The lost songs of St. Kilda
Thought y’all might like this
Thought y’all might like this
Very authentic. I expect there were a lot of classical pianists on St Kilda. That’s probably why they died out - too much time practicing, not enough time catching Puffins.
I am never sure if doing this spoils the discussion or adds to it.
Mark M: ".. not enough time catching Puffins"
As I recall, it was fulmars that they caught for food , not puffins …
Q. Are all these pieces "songs" (i.e. with lyrics) - or are they tunes?
No Mix, in one of the books about the island there is a typical ‘menu for the day’ and puffins figure more that once. I think breakfast was something like ‘porridge with puffin’.
I bought this when it came out and the solo piano tracks to me are beautiful and really capture the character of Hebridean music. The classical arrangements aren’t my thing though and drag the melodies a bit into "Whisky Galore" territory. Despite that it’s a recording I wouldn’t want to be without.
Soay is my favourite. Unlike the above clip of Hirta where it’s Trevor Morrison playing this is Jame MacMillan.
The story behind the tunes.
Soay is my favourite as well bogman,
I play it on B pipes often.
I find the first tracks very relaxing. I rarely listen to the non Morrison tracks.
Mix, they were renowned for going to extraordinary lengths to collect Fulmar eggs. But by the time you’ve abseiled down a 300ft cliff the adult birds tend to have flown away. Pulling Puffins out of their burrows was easy meat.
I wouldn’t normally share the Torygraph but this is an interesting article on the St Kildans diet. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/29/census-sheds-new-light-st-kildan-diet-18-seabirds-day/
…"previous studies have suggested the St Kildans would eat puffins as a snack - the local equivalent of a packet of crisps. "
Mmh chicken that tastes like fish.
jokes aside, an interesting look at the narrow ecological niches humans can occupy.
Re: the Telegraph article, here in Cape Breton, if you drive down my road and turn right, on to Caribou Marsh Road, you head into MacQueen/Ferguson territory. The families are connected, and I’ve seen old pictures of when they used to forward hockey teams made up entirely of members of the two families. Up and down the Mira River, a lot of it was settled by Skyemen. Gillis and MacDonald is common wherever you go here.
As far as each individual eating 36 eggs and 18 birds a day goes, I find that hard to fathom. That’s a massive amount of food, even if the eggs are very small. We had a Burns night a few years ago in a little village called Gabarus, just up from the Mira area… three of us, younger at the time, and some much older men. Discussion turned to eating seabirds; their consensus was, in Newfoundland, they ate terns and gulls …. ’ they’re all just ducks, yes?’…. here; ‘we never got quite that poor’. Only mention it because there may have been some descendants of St. Kilda people in that room.
My paternal grandmother was a MacDonald from Malquish; she ended up in Gabarus after marrying my grandfather, who was from there. Although my grandmother never mentioned anything about it, some of the MacLeods from that area have said that my grandmother’s family was originally from St. Kilda, and moved to North Uist. My grandmother’s mother was a Ferguson from the same area of CB, btw. Don’t know if her family had any St. Kilda connection.
You can still get smoked puffin as a delicacy in Iceland (not in the supermarket of same name!)
Other collections of music from/about St Kilda include the album by Anne Lorne Gillies, "Songs of St Kilda" and CD/DVD "The St Kilda Tapes" by David Allison, Norman Gillies and Maeve McKinnon.
@David50; @Mark M ; @ bogman
Ok, I stand corrected. Maybe they did sometimes catch/eat puffins as well. However, I’ve certainly seen old B&W film of St. Kildans scaling the cliffs with ropes to catch fulmars.
Puffins spend most of their lives out at sea so would only be available for capture during the breeding season (March-July).
PS No-one has yet answered my question - are these recordings "songs" (i.e with lyrics) or are are they tunes?
@Mix… they are tunes, or so far, haven’t listened to the whole thing yet. It’s on Spotify, free, have a listen.
Thanks, Adrian - I thought that they might be tunes!
This modern idea of referring to all music as "songs" - ugh! :-(
I’m pretty sure they would have originally all been songs assuming they really did come from St Kilda. The St Kildan population were Wee Frees, so no music except psalms, but it’s hard to stop people singing.
That also throws a little doubt on the claim that they came to Morrison via a St Kildan piano teacher, although he may have learned the piano after he left the island. Even without the religious constraint, I can’t imagine anyone on St Kilda being able to either afford or maintain a piano.
From the sleeve notes :
"Trevor told another visitor, Terry Blair, that the tunes had never been played on piano, because there wasn’t one on the islands, where even the church forbade music. The piano teacher told him that the melodies came from working songs used by the men of St. Kilda to call to one another as they scaled the island’s cliffs to look for the eggs of gannets, fulmars and other sea birds".
Yes, that makes sense, the mystery piano teacher was just using the melodies from the songs as simple tunes for a beginner. But if, as the article suggests, he was teaching them to the young Morrison to preserve them, and he was a good enough musician to teach piano, why didn’t he write them down, with the words? To me, even without McMillan’s reinterpretation they are at too far a remove to be regarded as preserved.
