Best Christmas Carol with a Scottish link

Share this article

There's naught so festive as the sound of a choir in full voice

We will, we will rock you


CHRIST CHILD'S LULLABY (Taladh Chriosda) A traditional melody from the Hebrides, this is very atmospheric – and unmistakably Scottish in its use of the mixolydian mode and gentle scotch-snap rhythm. The words are beautiful too: My love and tender one are You, My sweet and lovely son are You, You are my love and darling You, Unworthy, I of You.

CHILD IN THE MANGER There is a remarkable story here. The original Gaelic words were written to a lilting traditional melody in the 19th century by Mary Macdonald, who lived in the Ross of Mull. When the words were translated into English, the tune was named Bunessan, after the coastal village near where Mary lived. Later, the words were rewritten by Eleanor Farjeon as Morning Has Broken. We all know this was an international hit by Cat Stevens who wrote neither words nor melody. The simplicity of the original version makes it much more effective as a Christmas carol.

BALULALOW (1) Balulalow is a Scots word for lullaby, but this traditional version is not in the 6/8 metre one would expect. And the 16th century words don't suggest a lullaby: I come from Hevin which to tell, The best nowells that e'er befell, To you their tythings trew I bring, And I will of them say and sing …

These words suggest the prophecy of an angel. There is an interesting point here: have we lost the distinction between Advent hymns and Christmas carols?

BALULALOW (2) The words set by both 20th-century English composers Peter Warlock and Benjamin Britten were written by three brothers who lived in Dundee in the 16th century – James, John and Robert Wedderburn. They were religious reformers influenced by the German metrical psalms. However, the words were probably written to the rhythm of a traditional melody, a technique later used by Burns: O my dear hert, young Jesus sweet, Prepare thy credil in my spreit And I will rock Thee in my hert, And never mair from Thee depart.

Both versions are wonderful; the Britten has a clever major/minor thing going on, but the Warlock is mysterious, gentle and sinister all at the same time, reminding us of the fate which awaits this Infant…

AWAY IN A MANGER: Yes, I am cheating here! An American, William Kilpatrick, wrote the music for the standard version of this sweet, yet profound, carol. I can't find any Scots in his immediate family, but with a name like that they must be in there somewhere! In any case, I nominate the arrangement by George McPhee, deeply respected choirmaster of Paisley Abbey for many a year. If you are looking for the ultimate Christmas experience this year, you could do no better than attend the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at Paisley Abbey on Christmas Eve.