Dena Graham is from Borgh on the Isle of Lewis. She moved to Inverness in 1960 and began singing publicly in the 1970s at popular ceilidh places such as the town’s Carlton and Cummings Hotels and playing a part in the Inverness Folk Club. She performed in many private and organised events and festivals across Scotland, sang at Gaelic Mod opening concerts, at the Eden Court, on Radio nan Gaidheal and at a BBC television recording in London. Over many years, Dena did much to organise and perform at Charity Concerts in support of the Highland Hospice and the Royal Northern Infirmary where she worked until its closure in 1999. Dena’s singing continues to be appreciated to the present day through regular features on Radio nan Gaidheal.
The following twelve tracks are from the 1986 album Orain Dhena a Borgh released on cassette by Taigh na Teud. Produced by Hettie Innes. Recorded at the Proles Pleasure Studios, Tain, by Terry B. Small.
All titles and notes are reproduced precisely as on the original release. With thanks to Dena, Marianne Kenley and to Christine Martin of scotlandsmusic.com for their invaluable assistance in sharing these and the other tracks featured.
Mo Shoraidh Leis Na Fuar Bheannan
An emotive song about the clearances, this song was written in Lewis by Kenny Smith of Lochs in the last [19th] century. Although the tune is lively, the song itself is sadder in nature, with clear sighted vision of the depopulation of the Highlands which was to come and render our area into the ‘wilderness’ so beloved now of the conservationist.
O co thogas dhiom an fhadachd
There are two well-known songs to this tune and sometimes they have become a little mixed up. The version sung here by Dena is a sea song, a poem written by the woman for her sailor lad at sea. In it she expresses her fears that he might be drowned, or some other misfortune befall him, so the refrain, ‘o co thogas dhiom an fhadachd’, who will relieve me of my longing, is especially effective.
Mo nighean donn’s toigh leam thu
One of only two songs from outwith Lewis [in this selection], ‘mo nighean donn ’s toigh leam thu was composed by Norman MacLeod of Scalpay. In it, he promises his fiancée the earth, while at the same time he tells her how unworthy he is of such a fine lass. Did the poem succeed and did the couple marry? I’m afraid that’s one thing I don’t know.
Deireadh forladh 1940
One of the finest songs of the last war, this was composed by a [Malcolm] MacLean of Ness while at home on leave in 1940. Many Gaelic war compositions are patriotic in sentiment, but here we discover the real fears of many of the soldiers. Dena sings the original ‘beò slan le mo t-habost a chaoidh’, a farewell in which hope is expressed that the bard will return and all will be well. Nowadays singers tend to change the ‘beo’ to ‘soraidh’ which in Gaelic really means ‘farewell forever’.
Ho ri ho ro mo nighneag
Ho ri hu ro mo nighneag is a rather daft little love song which, everyone knows, isn’t difficult to learn and makes super listening either in the pub, or at an informal ceilidh when the non-Gaelic speaker can see the Gael sway from side to side in time to the rhythm, as if he were out on a stormy sea.
Mheall thu mheall thu mheall thu mi
This is yet another love song written in the year 1808 by a MacLeod of Bru, a village on the west side of Lewis. It shows clearly how Gaelic song can be sensual without being crude, and mercifully, the Victorian censors didn’t get their hands on all our more realistic love songs. It shows too, that the Gael is a man of romance, perhaps, but not one of ‘romanticism’.
Mo chaileag mhingheal mhealshuileach
The other song not from Lewis, this one is a delightful composition from Glendaruel in South Argyll. But wait for it. As often happens with such songs which become popular in areas far from home, verses are included to localise it and make the scenario familiar, so that’s why reference to Glendaruel and Stornoway, almost in the one breath, don’t sound in the slightest incongruous to the Gaelic audience, and are accepted without question.
Cul do chinn
This is a beautiful and erotic song, the eroticism being drawn from the description of the back of the man’s head and how the hair lies attractively and sensually on the head, drawing the woman’s eye to an appreciation of the full shape of her lover. This symbol is common in both Gaelic and Irish, and I suspect it is the reason the Glaswegians today are the most hair conscious people in the country, much to the delight of the hairdressers in that city.
Cadal cha dean mi
A song by a woman for her loved one, who was drowned at sea off Stoer point. She tells of her financè’s finer points and bewails the fact that she will never see him again.
A man’s love song. Again the bard promises the young lady everything by the way of happiness and possessions if she will come to live with him in Galson. It’s a public poem, and Gaelic song was often used as a method ensuring that the other young blades would stay away. Despite building a house in Galson, however, the young lady didn’t take a blind bit of notice of our bard, and he himself never went to live in his Galson house following the disappointment.
