1 Student-Directed Song Discussion

Raghnaid NicGaraidh

Activity Summary Statement

In this activity, the teacher guides the students through a discussion of a Gaelic song. The teacher should choose the song based on the topics the song naturally promotes discussion of, and the level and ability of the students.

Learning Outcomes

Students will have a good familiarity with the song in question and especially several aspects of it, and have gained or improved their skills or awareness in at least one grammatical or cultural area.

Gaelic Level

This lesson can be suitable for Gaelic learners and speakers of all levels, from complete beginners to fluent speakers. The Gaelic level of the participants will inform the song choice.

Lesson Preparation

First, choose your song. Things to consider when choosing the song include:

  • Place — Do you want to choose a song from the local area?

  • Ability of the studentsIf they’re beginners, they’re not ready for twenty-five eight-line verses written by someone who refuses to use the same word twice. Some mouth music or a waulking/milling song would be better.

  • Needs of the studentsHave you been working on the past tense recently? The conditional? Genitive structures? You might like to find a song that features a lot of those things.

  • TimeTwenty-five eight-line verses will probably take you several months to get through, or at least several weeks. On the other hand, a single piece of mouth music with eight lines that are mostly repetitions probably isn’t going to last a whole hour of discussion.

Next, write or type all the lyrics to the song — in a largish font and with lots of spacing if possible! Sit down and circle or highlight the rhyme scheme and various vocabulary or grammatical features. Think about the story of the song, the background or location of the author, etc, and make notes about it. Basically, think about everything the students might ask, and everything you would want them to ask (and those two things are not the same!). With your annotated notes, decide which direction(s) you would like the discussion to go, and which direction(s) it shouldn’t.

Resources Required

  • A recording (or multiple recordings) of the song being sung.
  • A handout of the lyrics.

Lesson Structure

Begin by listening to the chosen song from whichever recording you think best. For more fluent speakers, an archival recording is suitable, but for complete beginners, a professional or modern recording with cleaner sound might be better, or you may choose to sing the song yourself.

Direct the discussion by asking questions such as:

  • “What words do or don’t you recognise?”
    • This can build vocabulary (in less-proficient speakers), lead to a discussion of word meanings compared to English (in less-proficient speakers) or between dialects of Gaelic or in particular contexts (in more proficient speakers), or a discussion of cultural background or context. Students may like to keep notes of the new vocabulary in a format that best suits them.
  • “Where is the rhyme scheme?”
    • This easily leads to a discussion of the differences between rhyming in English and Gaelic (see “Gaelic rhyming” section further on). It might also prompt a discussion of dialectal difference as some rhymes may not work in all Gaelic dialects. If students are new to finding Gaelic rhyme schemes, it can be useful to have them find the beat by beating, tapping, or milling/waulking to the song.
  • “Show me the [conditional] tense.”
    • Show, as an alternative to the above, future tense, past tense, genitive phrases, negations, animal words, verbs, etc. This is a good question to ask if the students have previously been working on a particular grammatical concept, and you may briefly explain or re-iterate how to form the particular case or tense in question.
  • “Gu dé tha seo a’ ciallachadh?”
    • Translate the thing, if translating things is something your pedagogy allows (I know Gàidhlig aig Baile doesn’t allow for it). You don’t have to, especially if the students are more proficient — instead, use this question to prompt them to rephrase the story of the song (or each verse).
  • “How else could you say that?”
    • This is similar to the above question, but could be applied to individual words, larger phrases, or whole sentences. It could be especially useful as some songwriters delight in finding the most obscure possible ways of saying simple things. It is also useful when dealing with dialectal variation.
  • “When or where did this happen?”
    • Who wrote the song, and what context were they living in, or what context was the song sung in? Some songs have a rich historical or cultural context to explore.

Finish the lesson by rounding it up in some way. Summarise what has been discussed, offer the students a challenge (e.g., “find another song by the same person or with a similar theme or from the same place or in the same structure” or “write another verse for the song,” perhaps), or sing the song together.

