Carmina Gadelica: Chants and Charms of Scotland

May 19, 2014 | Posted in: Myths & Folktales, Sociology

A Souvenir From Scotland, 1879, Gustave Dore.

A Souvenir From Scotland, Gustave Dore, 1879.

“[W]e find ourselves situated in the land, with its transformations and cycles of change, much as protagonists are situated in a story. To a deeply oral culture, the earthly world is felt as a vast, ever-unfolding Story in which we—along with the other animals, plants, and landforms—are all characters” David Abrams


 “My mother would be asking us to sing our morning song to God down in the back-house, as Mary’s lark was singing it up in the clouds, and as Christ’s mavis was singing it yonder in the tree, giving glory to the God of the creatures for the repose of the night, for the light of the day, and for the joy of life. She would tell us that every creature on the earth here below and in the ocean beneath and in the air above was giving glory to the great God of the creatures and the worlds, of the virtues and the blessings, and would we be dumb!”
Carmina Gadelica, Vol III


In the distant past, all of our ancestors lived without the use of the written word. For the vast majority of our species evolution, communities passed down all preciously accrued information and wisdom solely through oral means, using stories, rhymes, charms, songs, and proverbs to make the memorization of their beliefs and knowledge easier, and more captivating.

From 1860 through 1905, the folklorist Alexander Carmichael steeped himself in the oral traditions of the Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland. These were salt of the earth people, with distinct localized cultures, almost entirely illiterate and poor in monetary wealth, but with soaring lyrical tongues and sharp minds, perfectly adapted to surviving the often harsh conditions of their homeland. They farmed crops and raised livestock to feed themselves, made their own cloth and sewed all their clothes and linens, crafted their own poultices and herbal remedies, built all their homesteads and towns and churches. They were universes unto themselves, and thus had deep and ancient rituals that seeped into all their days and nights.

Scottish Spring, 1864, William McTaggart.

Scottish Spring, William McTaggart, 1864.

At the time when Carmichael began collecting their poems, songs, charms, and blessings, the world was changing. Food and clothes were now beginning to be sold in stores and education was becoming more widely available, allowing the youngsters to learn to read. The old ways were dying out, even becoming a source of ridicule for the young learned ones. In the face of this new unfurling world, Carmichael endeavored to collect all the Gaelic oral traditions that he could, translating them into English and thus preserving in written form prayers that were not long to be spoken aloud any more.

“In my own time, and before we were put out of Ben More, there was much of old lore and old customs and old ways of thought among the old people—prayers and charms, songs and hymns, tales and music and dancing from Monday to Sunday. Whatever the people might be doing, or whatever engaged in, there would be a tune of music in their mouth. When they would arise in the morning—and Mary mild, early rising and early astir were the people of that day!—there could always be heard a man here and a woman there, a lad yonder and a maiden at hand, with a cheerful strain of music in the mouth of each; whether they would be shaking corn in the kiln or feeding cattle in the byre, fetching in a stoup of water or bringing home a creel of peat, from each one’s mouth came his own croon… O Mary and O Son, sweet, sweet it was to be seeing and to be hearing them, sweeter than the trash and the gadding of useless folk at the present time, who have neither music nor song nor prayer nor work in them, nor much of any good thing whatever, but only a tittle-tattle of talk and rubbishy rants that run through the world.” Interview recorded in the Carmina Gadelica, Vol I

Both the divine and the mundane were harmonized into nearly every chant, prayer, or song that Carmichael recorded. These were soulful people, who saw divinity present in every aspect of their world, from sewing to harvesting to sailing to milking. For any culture that depends on the land for their survival, intimate knowledge of the ecosystems, plants, animals, weather patterns, and geography was not a luxury, but a necessity:

“Without a versatile writing system, there is simply no way to preserve, in any fixed, external medium, the accumulated knowledge regarding particular plants and specific animals, or even regarding the land itself. Such practical knowledge must be preserved, then, in spoken formulations that can be easily remembered, modified when new facts are learned, and retold from generation to generation…” David Abrams

Farm Yard, 1902, Valentin Serov.

