Songs of the Exiles
at the Union Presbyterian Church,
Albert Bridge, NS
(11 October 2004)

As soon as I stepped into the church from the icy rain and wind on the coldest day of the festival, I knew this would be a night I'd remember for the rest of my life. The church was tastefully adorned in Thanksgiving decor for the Canadian holiday, while candelabras were in the windows of the dimly lit sanctuary. Something very special and sacred was about to take place in this historic church where Gaelic has been spoken and sung for over 200 years. Gentle excitement and wonder was palpable as everyone took their seats in beautifully stained wooden pews. I felt like I was going to a church service, not a concert ... it turned out to be a bit of both.

Jeff MacDonald of Kingsville, Cape Breton, was the host for the evening as well as a performer. He welcomed everyone in both English and Gaelic and gave some history of the Scottish people in Cape Breton and how their religion and Gaelic songs are much intertwined. He then sang an unaccompanied rendition of "A' Choille Ghruamach (The Gloomy Forest)." This song is about a homesick man who immigrated to Cape Breton from Scotland and who later grew to love the island and consider it home. The song followed the life of the song's author, "The Bard MacLean," who was a professional Gaelic poet who immigrated to Pictou County from Tiree in Scotland.

MacDonald then introduced the Mira Gaelic Choir -- one of the few active Gaelic choirs left in the world. I'd been aching to hear Gaelic psalm singing live, as it is one of the most spiritually moving things I have ever heard. This type of singing involves a precentor who leads the choir by singing each line of the psalm with the congregation responding -- this is still fairly common in the Highlands and Islands of Western Scotland's Presbyterian churches. Many people who have never heard Gaelic psalm singing find it very moving from the first moment they hear its rhythmic, emotional sound.

I was touched even more than I anticipated as the choir sang two psalms. The men in the choir took the role of the precentor, while the entire choir and the Gaelic speakers in the audience responded. The singing of the choir and the Gaelic-speaking people in the church filled the sanctuary with beautiful and heartrending voices. Without warning and the usual build up of emotions, tears just appeared on my cheeks. Then they sang "An Aisling (The Dream)," an enchanting hymn taught to them by the song's author, Mairi MacInnes, during Celtic Colours in 2003. According to MacInnes, this song suggests that handing over all of our dreams and aspirations to God and having a strong faith in Him will lead to a better understanding of all the hardships experienced in life, which will lead to unexplainable contentment and inner peace.

The waterworks continued as the choir sang "How Great Thou Art." This well-known hymn is beautiful in English, but hearing it in the poetic Gaelic language melted any of my remaining emotional inhibitions. I was quite surprised that I quit fighting for self-control and actually enjoyed the waves of emotions surging through me. I usually hate (and I mean hate) to cry or show intense feelings in front of people I don't know as it embarrasses me, yet I somehow did not feel like I was among strangers, nor was I embarrassed. Was this because I was by far not the only one with tears on their face or was it because of a musical and spiritual connection between everyone in the sanctuary? I believe it was the latter.

Christine Primrose and Brian O'hEadhra were up next. Both are accomplished Gaelic singers and have done an album together, An Turas. They effortlessly harmonized on some songs, while performing solo on others. Most numbers were unaccompanied except for the occasional lovely playing of O'hEadhra's acoustic guitar. He sang an unaccompanied lament during which his strong, yet tender voice filled the church to the rafters.

The acoustics of the sanctuary naturally amplified voices, so when Primrose stepped back a bit from the microphone to prepare to sing an unaccompanied rendition of "An t-Eilean Mu Thuath," a song of longing for home on the Isle of Lewis where Primrose hails from, you could have heard a pin drop. She then closed her eyes and sang from her heart with a powerful feeling of longing and despair. I apparently wasn't done embarrassing myself as many in the crowd and I were again moved to tears.

During the intermission that followed Primose and O'hEadhra's performance, I talked with a gentleman about the show and how moving it was. I had difficulty expressing this and all I could think to say was, "This music and singing does something deep down inside of me and I just can't find the right words." He smiled and responded, "No explanation necessary." From the look in his eyes and the way he looked at me, I knew he really did understand how I felt. He then said, "It gets to all of us in here," as he made a fist and gently pushed it into his chest. I knew exactly what he meant.

BBC Scotland's 2004 winner of "Best Upcoming Band," Dochas came on after intermission and I was more than excited after seeing them the previous night at Celtic Women. I was amazed how they were able to fit all six of them and their instruments on the platform from where church services are lead. The members of Dochas are Kathleen Boyle (accordion and keyboards), Julie M. Fowlis (vocals, whistles, oboe and pipes), Carol-Anne MacKay (small, border and Highland pipes, accordion and low whistle), Eilidh Macleod (clarsach), Jenna Reid (fiddle) and Martin O'Neill (bodhran).

They opened with a lively set of tunes that got the crowd to provide accompaniment with gentle foot tapping on the wooden floor. Minimal amplification of Dochas' instruments was needed to fill the church with music. The combination of their playing and the foot tapping from the audience made for a stirring sound that seemed to come from within the church walls ... as if it was moving with the music, too. Their playing of these tunes and others during their set was flawless. There was a slight problem with the sound for a bit but they played right on through as if it didn't bother them until the issue was fixed.

With the band accompanying her, Fowlis sang a lovely song -- "Eilean Uibhist Mo Ruin," about her home on North Uist -- with passion. Her soft, sensitive, yet strong voice is one of the best in Gaelic music today and it was easy to tell she felt what she was singing about. Fowlis also sang "Bhon chuir mo leannan culthoabh rium/Sheatadh Cailleach/A-null thar nan Eileanan," a blazing fast and very enjoyable set of purit-a-beul (mouth music) that showcased her skill at this type of song historically performed for dancing. The instrumental ability of the whole band was also very evident and by the third song in the puirt set, all were playing with astonishing speed and left me breathless.

O'Neil did a romping bodhran solo and showed why he's an All-Ireland champion. Reid was at one with her fiddle and provided a lot of the melody for their songs and tunes. Macleod's lovely playing of her clarsach seemed at home in a church. Boyle was at ease on either the keyboards or her accordion. Fowlis' and MacKay's pipe playing were superb. I especially like the sound of the drones -- they seemed deeper or fuller somehow inside the sanctuary. Dochas' set was enjoyed by all and they left the stage to spirited applause.

The whole evening wasn't just a concert, it was a spiritual experience connecting the audience with the Scottish exiles, their religion and music. All the performers were amazing and I can't recommend enough any concerts like this during Celtic Colours. If you are trying to decide what shows to see at the festival, you can't go wrong with one of the smaller church venues featuring Gaelic song. You'll be more than pleased with any of the performers and may be deeply touched in an unexpected way.

- Rambles
written by Erika S. Rabideau
published 17 September 2005