A survey of performances and recordings of improvised church singing from the Outer Hebrides
The Isle of Lewis is a three hour ferry ride across the bleak seas of the Minch, a stretch of water lying between the far north west of Scotland and the islands of the Outer Hebrides. After travelleing there from the mainland, I spend a Saturday afternoon tucked in a warm cafe in Stornoway with Calum Martin, a precentor at the church and local music expert, who tells me about Gaelic psalm singing, a form of collective vocal improvisation. His church at the small community of Back is one of the largest psalm singing congregations left on Lewis – although, as he points out, the average age in the church is well over 50, and the Gaelic-speaking congregation is dwindling.
The following day, in the weak morning summer sunlight, I attend a Sunday service in Back at the Free Church of Scotland. The service is entirely in Scottish Gaelic, a language I'm unfamiliar with, and I'm completely underdressed in wet weather gear and boots. However the congregation, in tweed suits, high collared dresses and formal hats, are warm and welcoming. I'm apparently not the first musical tourist to make the pilgrimage out here.
I have never experienced anything like it in a live setting. Shimmering was Calum Martin’s term – it's a beautiful and bleak sound, often compared to the landscape of the Hebrides and the rolling Atlantic Ocean. But I get a sense of history in the music, too, of lament and protest. It's the music of a people who have survived the ages in a harsh climate and under the rule of others, but still hold proudly to a form of music unlike any other.
I first enountered Lewis and its music over a decade ago on a scratchy VHS bootleg of Derek Bailey's fantastic 1992 improvisation documentary On The Edge. There was one short section in the first episode that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and it led me to the Hebrides – a place just about as far from my home in New Zealand as you can get without heading back again. Looking back, my attraction to Gaelic psalm singing is obvious: I come from a conflicting musical background of church choirs and free improvisation. My great grandparents were also Gaelic speakers from the Highlands, forcibly moved to Glasgow and its surrounds sometime in the 19th century during the Clearances. After World War One they ended up mining coal on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand, where they lived on the Denniston Plateau, a wet, cold, barren landscape eerily similar to the peat moors of the Hebrides.
Gaelic psalm singing is a syncretic form combining the conservative traditions of the Scottish Free Church with the freewheeling improvisatory movements of folk music. It's a music that, as Bailey puts it in the documentary, takes the congregation “beyond the usual rituals and rigidities of religious worship”. In certain Scottish free churches the precentor, seated near the minister, 'puts out' or sings the opening line of a psalm and the congregation join in at their own time, usually in a great sweeping motion as one singer follows quickly on from another. The congregation follow the basic melody, but embellish it with grace notes and improvisations of their own at varying speeds. The effect is electrifying. As the song dives through one movement after another it pulses with clouds of sound, as dozens of voices follow their own paths to the same destination.
Psalm singing dates to the post-Reformation period, when Protestant congregations throughout Europe were given leniency to adapt their local languages and folk musics to church purposes. In parts of Scotland this led to a highly idiosyncratic tradition where basic metrical psalm tunes were adapted to localised voices and abilities, each church developing its own style. Singing the psalms in this way became linked to Gaelic. It's a beautiful, lilting language, and its soft rolling syllables lend themselves perfectly to ornamentation and blending of voices. Spoken by much of the population on Lewis, it's key to the identity of the island. But as that language has retreated into the Highlands and Hebrides, so the music has retreated too, finally ending up preserved in isolation in the conservative Free Churches of Lewis and Harris. While there are few Free Churches in mainland Scotland that still sing the psalms in this style, in the Outer Hebrides the form is still alive today.
My partner and I spend a spare hour in Stornoway while waiting for the ferry back from Lewis to the mainland. In a shop, I spy a box of cassettes marked ‘free’. There are dozens of tapes from the Outer Hebrides, mostly psalm singing and related religious recordings, everything either out of print, or private press, or otherwise impossible to obtain. We took as many as we felt we could transport safely back to New Zealand and left what I hope was an appropriate donation for the massive cultural acquisition we picked up. We plan to digitise some of the recordings and make them available online.
Congregations of Stornoway, Ness, Bragar, and Point Free churches
"Psalm 13 v1 (Walsall)"
From Gaelic Psalmody Recitals Volume One
"Psalm 30 v4 (Evan)"
From Gaelic Psalmody Recitals Volume Three
I first saw these recordings of Gaelic psalmody recitals, released by Lewis Recordings, when Neil Campbell of Astral Social Club/Vibracathedral Orchestra posted a photo of two of the cassettes online. At least one volume was originally released on vinyl as well, but I’ve never seen or heard of it in the flesh or for sale. These are probably the best known recordings of psalm singing that have received commercial release. Recorded in 1978 at the Lewis Retirement Centre and released in the same year, they include singers from the congregations of Stornoway, Ness, Bragar and Point Free Churches on Lewis. Even in the late 1970s Gaelic congregations were already diminishing. The choice of venue is telling to begin with, but the sleevenotes for the third volume also note the passing of one singer between recording and release. These cassettes were apparently the first of their kind and stand as some of the greatest documents remaining of the music.
High Church Stornoway
"Unknown psalm – recorded 29 August 1988"
From Cassette Ministry
Most of the recordings we found were cassette ministry tapes, recordings intended for those who couldn’t make it to church regularly, often because they lived in isolated areas. They are raw and often quite noisy recordings of entire church services and while all contain psalm singing, some only feature small sections, with the rest of the 90 minute tapes dedicated to long sermons in Gaelic. The tapes are mostly undated and have minimal information about the recordings – usually just the name of the church and the minister and possibly the main reading from the service. The Stornoway High Church still retains an active Gaelic speaking congregation and was one of the churches Calum Martin recommended for hearing contemporary psalm singing.
Knock Free Church
From Cassette Ministry And Library
Cross Free Church
From Cassette Ministry
There is virtually no information on the cassettes regarding these two recordings from tiny villages on Lewis, but they probably date from the mid- or late 1980s. The village of Knock (An Cnoc in Gaelic) sits on a peninsula to the east of Stornoway, connected to the main island by an isthmus barely a hundred metres wide. Today Knock Free Church doesn’t function independently, but has combined its services with the nearby Point Free Church. They still hold Gaelic services in their own church. Cross Free Church must be one of the most far-flung churches in the UK, though on this staunchly Presbyterian isle, it’s far from the only church in the area. There are at least five churches in the huddle of villages leading to the Butt of Lewis, the northern most point of the Hebrides. Cross is one of the largest churches on the islands, able to hold 1400 people, but it no longer regularly holds Gaelic speaking services, hosting perhaps a handful each year.