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Congregations & Revelations: Salm Vol One
Tom Bolton , January 29th, 2018 06:37

Salm - Gaelic Psalms From The Hebrides Of Scotland Volume One is the sound of a rapidly changing culture, its songs slipping away while our attention is elsewhere

The Back Free Church is an austere, harl-walled building on the wild, beautiful coast of northwest Lewis. The setting is astonishing but remote, and numbers are shrinking with congregations across the Outer Hebrides merging to remain viable. The cultural context for this special music takes some unpicking. This particular singing style belongs, almost exclusively, to the Free Church of Scotland, a Presbyterian church often nicknamed the ‘Wee Frees’. Protestant church history in Scotland is baffling at the best of times, requiring a diagram to gain even a basic grasp of the splits and reunifications of the past 450 years. However, the unadorned voices of the psalm singers are a pure expression of Calvinism, religion stripped back to the bone, as brought to 16th-century Scotland by John Knox. It is perfectly in tune with the tough beauty of the sea, the peat and the rocks of the Islands.

The Gaelic psalm tradition, while not exactly unknown, is hardly on everyone’s lips. Not only is it the most eerie and unexpected music, transmitted from Scotland’s far edge, it is also related to the songs Shirley Collins and Alan Lomax recorded in the American South in 1959. Salm records the congregation of the Back Free Church, on the Isle of Lewis, singing unaccompanied psalms in Gaelic. Each verse is led by a precentor, who chooses a tune to fit the psalm on the spot, and leads the congregation with a couple of bars. Then everyone else joins in, and a ragged and beautiful sounds swells through the tiny chapel. The style of singing is technically categorised as free heterophony, with the group singing together, but as individuals. Each sings at their own pitch and speed, and in their own style. The result is unfiltered and unpolished, and it packs an astonishing emotional punch. As precentor Calum Martin notes, “It shouldn’t really work, but it does.”

The singing on Salm sounds far from amateur. Each of the twelve psalms is led by a different precentor, all male, every one with a strong, clear, soulful voice. The lack of any instrumentation leaves the voices exposed, with nothing but the interpretation of each singer, with their own particular timbre. A YouTube film called ‘Gaelic psalms at Back Free Church’, also from 2003, is the easiest way to understand how the people of Lewis make such a remarkable sound. The ordinariness of the setting makes the music particularly striking. Everyone remains seated, wrapped up warm, average age towards the upper end of the scale, looking much like any other church congregation. There is nothing remotely demonstrative about their behaviour, and even the precentor simply stands and sings from a psalm book held steadily before him, soberly dressed in black. Yet everyone expresses themselves through their singing with a natural freedom, simultaneously part of a collective and making music in a way that belongs to them alone. In some ways, it is the perfect musical expression of community: togetherness consisting of individual freedom.

This scenario contains contradictions. The Free Church is a conservative, male-dominated organisation and interpret the Bible as a book of instruction which teaches, for example, that men should wear their hair short and women long, and that women should cover their heads in church. But, despite the strictures of its doctrine, the music has a truly unexpected connection to places far from Lewis. There is a direct link between Gaelic psalms and gospel music, one that can be traced to slave-owning Scottish Presbyterians in the Carolinas. It is thought that African call-and-response singing was influenced by Gaelic psalms, as it mutated into the more familiar Baptist gospel tradition. This line of descent is a grim one, but Hebridean voices raised in worship on Salm do sound naggingly familiar, quite feasibly distant cousins of black, Southern gospel.

The Wee Frees are not quite as tiny as their name implies, with 100-plus churches across Scotland, but the particular style of singing practised on Lewis is threatened by aging congregations. Arc Light Editions has collected songs from two evenings in 2003, part of a thin supply of Gaelic psalm recordings available on locally released cassettes. Noel Meek, writing for The Wire in 2016, notes that one of the better-known Gaelic psalm recordings was made at the Lewis Retirement Centre in 1978, so this is not a new problem. While the tradition continues, it is coming under ever-increasing pressure from wider social change. Salm is an important release because it demonstrates how, perhaps particularly in an age of global connection, we know far less about our own country than we imagine. With this exercise in modern folk collecting, Arc Light have brought a special form of song to wider attention and, potentially, appreciation. The Gaelic psalms of the Back Free Church are broadcasts from Scotland’s physical and cultural vanishing point.