Dr Ian Paisley, Columcille and the Gaelic Psalm Singers

In November 2009, I brought my friends The Lord Bannside, Rev Dr Ian Paisley and Baroness Eileen to the Tullycarnet Library in  East Belfast to hear the Lewis Psalm Singers who have made a significant contribution to the work of Colmcille and to inter-community understanding in Northern Ireland. The Paisley family were already well acquainted  with this singing through visits to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, the third biggest island of the Pretanic Isles after Albion (Great Britain) and Ireland (Little Britain). Psalm singing is at the heart of worship in the Presbyterian Gaelic tradition in Scotland. Bringing with them a unique sound and singing tradition the Lewis Psalm Singers from the Free Church congregations on the island of Lewis, have given audiences here a unique insight into Gaelic culture .

Colmcille was a partnership programme between Foras na Gaeilge and Bòrd na Gàidhlig, promoting the use of Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic in Ireland and Scotland and between the two countries. Colmcille aimed through its work to foster understanding of the diverse experience and culture of the Irish and Scottish Gaelic communities, and to encourage debate on common concerns in social, cultural and economic issues with a view to building self-confidence within the Gaelic language communities.

Colmcille had originally invited the Gaelic psalm singers to Belfast in 2005 where they sang to 450 people in the Ulster Museum during the Leabhar Mòr Exhibition. They had since sung to capacity audiences in Iona Abbey, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and St Columb’s Cathedral, Londonderry, and in many other venues, including Áras Éanna in Inis Oírr in the Aran islands. Dr Paisley and Baroness Eileen came with me to meet Colmcille in the Cregagh Library for I had told them much of their marvellous work, which they greatly appreciated.

My own favourite church in Lewis is St Moluag’s (Gaelic: Teampall Mholuaidh), a 13th Century edifice in the village of Eoropie in Ness, now used by Scottish Episcopalians. The church is dedicated to St Moluag or Molua, a Bangor monk from Dalaradia in Ulster. There is a Church of Ireland church dedicated to him at Stormont. One of the most enduring traditions associated with St Moluag’s church is its power as a place of healing, especially for those afflicted with mental problems. Perhaps one of the most interesting stories and traditions associated with the church is its links with a god of the sea, Seonaidh. If true the origins of its healing ceremony may be very old indeed, and may be a lost link with the practices of the pre-Christian islanders.

Gaelic Psalm Singers from the Hebrides

This is a form of singing now largely restricted to the Western Isles of Scotland. The precentor (literally ‘one who sings beforehand’) sings the line of a psalm, and the congregation sings the line back in a cappella style (without musical accompaniment). The precentor’s duty is to pronounce the words clearly and precisely, but also to give a hint of the melody line. The role of the precentor is very important, as traditionally he or she arrived at church not knowing which psalms were to be sung, and had to think of a melody ‘on the spot’ when the minister announced the psalms. The congregation’s singing is much more ornamental, with many passing and grace notes. The result is a distinctive and emotive swell of sound. This style of singing is also learned from an early age in the home, where it is an integral part of family worship.

This form of singing developed in Britain after the Reformation to help illiterate congregations to sing psalms without needing to read them. The practice died out in most of mainland Britain due to church reform, but survived in the Hebrides as many were unable to read their native Gaelic owing to the hostility of the educational authorities. Today, many Gaelic speakers can read the Bible in their own language and maintain psalm singing in the traditional style. However, there is concern that the tradition is in danger and psalmody classes have been arranged in Gaelic-medium schools.

The Reverend Dr. I. D. Campbell minister of the Free Church in Back, Isle of Lewis, explained the endurance of the Gaelic psalm singing tradition, ‘A lot of the new songs and hymns that are being used elsewhere just don’t have the depth of feeling and the ability to marry theology and personal experience together in the way the psalms do.’

Few who listen to Gaelic psalm singing can fail to be moved. Lesley Riddoch, who is originally from Belfast and is now Radio Scotland’s best-known presenter, declared that listening to the psalms made hairs stand up on the back of her neck and she found the music very moving. When she played a track from this choir’s CD on her show many listeners were amazed – one caller said ‘I did not know that Scottish men could sing with such emotion.’

Professor Willie Ruff, of the University of Yale believes the Hebridean style heavily influenced the black gospel tradition of ‘lining out’ psalms, as Scottish Gaelic speakers and black slaves shared the same churches for many years in the southern United States.  Willie played a CD track to an old Black precentor who burst into tears, recognising the similarities immediately. There are also striking similarities to be found in the singing styles of the Coptic Church of Ethiopia. 

The Free Church of Scotland 

Psalm singing is popular with many Presbyterian churches, and in Northern Ireland today, the Reformed Presbyterian Church maintains the tradition of unaccompanied psalm singing. Gaelic psalm singing is a distinctive feature of the Free Church of Scotland, the strongest Presbyterian Church in the Highlands. This Church was borne out of religious controversies during the mid-1800s when Highland lairds were clearing the lands of their crofters (tenant farmers) to make room for sheep runs and hunting grounds. The ministers of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland were often chosen by the landlords and were obedient to them, telling their congregations it was God’s will they were to leave their traditional homes and travel as far as Canada and Australia.

As poor tenant farmers turned to their religion for comfort, evangelists who disagreed with the Church of Scotland’s doctrine were outraged by the landlords’ influence over ministers. One third of the Church of Scotland’s ministers and 60 per cent of the laity seceded to form the Free Church. They endured many years of hardship, having to meet in barns and boats, for example, but eventually they triumphed over the established Presbyterian church in the Highlands. In the Lowlands many Free Churches returned to the Church of Scotland after it was released from Government control in 1874, but many Highland Churches remain ‘Free’. Many Highland Presbyterians came to believe that the distinctive Gaelic church was a bulwark against the irreligious licentiousness of the Lowlands, and the Free Church Presbytery of Lewis can insist on a commitment to learn Gaelic on the part of ministers who do not know the language. Many posts for ministers on Lewis are advertised as ‘Gaelic essential’.

This group of psalm singers have released three CDs, the profits of which go to the Bethesda Care Home and Hospice in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis. You can read more about the group’s work at www.gaelicpsalmsinging.com


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