Mix, Fulmars and Gannets also spend most of their time at sea and only come ashore to breed. The St. Kildans kept sheep and cattle, which would have provided their staple diet, but the conditions there meant they couldn’t grow vegetables (or anything else except grass) so when in season the seabirds provided a vital source of vitamin D and other nutrients.
Mark M, personally I have no doubt whatsoever these melodies were from, or at least sung in, St. Kilda. They have strong characteristics of Hebridean music, most likely from Gaelic Psalms in my opinion. If you haven’t been in a church and heard Gaelic presenting it’s something that is very special. I’m not religious and it’s usually funerals when I’m there but I do love listening to the psalms sung in Gaelic.
Yes, I’m sure they are from the islands, but then this mystery piano player was on Bute. I’d just like the provenance to be a bit more concrete before accepting it as the de facto music of St. Kilda.
That’s kind of the case with a lot of traditional music from Scotland and Ireland though. The origins are often unclear or assumed.
And then, while the songs may in one sense have ‘come from’ St. Kilda, they may not have been exclusive to St. Kilda, and may have originated elsewhere - back in the mists of misty old time - and, to take it one step further, may have endured in St. Kilda after they disappeared elsewhere.
@meself… maybe you will find this interesting. Maybe not. Trying to follow up on that St. Kilda/Mira possible connection, and not finding much yet. I’ve always had it in my head that Mira was settled by Skyemen, and now I can’t find a single reference to that. Years of drinking Talisker in their memory, wasted. Re: Gabarus, we are there quite a bit, our friends live there, and we have other friends in the village; I kayak out of there. The commonly held idea is that Gabarus was English, with some Irish, and few to none Scots until you head towards Gabarus Lake. I heard that repeatedly, I’ve been told that by a local historian, and never saw reason to question it. But based on reading today, it seems like one part of Mira was settled by people from North Uist (Catalone, going up the Mira River to Marion Bridge, and Gabarus), and going farther up to Grand Mira, they became South Uist people. May just be a coincidence, but Julie Fowlis (North Uist) noted one of the songs on her first two CD’s came from Marion Bridge. This is one of several sources saying essentially the same thing: http://hrsbstaff.ednet.ns.ca/mshaw/From%20The%20Outer%20Hebrides%20to%20Cape%20Breton.pdf . So I don’t know.
Thanks, Adrian; that’s very interesting.
My father, who was from Gabarus originally, told me that Gabarus was essentially settled by de-mobbed English soldiers from Louisbourg, who became fishermen. He said that the Scots tended to settle inland, as farmers - although my paternal grandmother’s MacDonald family were fishermen. Anyway, the ‘commonly held idea’ that you refer to seems consistent with the info. in that paper, unless I’m misunderstanding something - Mira being further inland from Garbarus Lake … ?
All I ever heard about a St. Kilda connection is what I mentioned above. My grandmother, although a Gael in every sense, had no interest in Scotland, and little interest in pre-Cape Breton family history, so as far as I know, she never mentioned anything to anyone about St. Kilda.
Bogman: "That’s kind of the case with a lot of traditional music from Scotland and Ireland though. The origins are often unclear or assumed."
Yes, I take that. But usually the ancestry is a bit more obvious, Gaelic songs that still have their Gaelic lyrics, and the attribution isn’t that strong - ‘This is a tune I learned from an old guy from St. Kilda’ rather than ‘This is the music of St. Kilda’.
In this case we know the tunes have been translated from voice to piano, how much was lost/added in the translation? We don’t know. To make an album of classically influenced piano music and call it ‘The Music of St. Kilda’ kind of implies that the St. Kildans sat about listening to classical piano music.
Puffins: my favourite bird, so the account of how they were "harvested" and slaughtered in massive numbers for "a major source of fresh food throughout the summer" makes somewhat grim reading in Tom Steel’s book "The Life and Death of St Kilda". Estimates of one man being able to kill 50 in a day, or a annual combined toll of 20,000 to 25,000. The birds were dragged out of their burrows by dogs, or even by the St Kilda women, and then ensnared in a "puffin gin" made of horsehair.
I don’t think we’ll agree on this Mark. The first half of the album is solo and unless Trevor Morrison was lying for some reason, so story seems perfectly reasonable and certainly doesn’t imply St. Kildans listed to classical music. Sitting in a biscuit tin doesn’t mean you’re a biscuit. However, lets agree to differ!
"Sitting a biscuit tin doesn’t mean you’re a biscuit."
Indeed, it does not. :-P
I think an account of the St. Kildans suffering the effects of extreme malnutrition or even starving to death while enjoying the sight of puffins frolicking and gamboling through the skies around them would make for grim reading too ….
Adrian: Me brudder tells me that a lot of the settlers ‘around’ Gabarus were from Skye.
Sorry, not about the music, but the birds! Fab programme on BBC 2 TV at 7pm on Tuesday 17th called "The Last Seabird Summer" - available to UK viewers on iPlayer. While based on the Shiant Islands, a lot of similarities with St Kilda. Addresses the dietary use of birds too!