The Precious Legacy of Funny Gaelic Songs

By Eilidh McLaughlin

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Fiollaigean - Donnie MacLeod

Fiollaigean performed by Donnie MacLeod. Fiollaigean air a sheinn le Donnie MacLeòid. "Moladh Uibhist" air a sheinn le Ùisdean MacMhathain, bhon phrògram Aig Cridhe ar Ciùil. "Cur Cùlaibh ri Asainte" air a sheinn le Seumas Greumach, bhon phrògram Aig Cridhe ar Ciùil.

Humour (Àbhachdas) is often used as a mechanism to cope with everyday trials. It is a strategy Gaels use in many of their songs and there's a culture of writing funny songs in Gaelic to deal with everyday and not-so everyday events. By poking gentle fun at useless animals, customs, communities or at local characters, the songs acted as glue and bound people together. An example of singing a song about local characters is Fiollaigean, which wonders whether a girl, Mòr, will marry a man, Fiollaigean, and describes the obstacles that she faces. Storytelling is central to the songs and words and expression are key to a catchy song. A good story means that the wit is spread and others who may not know the original subject of the song could relate to similar customs and characters in their own areas.

Many of the songs use hyperbole to describe slight misfortunes such as purchasing a bogus bargain pair of moleskin trousers that forever need mending, or an old man whose wife has gone on holiday leaving him to fend for himself. Making light of serious or possibly traumatic events is a common theme, such as being in hospital, losing one's teeth, or the death of a cat. These are all events to which many people from all backgrounds can relate and, from time to time, need light relief from the pain that they cause.

History is also recorded in a witty manner with songs depicting the community’s reaction to the first motor car seen in Waternish on the Isle of Skye at the beginning of the 20th Century. These songs show how new-fangled technology and new methodology was a source of amusement to the author. Although they originally acted as a way to amuse a community, these songs perform an important function today; they are a permanent record of what life was like in the Gaidhealtachd at that time. A favourite is Òran an AI (translation: The AI song), made even more popular by the late John “Hoddan” Macdonald, which describes an elderly couple's bafflement when instead of taking a cow to a bull to let nature take its course, they were confronted with forms and phone calls to the ‘board’ in order to impregnate their cow. They argue about who will deal with the bureaucracy and decide the wailing cow should go to the phone box to bellow down the phone to the 'board'. The ultimate befuddlement comes when, instead of the bull, a smartly dressed man appears and offers the couple a choice of breed for the calf. The singer ends by cheekily asking his audience to remember this tale and he’ll let them know if a calf, or two, ever appears.

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Òran an AI - Iain “Hoddan” Dòmhnallach

Òran an AI performed by John “Hoddan” McDonald. Òran an AI air a sheinn le Iain “Hoddan” Dòmhnallach.

Many other events, mundane or otherwise, are recorded including receiving wartime rations, or even a community of characters coming together to dispose of a carcass of a horse that was not much use to the owner when it was alive.

It is not only social history which is recorded with gentle wit, but also significant events. An example of this is Òran na Cloiche (The Song of the Stone) which describes the reclamation (or the theft) of the Stone of Scone (Stone of Destiny) from Westminster Abbey to Scotland by a group of students in 1950. This incident is recorded with a sharp satirical tongue. It also echoes a legend stating that, as long as the Stone of Scone remains in the country, the people of Scotland will stand united.

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Kathleen MacInnes and Laoise Kelly - Oran Na Cloiche

Kathleen MacInnes and Laoise Kelly perform Oran Na Cloiche on The Studio One Sessions with Karine Polwart. Watch Tim Eriksen perform Granite Mills on Karine Polwart: The Studio One Sessions. Watch Tim Eriksen perform Boston on Karine Polwart: The Studio One Sessions.

Although many of the customs, people and areas are long gone, the humour and wit mean that many of these songs remain popular to this day.

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