During Gaelic Cultural Awareness Month it is most fitting to look at the relationship between the Gaelic language and our Celtic music. The Scottish Gaelic language and music had been brought to North America centuries ago via the Scottish settlers and has been fostered and sustained to this day. It is difficult to discuss this ancient music without reference to language and the overall culture and lifestyle of the Gaelic people. Musicologists believe there exists a profound bond between language and music - and what other culture could be more strongly oral in its traditions than the Gaelic culture?
The music we enjoy today has been passed down orally through the generations by Gaelic speakers and Gaelic musicians. If such a strong primitive bond does exist between language and music, than our Scottish Gaelic instrumental music is descendent from a great storehouse of Gaelic traditions. The older generations of Gaelic speakers have kept our instrumental music alive through the practice of puirt a beul or 'mouth music', which may be generally described as dance music tunes sung with nonsense syllables or words. There is a wealth of fiddle tunes which we refer to as 'standards' of tradition, which are actually either Gaelic songs in themselves which became instrumental pieces or melodies which are sung as puirt a beul.
Glancing through some of the older music collections such as The Skye Collection or The Athole Collection one can notice the obvious relationship between Gaelic and the printer music. So many of these old tunes (slow airs, marches, strathspeys, reels and jigs) which had been brought here from Scotland are printed with their original Gaelic titles. Thus, many of these tunes may have originally been Gaelic songs and have evolved into instrumental pieces. There is also the case of an endless number of tunes which have never been notated but have been passed on orally as songs or mouth music. Many of these have been adopted by instrumentalists and are now played as mere melodies.
Could our Scottish instrumental tradition be but a simulation of the driving rhythm, the lilt, the stresses and accents, the phrasing, and the mood of the Gaelic language? Instrumentalist, Gaelic speakers or not, may carry over influences from the Gaelic language into their music consciously or unconsciously. Some musicians know both the puirt a beul versions of tunes and carry over accents and gracing from the text to their melodies. Or, in the case of the present generation of musicians, in which the number of fluent Gaelic speakers would be diminished, these musicians may unconsciously play their music with a 'Gaelic flavour' if they have developed their musical repertoire from, or have patterned their musical style on, Gaelic speaking musicians and/or singers from generations before.
One could easily conclude that it is very difficult to separate the Gaelic language from its music since both form a strand in the Celtic 'knot' or culture. Each one depends on the other. If the language did not possess such power, much of our instrumental music would have been lost over time. With such a vast storehouse of Scottish Gaelic music already preserved, the Gaelic 'flavour' of our music should last, but the oral component of the culture will be all important for future non-Gaelic speaking musicians. The designation of the month of May as Gaelic Cultural Awareness Month should encourage us all to preserve and promote our Gaelic language, music and culture so that it may flourish for generations to come.
Jackie Dunn learned to stepdance at age 4, play the piano at 5, and picked up the fiddle at age 8. She studied music and education at Saint Francis Xavier University, has recorded several albums, and performed around the world.
The Celtic Knot of Language and Music by Jackie Dunn