Some Notes on Gaelic Rhyming

In English, rhyming typically considers three things — vowels, consonants, and the number of syllables from the end of the word or line. That is, a “good rhyme” in English will usually fall in the last syllable of the line (or the last two or sometimes three syllables from the end of the line), and both consonants and vowels must match. For example:

I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains
of rugged mountain ranges, of drought and flooding rains

This rhymes in English, because “plains” and “rains” both end with “-ains”, and are both the last syllable of the line.

Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind
should old acquaintance be forgot, and days of old lang syne

This might not rhyme in English, because not all the consonants match, although they are similar, and the vowels are the same, and they’re both on the last syllable of the line.

I sent to him a letter
which I had for want of better knowledge

This does not rhyme in English, because “letter” and “better” are not in the same position in the line, although they both end with “-etter”.

By contrast, Gaelic rhyming relies on two things — vowel assonance and beat. Gaelic rhyming doesn’t care much for how many syllables there are until the end of the line or even where the line break is, but rather what beat the rhyming vowel falls on. To add to the difference to English rhyming, Gaelic rhyming often relies on internal rhymes; in a tune with four beats to a line, the rhyme might fall on the fourth beat in some lines and the second in others. For example, in Hé mo leannan, each two-line verse has an internal rhyme scheme:

’S e mo leannan, am fear bàn
A dheidheadh an àird air bhàrr an t-siùil

There’s two beats per line (falling on leannan, bàn, àird, and siùil), and the rhyme falls on the second beat of the first line and the first beat of the second line — bàn and àird share a vowel, but not a consonant coda. The second beat of the second line is part of another rhyme scheme which links the verses, as we see:

’S e mo leannan, am fear donn
A thogadh fonn anns an taigh-ciùil

Donn and fonn rhyme internally, as they did in the last verse, while ciùil rhymes with siùil in the previous verse.

This internal rhyme scheme is also used in four-line verses, such as in Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh:

Tha trì fichead bliadhna ’s a trì
Bho ’n a dh’fhàg mi Dùthaich ’Ic Aoidh
Càit’ bheil gillean òg mo chrìdh’
‘S na nìonagan cho bòidheach?

Some very well-worked poetry will have a reverse-internal rhyme as well, as we see in Nuair a Chaidh a’ Chlach a Thilleadh:

’S mì chiatach le seanchaidhean
Feadh ìslich agus garbhlaichean
Gun d’ thill sibh, Clach nan Albannach
Gu ceann-bhaile Beurla

Here, seanchaidhean, garbhlaichean, Albannach, and -bhaile are all part of the internal rhyme scheme on beats 2, 2, 2, 1, but the first three lines have another rhyme one beat 1, chiatach, ìslich, and thill. Beurla has the vowel that rhymes across all the verses and chorus.

This covers the vast majority of rhyme schemes you’ll find in Gaelic poetry, although of course some songs have more familiar (to English eyes) rhyme schemes. The only other thing to note is which sounds rhyme with each other — eu might rhyme with é or even ao depending on dialect, while it might rhyme with ia and ì in other dialects. Ao might be rhymed with ù in some cases, and u and o are often considered close enough to rhyme with each other.

Student-Directed Example I

Hé mo Leannan

Discussion Topics

  • Song features:
    • rhyme scheme
    • genitive phrases
    • conditional
  • Waulking or milling songs and their cultural importance, in the past and today
  • Encourage students to attend a milling frolic
  • Have a go at writing your own verses using the same rhyme scheme!


