Òran Bagraidh: Reimagining a song and a language

It’s well-known, or should be, that Scottish Gaelic was once spoken well beyond the Hebrides and Highlands, as far south as the Scottish borders during the Middle Ages. That’s been obscured by history and historical myth-making that sought to de-emphasize the role of the Gaels in Scotland (how many times have researchers heard “Gaelic was never spoken here” from people in parts of Scotland pocked with Gaelic place names, and in some cases where Gaelic was alive within living memory or just beyond it? The answer, too many times.)

An ambitious artistic project last year attempted to leap and blur some of the dividing lines of history and revive a song called Òran Bagraidh, possibly a relic — the only one — of the Gaelic once spoken in Galloway in southwestern Scotland. Galloway. The song came to light in the book “From the Farthest Hebrides,” (MacMillan Company of Canada, 1978) a collection of songs edited by Donald A. Ferguson of Cape Breton and Aonghas Iain MacDhomhnaill, or Angus John MacDonald, originally of Knockline, North Uist.

(Although some of the songs in the book were later found to be inventions of MacDhomhnaill, scholars have given Òran Bagraidh “serious consideration.” Read this informative blog by Michael Newton for more background.)

Medieval Galloway was a place where many languages met — a form of Cumbric or Welsh, Irish or Gaelic, English and Norse. It’s fitting that the Òran Bagraidh project involved musicians and poets drawn from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England. They met for a week-long collaboration at Barscobe House in Galloway last September, using the song as a “springboard” to explore “commonalities and differences between musical styles and languages, within the context of the historical diversity of Galloway.”

The group has since performed their version of Òran Bagraidh in concert and an album featuring the song and other original works by the artists was released February 2. The album, more information, and a longer video on the project is available on https://www.oranbagraidh.com/