OT: 30 March 1901 – Keith N. MacDonald “Supplement to the ‘Puirt-a-Beul'”

The Oban Times, 30 March 1901

Supplement to the “Puirt-A-Beul”

The Faroe Isles – “Kv-ad Digtning,” or Song-Dance.

A singular circumstance in corroboration of my contention that the “Puirt-a-Beul” were a very ancient institution has just come to my knowledge.

My friend Mr William Martin, of Inverkeithny, an excellent Danish scholar, and one of our minor poets, as well as being one of the best Scottish violinists of the day, has sent me the following translation of a recent article from a Copenhagen paper, the “Dannebrog.”

“Thanks to the secluded position of the Faroe Isles, the old song-dances of the middle ages are still sung there, especially in winter, when the Faroe men mostly keep within doors, and they are akin to the French ‘Carole”* and the German “Tanz,” which were song-dances in the days of the troubadours and minne-singers. As we look upon the Faroe song-dance we seem to feel a breath from far-off or vanished days, blowing upon us a breath from the golden age when the dance went merrily not only through the hall but over the fields, aye, and even in the Church! It is mostly from Norway that these dance-songs came to the Faroe Isles, and many other Norse relics and features of Norse life still exist there. But even from Scotland, and especially from Denmark, these songs have been transplanted to the Faroe Isles, and some of them, especially the ballads that refer to Queen Dagmar, to the appropriate dance. Is it not a singular thing that while we here in Denmark are content with reading the old pathetic ballads such as

‘Queen Dagmar lies sick in Ribe’,
‘The King rules over the castle,
And over many a land,
And over many a gallant knight
Who wields his goodly brand’, &c.

Away in the Faroe Isles these ballads are still sung by the living mouth to old and young who never weary of dancing to them!”

Mr. Martin further remarks that in a subsequent issue of the “Dannebrog” an account is given of a concert that was a complete reproduction of a Faroe home with all its features and accessories, and the singers and dancers were all arranged in the costume of the islanders.** ‘The Copenhagen audience was more struck by the singularity of the scene, than by its intrinsic charm; but this is just what one might anticipate.

If Ossian should appear in a London saloon and thunder forth his lungs, we may imagine the flutter among the dilettante of today.”

In quitting this subject for the present, I may as well here give a note of warning to future searchers after Highland folk-lore not to be led away because many of the Highland dance-songs have been welded to comparatively modern airs. The composers of these would have been more or less influenced by still earlier tunes they had been hearing from their infancy, and as there was no supervision over them, they would unconsciously reproduce the older airs in many instances slightly altered; some perhaps improved to suit modern instruments, and the modern style of dancing which increases in speed “pari passu” with each succeeding generation! Still there are a significant number of the ancient ones preserved of which no record at all can be found except that they have been handed down to us by our forefathers from the dim and distant past – of which no one but a person well versed in Highland music can judge. This warning is necessary, as there are at the present day so many smart people amongst us who take their cue from foreign scholars, and who can’t see that any Highland music or poetry can be more than one hundred and fifty years old! I do not share these views, nor do I think so ill of my countrymen that they would for one moment countenance an “age of imposition” for the purpose of deceiving posterity.

* ‘Carola’, an Italian Song-dance
** Mr. Martin has kindly promised to procure a sample of these Song-Dances with music, which will appear in a subsequent paper.