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Reviving Ancient Echoes: The Resurrection of Gaelic Heroic Lays

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On Saturday 23 September, the heroic laoidhean which formed a central part of traditional Gaelic culture in the later Middle Ages will be brought back to life.

The reinterpreted Gaelic heroic lays or laoidhean are the result of a remarkable collaboration of an exceptionally talented traditional Gaelic singer from South Uist, Màiri Macmillan; a celebrated chamber ensemble notable for their dedication to new music, the Edinburgh Quartet; and a distinguished modern composer whose work stretches from classical to electronica, Ned Bigham.

The musicians are breathing fresh life into these ancient songs, looking to bring them to the attention of a wider audience by staging a concert of laoidhean in the striking venue of the National Library of Scotland. The rare event will also be recorded, with recordings released later this year, opening up the music and tradition more widely to people across the UK and abroad, adding to posterity in the archive.

The laoidhean tell even older stories embracing slain heroes, monsters, five-headed giants, epic battles and tragic love. In the eighteenth century, the Gaelic laoidhean inspired the Ossianic prose epics of James Macpherson, a vital touchstone for the Romantic movement throughout Europe and beyond. Unfortunately, however, today the tradition of sung laoidhean is increasingly endangered.

However, one of the most important collections of laoidhean texts was compiled by the nineteenth-century folklorist and polymath John Francis Campbell, drawing on manuscripts, printed material, and his own fieldwork in the Highlands and Islands. These texts, offering fascinating contextual details concerning singers and their performances, are preserved among Campbell’s voluminous papers in the National Library of Scotland. They played a key starting point for the research to create these new interpretations.

The Library’s first bi-lingual exhibition Sgeul | Story focuses on the work of John Francis Campbell of Islay, who worked with local storytellers to record and save Gaelic folktales which at the time were preserved solely by a dwindling oral tradition and therefore at risk of oblivion. The exhibition opened in June this year and continues until April 2024.

The concert will be introduced by Domhnall Uilleam Stiubhart and Abigail Burnyeat (both at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, University of the Highland and Islands), who will give the audience an insight into the history and the stories in both English and Gaelic.

“A few years ago Dòmhnall and Abigail introduced me to the fascinating Gaelic tradition of these heroic ballads that came across from Ireland, starting in the twelfth century. They belonged to the high art tradition in their communities, which may be why many contemporary singers have felt intimidated to take them on and it is now rare to hear them. In reimagining them for a modern audience we have set them to string quartet, which as far as we are aware is a first. The combination of the wonderfully talented Gaelic singer Màiri Macmillan and the internationally renowned Edinburgh Quartet, together with the ballads’ beautiful melodies and spellbinding narratives should be really magical!

Ned Bigham

“Whether in a chief’s hall or in the ceilidh house, the characters of these laoidhean were known and what happens to them was both familiar and deeply-felt. The performance of these tales was part of an intimate conversation between storytellers and singers and their audiences. It’s not theatre or opera: the song is there to carry the words, and the words are what’s important. The ballads were high art; but their stories belonged to everybody and will resonate with people just as much today as in the past.”

Abigail Burnyeat (Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, University of the Highland and Islands)

“The Ossianic Ballads are the culmination of research, musical collaboration and performance which will truly bring the collections to life. The performances perfectly complement our ‘Sgeul | Story’ exhibition which showcases Gaelic folktales that were rescued from oblivion in the 19th century. In the same vein, the heroic laoidhean will be revived for modern audiences through the Ossianic Ballads.

“The performers will also breathe new life into the Library’s public spaces, and will pave the way for more musical events in the National Library of Scotland.

“We are grateful to be working with such talented musicians and for the support of the Murray Family and the American Patrons of the National Library and Galleries of Scotland.”

National Librarian Amina Shah

Tickets go on sale on Wednesday 16th August and the event will also be livestreamed.

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