Scottish vocal music

Vocal music varies from region to region and is often associated with dancing and storytelling.

Song singing in the Highlands and Islands was part of everyday life. It was often used to lift spirits and ease the hardship of working life.

Along with dancing, telling stories and reciting poetry, song singing is a key part of traditional céilidhs.

Gaelic vocal music

Mouth music

Songs known as mouth music (puirt-a-beul) provided accompaniment for the dancing of strathspeys, reels and jigs.

These Gaelic songs were sung by a solo voice, or by voices a cappella. The lyrics are often meaningless. Instead the voices are used as musical instruments and the singing has a strong sense of rhythm and melody.

Mouth music

Nowadays, it is common to hear the fiddle and other instruments perform along with mouth music. Listen to how the folk group Breabach combines mouth music with other instruments

Breabach perform an example of mouth music

Gaelic psalm

Gaelic psalm singing can still be heard in Gaelic Presbyterian Church services today, in particular on the Western Isles of Scotland.

The singing is a cappella and has a similar structure to question and answer.

A leader, often referred to as the precentor, announces the slow melodic line of the hymn. The congregation then continues the melodic line. Each singer has the freedom to add their own grace notes.

An example of a Gaelic psalm

Present-day folk groups sometimes incorporate Gaelic psalms into their music. Listen to how the folk group Cliar have combined a Gaelic psalm with musical instruments.

Psalms 117/150 performed by Cliar with female voices (solo Arthur Cormack)

Waulking song

Before the invention of modern-day machinery, tweed was woven at home by hand. The cloth was waulked to thicken it, make it watertight and improve its overall quality. The waulking process was carried out by women and involved pounding the cloth on a wooden bench.

A full waulking was very hard work so the women sang waulking songs in time to the rhythm of the beating of the cloth. This social, spiritual and superstitious ritual has become a recognizable part of the Highland Gaelic culture.

Waulking songs have a distinct style – they are sung a capella in Gaelic and take the form of question and answer.

The question would be sung as a solo by one woman then the other women would sing an answer made up of meaningless words called vocables, eg ‘ho ri him bo hill a horo ho’.

Listen to how these women beat time to this waulking song while they work.

Women beat time to a waulking song

Celtic rock band Capercaillie adds a more contemporary sound to the ‘Skye Waulking Song’ by using modern day rock instruments as well as the fiddle.

Skye Waulking Song performed by Capercaillie