Professor Abigail Burnyeat of The University of Edinburgh’s School of Celtic and Scottish Studies spoke passionately about her latest project that has been years in the making, alongside Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, University of the Highlands and Islands. The pair have done extensive research in medieval Gaelic tales and ballad texts in order to construct a story that honours the Gaelic oral tradition for a performance of Bàs Chonnlaoich, The Death of Connlaoch. While Burnyeat and Stiùbhart covered the textual part of the performance piece with reputable Gaelic storyteller and musician Pàdruig Morrison as the performance orator, renowned Gaelic singer Margaret Stewart focused on recreating the lost tune for the accompanying ballad of the text. Generously funded by the Hope Scott and the Royal Celtic Society, the performance that came out of the labor of Burnyeat, Stiùbhart, Stewart and Morrison, Singing the Story: The Death of Connlaoch, ran on 20 October as part of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival.
Burnyeat began by describing the Gaelic oral tradition and the challenges she faced in keeping Bàs Chonnlaoich consistent with the medieval Gaelic tradition:
Burnyeat: The story of how Cú Chulainn kills his son is one that goes back to perhaps as early as the ninth century. We have a number of different collectors who took down the words for the ballad Bàs Chonnlaoich which is, it’s not really a song version of the story, but it’s a long poem that was performed sung which reflects the story. It’s a song that is written as a song, but you have to know the story in order to make sense of it. The earliest copy is the one we used as the basis for our text and that is in the book of the Dean of Lismore which is a manuscript in the National Library of Scotland. But we don’t have the tune. They [folklore collectors] only took down the words. So, what we were trying to do is to say, “okay, how could we find the way to bring that ballad to life in a way that worked with modern audiences?” Now, Gaelic speaking or not Gaelic speaking, the language in those ballads is tricky. Even really fluent Gaelic speakers still find it really challenging to follow what is going on in the ballad but also because the story itself has kind of fallen out of the oral tradition so we knew that if we were going to try and make a performance that worked we had to find a way to bring the story and the ballad text together.
So that was one problem and the other problem was what to do about the lost tune. There is one other problem, which is that I really wanted to do this in a way that felt congruent with the way Gaelic oral performance works, because very often one of the things that happens if you try and make something that works for an English language contemporary audience out of this kind of material [is] you change it to a point where it isn’t really doing the job it used to do at all. You’ve made it into something that is very different. Without claiming authenticity, I wanted to try and find a way of doing something that felt congruent with the Gaelic story telling that you can still hear even if they are not telling that story anymore and with the Gaelic sung performance you can still hear even if that ballad itself has fallen out of the repertoire. We wanted it to be something that worked for a Gaelic audience and felt true to Gaelic performance styles, but at the same time something that spoke to a wider audience who didn’t know that Gaelic tradition has these amazing stories and these amazing riches within them. They are extraordinary, massive operatic stories!
I think people are just not that familiar with the fact that we have got these stories in Scotland, and Ireland as well. So, to try and do all those things at once, it’s a lot to do. So, what we did is we got some money to work with Margaret Stuart, who is an extraordinary, wonderful Gaelic singer who has got an incredibly deep knowledge of the tradition.
How long have you been working on this project?
Burnyeat: A couple of years since the first idea, but intensively since the beginning of this year.
Margaret Stuart is a very successful performer, but she is also someone who has a deep inside knowledge of Gaelic traditional singing, so she got a feel for how to do this. She understands the nature of the tradition and she’s got a deep respect for it. She is not just going to take it and say, “I can do my own thing with this.” We were kind of having to do that but at the same time wanting to do it in a way that was respectful and congruent and made sense.
We are not trying to say this is an authentic performance but that it’s a performance that is respectful of the tradition. Margaret worked through ballads, airs that are preserved, that didn’t fall out of the repertoire in the way this one had, and she used them as inspiration to try and get a tune that reflected the traditions of performing ballads but also fitted the works we were working with. So, she composed it, but with other ballad tunes as a starting point. She was working on the ballad, but we knew we had to give the audience the stories in order to make sense of the ballad. We wanted to do it in Gaelic but there aren’t any Gaelic-speaking storytellers who have this as part of their repertoire.
