Scotlands Culture\|Scotlands Songs

Lullabies and dandlings

Sleeping sun and moon illustration

There are many songs in Gaelic which are described as 'lullabies' - tàlaidhean.

There are however two broad groups of lullabies in Gaelic song.

The first covers relatively modern compositions which have several verses with a chorus and use a wide compass of notes - songs from the 19th and 20th centuries in particular, which show influences from mainstream Western music.

There is also a store of older lullabies from the oral tradition, songs which are often quite short and use a narrow note-range.

The songs of this type are like lullabies from many folk traditions, where short, mesmeric, repetitive patterns are used to achieve the desired result of lulling a child to sleep. Their subject matter, however, can often be very dark, concerning the loss of a parent or child, or supernatural malevolence - in Gaelic tradition fairies are seen as dangerous, wilful and vengeful beings from the spirit world.

Many people, including the aristocracy, composed songs which expressed hopes for their children's future prosperity. In this lullaby, the composer speaks of her child's wedding, which will be attended by the children of Ulster and the children of the king, adding that it would not be strange if the MacDonalds were there too.


Catherine Anne MacPhee sings 'Bidh Clann Ulaidh'.


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Bidh Clann Ulaidh (Catherine Anne MacPhee)

'Bidh Clann Ulaidh' performed by Catherine Anne MacPhee

From Chi mi ‘n Geamhradh, Greentrax Recordings


Griogal Crìdhe

One of the most famous lullabies in Gaelic is the song known as 'Beloved Gregor'. It is also known as the Glenlyon Lament. It was composed after the execution of Gregor MacGregor by the Campbells in 1570. Gregor was beheaded in front of his wife and child. In the song, Gregor's grief-stricken widow describes the horror of what happened, as she sings to her child.

Listen to Jessie MacKenzie singing 'Griogal Crìdhe' on the Tobar an Dualchais website.

See more information about this song on Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o' Riches.


Bà, Bà, Mo Leanabh Beag

Many of the older lullabies are very simple in structure and very short. Many of them also use vocables. One particularly touching example is called 'Bà, Bà, Mo Leanabh Beag'. It was composed at the time of the potato famine in 1848, which caused great suffering in parts of the Highlands. Although it’s short, this little song gives a mother's account of her own situation and expresses her fears for her child.

Listen to Agnes Currie singing 'Bà, Bà, Mo Leanabh Beag' on the Tobar and Dualchais website.

See more information about this song on Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o' Riches.


Taladh Dhòmhnaill Ghuirm

Some of the older songs described as 'lullabies' are songs composed for infant clan chiefs. One of the most well-known of these is that composed for the Donald Gorm MacDonald of Sleat, who died in 1617. According to tradition, the song was composed by his foster mother. In it, the blessings she sings for him show the influences of Celtic pre-Christian faith, rooted in the natural world, the heavens and the elements. She says:

Gu robh neart na cruinne leat
'S neart na grèine
'S neart an tairbh dhuibh
'S àirde leumas.
May you have the strength of the universe
And the strength of the sun
And the strength of the black bull
Which jumps the highest.

The song goes on to describes Donald's wonderful ship, which has:

Three willow masts
A golden rudder
A well of wine
And a well of fresh water.
Trì chruinn sheilich innt
Agus stiùir òir oirre
Tobar fìon innt
Agus tobar fìor-uisg'.

Listen to Kate MacDonald singing 'Tàladh Dhòmhnaill Ghuirm' on the Tobar an Dualchais website.

See more information about this song on Tobar and Dualchais/Kist o' Riches.


Huis, Huis air an Each

Little songs used as dandling songs were quite common in the oral tradition, although there are relatively few still in existence. They were sung by anyone bouncing a child up and down on their knees. This cheerful little song from North Uist is a good example of this type. It says:

Huis, huis, air an each,
An t-each a' dol a Bhàlaigh.
Beiridh a' muir-làn oirnn,
Beiridh e air chasan oirnn,
Beiridh e air chinn oirnn!
Huis, huis, air an each,
An t-each a' dol a Bhàlaigh.
Gee up on the horse,
The horse going to Vallay.
The high tide will catch us,
It will catch us by the legs.
It will catch us by the head.
Gee up on the horse,
The horse going to Vallay.

Listen to William Matheson singing 'Huis, Huis air an Each' on the Tobar an Dualchais website.

See more information about this song on Tobar and Dualchais/Kist o' Riches.


Image credit: Illustration of sleeping sun and moon published on Flickr as Creative Commons by showjin.