Research seminars

William Lamb: The Curious Case of Cluas-chiùil (‘Musical-ear’) – Evidence for Early Musical Semantics in Gaelic Scotland?

Event details

Speaker: Dr Will Lamb (Celtic and Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh)

Date: 15 November 2018

Time: 5.15 - 6.15pm.  

Venue: Lecture Room A, Alison House, 12 Nicolson Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9DF


In generations past, Gaels had difficulty separating melody from words: ‘I once mentioned that I thought a neighbour had the air of a song, and the reply was, “How could she have the air and not the words?”’ (Shaw 1955: 76; cf Freeman 1920-1: xxv). Music and song are also frequently conflated in Gaelic traditional narrative. For instance, when threatened by an evil spirit, a man in one tale sings a prayer and psalm through the Jew’s harp: ‘dè bha e a’ dèanamh ach a’ gabhail ùrnaigh agus salm air an tromb’ (MacDhòmhnaill 1951). A wide range of evidence points to a pervasive cultural tendency to mix instrumental music and song. 

This tendency is most apparent in tales of the cluas-chiùil (‘musical-ear’), the ability to transmit and receive messages through instrumental music (MacDonald 1956). Many of these narratives serve as aetiologies for well-known pipe tunes and dance songs (e.g. ‘Duntroon’s Salute’ and ‘Thompson’s Dirk’). While the cluas-chiùil may be regarded as yet another supernatural trope, these tales – coupled with other evidence – point towards an earlier cognitive configuration of music and song. In this talk, I will suggest that, for pre-modern Gaelic speakers, song – not music – was superordinate (i.e. ‘music’ was a member of the class ‘song’), and that this configuration is evident as a substratum signal through the corpus of Gaelic instrumental music.

Freeman, A Martin. 1920-1. ‘An Irish concert’, Journal of the Folksong Society, 23-25: xxi-xxvii. 

MacDhòmhnaill, Iain. 1951. “Gille ann am bothan àirigh (A lad at a shieling hut ).” In the Calum Maclean Collection, uk008-01-25. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh. 

MacDonald, Rev Norman 1956. “Tha Biodag aig MacThòmais.” In the School of Scottish Studies Archives, SA1956.54.B1. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh. 

Shaw, Margaret Fay. 1955. Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist (London: Routledge & K. Paul).


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Nov 15 2018 -

William Lamb: The Curious Case of Cluas-chiùil (‘Musical-ear’) – Evidence for Early Musical Semantics in Gaelic Scotland?

Dr. Will Lamb discusses the relationship between music and song in Scottish Gaelic culture – and argues that song rather than music is the superordinate category.

Lecture Room A
Alison House
12 Nicolson Square