An Unearthly Sound

Gaelic Psalm singing from the Isle of Lewis:

From an article on the subject:

Every Sunday at a remote church near Stornoway in the Isle of Lewis one of the most extraordinary vocal sounds in the world can be heard. There’s no choir, no professional musicians, just a small unremarkable-looking congregation, who wait for the the man standing next to the minister to give them a lead. Eventually he launches into song, quavering in pitch but decisive in tone, with a nasal intensity that’s strangely reminiscent of bagpipes. Then the congregation respond, with an unearthly sound that gathers itself from a myriad individual voices and then billows out, surging and eddying and subsiding until the leader begins again.

This is the ancient tradition of Gaelic psalm-singing that survives in a few churches in the Western Islands of Scotland. The man who leads the singing is Calum Martin, who’s been ’Precentor’ at Back Free Church for decades. “The thing about Gaelic Psalm-singing is that’s based on family worship”, he says, “ I learned it from my father at home, and we took the same method into church.” Was his father a precentor? “He was, and my grandfather too. What you have to remember is that this form of singing arose when not many people could read, so people needed a guide to the words and the tune. This is why this style of singing is often called ’lining-out’. The precentor gives a line of the psalm, and the congregation repeat it.” But there’s clearly more going on than a simple call-and-response.