Fun with Gàidhlig: Puirt à Beul or Gaelic Mouth Music

Fun with Gàidhlig: Puirt à Beul or Gaelic Mouth Music

In this edition of Fun with Gàidhlig, I’m not just bringing you a definition; I’m going to introduce you to some fun Gaelic music, too! Apparently I’m in the mood for music talk right now—with Irn Bru Glass Music and Everyone Loves a Ceilidh going live last week. Let’s keep that party going!

So why am I combining Fun with Gàidhlig and sharing music in this entry? Because of what puirt à beul actually means. I promise it’s related.

Background and Gaelic Info

Technically, the phrase puirt à beul is actually the plural of the word with the singular being port à beul. We’ll stick with the plural spelling simply to avoid confusion, and because I’ll share several examples later.

Puirt à beul is a Gaelic phrase meaning something similar to “mouth music”. These mouth music tunes are usually very upbeat and cheerful. They’re good songs to have a wee dance to. Which is good because it’s one of the reasons they came about: to give people music to dance to when instruments were scarce. So if a gathering had no instruments, dancing could still happen.

Now, the lyrics in puirt à beul can be a bit funny. What you’ll find is that the songs themselves are rather simple and easy to understand if you have a bit of Gaelic. They’re not complex like poetry or moving ballads. And the lyrics tend to repeat.

The Music

So let’s talk about an example or two. One of my favorite Gaelic singers for puirt à beul is Julie Fowlis. I mentioned her in my Hot Scots: Musicians entry. She’s a well-known Gaelic singer and has produced many albums, and even sang several songs for the Brave soundtrack.

I’m going to use some tunes of hers to showcase some examples of puirt à beul, specifically their upbeat tune and their simple lyrics.

Is Toigh Leam Fhìn Buntàta ‘s Ìm

This first one is a great example of how simple the lyrics of a puirt à beul can be. These are the lyrics to this one, and they simply repeat over and over.

‘S toigh leam fhìn buntàta ‘s ìm
‘S toigh leam fhìn na caileagan
‘S toigh leam fhìn buntàta ‘s ìm
Is nìghneagan a’ bhaile seo

Now, if you’ve done any work on DuoLingo’s Gaelic course, you might have an idea of what the above says. Don’t spoil the surprise yet! I’ll get back to that translation soon.

Take a listen to the song below to hear the beat and see if you can sing along. Is Toigh Leam Fhìn Buntàta ‘s Ìm is the first song, and it lasts about a minute before the second song comes up.

You could easily hear how people could dance to such a fun, upbeat tune without the accompanying instruments.

Ready for that translation?

I’m fond of potatoes and butter
I’m fond of the ladies
I’m fond of potatoes and butter
And the girls of this village

See what I mean about the lyrics? (Though it’s work singing about; potatoes and butter are amazing)

Ribinnean Riomhach

This one has a bit more lyrics to work with, but they are still very fun and simple. These are great beginner sentences to listen to and work with if you’re learning Gaelic yourself.

In one of the first comments on the YouTube video, you can see all the lyrics in Gaelic, then their English translation. Again, the lyrics tend to repeat and are sung very quickly. I can sing along with the first part of this puirt à beul set, and some of the second, but I struggle with the third.

I’ve heard puirt à beul likened to Gaelic rap for how quickly it’s sung—and Julie Fowlis is amazing at it. This last example will show just how great she is at it.

Fodor Dha Na Gamhna Beaga

One last example from Julie Fowlis, so you can really admire her skill with the puirt à beul style and speed. I love this one—but WAIT until you get to the end of it and hear how fast she sings.

Again, it’s this similar pattern of repeating lyrics, simple but kept upbeat by the melody. Even with the simple words, they do all make sense and work for the song itself. So it’s not nonsensical music.

With all these examples, you can hear how well the tune could work for those looking to dance if there were no instruments. Yes, there were accompanying instruments in all, but if you can imagine being at a gathering without any, you can certainly see how easily people could dance to these fun tunes.

Conclusion

So these have been a few examples of puirt à beul tunes performed by Julie Fowlis, as well as a bit more information about Gaelic mouth music in general. If you’re learning Gaelic, this is a fun way to practice both listening and even reading if you can find the lyrics to read along with. The sentences are simple, so you might find you understand without reading a translation.

But it’s also tons of fun to sing along—even if you get the words wrong. It’s all practice and getting your tongue accustomed to the sounds and pronunciations of Gaelic.

Have fun and keep up with the Gaelic!

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