Gaelic Psalm Singing

Psalm 89: 15-18

O greatly bless'd the people are
the joyful sound that know;
In brightness of Thy face, O Lord,
they ever on shall go.

They in Thy name shall all the day
rejoice exceedingly;
And in Thy righteousness shall they
exalted be on high.

Because the glory of their strength
doth only stand in Thee;
And in Thy favour shall our horn
and pow'r exalted be.

For God is our defence; and He
to us doth safety bring:
The Holy One of Israel
is our Almighty King.

At our wedding, we sang these verses from Psalm 89 in Gaelic. Never heard Gaelic Psalm singing?? Never lived then!

(As an aside, I'd love to know what you sang at your wedding, or what you'd love to have sung at your wedding, if that wedding has not taken place yet!)

Well, Gaelic psalm singing is probably like nothing you've ever heard before. When the Gospel came to Gaelic speaking parts of Scotland first, many of the people were illiterate. There were also very, very few Bibles in their language. The psalms were sung with a Precentor - a man who 'puts out the line' of the psalm - and then the congregation sings that line. This way, a person didn't need a psalm book in front of them: they listened to the precentor and followed the words he'd sung.

It's always sung with no musical accompaniment. It is so moving, but maybe like the bagpipes, you need to be a Highlander to 'feel' it. I don't know if that's the case.

I've posted a Youtube video at the end of this post which will give you a flavour of the singing.

But for now, have a read of this:

Prof Ruff is a professor of music at the University of Yale. He is a noted jazz musician, having played with Dizzy Gillespie and been the first musician to introduce jazz into the USSR and the Peoples Republic of China. An African American of Alabama roots, his story is fascinating. His performance in the Bonar Hall (Dundee, Scotland) was brilliant – none more so than when he showed how African Americans can tap out rhythm on their legs. It was hard to believe that he is 74 years old. However the enjoyment of his lecture gave way to a look of incredulity when Willie (as he wanted us to call him) suggested that there was a link between Black church music and Gaelic psalm singing. The Scottish media of course picked up on this and took great delight in running stories along the lines of Black Gospel music comes from Lewis! These statements were usually accompanied by pictures of exuberant African Americans singing and dancing, alongside pictures of Free Church Gaelic psalm singing which was, shall we say, somewhat less exuberant!

Prof Ruff explained that he was visiting a Black Presbyterian church in Northern Alabama and was surprised to hear them singing in the old Black Baptist way – lining out the hymns. ‘Where did you learn to sing like that?’ he asked. The response surprised him – ‘we’ve always sung that way – its part of our Presbyterian tradition’. So he decided to discover if there were any white Presbyterians who sang accapella. His search was fairly fruitless until someone suggested to him that he visit the Outer Hebrides in a far away land called Scotland. Willie had traveled all over Europe but had never been to Scotland – despite the pleas of his friend Dizzy Gillespie, who had told him that there was something special about Scotland. He even informed Willie that his great grandparents had spoken this strange language called Gaelic.

So off went the good professor – first of all to Benbecula and then to Back on the Island of Lewis. When he heard the Gaelic psalm singing he was blown away. To him it was very similar to the old style of Gospel music in the Black churches back home. He played it to an old Black precentor who wept when he first heard it. It was at this point in his story that the looks of incredulity on some of the faces were evident. But then came one of those special moments. He played a track from the latest CD of Gaelic psalm singing from Back. – (go to gaelicpsalmsinging.com if you want to know more). It was spine chillingly wonderful and you could sense that everyone there was greatly taken with it. In fact the broadcaster Lesley Riddoch declared that it made the hairs stand up on the back of her neck and that she found it very moving. He then played a track of the Alabama African Americans singing. Believe it or not it was not easy to tell the difference!

It was a different language (English v. Gaelic), different words (Hymns v. Psalms), different melodies and yet there was so much that was similar. The emotion, the ethos and the style of lining out, adding lots of grace notes and singing slowly. How did this happen? Was it just coincidence?

