Exhibition to support the preservation of Gaelic song traditions takes to the road in the Hebrides

Exhibition to support the preservation of Gaelic song traditions takes to the road in the Hebrides

Research to highlight traditional forms of Gaelic singing has now been turned into an exhibition which will tour Hebridean communities in 2024 and 2025.

The exhibition has been at Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway since 20 January and will be on show at the Kinloch Historical Society in Balallan (Lewis) from 19 April until 17 June 2024. 

The exhibition will then tour other Hebridean communities including Portree (Skye), Lionacleit (Benbecula) and Ness (Lewis). Visitors can learn more about sacred song traditions of the region and explore sound recordings, film, objects, and a digital archive, soundmap and interactive virtual tour.  

Dr Frances Wilkins, Senior Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen, has spent the last six years undertaking fieldwork in the West Highlands and Western Isles and exploring sacred and spiritual singing from the region. 

To help support the safeguarding of the tradition Dr Wilkins has been documenting and recording Gaelic sacred and spiritual singing including hymnody, Gaelic psalmody and spiritual bàrdachd, to create an archive and bring the music to a wider audience. Using this material as a basis, she co-curated the exhibition, Seinn Spioradail: Sacred Soundscapes of the Highlands and Islands with designer Ronan Martin.  

Dr Wilkins said: “We are excited to be bringing the exhibition to Balallan, considering the village’s central importance in the development of this tradition over the years. 

“One of the contributors, who features in the exhibition, is Margaret MacInnes, who was raised in Balallan and taught at the school here for a number of years before moving to North Uist and laterally Inverness. Her beautiful handwritten personal hymnbooks feature in the exhibition, which she compiled in her teenage years, copying the down from local singers and composers.” 

Vice chairperson of Kinloch Historical Society Magaidh Smith adds:"I am looking forward to seeing the response of the Kinloch community when their own culture is reflected back to them.”  

Gaelic psalm singing, which has been integral to church and community life in the Hebrides for centuries, is a particular focus in the exhibition. One contributor to the project, Alex ‘Bhaltos’ MacDonald, expressed the importance of the tradition for him, saying: “There’s just something about Gaelic psalm singing that moves me. It doesn’t matter where I am. If I hear it, it just brings me back to my youth. It brings me back to happy events … and very sad events. It was, is and always will be powerful in my eyes.” 

Many of the sound recordings, photographs and videos made during the project form the basis of a website and online digital archive at www.seinn.org, developed in partnership with the Open Virtual Worlds team at St Andrews University. A CD and book publication showcasing some of the sound recordings is due to be released later in 2024 and sold within the exhibition.  

Dr Wilkins says:“While the contexts for singing are currently in decline, the music continues to be a soundscape to a way of life for many people. The purpose of this exhibition is to explore how sacred singing was, and continues to be, integral to many aspects of community life, and to highlight the wealth of hymns, psalms and spiritual songs being sung in the region today.”  

Dr Wilkins adds: “Language is a way to express culture. The deep spiritual connection it has with its people and the role which music plays in this, must be recognised and supported into the future if we are to keep some of the most precious aspects of Gaelic culture alive.” 

She goes on to say:“Doing the research in the Hebrides was an incredible experience. I have met so many inspiring people and am very grateful to everyone who has been involved and helped me with the project. I am pleased that my research and its publication is playing a part in the preservation of these unique song traditions.” 

Co-curator Ronan Martin adds: “It’s been a privilege to work with the material collected by Dr Wilkins and learn more about this remarkable tradition, which plays such an important part in many people's daily lives.” 

“We will be at the opening in Balallan and look forward to returning to Lewis and meeting some of the project’s contributors again. It will be wonderful to have singers who were involved in the project at the exhibition opening.”  

“The exhibition would not be possible without financial support from the British Academy, Carnegie Trust, and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.” 

The exhibition opening event will take place on Friday 19 April from 5pm to 7pm at Kinloch Historical Society, Balallan. Entry is free with refreshments provided.  

Visitor feedback: 

‘A really interesting well-presented inspiring exhibition. I learnt a lot’ Exhibition visitor, April 2024 

The music is so beautiful, I wish to hear more of it. This exhibition is the first I'd heard of the Lewis Awakening - fascinating! I loved listening to all the CDs. Exhibition visitor, March 2024  

Very informative, It has given me a window into something that seems to tie together the whole community and their lives and memories. Exhibition visitor, March 2024 

It was a fantastic exhibition. The presentation was very well displayed and easy to follow. Photos were brilliant and the whole layout of the exhibition was fantastic. Exhibition visitor, February 2024 

Opening hours at Kinloch Historical Society are: 

Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri, Sat - 10am-4pm  

Wed, Sun – Closed 

More information can be found at: www.seinn.org   

Venues interested in hosting the exhibition after December 2025, please contact Frances Wilkins.  

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