Gaelic singing and oral tradition

Sheridan, Mark and MacDonald, Iona and Byrne, Charles (2011) Gaelic singing and oral tradition. International Journal of Music Education, 29 (2). pp. 172-190. ISSN 0255-7614 (

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A recent report by UNESCO placed Scots Gaelic on a list of 2500 endangered languages highlighting the perilous state of a key cornerstone of Scottish culture. Scottish Gaelic song, poems and stories have been carried through oral transmission for many centuries reflecting the power of indigenous peoples to preserve cultural heritage from generation to generation without recourse to a written code. Against this background, this article highlights the growing support and development of the language in the last 30 years and the first findings of a research project into 'Scottish Gaelic Song and Oral Transmission'. It also highlights aspects of the historical background to Scottish Gaelic songs and poetry to set the context of the revival of interest in Gaelic traditional music and some of the measures and strategies developed to sustain the language and its cultural heritage within Scotland. It further discusses the nature of community and family discourse and oral transmission and delivers some early findings and insights into the research project, which is based on a series of interviews with Gaelic singers. The findings illuminate aspects of the oral tradition that could have an impact on the way in which traditional music is perceived and the nature of provision for this music in higher education in the UK. A number of institutions such as the University of Strathclyde, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and Sabhal Mor Ostaig provide undergraduate courses that teach traditional music, including Gaelic singing, as one of the areas of study. This article potentially raises issues relating to Gaelic singing and the values, traits and practices inherent in oral transmission and how these could be promoted alongside and not be swamped by the accepted practices in teaching and learning in classical music.


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