Review: Virginia Blankenhorn, “Tradition, Transmission, Transformation: Essays on Scottish Gaelic Poetry and Song”

Virginia Blankenhorn, Tradition, Transmission, Transformation: Essays on Scottish Gaelic Poetry and Song (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2019)
ISBN 978-1-78874-552-9

Virginia Blankenhorn has researched song and language in both Scotland and Ireland, and her sensitive understanding of how words and music move between neighbouring cultures is reflected in this book on the Scottish Gaelic repertoire. The earlier chapters (1 to 2) seek to map the ontologies of the Scottish Gaelic song tradition.  Section two focusses on processes of transmission.  Section three considers ways in which song-lines may be transformed over time.

The author frames her book as a whole by asking: what is tradition, what does a community-based tradition of song and signing mean to the people who own it, and when that community of people is subject to historical change, how can they and those outside their tradition understand the legacy of this tradition?

Chapter one looks at poetic form and meters and how these shape secular songs, demonstrating Scottish Gaelic differences from Irish. Despite both sharing an accentual basis and using couplet and quatrain verse forms, there are significant differences.

  • Lines. Scottish Gaelic verse lines are much more likely than Irish to have four stresses
  • Irish verse is more likely to be arranged in metrically stable stanzas, while Scottish Gaelic verse can include irregular prose-paragraph sections. Irish verses are more likely to have quatrains, while the Scottish Gaels used couplets alongside paragraph forms.
  • Structure. In Scotland, there are more likely to be ‘chain links’ of rhyme words connecting the end of one stanza to the beginning of the next (‘conchlann’). “Chain-linking helps to prevent stanzas being swapped around within a poem” (p.41).
  • Scottish Gaelic performances, unlike Irish, can accommodate chorus interaction and response to a solo singer. Refrains and choruses are rare in Irish and common in Scotland, particularly in the context of work-songs (p.31).
  • While the affective emotion of Irish Gaelic songs tends to be consistent across both words and music, waulking songs in Scottish Gaelic repertoire are also likely to have lyrics whose content lies in tension with the work-song function of the music to have a regular pulse. They are also dominated by end-rhyming lines which help to maintain an energetic forward momentum (p.43), and can involve taking paragraph structures and breaking these into line/refrain end-rhyme units.

Blankenhorn speculates that these differences in practice might be due to the different impact of Norse culture on the Scottish Highlands, where the Scandinavians were a residential presence, compared with Ireland (p.55).  Norsemen also danced, made communal music, and had call-and-response songs, as Icelandic records show.  In Ireland, it may also be that the Anglo-Norman conquest reinforced formal structures imported from the francophone world (quatrains and strophic regularity (p.57).

Chapter 2 considers the many ways that category labels can be applied to Gaelic song, re-evaluating a classification structure proposed by James Ross in 1957 in the light of the work done by ethnomusicologists since then on the function and use of music in society.  No such system is stable: taxonomies reflect the kinds of questions a researcher wants to ask. Alternative schemas proposed by Frances Tolmie, Margaret Fay Shaw, William Matheson, Alan Bruford, John Shaw, Thomas McKean and the singer Anne Lorne Gillies are discussed; in none of these did songs fit neatly into a single schema and indeed attempts – including Ross – to do so have something of the fantastic air of Borges’ fictional Chinese table of imaginary animals.  Blankenhorn, acknowledging that all schemes are provisional, suggests that the best approaches include careful contextual ethnographic recording rather than top-down imposition, and looks at how this is in practice reflected by fieldwork undertaken by Frances Tolmie, Margory Kennedy-Fraser, Margaret Fay Shaw, John Lorne Campbell and Thomas McKean which preserve the contextual information about singers and occasion as part of the necessary apparatus.  From here, Blankenthorn suggests her own approach, which is – this reviewer thinks – reflective of recent research into the histories of emotion.  “Singing is”, suggests the author, “above all else, an emotional activity”, and these songs supported the “mental health” of people living a harsh life in isolated communities (p.91); she proposes a schema of ‘songs of introversion’ (subjective emotion) and ‘songs of extroversion’ (shared emotion or labour), each with sub categories which map topics relevant to the higher level heading.  This provides an interesting basis for discussing the repertoire afresh, albeit within a very 21st century framework of sentiment, mapping areas from psalm singing to rowing songs which could all be subjected to more detailed study.  The chapter concludes with some thoughts on how shifts from collective to subjective experiences of emotion might impact on how we react to these songs.

