Christine Primrose – Gràdh is Gonadh – Guth ag aithris
23 June 2017 – Temple Records
In 1982, Robin Morton of the highly respected independent record label, Temple Records, persuaded a young Gaelic singer, and former Mod champion, that the songs she sang from her native Lewis should be released as an album. On Àite mo Ghaoil (Place Of My Heart) Christine Primrose helped introduce Gaelic song to a far wider audience than it had ever enjoyed and opened the door for an entirely new generation of Gaelic singers. On June 23rd, Christine launches an album of unaccompanied Gaelic song, Gràdh is Gonadh – Guth ag aithris (Love and Loss – A Lone Voice), bringing Gaelic songs of love and loss to the modern audience in their purest form.
The album opens with the voice of actress Dolina MacLennan, introducing the theme of the deceitful lover. Then Christine’s ability and purity as a singer is in evidence from the very opening as the traditional tale of a lover deceived and deserted, O A Leannain (Oh Sweetheart), unfolds. Christine tells us in her sleeve notes that, as often happens, it was the melody that drew her to this song when she first heard it.
Those sleeve notes are extensive and informative – little wonder when you consider the experience behind them. Originally from Carloway on the west side of the Isle of Lewis, Christine Primrose is a native Gaelic speaker who has toured worldwide as a singer, teacher and academic. Now a teacher of Gaelic song at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic College on Skye, she is a multiple prize-winner at the Gaelic Mod, TV and radio presenter and in 2009 was awarded ‘Gaelic Singer of the Year’ at the Scots Traditional Music Awards.
One of the enduring wonders of Christine’s singing is its purity, not only in terms of tone but in her whole approach. That most poignant of Gaelic song traditions, for instance, the lament, enjoys a level of expression that simply can’t be rivalled. In An Gille Donn (The Brown-haired Lad), each drawn out note is a heartfelt sigh of sorrow, as the dichotomy of the sea as both a means of living and a bringer of tragedy is related with infinite sadness.
Modern Gaelic song allows the singer, and often the accompanying musicians, to adorn the song, re-invent it, almost, for a modern audience. Although highly enjoyable, and accomplished, something of the tradition can easily be lost. For the audience, it’s often only through the work of singers like Christine Primrose, that the essence of the traditional song can be re-discovered. Those songwriting traditions themselves, however, are explored just as effectively by modern Gaelic writers, as evidenced by Lewis writer William Campbell‘s Gràdh Maireannach (Everlasting Love). Christine wrote the gently lilting melody for this truly beautiful tribute, written 30 years after his wife’s passing.
And although we’ve been left in the wilderness with longing and pain,
The love I gave you in my youth will never cease to be.
In the song’s introduction Angus Peter Campbell, one of our finest modern Gaelic poets, reads from William Campbell’s much earlier tribute to his wife, Missing You. So it’s fitting that the bonus track which brings the album to a close, is a rendition of that heartbreaking song, taken from Christine’s 1987 album ‘S Tu Nam Chuimhne (‘…and you on my mind’).
Neither morning nor night that I don’t weep for her,
For her sake my tears flowed without shame.
Whether or not you speak Gaelic, often there’s no mistaking a lament. Marbhrann do dh’Alasdair MacLeòid (Elegy for Alasdair MacLeod) sounds like a pipe tune in places, in others like a psalm. It’s a deeply moving piece that reflects the unbearable sense of loss brought to the Islands by the Great War. If ever there was a voice that could evoke those tragic times, it’s Christine’s.
Love features as much as loss in the Gaelic tradition, of course, and in Thig an Smeòrach as t-Earrach (The Thrush Comes in Spring), nature and unrequited love combine in a poignantly wistful rendition of a popular Gaelic song. Am Fleasgach Dualach (The Curly-haired Young Man) is less plaintive, with a melody that evokes love, rather than pain. Christine learned the song from a book of Lewis poetry first published in 1916. Still, though, there’s no sense of joy, more of a resigned solitude, as a lover comes to terms with the wandering ways of her heart’s desire.
Oh, that I were over there in the mountains
Where my loved one is beneath the tall trees.
There’s also space for a positive view of love. In Suirghe na h-Oidhche (Night-time Courting), clandestine assignations are on the minds of the herring girls as they return home to the islands from working in faraway fishing ports. In Thug Mi Mo Làmh Don Eileanach (I Gave My Promise to the Islander), love conquers a familial desire for status, as the heroine of the story follows her heart, rather than her parent’s wishes. It is a theme that features in many Gaelic love songs, and Christine’s beautifully clear voice takes on a more determined tone in a similar tale, included as a bonus track on the album. An Gille Dubh Cha Treig Mi (The Black-Haired Lad I’ll Not Forsake) was recorded after Christine won the title of Gaelic Singer of the Year at the Scots Traditional Music Awards in 2009. In Mo Cheist am Fear Bàn (My Love Is the Fair-haired One), the bonus track that follows, and was recorded at the same time, the tone is one of regret at taking the opposite decision.
Tis a pity that I wasn’t as I was, hearty and content
Tis a pity that I wasn’t as I was, before I refused the fair-haired one
And I wouldn’t now be painfully sad
Any collection of the Gaelic songs of love and loss would be incomplete without a reference to the islanders’ love for their home. While serving in India, Lewis native Dr. John MacGregor, wrote Eilean Leòdhais Gur Fada Thriall Mi (Island of Lewis, I Travelled Afar from You) in praise of his native island and in mourning for his parents. The introduction by Dr John MacInnes, reading from Donald MacIver‘s The High Surge, helps convey from the outset the sense of sorrow and separation. That sense of detachment can have an effect far closer to home, though, as in Murdo MacFarlane‘s Chunnaic Mi Uam a’ Bheinn (I saw the Ben from a distance) reflects on a man’s sadness at no longer being able to walk the hills. There’s strength in the delivery, as though the song itself is defying the man’s ageing. Again, we have a perfect example of Christine’s ability to convey the spirit of a song using only her voice, and her life-long connection to the tradition.
There’s always a sense of joy involved in receiving a new album to write about, to enjoy early access to something someone has put their heart and soul into. As a reviewer, occasionally, one is presented with a work that you feel privileged to have enjoyed, that is far more than singer and song. Such is the case with Christine Primrose‘s Gràdh is Gonadh – Guth ag aithris.
Looking back over the album after several visits, it’s quite remarkable how naturally the completed work flows. Here we have an album of over 60 minutes, featuring 14 songs of love, loss and parting where the song itself is the star; and yet the pleasure of losing oneself in the whole collection, from beginning to end, can hardly be expressed in words. Although quotes, titles and names here are in English to help summarise for a non-Gaelic audience, to listen in Gaelic is to enjoy the true spirit of the music. The added bonus of Christine’s extensive sleeve notes and English translations make Gràdh is Gonadh – Guth ag aithris (Love and Loss – A Lone Voice) not only a must have for any lover of Gaelic song, but an indispensable introduction to the art for any newcomer.
To celebrate the release, Christine will perform several songs from the new album on Saturday 24th June, at 5.30pm in CODA, Edinburgh’s well known traditional & contemporary folk music specialist record shop. (12 Bank Street, The Mound, EH1 2LN) The event is free to the public, but it’s worth arriving early as it may be busy.
Track sample: Christine Primrose – ‘Thig an Smeòrach as t-Earrach’ (The Thrush Comes in Spring)
Gràdh is Gonadh – Guth ag aithris (Love and Loss – A Lone Voice) is available to order via Temple Records here.
Photo Credit: Steven McKenzie, Cànan Graphics Studio