Choir to give new voice to long-lost carols

Ali Burns with her choir. Picture: Ros Gasson
Ali Burns with her choir. Picture: Ros Gasson
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FORGET Hark The Herald Angels Sing and We Wish You A Merry Christmas. A songwriter and choir director has reinvented the traditional carol concert by breathing life into Scotland’s lost and unusual Christmas carols stretching back several centuries.

The “forgotten carols” collection, which will be performed across Scotland this Christmas, includes Hebridean wassailing songs, tunes from the travelling community and little-known Gaelic carols. They will be performed at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh next weekend, and at concerts across Dumfries and Galloway.

Ali Burns, who collected the carols and performs some of them with her Feral Choir, based in Dumfries and Galloway, has spent years tracking the carols down from old songbooks, libraries and obscure collections, some as far away as the United States.

“I started researching lost carols mainly because I was fed up with Christmas and the same songs coming round again and again,” she said.

“I wanted to recreate Christmas for myself, to reinvigorate it and put some magic back into it. Then I started researching folk carols and became a bit obsessed with it.

“Only some Scottish carols have survived through the years. The ones we do have include wassailing songs from the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland, some of which are still intact and still sung in local areas. Some are Gaelic. One, the Christ Child’s Lullaby, has had a revival in the last ten years and was written by a Scottish minister, and some are not so much about Christmas as New Year.”

One Gaelic carol, Heire Bannag, was originally collected by Alexander Carmichael, who spent years travelling the Hebrides in search of old folk songs, prayers and writings in the late 19th century. He heard it both on the remote Isle of Scalpay, near Harris, and the Isle of Mingulay, near Barra, probably in the late 1800s. It was sung as part of a house-visiting ceremony by crofters around Christmas time.

Another song, Open The Door For The Auld Year, was written by the Scottish poet William Soutar, who studied at Edinburgh University after serving in the First World War and died in 1943 after a lifetime racked with illness. Burns says she has set some poems and texts she has come across to music, trying to interpret the type of music that would be suitable for the words, and even written words to tunes without any lyrics.

“I’ve written some stuff myself in Scots that I use in old songs local to Galloway,” said Burns, who is based in Castle Douglas in Kirkcudbrightshire.

And she said some of the most rambunctious of the “lost” carols come from the traveller community.

“A lot of their stories are songs from the Apocryphal Gospels – Christian works that recount the life or sayings of Jesus but are not included in the New Testament,” she said.

“They include one called King Herod And The Cock, about King Herod being served a cockerel for dinner that suddenly sits up and crows three times, signifying the arrival of a baby. Some are of obscure miracles Jesus was supposed to have performed as a baby. And then there’s the Cherry Tree Carol, versions of which come from all over Britain and even as far away as America, and is sometimes known as the Apple Tree Carol.”

The performance at the Scottish Storytelling Centre next Sunday will also include a reading by the actor Tom Pow of The Marriage Of Robin Redbreast And Wren, a poem written by Robert Burns’ sister Isabella and notated by him.

Daniel Abercrombie, programme and events manager at the centre, said: “This beautiful and atmospheric concert of carols, woven together with readings of contemporary poetry and prose, perfectly complements the Storytelling Centre’s programme, showcasing the magic and contemporary appeal of the traditional arts, while providing the perfect opportunity to bring together families and communities in a welcoming, homely setting.”

Carols are believed to predate Christianity, with pagan songs being performed at Winter Solstice celebrations around 21 December.

Christian carols have been in existence since AD129, when a Roman bishop said a song called Angel’s Hymn should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome.

More modern carols originated from Nativity plays, 
believed to have been started by St Francis of Assisi in 1223, although throughout the Elizabethan age many were seen more as entertaining songs than religious hymns.

Although they declined in popularity following the Reformation, they had a huge resurgence in popularity in Victorian times, and many of the carols we sing today originate from that period.