Trod nan cailleach
(The Old Wives' Quarrelling)
This is a series of songs, re-creating an incident said to have taken place in the seventeenth century, when a group of waulking women from Barra went to Uist for a trial of poetical strength with the Uist women.
It is great fun to sing. The changing rhythms and increasing pace make it very exciting.
Click here for words and translation.
We first performed Trod nan cailleach at the National Mod in Oban in 2003. The Argyllshire Gathering Hall was a perfect setting.
Nowadays we use slides to illustrate our performance, and to provide translations to help our non-Gaelic speaking audiences to appreciate this wonderful slanging match!
In our version of this seventeenth century song series, the Uist poetess, Nic a’ Mhanaich, begins by praising Mac ‘ic Ailein, chief of Clanranald. Nic Iain Fhinn, her Barra rival, retaliates by listing some of the great MacNeill chiefs, culminating with Gilleonan, whose horses drank wine, and wore silver bridles and golden horseshoes. “But”, retorts Nic a’ Mhanaich, “all you have is wee, black, withered, stony Barra … and anyway, you got your land from us when you were destitute!”
Nic Iain Fhinn is temporarily speechless, and Nic a’ Mhanaich presses home her advantage, claiming that the Barraich are so poverty-stricken that they are forced to eat fish. This was a deadly insult in the old days, when fish and shellfish were despised as being only fit for the very poorest to eat.
Nic Iain Fhinn has by now recovered herself. She praises the fertility of Barra, then gets really personal! She withers her opponent with a sustained diatribe that is a masterpiece of vituperation! And it rhymes beautifully!
Nic a’ Mhanaich drops down dead in sheer indignation! The Barra contingent have to make their escape in a hurry!
John Lorne Campbell, the great Gaelic scholar, suspected that not all the words were given to collectors—some bits were considered just too extreme! He also states that in Cape Breton the song was barred, as it could lead to fights between people of Uist or Barra ancestry.
Our version is taken from Hebridean Folksongs vol. ii. (Ed. JL Campbell)
The source is Annie and Calum Johnston of Barra. Click here for words and translation.