Farm Yard, Valentin Serov, 1902.

The peoples of the Scottish Isles had made a glorious weaving of ancient pagan traditions with the newer influx of the Christian religion. As often as they called on the Lord on high, blessed Mother Mary, and Jesus of the peace, they also sought to invoke and cajole the spirits they believed dwelled in every part of the world around them. No plant or animal or element of their home was ignored, although some were seen as sinister and if they were encountered a prayer of protection was spoken to ensure one’s safety.

“The old people had runes which they sang to the spirits dwelling in the sea and in the mountain, in the wind and in the whirlwind, in the lightning and in the thunder, in the sun and in the moon and in the stars of heaven. I was naught but a toddling child at the time, but I remember well the ways of the old people. Then came notice of eviction, and burning, and emigration, and the people were scattered and sundered over the world, and the old ways disappeared with the old people. Oh, they disappeared indeed, and nothing so good is come in their stead, naught so good is come, my beloved one, nor ever will come.”
Carmina Gadelica, Vol I

As we gain, so we lose: changes bring marvels and improvements, but also often sacrifice the old ways, not all of which are worthy of discard. Those born into a new world aren’t even aware of what’s been lost, except when we hear or read tales of old. The reminiscences of those who’ve lived long years, and aren’t promised many ahead, seem to have a kinder eye for what was, rather than what is. As Steinbeck, with his endless wit, put it in East of Eden: “Oh, strawberries don’t taste as they used to and the thighs of women have lost their clutch!”

Yet, there is something so deeply saddening, even to my modern heart, in the loss of a culture whose every day was filled with meaningful song, prayer, chant, and charm, calling on all of divinity and magic to protect and care for them in their most trivial matters, and their most sacred. When weaving their cloth a song was sung. When smooring their fire in the evening a prayer was said to ensure it would not go out before morning. When milking a cow or collecting hen’s eggs or shepherding their flocks, a chant was accorded for each task at hand. When collecting herbs, there were charms for every plant, helping to remind the picker of its uses and ensure the herb’s succor.

When a child was baptized, the midwife would speak a Baptism Charm, such as this one:

“A wavelet for thy sweet speech;
A wavelet for thy luck, A wavelet for thy good,
A wavelet for thy health;
A wavelet for thy throat, A wavelet for thy pluck,
A wavelet for thy graciousness;
Nine waves for thy graciousness.”

Prayers and songs were recited for protection upon the coming of night and thanks for the rising of the sun:

“Bless to me, O God,
Each thing mine eye sees
Bless to me, O God,
Each sound mine ear hears;
Bless to me, O God,
Each odour that goes to my nostrils
Bless to me, O God,
Each taste that goes to my lips”

The time of death had many rituals, chants, and prayers to accompany and ease one’s passing:

“Thou goest home this night to thy home of winter,
To thy home of autumn, of spring, and of summer;
Thou goest home this night to thy perpetual home,
To thine eternal bed, to thine eternal slumber.
Sleep thou, sleep, and away with thy sorrow,
Shield me this night and every night
Till light and dawn shall come.”

The Sheepfold, Moonlight, 1860, Jean-François Millet.

The Sheepfold, Moonlight, Jean-François Millet, 1860.

My favorite of all the recitals collected in the Carmina Gadelica volumes was the one spoken when a new moon rose. Men and women would bow and flip silver coins in their pockets and speak an ancient benediction to the beloved moon which lit the dark nights, all the more vital in a time before electricity:

“If to-night, O moon, thou hast found us
In peaceful, happy rest,
May thy laving lustre leave us
Seven times still more blest.
O moon so fair,
May it be so,
As seasons come,
And seasons go.”

The first three volumes of the Carmina Gadelica are available online in their full text:
Volumes I & II
Volume III


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