Burnyeat continued by retelling the tales that provide an illuminating and thrilling background for the performance.
Burnyeat: It’s a big operatic story! It’s really thrilling, really exciting. It’s really weird! Because Cú Chulainn kind of set the whole thing up. There is doom. There is fate. There are all kinds of things going on. What we wanted to do with the performance is try to say, “Well, here is this story. It’s extraordinary. Here is the ballad. It’s a treasure. It’s a great cultural gift to the world.” We have to try and give it back. We have to give it back in a way that makes sense of it and honours its origins, but is accessible to an audience that may not have the background information. We wanted to do it in a way that works within the tradition.
I think sometimes storytelling can be a bit of “here is an amazing performer performing”, and that doesn’t work within the way that Gaelic traditional storytelling works, where the important thing is the story, both with the storytelling and the ballad. And Margaret is an extraordinary singer and she made an extraordinary tune, and the performance is extraordinary, but it is to carry the story and the story is the important thing in both parts and that is the thing we really wanted to make work.
How did you decide on Bàs Chonnlaoich, The Death of Connlaoch specifically?
Burnyeat: Because it is one where the links between Scotland and Ireland are really strong. Partly because of the ballad text. We had three possibilities, but the ballad texts that go with the stories for the other two were much more complicated to resolve. What I would really like to do is if this works well and people enjoy it, I would like to go on and develop the project, so we do a whole series of stories and their ballads.
Stiùbhart: It’s a strong powerful story; very operatic in character. Across the board in Gaelic culture, what is important is the message as much as the individual performance or performance artist. That is not to say that traditionally artists would think they had the better version of whatever story they had. What mattered was the story that everybody knew; they had different versions, but everyone knew the basic story and often it was rooted in a landscape that they themselves might know. The story was localised and had local landmarks that would be connected to people in the ballads and in the stories, they saw every day. It is very, very close to the people that they were singing it to. It’s part of their culture and their landscape. You could argue people felt they had a part in the story.
Burnyeat: If you think about a time when people would have known these stories really well, they would have known them so well that the characters were very familiar. You respond to and feel about the characters almost as you respond to and feel [about] the characters in your real world. It’s a very intimate relationship between audience and performers and story.
Stiùbhart: Following on from that is a challenge of trying to make it relevant for the people in present day who don’t have that connection, that intimate knowledge of the tradition. How do we help people into this world and make them understand and feel what they are listening to?
What do you want people who have no experience with Gaelic culture to walk away with?
Burnyeat: I hope they will be moved. I hope they will have a sense of just how rich the storytelling tradition and the cultural tradition of Gaelic song and story is. And I hope they will want to find out more.
Stiùbhart: There are many many stories in addition to this one that are just as strong. There is work being done in Ireland, but I think the Scottish side of the culture has been neglected in many ways over the past hundred years, so it is certainly an opportunity for us to resuscitate it.
Burnyeat: That is one of the things that is always surprising to me is how often people just don’t know this stuff is there [sic]. And I think that is one of the most important things we are trying to do is just to say “it is here and it’s wonderful!” For students, they can come and learn more about this stuff.
Stiùbhart: It’s absolutely the heart of the romantic movement; the writing of the romantic movement in Europe can be traced back directly to this sort of material coming out from James Macpherson’s controversial Ossian. That is the tinder, if you like, that set the light of the romantic movement in motion. So, it is much a part of the world heritage as well as just Scottish and Irish heritage.
Scotland & Ireland: A’ Seinn na Sgeulachd: Bàs Chonnlaoich; or Singing the Story: The Death of Connlaoch was performed as part of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival. For more details, visit https://www.sisf.org.uk/events/
Image: Dara Vallely