August 28, 2020
The Gaelic language may be in steep decline, but a collaboration between the composer Craig Armstrong and traditional Hebridean singers hopes to keep a centuries-old style alive
On the north-western edges of Britain, in a handful of churches, one of the world’s most unusual song forms can be heard. It begins with a precentor, a leader singing the opening lines of a psalm to a church congregation, who then drift in. Each person decorates the tune individually, driven by their own tempo and rhythm, before everyone returns, together, to the same note. Imagine the sonic equivalent of a murmuration of starlings.
This is the art of Gaelic psalm singing, once practised in Free Presbyterian churches across Scotland, but now largely confined to the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis and Harris. It has attracted fresh interest from experimental music fans after BBC Radio 3 presenter Jennifer Lucy Allan reissued two albums of psalm songs in 2018; she had been introduced to it by a friend whose grandmother sang in one of the congregations. “You can’t do anything else when you listen to this music,” Allan says, describing it as “strangely haunted”, but also “very euphoric, hearing those voices lifting together in Gaelic”.