The Curious Case of Cluas-chiùil (‘Musical-ear’) – Evidence for Early Musical Semantics in Gaelic Scotland?, William Lamb

  • 5:15pm - 6:15pm

  • Alison House, Lecture Room A
    12 Nicolson Street
    EH8 9DF

In generations past, Gaels had difficulty separating melody from words: ‘I once mentioned that I thought a neighbour had the air of a song, and the reply was, “How could she have the air and not the words?”’ (Shaw 1955: 76; cf Freeman 1920-1: xxv). Music and song are also frequently conflated in Gaelic traditional narrative. For instance, when threatened by an evil spirit, a man in one tale sings a prayer and psalm through the Jew’s harp: ‘dè bha e a’ dèanamh ach a’ gabhail ùrnaigh agus salm air an tromb’ (MacDhòmhnaill 1951). A wide range of evidence points to a pervasive cultural tendency to mix instrumental music and song. 

This tendency is most apparent in tales of the cluas-chiùil (‘musical-ear’), the ability to transmit and receive messages through instrumental music (MacDonald 1956). Many of these narratives serve as aetiologies for well-known pipe tunes and dance songs (e.g. ‘Duntroon’s Salute’ and ‘Thompson’s Dirk’). While the cluas-chiùil may be regarded as yet another supernatural trope, these tales – coupled with other evidence – point towards an earlier cognitive configuration of music and song.

In this talk, Dr. Will Lamb discusses the relationship between music and song in Scottish Gaelic culture – and argues that song rather than music is the superordinate category.


Part of the Music Research Seminar Series 2018.