More on the Gaelic Songs of Hebridean Herring Gutters

Meg Hyland, mentioned in an earlier Soundyngs post, has now published her first article on the Gaelic songs of herring gutters.  Her research draws on written records and the sound archives of the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, and Canna House.  The article argues that this repertoire was prevoiusly neglected because of difficulties in genre categorisation: her analysis suggests a generic framework for discussing this repertoire and places it within wider socio-historical contexts.

One of her insights is that traditional fast-paced puirt-a-beul “mouth music”, formerly sung to accompany dancing in these women’s home communities, was repositioned to assist with the quick but monotonous work of gutting.  She also examines how these songs responded to contact with other linguistic communities as this itinerant workforce travelled around the coasts of Britain, and discusses ‘diddling’ – nonsense words defining rhythms.

Descriptions of songs are enriched by attention to the biographies of the singers heard in the archive recordings.  Details from the lyrics of songs also provide information about conditions of employment, at times even naming well-known employers.  In contrast with agrarian bothy ballads of a similar period, judgment on individuals is withheld!  Nevertheless, reading Hyland’s account gives you a vivid sense of these women’s lives, and how these lives changed in the short half century or so at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries, when the herring industry was at its peak.


Meg Hyland, ‘“Tam O’ Shanter ‘s Geanseaidh Snaith”: The Innovative Work Songs of Gaelic-Speaking Herring Gutters‘, in Scottish Studies, 39 (2022), 180-220

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