Hé mo leannan, hó mo leannan
’S e mo leannan, am fear ùr
Hé mo leannan, hó mo leannan

’S e mo leannan Gille Chaluim
Carpantair an daraich thu

My sweetheart is Gille Chaluim
You are the carpenter of the oak

’S e mo leannan am fear donn
A thogadh fonn anns an taigh-chiùil

My sweetheart is the brown-haired man
Who would raise a tune in the music house

’S e mo leannan saor an t-sàbhaidh
Leagadh lobhta làir gu dlùth

My sweetheart is the carpenter of the saw
Who would lay down flooring tightly

’S e mo leannan am fear bàn
A dheidheadh an àird air bhàrr an t-siùil

My sweetheart is the fair-haired man
Who would go to the top of the sail

’S e mo leannan am fear laghach
’S tu mo roghainn, thaghainn thu

My sweetheart is the nice man
You’re my choice, I’d choose you

’S tric a chaidh mi leat dha ’n bhàthaich
Sneachd’ na b’ àirde na mo ghlùin

Often I went with you to the byre
Snow higher than my knee

’S leabaidh bheag an cùil a’ chidsin
Far ’m bu tric bha mise ’s tu

And the little bed behind the kitchen
Where often you and I were

’S galair na ’s miosa na ’n déideadh
Air an thug bhuam mo rùn

And a disease worse than the toothache
On the one who take from me my love

Nar meal i ’n gùn ùr ’s a’ chiste
Na ’n a shuidheas air a glùin

Let her be without a new gown in her clothes chest
And without what would sit on her knee

Comhairle bheirinn fhìn air gruagach
A bhith cumail suas ri triùir

Advice that I would give to a girl
To be keeping up with three

Ged a dhèanadh iad uile fàgail
Bhitheadh an làmh aic’ air fear ùr

Athough they’d all leave
Her hand would be on a new man

’S nuair a bhitheadh gàch ’nan làighe
Dh’fhosglainn dhuit an uinneag-chiùil

And when everyone would be lying
I’d open for you the back window

Student-Directed Example II

Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh

What is the context?

Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh is in the very north of Scotland.

Patrick Sellar was hugely responsible for the Clearances, and was even trialed once for manslaughter after burning a cottage down with a woman still inside it. The song is set in around 1885, 70 years after the Clearances in Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh.

Discussion Topics:
  • The role of sheep in the Clearances
  • The role of Sellar in the Clearances
  • Where did the people go?
  •  The role of religion and the seriousness of mallachd and invoking Hell, referencing Judas, etc.
  • Thu vs. sibh
  • Song features:
    • rhyme scheme
    • past tense verbs (5 unique verbs)
    • genitive phrases


Mo mhallachd aig na caoraich mhòr
Càit’ bheil clann nan daoine còir
Dhealaich rium ’n uair bha mi òg
Mus robh Dùthaich ’ic Aoidh ’na fàsach?

My curse upon the great sheep
Where now are the children of the kindly folk?
Who parted from me when I was young
Before Sutherland became a desert?

Tha trì fichead bliadhna ’s a trì
Bho ’n a dh’fhàg mi Dùthaich ’ic Aoidh
Càit’ bheil gillean òg mo chrìdh’
’S na nìonagan cho bòidheach?

It has been sixty-three years
Since I left Sutherland
Where are all my beloved young men
And all the girls that were so pretty?

A Shellar, tha thu nisd’ ’na d’ uaigh,
Gaoir nam bantrach na do chluais
Am milleadh a rinn thu air an t-sluaigh
Ro ’n uiridh an d’ fhuair thu d’ leòr dheth?

Sellar, you are now in your grave,
The wailing of the widows in your ears
The destruction you did to the people
Until last year, did you get your fill of it?

A chiad Dhiùc Chataibh, le d’ chuid foill
’S le d’ chuid càirdeis do na Goill
Gum b’ ann an iutharn’ bha do thoill,
gu m b’ fheàrr Iùdas làmh rium.

The first Duke of Sutherland, with your share of deceit
And with your friendship for the Lowlanders
You deserve to be in Hell
That Judas would be prefered next to me

A Bhan-Diùc Chataibh, ’eil thu ad’ dhìth?
Càit a’ bheil do ghùnan sìod‘?
An do chùm iad thu bho ’n oillt ’s bho ’n strì
A tha ’n diugh am measg nan clàraibh?

Dutchess of Sutherland, where are you know?
Where are you silk gowns?
Did they keep you from hatred and from struggle
Which is today among the press?

