In search of the eternal home
Celebrated musicologist JOHN PURSER on the spiritual songs of the Gaelic tradition…
‘The happy hunting grounds’. That’s how An Dachaigh Bhuan is sometimes translated, but more exactly it means ‘The eternal home’, which is a hopeful way of expressing the afterlife.
Having reached that age when I receive more notices of deaths than I do of births, happy hunting grounds take on particular significance: especially just recently with the passing The Brigadier.
Brigadier John MacFarlane – who passed away at his family home in Taynuilt on Monday 8th May – was the kindest and most broad-minded of soldiers you could ever meet, full of songs and tradition and a stalwart of the Episcopalian Church. He for sure has reached An Dachaigh Bhuan. This is how the song begins:
Air dhomh bhith sealltainn air saoghal truagh,
Chì mi caochladh tighinn air gach uair;
Chì mi daoine a’ cur an cùl rium, ‘S a’ dol gu dlùth chum an Dachaigh Bhuan.
When I look upon a troubled world,
I see it continually subject to change;
I see people leaving me
And going directly to the Eternal Home.
The Eternal Home? For the Reverend Peter Grant, who wrote the lyrics, the Eternal Home was Paradise, but all I have heard of paradise is that it is either full of angelic harpists or totally inexpressible.
I prefer the vision contained in the Gaelic quotation on so many gravestones ‘Gus am bris an là’ – a short version of ‘Gus am bris an là agus an teach na sgailean pill; bi cosmhuil ri earbaidh, a ghràidh, no ri laogh féidh air beanntaibh Bheteir’ – Until the day breaks and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether’.
That is a vision of a kind of redemption which must surely appeal to anyone who knows the meaning of love.
The quotation comes from The Song of Solomon which is one of the most beautiful love poems ever written; so beautiful that the men who selected the books for inclusion in the Bible were quite happy to justify its presence on the, dare I say it, decidedly shaky grounds that it expressed the mutual love of Christ and the Church.
One of my musical heroes, Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie set much of it to music and I had passages especially recorded – as much as could be afforded – for a radio series on the history of Scottish music.
Mackenzie lavished his gentle, reassuring sensuality on The Rose of Sharon, its libretto selected from The Song of Solomon, and, after some initial orthodoxies, he removed all mention of the religious justification.
This was in the very early twentieth century when one might have expected a knight of the realm to toe the religious line.
Sadly, despite its popularity with the public when it was first heard, choirmasters shunned this masterpiece because of its lack of orthodoxy.
The complete oratorio has yet to be heard in modern times. I have made a vow not to enter the Happy Hunting Grounds until I have heard it in its entirety this side of the grave.
The Song of Solomon ends as follows: ‘Dean cabhaig, fhìr mo ghràidh, agus bi cosmhuil ri h-earba, no ri laogh féidh air beanntaibh nan spìosraidh.’ Which in English reads ‘Make haste, my beloved, and be thou like to a roe or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices.’ Happy hunting grounds indeed.
I tell you this because the grim warnings of that truly wonderful song ‘An Dachaigh Bhuan’ might alienate some who expect no home, never mind an eternal one.
Tha rabhadh garbh ann bhith deas gu falbh às, Oir tha ‘n taigh talmhaidh gu tighinn a-nuas.
There is a stern warning to be ready to depart,
Since the earthly house is to be dismantled.
Well, there are those who say that we are doing just that without any assistance from superior powers. You can hear the song sung by Rachel MacLeod on Tobar an Dualchais (track number 105511).
The traditional Gaelic melody to which An Dachaigh Bhuan is sung is also used for a particularly beautiful and popular love song, Ochoin a’ Righ ’s I Mo Ribhinn Donn. A young man laments his lost love. He wishes he were a bard so he could sing of her virtues and her beauty.
Her conversation is sweeter than the song of the thrush; but though his sun has gone under a cloud and he is like a bird in the mist, he hopes the shadow will lift and she will shine again.
You can hear it on TaD 55373, recorded at the Mòd in 1973, but the singer is unidentified. A very similar tune is used for A Fhleasgaich Ghuanaich, another beauty of a love song sung by Claire Thomson on TaD 96516.
So what is it about Grant’s lyrics that make me wish they were sung more often?
It is hard for me to say beyond the fact that they assert the uncompromising reality of death and the hope of Paradise for the believer.
Since I have no such hope, I have to explain its hold over me in some other way. Perhaps it is that he was prepared to marry his verses to a tune of such beauty that it carries his thoughts beyond rationality and into a world where there is no need to ask questions.
I assume that the love song came first and Pàdraig Grannd has responded spiritually to its dark power and uncertain longings. Its beauty is almost disturbing.
But who was Pàdraig Grannd?
The Reverend Peter Grant – to give him his name in English – lived from 1783 to 1867. He was ordained in 1829. He was very musical, a good fiddler, and he was inspired by the spiritual songs of Dugald Buchanan, about whom I wrote in the WHFP (3.4.2020).
Grant was a Baptist from Grantown-on-Spey with a missionary, even evangelical turn of mind, but this did not prevent his songs from achieving wide popularity in the Gàidhealtachd.
Like Buchanan, he saw the world as a place of troubles and sorrows from which the inevitability of death was the ultimate release. But he was a musician. You simply cannot play the fiddle without being capable of fun and pleasure, and his apparently stern views could not hold out against his natural humanity when it came to the problem of unbaptised children.
In his moving and visionary hymn placed in the mouth of a dead child, ‘Òran mu Leanabh Og’ Grant claimed that though the child was tainted by Original Sin, it was nonetheless blameless.
This, combined with the certainty of its instant redemption, got Grant into trouble with Na Daoine – ‘a spiritual elite’ drawn from ‘elders, catechists, schoolmasters and missionaries’ perhaps ‘deriving ultimately from the medieval Gaelic learned orders’ as Donald Meek puts it.
They had considerable power within the Gàidhealtachd and some ‘were said to possess gifts of prophecy’. Murdina MacDonald sings this moving song on TaD 52212, facing up to one of the church’s most challenging doctrinal conundrums.
How can such innocence be tainted with guilt?
These concerns may seem almost remote to us now, but they were very real and you can find many a churchyard outwith whose consecrated ground unbaptised children were buried as close to as the grieving family were allowed. The continuing relevance of Òran mu Leanabh Og is underlined by its on-going popularity.
Listen to these songs. They derive their beauty not just from emotional expression but also from maturity of thought.