Heather Dale’s Celtic Heart

My favorite musical artist is the Canadian singer Heather Dale. I became a fan no later than 2012 and went to her concert in May 2014.

I met my favorite singer. No big deal.

I met my favorite singer. No big deal.

Her music wanders across all kinds of subjects (and genres), but the majority of her original songs deal with myths, legends, folklore, and fairy tales. Above all, she is influenced by Celtic cultures, including her own Cornish heritage. She’s a fantastic storyteller. Though I’m only going to link to three songs in this post—one for each of our three favorite countries—her entire discography is one long masterpiece, so check it out!

First, Wales. Heather Dale has two entire albums devoted to Arthurian legend, plus assorted songs on other albums. It was her music that got me into this stuff in the first place, and now I’m writing my thesis on it. Not all of these songs have a lot to do with the legend’s Welsh origins, but here is perhaps her Welshest song: “Culhwch and Olwen,” which actually just came up on my iPod as I was writing this paragraph. (I have all my Heather Dale songs on shuffle while I write this post.) This song takes its title from a medieval Welsh tale that can be found in the collection known as the Mabinogion. The basic plot is that this guy named Culhwch is cursed by his stepmother to love this lady named Olwen, whose father, the giant Ysbaddaden, will not let him marry her unless he completes a bunch of tasks. Culhwch is conveniently a cousin of Arthur, so he easily gets a bunch of Arthur’s warriors to help him. Heather’s song simplifies the story by only having Ysbaddaden give Culhwch one task: to rescue Mabon, son of Modron. As in the original story, the guys have to talk to a series of ancient animals to discover Mabon’s location. Then they go back, kill Ysbaddaden, and Culhwch marries Olwen.

The song is weird enough, but I recommend reading the original story if you want much more Welsh weirdness/weird Welshness. There’s this part that lists all the members of Arthur’s court and their quirks, such as hailing “from the uplands of hell” or “clear[ing] three hundred acres in a single leap.” In my edition, it goes on for five pages. It’s absolutely wild.

Culhwch and Olwen YouTube link

Second, Ireland. This song, called “Adrift,” is about a character from Irish mythology: Oisín, son of Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) (who is a way better hero than Cú Chulainn) and father of Oscar. As you will hear in the song, his name is pronounced Uh-sheen. In my Irish mythology class last summer, I wrote my final paper on Oisín, so I know a lot about him. He’s very deer to me. While his father Finn and son Oscar are best known as great warriors, Oisín, though a warrior as well, is best known as a poet and as one of the last surviving members of Finn’s fianna (bands of warriors). According to the twelfth-century Acallam na Senórach (Colloquy of the Ancients) he survived into the time of Saint Patrick. “Adrift” is based on a tale that explains how Oisín came to live so long: he fell in love with a magical lady named Niamh who took him to Tír na nÓg. When he returned to Ireland, he found that 300 years had passed and everyone he had known was dead. “Adrift” is a dialogue between Oisín, who has dreamed that his “mother” (Ireland) needs him to return, and Niamh, who assures him that it’s just a dream.

By the way, Yeats wrote a long poem called “The Wanderings of Oisín.”

Adrift YouTube Link

Third, Scotland. Unless I’m wrong (in which case Anna Mehta can correct me) none of Heather Dale’s original songs are as Scottish as “Culhwch and Olwen” is Welsh or “Adrift” is Irish, so here’s a song from “My Celtic Heart,” her collection of Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and Cornish folk songs. It’s a mash-up of two Scottish songs. The first, “Wild Mountain Thyme,” derives from a poem by Robert Tannahill (1774–1810) called “The Braes o’ Balquhither.” The song may have gained its current form from a Northern Irish family called the McPeakes, but I’m having trouble finding decent sources on that. Anyway, the other, probably more famous song is “Skye Boat Song.” An Englishman, Harold Boulton, wrote the lyrics, but the tune derives from a Gaelic iorram (rowing song). The song is about the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart) to the Isle of Skye after the pro-Hanover army defeated the pro-Stuart army at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. “The lad who’s born to be king” never did get that throne, but it’s still an inspiring song. I got all these facts from this article by the historian Jacqueline Riding about the Jacobite rebellion. Fact #6 in the article is about Skye Boat Song.

Wild Mountain Thyme/Skye Boat Song Bandcamp link

Also, here is a picture of a plant that I think is heather that I took in Scotland when I was eighteen. This picture might have been taken on Skye but I’m not sure.

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P.S. Ashley, if you’re reading this, here is that song about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that I mentioned to you once. I love the original poem but I also love the twist Heather puts on the story.