Learn (Some) Gaelic

May 17, 2007 on 8:10 pm by Michael Grey | In Tips | 3 Comments

Things (and people) Gaelic have always interested me. I’ve had a sense of (or is that for?) “Gaelicness” as long as I can remember. My dad’s mum, Margaret McBain came from Creagorry, a small place in Benbecula – also a small place in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. She was a great lady and a real favourite of mine. She would be the one who quietly slipped a fiver in my hand (one she really couldn’t spare) with a whispered, “don’t tell your father”. Who wouldn’t love that?

Grammy lived to be nearly a hundred. When I think of it I can remember her crying almost as much as I can recall her laughing. I recall hearing Hugh McLennan once quoting that “a Gael was never far from a tear”. I think he was right. If it’s tears you’re looking for at the tail-end of a late night party, look to the room’s Gaidhealtachd.

Anyway, she influenced me. I think it was her Gaelicness that caused me to take up the pipes. And pipes have been a big part of my life.

It was great luck then that one of my very earliest times with bagpipes came through a now-gone junior pipe band in Toronto: “Downsview Junior Pipe Band” – a kid’s band. The current Pipe Major of the Toronto-based 400 Airforce Squadron Pipe Band, a very young, Terry Cleland, took care of things those days. It was an energetic group. So, the luck part was joining a progressive teaching group as well as getting to know the MacDonalds: Captain John (Iain), Isabel and son, Hector – you’ll today know Hector as the outstanding piper he is.

Right, to tighten things up here:

The MacDonalds are Lewis people. Gaelic spoken (and sung) in the house. Iain would have his accordian at the ready at all informal gatherings and Isabel, too, ready for a song (I call them by their given names but in person they have always been “Mr and Mrs MacDonald” to me). A number of years ago I called Isabel and asked her if she was interested in teaching me Gaelic. She was full of enthusiasm and I saw her for lessons every week or three for almost three years. Happy times – and hard work, by the way.

The minute I arrived it would be Gaelic: “Thig a-steach”, come in, have a seat. And I would. It was mostly songs we went over along with phrases, the alphabet, of course, and commonly said phrases. The highlight was at evening’s end and the breaking out of the favoured bottle of “Grand MacNish” whisky. We’d finish every lesson with a dram. These were not one hour lessons. Along with the pace of the evening, this ritual, in itself, was very “Gaelic”. You can hear Mrs MacDonald on my CD, “Cuts from Traditional Cloth“.

To my point: the music of the Highland bagpipes, in its truest form, represents the voice of the Gael. So like it or not, to know Gaelic, appreciate and have some inkling of the ebb and flow and sound of the language is something all Highland pipers should aspire. I’m not suggesting we all take up Gaelic scholarship, just a sense of the language, at least. The depth gained in musical appreciation is immeasureable. Maybe thoughts on that for another time.

It seems to me a piper should be able to come fairly close to accurately pronouncing the great names of the Gaelic piping repertoire. It ain’t “Thay my skig“, baby!

Give it a try. It’ll be worth it.


PS. There will be a few alpha accents missing on some words – I know – but you’ ll also know Al Gore invented the internet and he doesn’t speak Gaelic – as far as I know.

PPS. And stranger yet: did you know Donald Trump’s mum, Mary MacLeod, came from Stornoway. Maybe that’s why he wears his sporran on his head.


  1. Great piece Michael! I think that the whole piping scene is missing out on a big piece of the puzzle.

    Keep up the good work , always an interesting read.

    Comment by Johnny J — May 18, 2007 #

  2. Thanks, er, móran taing, Johnny! M

    Comment by mike — May 18, 2007 #

  3. Well said! Gaining a feel for Gaelic really gives you an understanding of the artistry in both the language and the music.

    Comment by pipervin — May 18, 2007 #

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