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Women's Music in the Herring Industry

Women's Music in the Herring Industry

Learn more about Meg Hyland's research into the role of music and dance in the lives of herring gutters and packers in the British and Irish fishing industries.

New Article on Gaelic Gutting Songs

Hello everyone! My first peer-reviewed article on gutting songs is now available. I’m so honoured to be published in Scottish Studies, the flagship journal of the field. You will even find a photo of herring gutters on the cover of the issue, courtesy of the Scottish Fisheries Museum!

The article is called “‘Tam o’ Shanter ‘s Geansaidh Snàith’: The Innovative Work Songs of Gaelic-Speaking Herring Gutters”. It’s available for free download here. You can also see it on my page. The article is based on my masters research into Gaelic-language gutting songs. It looks at the evidence for singing while gutting; the connections between work song and dance song in Gaelic; the topics that gutters sang about, such as love, economic opportunities, and housing; and the linguistic and musical influences of Scots and English on the Gaelic gutting song repertoire. During the course of my PhD, I am planning to apply similar types of analyses to gutting songs from other language communities, such as Scots speakers from Shetland, but this article just covers the Scottish Gaelic material.

You can hear some of the Scottish Gaelic gutting songs I wrote about online on Tobar an Dualchais. The title of my article comes from a gutting song recorded from Peggy MacRae of Uist. Peggy spent eleven weeks working as a gutter in Shetland in 1922. She learned a variant of a common Lewis gutters’ song from her fellow workers there. The version she learned included this verse:

Tam o’ shanter ‘s geansaidh snàith

Tam o’ shanter ‘s geansaidh snàith

Tam o’ shanter ‘s geansaidh snàith

‘S RNR air m’annsachd

This means “my lover is wearing a tam o’ shanter hat, a woollen gansey, and RNR”, referring to the insignia of the Royal National Reserve. The name “tam o’ shanter” for a round cap is a Scots one, whereas the Gaelic name is “boineid cruinn”. Peggy’s verse shows that women who worked as herring gutters were being exposed to English and Scots even while speaking and singing in Gaelic amongst themselves.

Another version of this song was recorded from Mary Morrison of Barra. She composed several of her own verses to the song. You can listen to her version here. If you listen carefully, you will notice that there are a lot of English words used throughout. These are mainly vocabulary from the fishing industry, which was dominated by Lowland Scots even while employing thousands of Gaelic speakers from the Hebrides. It makes sense that Gaelic-speaking women picked up English and Scots fishing vocabulary while they worked in the industry. Mary Morrison’s version can be dated to sometime after 1921, since it refers to boats that weren’t being used as fishing boats until then. Mary was renowned for her ability to sing mouth music to accompany dances, and you can get a similar sense of quick rhythm and fun from her gutting song recordings. Most Gaelic gutting songs were dance songs like this one.

Here’s a selection of a few other Gaelic gutters’ songs to listen to:

Rionnag às an Oidhche Fhrasaich

Mura Tig Thu Dhòmhnall Mhóir

Chan e Taigh Air Am Bi Tugadh

Haoi O Nach Dannsadh Sibh E

That’s all for now – mar sin leibh!

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