[Note also the 1989 version at Tobar and Dualchais: Òran Ghabhsuinn Track ID: 93197 A homeland song in which the composer asks his sweetheart to accompany him to Galson. He describes the beautiful surroundings. She will have sheep and cattle, and will never be cold there.]
Loch an Achadh
Loch an Achadh is a song of the homeland, the young bride pining for her native Bernera and bemoaning her new home in Achmore, the only Lewis village which is not beside the sea. This is a gentle song which tells of a poet’s distress and, as many of the traditional Highland marriages were arranged in the first instance, perhaps there was no intense love for her husband to distract her desire to be back home with her own people.
Tom an t-searraich
Tom an t-earraich is another song of the homeland. Although popular, these songs tend to be a wee bit romantic, they are usually written by people away from home who’ve ‘done well’, and I cannot say that their wish to be buried in the native heath entirely enhances the truthfulness of the sentiment.
The following tracks are from the cassette album Orain Dhena A Leodhas published by Taigh na Teud
All titles and notes are reproduced precisely as on the original release.
O Nach Aghmhor
Written by Alasdair Nicholson of Ness. It’s a song of the homeland, the beauties of Lionel, to where the bard belonged, and of Ness itself. There may not have been much around in the traditional Highlands – was there anywhere but all the songs are agreed on the great sense of belonging and personal and family contentment.
Oidche dhomh ‘s mi Suirghe Ort
This is a sweet, romantic ditty but Highland realism comes into it too. Our bard may admire the young lady and her beauty but she needs to be good at milking cows and brushing the beau’s shoes.
Tha mo Spiorad Cianail
Murdo Ferguson is the bard of this song. It is a homeland song again which speaks about the joy of being a youngster in Lewis and playing on the shore. The poetry many not be the greatest but there is nevertheless a well of genuine sentiment which makes the song attractive.
Mo ghoal oigfhear
This song was written by a St. Kildan woman who fell for Iain Og Ile, the great tradition collector from Islay, when he visited the island. It is one of the gems of Gaelic poetry. We do know from the words that our poetess is pregnant, but to whom? As far as she is concerned, Iain Og is beyond reproach and as for the gossips – chan e ‘n fhirinnthug iad oirrn – they didn’t speak the truth about our affair. Perhaps, unhappily, our young St. Kildan woman has tried to fulfil unrequited desire elsewhere. Dena shows full versatility here and the true traditional capacity for ‘getting inside’ a song and belonging for those few minutes to the poetess and the music only.
Oigh Loch nan Madadh
It is said that this song was written by a young blade from Harris who fell madly in love aboard the steamer from Oban. Alas, he’d also been in the bar and so our Barra damsel was far from bowled over. But our lasses are diplomatic and she told the bard she belonged to Lochmaddy, clearing off home of course, when the boat comes in to Castlebay.
[Note also the 1989 version at Tobar and Dualchais: Òigh Loch nam Madadh Track ID: 93223 In this love song the composer tells how he met a girl from Lochmaddy on the boat and fell in love with her. He cannot sleep as he is thinking of her.]
Tha mi fo Churam
This was composed by Mary Ross of Sleat. She was a servant lass in the household of some tacksman there who appears to have taken advantage of her. Fine for him, but it was a hard life for such a woman in those days for whom, if she couldn’t rise above it, there was no compassion.
I’ hillin ’s na hillin I
This song goes back to the time when many Highland men were sailors. Sometimes they passed the time away by composing songs and since the demise of the merchant navy it’s a form of song sadly missed. However, our song here is by the lady landlubber who can’t wait for her boyfriend to come back home to her.
Thoir mo shoraidh ceud soraidh
This is a song in praise of Harris, and like the one above, would appear to have been written by a sailor. Dena is exceptionally fond of this song and it shows fully her command of songs in traditional mode from all parts of
Cha Chaidil, cha chaidil
A song whose tradition we can follow, although we don’t know who composed it and our first point of contact is an Isabel Smith of Keose in Lewis.
Mo Ribhinn dhonn
This is a little love ditty written by Malcolm MacLean of Halbost in Ness. His most well known song is Deireadh Forladh 1940 which is one of the most beautiful, understanding and humane of any era songs about war in Gaelic. [See above] Our song here shows how a bard who can turn the art into an expression of all human emotion. For the Gael, poetry has long been our private and public expression.
Chan eil mo leannan ann an seo
This is a real ceilidh belter. Everybody knows it and everybody sings it.
Gruagach an fhuilt dhuinn
A touching love song.