàmh:
le ola dh’ung mo cheann;
Cur thairis tha mo chupan fòs,
aig meud an làin a th’ann.
6 Ach leanaidh maith is tròcair rium,
an cian a bhios mi beò;
Is còmhnaicheam an àros Dhè,
ri fad mo rè ’s mo lò.*
*lò is a poetic word for latha, day
(© 1992, 2016 Comann Bhìoball na h-Alba | © 1992, 2016 Scottish Bible Society)
A Version of Psalm 23 in the Catholic Gaelic Hymnal
The metrical psalms were and are used in Presbyterian Gaelic worship. If you’re looking for a different sung version, there is a lovely version in the Catholic Gaelic hymnal Seinnibh dhan Tighearna. It’s #8, with words and sheet music, and the tune is by Kenna Campbell. The hymnal was first published by the Argyll and the Isles Diocese in 1986. It is still widely used in churches, and it was still available from the Gaelic Books Council a few years ago, but I don’t see it listed there now. I would like to make it available, but it’s sheet music and it’s copyrighted, so I don’t think it’s right to scan and post two whole pages from it. Please leave a comment below if you know where interested Gaelic learners could obtain a copy of the hymnal.
I did find a 1991 video of Kenna Campbell singing this version. Kenna Campbell’s version became well-known after she sang it at the funeral of Labour Party leader John Smith in 1994. It can be purchased on a CD titled “Curaidh Sìnte” (Fallen Leader), here.
Reading Psalm 23 Aloud: The Gaelic Bible Version
If you wish to read the 23rd Psalm aloud, as opposed to singing it, then you would want the regular Bible text rather than the metrical psalm.
The good news (no pun intended) is that as of November 2017, the Gaelic Bible is finally available online on this website and through a free Bible app! (I’ve been waiting for this for years and I’m really excited about it!)
And there’s even more exciting news: the brand new translation of the New Testament is finally finished! The work was carried out by a team of translators from the Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church. They started in 2008 and after nine years of work the New Testament was completed in November 2017. The new print edition will be available later in 2018 (UPDATE: available here: https://gaidhlig.bible/), and the online version is available through both a free website and a free Bible app right now. The Scottish Bible Society says: “The new translation aims to combine faithfulness to the Greek original with vocabulary in normal use, and clarity with dignity. […] As the translators worked through the New Testament they were very much aware of the importance that this new translation will have for education and for the churches.”
Now the Psalms of course are in the Old Testament, not the New Testament, so what follows is not a brand new translation, but it’s the most up-to-date version:
1 Is e an Tighearna mo bhuachaille; cha bhi mi ann an dìth.
2 Ann an cluainean glasa bheir e orm laighe sìos; làimh ri uisgeachan ciùine treòraichidh e mi.
3 Aisigidh e m’anam; treòraichidh e mi air slighean na fìreantachd air sgàth a ainme fhèin.
4 Seadh, ged shiubhail mi tro ghleann sgàil a’ bhàis, cha bhi eagal uilc orm, oir tha thusa maille rium; bheir do shlat agus do lorg comhfhurtachd dhomh.
5 Deasaichidh tu bòrd fam chomhair ann am fianais mo naimhdean; dh’ung thu le ola mo cheann; tha mo chupan a’ cur thairis.
6 Gu cinnteach leanaidh math agus tròcair mi uile làithean mo bheatha; agus còmhnaichidh mi ann an taigh an Tighearna fad mo làithean.
(© 2018 Comann Bhìoball na h-Alba | © 2018 The Scottish Bible Society)
If, after watching the videos, you still have questions about how to pronounce particular words in the Psalm, take more Gaelic classes! Haha just kidding. Well actually I’m not kidding. But as a Gaelic learner, I know it can take years to get to the point where you’re comfortable figuring out how to pronounce new-to-you words in Gaelic, and sometimes you just want to jump right in there and use it in your life. So in that case, please check with a Gaelic teacher, or look up the word in the LearnGaelic.scot dictionary: there are pronunciation soundfiles for a lot of the words.
Scottish Gaelic Worship
If you’re interested in Gaelic worship, you may wish to read my other blog posts on the topic: “Ar n-Athair: The Lord’s Prayer in Gaelic,” “The Lord’s Prayer in Scottish Gaelic: Example Videos,” “A Gaelic church service in Cape Breton,” “The Gaelic Family?,” and “A Gaelic Nativity Play.” My post “Celebrating St. Bridget’s Day in Gaelic (Là Fhèill Brìghde)” bridges the gap between Christian and pagan worship. There is an ecumenical Christian Gaelic service every year in Cape Breton in the month of May, so keep an eye out for that if you are in Cape Breton. It alternates among the different churches, Catholic, Presbyterian, and United Church of Canada.