Na h-Eilthirich

I always quite liked the depth and meaning behind traditional Gaelic songs, though I am the first to admit that I understand people’s insistence that they always seem to fall into the category of “a Gaelic song you say? That’ll be about the sea, war and my long lost love then?”. Nonetheless, when you live on an island, constantly have to send soldiers and sailors to fight overseas and are generally very romantic…what do you expect!?!


But I thought it’d be interesting to look at some of these songs and poems as a 21st century hopeful-future emigrant and see if any of what has been written* by the Gaels on emigration/leaving Scotland resonated with me.

As expected, the selection I read was not full of jubilation. And, really, I didn’t expect them to be. The circumstances of passengers on ships like the Metagama and Marloch were significantly different to  my own.

But I did find one wee hopeful poem written by one of my favourite Leòdhasach’s – Iain Crichton Smith. It’s called Na h-Eilthirich (The Emigrants). I found it here and (if you read Gaelic) it gives a really good explanation about the background of the poem.

Na h-Eilthirich

A liuthad soitheach a dh’fhàg ar dùthaich
le sgiathan geala a’ toirt Chanada orra
Tha iad mar neapaigearan nar cuimhne
‘s an sàl mar dheòirean
‘s anns na croinn aca seòladairean a’ seinn
mar eòin air gheugan.

Muir na Màigh ud, gu gorm a’ ruith,
gealach air an oidhche, grian air an latha,
ach a’ ghealach mar mheas buidhe,
mar thruinnsear air balla,
ris an tog iad an làmhanno mar mhagnait airgeadach
le gathan goirte
a’ sruthadh don chridhe.

Iain Mac A’ Ghobhainn was always my favourite Gaelic writer and poet because his work was often inspired by “traditionally Gaelic” topics but he somehow turned them into, what I imagine, was a reflection of what ordinary people felt at the time (it was also much better than that panegyric malarkey where every man is a white knight and tall as an oak tree!).

What I really liked about Na h-Eilthirich is that though its subject is Canada, I imagine it sums up most people’s feelings about leaving home to start a new life elsewhere – even if it is just temporary. Apprehension, expectancy, excitement.

So thanks, Mac A’ Ghobhainn for providing a little light at the end of the slightly-sombre-song tunnel.

* I still cringe slightly when writing written in this context – an old Uni habit where we were always reminded that most Gaelic song was never physically written down but kept alive by being shared within communities and sung at cèilidh’s. But my blog isn’t being graded…so written stays.

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