Beinn a’ Cheathaich (The Misty Mountain)

Flora MacNeil

Flora MacNeil

Beinn a’ Cheathaic or The Misty Mountain  or Kismul’s Galley is a Scottish-Gaelic air from the outer Hebrides. This version is sung by Flora MacNeil, who is a native of Barra, wherefrom the songs hails. Flora learnt it from her mother, and said that it was oftimes used as a waulking song, that is, a song used for communal work like ‘fulling the tweed’.

The song describes the return of the MacNeil clan by ship to Barra, and anticipates the arrival of the men at Kishmul, where they will partake ‘of the mirth, where there will be feasts, (and) wine from night till day.’

Peter Kennedy writes that ‘This is an impressionistic view of clan life. The singer praises the clan (MacNeil’s) ship and crew as they sail into Kismul (or Barra), the centre of clan activity, where hospitality, a great heroic virtue, abounded in the form of wine both day and night. The song is remarkable for the enthusiasm it has for a social system in which the singer, apparently, does not take part except as a hardworking onlooker (he or she was busy at the sheep when the ship passed). It must date from a period when the clan system was in full swing and totally accepted as the status quo – probably early seventeenth century at the very latest. The tune has a fine rhythm, and it is interesting to compare this version with the one used for Kismul’s Galley by Kennedy Fraser. Flora MacNeil learned her version from her mother and said that it was often used as a waulking song in Barra.’

Jim Carroll writes that this is an ‘ancient rowing song from Barra in the Hebrides. It comes from the days when the Gaelic pirates of the Islands so controlled the stormy waters of the Minch, that Elizabeth I was forced to make a peace treaty with them. The castle of one of these Gaelic sea-rovers still stands on an island in the middle of the harbour of Barra, unassailable except by water. (Out of its dark archway and) past its grim walls sailed galleys manned by [brawny] Scottish sea fighters, pulling at the oars to the tune of songs like this [one – songs that celebrated the doughty fighters aboard and their leaders.)
This song is cast in leader-chorus form, as are the waulking songs from the west of Scotland, still performed in the Hebrides (with a swing and co-ordination of ensemble foreign to anything else in the British Isles). The question of the origins of this type still remained in doubt until we heard singing in the same responsorial style from the Faeroe Islands. It now seems likely that the song style represented by this song was brought to the west coast of Scotland by conquering raiders from Scandinavia. The performer here is Flora McNeil of the MacNeils of Barra Castle, (now dulcet-voiced telephone operator of the village).’

Flora MacNeil writes that ‘As is to be expected on a small island, so many songs deal with the sea, but, of course, many of them may not originally be Barra songs. Nevertheless the old songs were preserved more in the southermost islands of Barra and South Uist possibly because the reformed church tended to discourage music elsewhere.’

Beinn a’ Cheathaich was loosely translated into English by Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser, wherein it is now known as ‘Kishmul’s Galley’. In this form it has been sung widely, and with some degree of commercial success, having been sung by such artists as the Corries.

The castle referred to in both songs is that of Kisimul (though in some versions it relates to Kishmul the pirate, more of that elsewhere). It is claimed that Kisimul had been the seat of the MacNeil Clan since the 11th century, but that, in 2001, the chief of the MacNeils leased the Castle to Historic Scotland for the space of 1000 years in return for 1 pound and a bottle of whisky. The first mention of Kisimul in history is that of Dean Munro, who, writing in 1549, says that ‘Within the southwest end of this isle, ther enters a salt water loche, verey narrow in the entrey, and round and braide within. Into the middis of the saide loche there is ane ile, upon ane strenthey craige, callit Kiselnin, perteining to M’Kneil of Barray’

Some say that the word Kisimul is rooted from a combination of the Gaelic words (cìs), meaning ‘tax’ and mul meaning mound. As such, it would mean the ‘mound where taxes are paid’. It is, alas, more likely that it stems from the word cìosamul, meaning ‘Island Castle’

Chorus:

Latha dhomh’s mi ‘m Beinn a’ Cheathaich
Air farail ill eo, ro a bji ho
Hoirreann is o ho ro hi o ho
Hi ri ho ro a bha ho hug o ro

Verses:

Gun deach bata Chlann Nill seachad
Gun cheann cumaidh aig a h-astar
Le dá mhac lain’ ic a’ Phearsain
Murchadh Mor a ceann a ‘clachain
S’Ruaraidh og an t-oighne maiseach
S’teach a duthaich mhic Ill’eathain
S’teach gu Ciosmul an aigheir
Far am faighte chuirm ri gabhail
Fíon a ‘dhoidche gu látha

English:

One day as I was on the misty mountain,
MacNeill’s Galley was passing
At great speed.
On board were two sons of John MacPherson,
Big Murdo from the head of the clachan
And fair young Roderick, the heir,
Coming from the Land of the MacLean
Going to Kishmul of the mirth.
Where there will be feasts
Wine from night till day.

Another version from the ‘Hebridean Folksongs, volume I, (1969), by Dr. John Lorne Campbell (1909-1996) and Francis James Montgomery Collinson (1898-1984) runs thus;

One day on the misty mountain,
Rounding up the sheep to get them,
Not the pair of the two sisters,
Nor the small pair of the road’s end,
‘Twas I myself beheld the vision,
Seeing thy galley going past me,
Setting her head to the wide ocean,
From MacNeil of Barra’s country,
Out from Cíosamul’s joyful Castle,
Where we used to be a-feasting,
Drinking wine from dawn till nightfall,
Shouts of men their ale a-drinking,
With women wearing brown silk dresses;
‘Tis I am who am afflicted
If Clan Neil’s boat has passed me,
She broke the cable and left the anchor,
She broke the best rope that was on her;
I knew the men engaged upon her,
Great Gill’ Eoghanain the hero,
Gloomy Neil, son of noisy Rory,
And the handsome heir, young Rory,
Fair Rory, apt for manly action,
Red Murdo from the end of the clachan,
Little Murdo, wed to Lachlan’s daughter,
And the two sons of John MacPherson,
Gun and shield befit your handgrasps,
And dark blue bonnet on curling back-locks.

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