The basic thesis is this. Many Gaelic speaking Scots went over to the US – especially the Carolina’s and the South. Some became slave owners and as a result their slaves were taught Gaelic. In those early days there were no Black and no separate White churches - Blacks and Whites worshiped together – although not on a equal basis (the normal custom in the South was for the Blacks to sit upstairs in the Church). As a result the African Americans were, as Prof Ruff put it, introduced to the ‘Jesus Faith’ through the medium of Gaelic preaching and Gaelic psalm singing. The slaves ‘blackened’ the process and eventually were thrown out of the churches (for their exuberance) and started their own. Prof. Ruff told of the section of the mixed church which was known as the ‘Amen Corner’ because of the noise that came from it. He also told us of the Godly Confederate leader Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson, going to church with his slaves and being told that they should sit upstairs. Jackson refused with the words ‘no, my family sits with me’.

There is no doubt that some slaves would have learnt Gaelic. Nor that there was some amount of interbreeding – Prof Ruff suggested that the prevalence of red hair amongst some African Americans today was due to Scottish blood from a couple of centuries ago! He also told us the delightful story of two sisters from Lewis who had just arrived in America after a long and lonely journey. They were surprised to hear Gaelic being spoken and rushed to the side of the boat to meet their countrymen – but were astounded to see that the speakers were Blacks. In panic they wrote home suggesting that they should return as quickly as possible because the sun was too hot and did terrible things to people!

Some are not convinced of Prof Ruff's theory at all. Accurate it may not be - who can tell? Interesting, it most certainly is!


  1. I really enjoyed this post and reading all the story of where the singing originated. I listened to the 3-min u-tube and have never heard singing like that before. I've lived in Virginia all my life (a southern state--and I say y'all a million times a day!) and never knew about Gaelic singing. Thanks for the educational and enjoyable post.

    I am home in bed recuperating after a round of surgery and getting a chance to catch up on a myriad of blogs that I don't often get to visit and comment on. I enjoyed my visit here.

  2. Hi Deb,
    I hope your recovery will go well. although we don't like having to rest, sometimes it's good for us to really stop and have time to think and pray. Life can be so busy. It's good to catch up on blogs and 'stuff' online too. I can learn so much from this amazing cyber-world!
    As for the Gaelic singing. I'm sure you've never heard anything like it! When it's done well, it is so beautiful (though you may possible *have* to be a Highlander to *feel* it). I have to say though - if it's done....'not so well'....it can be torturous!!

    Virginia......aaahhh, Virginia. *My* place of places. And the home of my all-time hero! (See my post on Who From History would You Like to Meet?'.
    Lovely to meet you, and here's hoping for a good recovery.
    Love, Anne x

  3. What a fun idea to share wedding songs...I think often of our song..a hymn we made sure to include. It's called the Servant Song by Richard Gillard. One of these days I plan on making a wall hanging with it for our home.

    Brother, let me be your servant
    Let me be as Christ to you
    Pray that I may have the grace
    To let you be my servant, too

    We are pilgrims on a journey
    We are brothers on the road
    We are here to help each other
    Walk the mile and bear the load

    I will hold the Christlight for you
    In the night-time of your fear
    I will hold my hand out to you
    Speak the peace you long to hear

    I will weep when you are weeping
    When you laugh I'll laugh with you
    I will share your joy and sorrow
    Till we've seen this journey through

    When we sing to God in heaven
    We shall find such harmony
    Born of all we've known together
    Of Christ's love and agony

    Brother, let me be your servant
    Let me be as Christ to you
    Pray that I may have the grace
    To let you be my servant, too

  4. Mmm - lovely words, Chrystal. Sometimes, we need more grace to allow another to be our servant than for us to be their servant. We can be so independent..... and feel like we're 'being a bother' if we ask anything of our loved one. I was ill for a time after our last child was born, and one of the hardest things I found was having to be dependent on others. It was HARD. It gave me another perspective though, and I hope this helps me pray appropriately for others who are ill.
    Thanks for stopping by
    Love, Anne x


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