“A Song for Every Cow She Milked..." Sharing the Work and Sharing the Voices in Gaeldom


  • Margaret Bennett Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama


Throughout the history of the Gael, both in Scotland and overseas, every aspect of life had its songs. Whether composed by the highly literate clan bard or by the non-literate farm servant, a huge wealth of songs was handed down from generation to generation. Traditional settings differed between the nobility and the ordinary folk, yet the songs were equally preserved in the clan chieftain’s great-hall and the humble thatched cottages that were the taighean ceilidh (visiting houses). Events (such as weddings, births, feuds, battles, emigration, death) and memorable individuals were celebrated (or mourned) in song. Almost every kind of work had its songs, especially daily or seasonal labour done to a particular rhythm, including milking, churning, spinning, waulking (fulling) hand-woven cloth, reaping, or rowing. At the end of the day’s toil, songs in the taigh céilidh were the expectation and right of everyone, along with an opportunity to learn the tradition from established singers and custodians of centuries of knowledge. This presentation discusses the range of songs and their function, from the most ancient “lay” through to modern compositions. Example of Gaelic songs from Scotland and Newfoundland (both recorded and sung by the presenter) will demonstrate points made through the paper.

Author Biography

Margaret Bennett, Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama

Margaret Bennett, singer, folklorist, broadcaster and prize-winning author, was voted "Woman of the Year 2003" by Celtic Women International for “lifelong services to Scottish culture at home and abroad”. Margaret was brought up on the Isle of Skye, home for generations to her mother's family, the Stewarts. Her father's side of the family are Lowland Scots and Irish. Margaret and her three sisters were brought up in a household where singing, playing music, dancing and storytelling were a way of life. Her mother sang, her father played the bagpipes, and when they moved to the Isle of Lewis in the late 50s, they settled in another community where the ceilidh house was also the way of life. Learning to become a teacher may have been incidental to the best of Margaret’s student days in the sixties as Glasgow had Folk Clubs, wonderful singers, endless opportunities to get together and sing, a wealth of song, both traditional and 'revival'. On an exchange visit with Edinburgh University Folk Club, she met the now legendary Hamish Henderson, inspiring, energetic and enthusiastic, at the height of his career as a folklorist. He undoubtedly influenced Margaret’s own career choice. In 1968, Margaret emigrated to Newfoundland with her family which became home for the next eight years. As a post-graduate student of Folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland, she began recording the traditions of the Gaels who immigrated there from the Isle of Canna and Moidart. Margaret studied with Prof. Herbert Halpert whose rigorous training in folklore studies influenced every project thereafter. Margaret’s formal qualifications include BA(Ed), Post-graduate MA in Folklore from Memorial University of Newfoundland, and a PhD in Ethnology from the University of Edinburgh. Currently, Margaret is Lecturer in Folklore at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and Glasgow Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow (attached to the Glasgow-Strathclyde School of Scottish Studies).