Posted by: liamcassidy | October 24, 2015

Òran na Mìos: Dàmhair 2015

October 2015: Dèan Cadalan Sàmhach

Gur ann an Ameireagaidh tha sinn an dràst', fo dhubhar na coille nach tèirig gu bràth ...

Gur ann an Ameireagaidh tha sinn an dràst’, fo dhubhar na coille nach tèirig gu bràth …

Welcome to Òran na Mìos, our “Song of the Month” blog post. Here we’ll help you learn new Scottish Gaelic songs, learn the stories behind songs and keep you singing throughout the year.

The first song we’ll share is one many Scottish Gaelic learners are familiar with: Dèan Cadalan Sàmhach. This song was composed in North America, probably during the American Revolution. It is probably the most famous Gaelic song composed in what is now the United States. It is also one of the first Gaelic songs I learned!

Download the sheet music and lyrics here.

The song is a lullaby, and likely was modeled on an earlier song popular throughout the Gàidhealtachd or Gaelic-speaking area in 18th-century Scotland. There are songs with some similar lyrics, such as Leig Dhìot an Cadal.

There is more than one melody used with this song. Here is Kathleen MacInnes singing one version:

The Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o’ Riches website has several versions of Dèan Cadalan SàmhachHere’s a recording of the late James C. M. Campbell (1896-1979) of Kintail, singing the song in 1952. The melody he uses is perhaps the better known one.

recording from 1972 features a group singing the song — Kenneth, Farquhar and Finlay Chisholm of Letterfearn and Eddie MacRae of Glensheil — and talking about it. They try to reconstruct the song from memory as they go along!

Fiona J. Mackenzie, Karen Matheson of Capercaillie and Billy Ross of Ossian also sing the song. More videos and recordings are available at the BBC Bliadhna nan Òran website.

Now for the back story …

Dèan Cadalan Sàmhach is a lullaby composed for an infant girl, with a chorus promising her riches and a husband when she’s grown. The verses, however, describe the parent’s anxiety about life in America, the great forest “that will never perish,” and the English-speaking neighbors (“Ro-bheag orm fhìn na daoine seo th’ ann” — “It’s little I care for the people here.”). The song ends with the poet’s salute to Kintail of the Cows, Cinn t-Sàile nam Bò.

Traditionally, Dèan Cadalan Sàmhach has been attributed to Iain Mac Mhurchaidh or John MacRae, an emigrant bàrd from Kintail who arrived in North Carolina shortly before the beginning of the Revolution, in which he fought as a Loyalist. Recent scholarship has called that attribution into doubt. Gaelic scholar and author Michael Newton argues Dèan Cadalan Sàmhach was composed by a woman living in the American colonies. (See Newton’s “Unsettling Iain Mac Mhurchaidh’s Slumber: The Carolina Lullaby, authorship, and the influence of print media on Gaelic oral tradition,” published in the Glasgow University journal Aiste in 2014).

In his article in Aiste, Newton gives us valuable insight into the interplay between oral and written traditions, and how the song may have evolved and been attributed to Mac Mhurchaidh. “It was the appearance of articles in print journals that stabilised and promoted particular late textual variants and provided a coherent narrative connecting them in Kintail tradition to a well-known local poet,” he writes.

The earliest transcribed versions of the song make no mention of Mac Mhurchaidh. A version from 1820 attributes the song to a “maighdean òg” or young maiden whose people left the Isle of Skye for North Carolina. The song is first attributed to Mac Mhurchaidh in print in the latter half of the 19th century, based on information from an informant in Kintail, Mac Mhurchaidh’s home district. Once in print, the attribution was repeated in succeeding publications, giving it the weight of authority.

“It is most likely that the original author of the Carolina lullaby was a mother who was anxious about her safety and that of her daughter because her family and many compatriots had been caught up in the American Revolution, a conflict which had many aspects of a civil war,” Newton writes.

Most versions (though not those with our sheet music) include the verse:

Tha sinne ‘nar n-Innseanaich cinnteach gu leòir,

Fo dhubhar nan craobh cha bhi h-aon againn beò,

Madaidh-allaidh is bèistean ag èigheachd ‘s gach fròig

‘S gu bheil sinne ‘nar n-èiginn bhon thrèig sinn Rìgh Deòrs’.

“We’re Indians sure enough, under the shadow of the trees not one of us will survive. Wolves and beasts baying in each hollow, and we’re in desperate straits since we abandoned King George.”

Newton includes an early version of the song in “We’re Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of the Scottish Highlanders in the United States” with verses that differ from the standard text. It contains the verse:

Gum bheil sibh ‘nur n-Innseanaich cinnteach gu leòr,

A-mach ‘s a’ choill’ ùdlaidh, gun sùgradh, gun cheòl,

‘S nan sgrìobhadh iad fìrinn a-sìos mar bu chòir

Cha tigeadh na Gàidheal gu bràth air an tòir.

“You are Indians, sure enough, out in the dark forests without mirth or music. If only they would write down what is true, as they ought to, the Gaels would never have to go chasing after them.”

The difference in viewpoint between the two verses is worth considering. The first seems to describe the plight of rebels, or at least refugees who deserted King George. The second is accusatory. Is the composer a loyalist describing rebels pursued by Highland troops or loyalists?

There’s as much ambiguity in the lyrics as there was in the conflict.


As for Iain Mac Mhurchaidh, tradition has him joining a loyalist regiment and fighting at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge in February 1776. His son Murchadh or “Murdock” is said to have been killed in the battle. Several other songs have been attributed to him, some composed in Scotland and some in the Carolinas. At some point, possibly after the Battle of King’s Mountain he may have been captured and executed, as tradition states.

Whatever the truth about his life, work and death, the U.S. National Mòd honors Mac Mhurchaidh’s memory with the Duais Iain Mac Mhurchaidh/John MacRae Award, presented for best original poem in Scottish Gaelic presented to the Mòd.

— Liam Ó Caiside


  1. […] of Mac Griogair, and in some versions sung as a lullaby, much like the song we examined in October, Dèan Cadalan Sàmhach. Lullabies were one genre, though not the only one, that Gaelic women were able to exploit to […]

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