Student-Directed Example III

Nuair a Chaidh a’ Chlach a Thilleadh

le Dòmhnall Mac an t-Saoir, “Am Bàrd Pàislig” (See Ronald Black’s An Tuil: Anthology of 20th-Century Scottish Gaelic Verse, pp. 176-180)

What is the context?

The Stone of Destiny was repatriated in Christmas 1950 and returned to England several months later.

Discussion Topics:
  • The history of the Stone
  • The part the stone played (and plays) in politics historically (distant past as well as 20th century)
  • all the many many historical references in this song
  • Song features:
    • Rhyme scheme
    • Past tense verbs
    • Conditional verbs
    • Future tense verbs
    • Prepositions (including prepositional pronouns)


Tha tighinn fodham, fodham, fodham
Tha tighinn fodham, fodham, fodham
Tha tighinn fodham, fodham, fodham
Tha tighinn fodham speuradh

It behoves me, hoves me, hoves me,
It behoves me, hoves me, hoves me,
It behoves me, hoves me, hoves me,
It behoves me to swear.

’S mì-chiatach le seanchaidhean
Feadh ìslich agus garbhlaichean
Gun d’ thill sibh, Clach nan Albannach
Gu ceann-bhaile Beurla

Tradition-bearers are not pleased
Throughout low and rough country
That you returned, the Stone of the Scots,
To the English capital

’N uair leig sibh sìos gu ’n nàimhdean i
A’ ghnìomh a bhitheas gu caillte dhuibh
’N robh sìol nan sonn gun cainnt’ aca
’S na traoidhearan ag éigheachd?

When we let her down to enemies,
The deed that’s your undoing,
Was the race of heroes speechless
While the traitors cried for joy?

Thig dìochairt nan cuid uaghannan
Air sinnsreadh sìol nam fuar-bheannan
Bho ’n sìn sibh dh‘ar luchd-fuatha i
A thug bhuaibh i leis an eucoir

The cold-mountain people’s ancestors
Will vomit in their graves
Since you gave it to your enemies
Who wrongly took it from you.

Tha iomadh linn bho spùill iad i
’S bho dh’ìslich iad ri ùrlar i
Ma ’s rìoghail iad, ’ar leam-sa
Gur e biùthas nam fear-bréige

It’s a long time since they stole it
And lowered it to the floor;
If they’re royal, it’s my opinion
That it’s imposters’ fame.

Nan d’ fhuair mi fo mo mheòirean i
’N uair thàinig maor an tòir oirre
Mu ’m bitheadh i saor ’s an t-òrd agam
Bhitheadh Seòras gun a dhéideag.

If I’d got my hands on it
When the police came after it,
Before I’d finished with my hammer
George would have lost his toy.

B’ e Clach na rìogachd Albannach
Bho iomadh linn is aimsir i
’S mu ’n sìninn do Mhac Carmaig i
Gun sgealbhainn ás a chéile i

It was the Scottish Kingdom’s Stone
Through many an age and epoch,
And before I gave it to MacCormick,
I’d split it apart.

Preparing for Challenges

It might be that your students simply aren’t ready to have the formation of the genitive explained to them, but the song has dhan mhuir in one line and uisge na mara in the next. Prepare for the possibility of being asked about it, and don’t be afraid to keep the answer as simple as “That’s the genitive case,” “to the sea” as opposed to “water of the sea,” or “That’s a bit tricky to learn about just yet.”




About the Author

Raghnaid NicGaraidh is born and raised in South Australia, with roots in Scotland through her father. She grew up around Gaelic-speakers in Adelaide and has been intentionally speaking the language since she was a teenager. While studying for a degree in linguistics and ethnomusicology in Melbourne, she was the conductor and music director of Coisir Ghàidhlig Bhioctòiria (the Scottish Gaelic Choir of Victoria) from 2017-2020, and she has been teaching Gaelic language classes since 2016.


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Cànan tro Òrain by Raghnaid NicGaraidh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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