Gaelic song preservation: A grandmother’s gift

April 2, 2024

“I suppose it’s all nanny’s fault,” laughs Sheena Anderson-Geiger, thinking back to how her passion for Gaelic song came to be.

“Honestly, it’s so humbling that people are interested in our Gaelic song preservation project. I love they want to get involved and share the songs and stories that are meaningful to them.”

Sheena’s recording project promotes and preserves traditional Gaelic songs that have been sung in these lands for generations, giving them new life and bringing them to new audiences around the world.

With well-known musicians like fiddler Kimberley Fraser and pianist Mac Morin on board, she’s assembled a winning team.

“Kimberley and I have been friends for years,” she says. “We actually sang together in the Gaelic choir led by Catriona Parsons – who was good friends with my grandmother – at StFX. I’ve been very fortunate over the years, that when I come to people and say, ‘I have an idea…’ they are excited to help.”

The project vision is to keep as true to tradition as possible by highlighting local people and culture, not least in Inverness County where two tunes are slated to be filmed during Easter and released later this year.

Adults and children that participated in the gaelic song recording project pose for a photo in a classroom

A family affair

A native of Avondale, between New Glasgow and Am Baile Mòr (Antigonish), Sheena has deep roots on Colin L Drive in Siudaig Bheag (Little Judique). Back on the mainland, Sheena grew up beside her paternal grandmother Catherine (MacGillivray) Anderson, a beloved native Gaelic-speaker, schoolteacher, and direct descendant of not only one, but two, Jacobite soldiers who fought in the Battle of Culloden and are now laid to rest beside the Culloden Cairn in Knoydart, Pictou County.

When Catherine was growing up, Gaelic was actively being suppressed in Nova Scotia, and although it was her first language, her own children, including Sheena’s father, Michael, did not grow up speaking Gaelic fluently.

Nevertheless, Sheena remembers how her nanny would use certain words and phrases in the old language with her children and grandchildren, and of course how she passed down the words and tunes of many old songs.

“Like her own father before her, she used to sing Gaelic songs to us from her rocking chair by the wood stove,” she recalls lovingly. “It’s a precious gift to give to a child,” Sheena says. “It’s the gift of our culture and heritage. My dad has
been instrumental in passing the culture down too, with his love of fiddle music and taking us to dances. Even now, Dad rarely misses a dance – he loves to waltz!”

“I sort of took the culture for granted as a kid,” she remembers. “It was only when I moved away that I saw other people didn’t have access to it. I came to realize the importance of saving these old songs which are part of who we are as Gaels.”

Passing down a living culture

During the pandemic, when daycare wasn’t available and Sheena’s young daughter, Brea, was at home with her, she found herself wondering what she could teach the youngster that couldn’t be learned elsewhere. Gaelic songs were the answer, and Sheena quickly set about adding as many as she could to her repertoire and sharing them with Brea, who soaked them up with that voracious appetite for learning that children have.

This is how Sheena’s multi-lingual, child-focused YouTube channel was born. Brea now sings multiple Gaelic songs, and her baby brother, Andrew, who is not yet two, likes to walk around humming the fiddle tune Fàgail Lios Mòr (Leaving Lismore), which Sheena hums to him every night.

“My kids, my nephews, and my dad all joined the musicians and I for the first music video of this Gaelic song preservation project. It’s a really special feeling – my nanny would love it!”

Share your own songs

With a couple of additional tunes about to be recorded for the project, Sheena is on the hunt for more songs that are dear to the hearts of local people.

“I’m always looking for beautiful old (or original) Gaelic songs that people remember and want to share with the world. I’d love for people to get in touch and share their songs with us. And we’re also on the lookout for funding to make more of these recordings possible – ideas on that front are very welcome too!”

Follow the project or get in touch with Sheena at: