In Presbyterian Free Church‘s across Lewis you can hear some of the finest examples of spiritual Free Heterophony in the world, where worship and praise is sung in Gaelic a cappella (without musical accompaniment), and led by a precentor (literally ‘one who sings beforehand’).
In Gaelic psalm singing, the precentor leads the praise by commencing the tune, which he sings along with the congregation for two lines of a four-line stanza. On the third line, the precentor sings the line solo, which is then repeated by the congregation; this occurs for each line until the end of the item of praise. The result is a unique musical event, full of the traditions of the island’s religious culture, and deeply moving in its praise of God.
On the 20th and 21st October 2003 recordings were made in Back Free Church which became an album by the name of Salm (pronounced salam), the Gaelic translation of the word Psalm. On it we find a collection of Gaelic Psalms, sung in the traditional style by some of the best precentors singing with a 350 strong church congregation. The recordings took place over the two evenings and the singing was spontaneous and completely unrehearsed.
The style defies description with so much of the sound texture relying on the congregation’s individual response to the melody and the individual precentor’s lead. In the hands of the Gael this has become quite different to the English, European and Scottish tunes on which it was originally based. There are some black congregations in Alabama and North Carolina who sing hymns in a similar style, and there are striking similarities with the singing style of the Coptic Church of Ethiopia.
Afro-American professor of music at Yale University, Willie Ruff, 71, also a renowned jazz musician, who played with Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, is convinced that the way he worshipped as a young black Baptist in the United States, originated from a common style in the Western Isles.
Prof Ruff explained that he was visiting a Black Presbyterian church in Northern Alabama and was surprised to hear them singing in the old Black Baptist way, lining out the hymns. He decided to discover if there were any white Presbyterians who sang accapella but found his search was fairly fruitless until someone suggested to him that he visit the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. His friend Dizzy Gillespie, had told him that there was something special about the place and even informed hime that his great grandparents had spoken a strange language called Gaelic.
The professor went first of all to Benbecula and then to Back on the Island of Lewis. When he heard the Gaelic psalm singing he was very moved. To him it was very similar to the music of his Black churches back home. He later played it to an old Black precentor who wept when he first heard it.
Even to an agnostic like me it is the most beautiful sound. I’ve heard it in island churches and it evokes the spirit of the place like no other sound (save for howling wind and rain against windows). When I listen I always imagine the huge flocks of starlings you see in the evening before roosting, rising soaring and all cohesively following some mysterious lead. God only knows how it makes a believer feel.
If you like the samples below please go forth and purchase the albums.
Stornoway Psalm 133 MP3
Kilmarnock Psalm 16 MP3
Dundee Psalm 103 MP3
Walsall Psalm 13 MP3