The buildings across the road, including the old Scotsman newpaper building, are six storeys high. They block out the sun even in high summer, so the meagre light on this, the shortest day of the year, hasn’t a prayer of pentrating down to street level.
The road’s deserted, as if it’s been cleared for an atmospheric, period film set. It’s midday, but the pavements are still peppered with patches of frost, and the damp air hangs around like dirty viole drapes.
And then I hear the muffled sound of an unacccompanied, male voice singing. I don’t understand the language he’s singing in, but I know it’s Gaelic. I walk on up the dank close and a hundred other disembodied voices take up the tune with him. The power and beauty of this keening sound stops me in my tracks. I’ve never heard anything so timeless and lovely before.
I start to climb the stairs again, glad to be walking towards the sound, which is now reverberating off the close’s high, narrow walls. I make out two shapes sitting on the steps about fifty yards above me and a little spike of uncertainty pricks the pit of my stomach, but I carry on climbing.
Now I can see the breath of the two figures, and the dank air takes on the rank odour of stale beer. And suddenly I’m right over them, two homeless men dressed in filthy, baggy clothes, both nursing cans of super lager. The beautiful Gaelic voices are spiralling out of the twin speakers of a ghetto blaster filling this cold, miserable city passageway with praise songs of the distant Hebrides.
Both men smile at me, then they raise their cans and shout in hoarse, smokey voices “Merry Christmas!”.
I expect them to ask me for money, or to be badger me in some other way, but they don’t ask for anything. I then wonder whether I should give them a couple of quid anyway, but there’s something about their manner that makes me think I’ll offend them if I do. So I just say, “And to you” and carry on climbing the endless stairs, and the beautiful sound peters out behind me.
I wish that I’d asked them to tell me about the music, and why they were playing it. And my mind fills with romantic notions about boys leaving distant islands for a better life, only to end up as old men on the capital’s street.
Years later, through the wonders of the internet I find Salm Vol.1 a recording of Gaelic Psalm Singing recorded in Back Free Church on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland in October 2003, with five hundred in the congregation.
And I learn that “this form of singing existed all over the UK after the Reformation, when translations of the Bible into English made it possible for everyone, not just the choir to join in with the hymns
Along with a reaction against over-ornamentation of religious buildings went a desire for simplicity in the church service and in its music. For their worship the English Puritans chose the Psalms of David, sung in unison, unaccompanied. The metre into which the Psalms were translated was ballad metre, and the music was syllabic - that is, using one melody note per syllable. In 1643 the Westminster Assembly of Divines enacted "that for the present where many of the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister or some other fit person appointed by him, and the other ruling officers do read the psalm, line by line, before the singing thereof." Lowland Scots took well to ballad metre, which was familiar to them in folksong, and ‘reading the line’ became so much part of the church’s praise that it came to be regarded as a venerable Scottish custom. Later church music reformers campaigned to abolish it, and it gradually became extinct, except in Gaelic speaking areas.
When the psalms were translated into Gaelic the metre used was again ballad metre, so that the same Lowland tunes could be used. This metre was and is entirely alien to Gaelic literature and any other Gaelic poetry composed in it is a parody. The way in which ‘reading the line’ broke up the quatrain into eight lines of differing length may have been a welcome alleviation of ballad metre for the Gaelic singer.
The person who read the line became known as the precentor. Nowadays it is the precentor’s duty not only to let the congregation hear clearly the text it is to sing next, but also to give a hint of the melody line by pinpointing its more important notes. The repertoire varies from seventeen to twenty four tunes, which are basically the same as those that appear under the same name in the Church Hymnary or the Scottish Psalter. Melodic modifications do occur in some of the tunes in the process of adaptation to the Gaelic modal patterns, but these are not to be taken as the only cause of the unaccustomed listener’s confusion as he tries to link the printed tune with the Gaelic version. (See sheet music). There is no clear break between the precentor’s chant and the beginning or end of the original musical text; the singing is very slow, possibly to convey the solemnity of the occasion even if the psalm is a joyful one; and passing notes and grace notes are introduced to decorate the basic melody - but not to the extent of obscuring it, and the precentor’s voice should keep the congregation together on the basic notes, which coincide with the beginnings of syllables. There is ample opportunity for any would-be precentor to learn his art. Metrical psalms, sung slowly, ornamentally, and with precenting are used almost (if not) exclusively in Gaelic services in Presbyterian churches throughout Scotland, and almost exclusively in the Western Isles on a regular basis. In the island districts where Gaelic is spoken they are sung at family worship as well, once and sometimes twice a day. The style in Lewis and Harris is more ornamental than elsewhere. For the CD and cassette ‘Salm’ we have confined ourselves to precentors and congregations from these two Islands.
On hearing Gaelic Psalm Singing for the first time, some who are entirely outside the culture find it an intensely moving experience. For the privileged few who have been nurtured in it, each good performance has the attraction of familiar, secure, unchanging things, as well as that of the powerful beauty of the sound. Speaking of the tunes ‘Dundee’, ‘Martyrs’, and ‘Elgin (no longer in common use)’in The Cottar’s Saturday Night Robert Burns may well have been thinking this way too when he said:
"Compared with these, Italian tunes are tame;
The tickl’d ears no heart-felt raptures raise;
Nae unison hae they, with our Creator’s praise"
For further historical information see here