In Away with the Birds, musicologist John Purser writes that “ . . .the dividing lines between bird-song, music and speech are impossible to determine.” There is a saying (seanfhacal) in Scottish Gaelic. “Nuair a bha Ghaidhlig aig na h-eoin ‘s ann a bha linn an aigh” (Back when birds spoke Gaelic…. that was the age of joy). Did the birds really speak Gaelic, or is it a way of saying that the Gael had an intimate understanding of and relationship to his or her environment and understood it well?
Cape Breton’s Magazine published a small article in 1973 offering several ditties that were designed to imitate bird songs. You can read them here. The songs were taught to children. While they were entertaining they also taught children to understand their natural environment. The article quotes the 19th and early 20th century Gaelic folklorist Alexander Carmichael, who remarked, “I have seen boys and girls who could sing and croon and whistle imitations so effectively that the birds themselves stood still . . . cautiously drawing near it.”
You can listen to Annie Johnston’s rendition of these rhymes on Tobar an Dualchais here. You will hear the smeòrach (thrush), uiseag (lark), feannag (crow),faoileag (the seagull), coileach-ruadh (grouse), cearc (hen) and calman (dove).
For Gaelic and English lyrics to these tunes, and a more extensive discussion of birdsong in Gaelic tradition, as well as the importance of an intimate relationship with our environment and the ecological crisis we face, read the article, Cainnt nan Eun: Language of the Birds by Mairi McFadyen. In that article she writes: “Language and its creative expression through song, story, poetry and rhymes such as these encodes human experience and memory, honed to the rhythms and patterns of speech which are connected to the land itself. Together they form a cultural ecology which passes on knowledge of flora and fauna, geological forms and weather patterns, revealing ecological rhythms on which our life depends.” Without intimate relationship to the land she says that “ . . .we are sleepwalking into oblivion”.
May we have the ability to listen so closely that we can again understand the language of the birds.
Gum bi sinn èisteachd cho dlùth is gu bheil comas againn a-rithist cànan nan eun a thuigsinn.