The second section (‘Transmission’) includes 3 case studies looking at particular transmission routes.

  • Chapter 3 considers syllabic verses (dàn dìreach) associated with elite wire-strung harp performance in pre-modern Gaelic song, with attention to the performative nature of this, tested by actual modern performances and workshops undertaken by the author: if clarity and intelligibility are success criteria, these songs work better with role division between poet and harp player (p.187).
  • Chapter 4 looks at performances by Rev William Matheson of Gaelic accentual strophic verse.
  • Chapter 5 considers shifting generic frames: the “Lament for Griogair Ruadh Mac Griogair of Glen Strae”, by Mòr Chaimbeul, his widow, 1570, and the historical reception of this song in which both oral and printed lines of transmission can be shown to interact: a song originally by a grieving woman became a lullaby in later transmission.

The third and final section (‘Transformation’) considers case studies in which traditional material is transformed.

  • Chapter 6, on women’s lamentation ( ‘keening’ or caoineadh) again compares the Scottish and Irish traditions, the interfaces of this sub-category with both love songs and masculine panegyric performance in classical Gaelic poetry, while also drawing upon anthropological studies that consider the impact of trauma on cultural behaviours associated with death and ritual burial. Blankenhorn’s interest in the affective function of song translates well here, providing pointers to how these songs helped to steer mourners through various stages/aspects of grieving and loss.
  • Chapter 7, on the interactions between oral and printed traditions in Macrimmon’s Lament, considers how verses contributed by Walter Scott to a pre-exising piobaireachd were then translated back into Gaelic in association with a partly-invented Jacobite history. Tradition, from the 19th century if not much earlier, inevitably involves not just oral transmission but the interactions of the oral with the literate: this complicates what might be understood to be ‘authentic’. The book cites performances of “MacCrimmon’s Lament” by Traveller Jeannie Robertson in the 1950s that show that oral repertoire has clearly taken on board the legacy of the 19th century print interventions (p.400, 403).
  • Chapter 8 reassesses the legacy of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser’s Songs of the Hebrides; often criticised by Gaelic speaking activists for diluting a noble tradition of oral monody into drawing-room late-romantic kitsch. If we look at Kennedy-Fraser’s project not as a work of simple conservation, but rather as a creative response to the repertoire, written for a wider public, then her work has more credibility. It also appears that very real cultural differences exist between Gaels and Anglo-Scots about the relationship between words and music. For the Gael, it is suggested that words and tune are inseparable (p.441), which made Kennedy-Fraser’s work seem particularly transgressive.  Following in the footsteps of Burns – whose involvement in George Thomson’s Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice resulted in Scottish melodies arranged in First Viennese School continental style a century earlier – her intervention seems more in keeping with an established traditional response to native melody.  Finally, careful attention to her notes show attentiveness to both context and musical nuance that argue for a close engagement with Gaelic culture informed by 20th century anthropology.  If this is cultural appropriation, it deserves to be asked: to whom do these songs ‘belong’ in a changing world? (p.475) And, if early 20th century Gaels might also aspire to drawing room piano-accompanied performance, so contemporary Gaelic performance also is re-shaped by the modern tastes of audiences and performers.

This is a rather brilliant book, reflecting a life time of thinking and playing with this material, and engages expertly with both language and music, making these accessible to even non-Gaelic speakers.  It is compassionate for its subjects in a way that musicology studies often struggle to be, and reflects the author’s engagement with wider anthropologies of music.

Further reading and listening

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