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.

Fun Facts About Harps

Last time I was in Ireland (summer 2014) I got this cute little Irish harp (known more broadly as a Celtic or Gaelic harp, since indigenous Scottish harps are pretty much the same) necklace:

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In Irish this instrument is called a cláirseach. The Irish harp is a national symbol of Ireland and appears on the Irish Euro and the Guinness logo. It was also used as a symbol by Irish nationalist organizations, including the Repeal Association and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. A flag showing a gold cláirseach on a green background was flown above Liberty Hall in Dublin on Easter 1916 and was displayed last year at the centennial celebration of the Easter rising.

The dude is the President of Ireland, Michael Higgins.

The dude is the President of Ireland, Michael Higgins.

The earliest known possible depictions of harps in Ireland date to the 8th century but we don’t know if those are the type of harp that came to be known as the “Irish harp” or if they’re even harps at all. At the very latest, Irish harps had appeared by the 11th century, as shown by this cute little guy on the Breac Maedoc shrine:


Early harps were made of four pieces of wood held together not by glue but by the tension exerted by the strings on the joints between the pieces of wood. Only three Celtic Harps from the Middle Ages remain. Two of these are Scottish: the Queen Mary Harp (Clàrsach na Banrìgh Màiri) which was allegedly a gift from Mary Stuart, and the Lamont Harp. The third is the Irish 14th or 15th-century Trinity College Harp also known as the “Brian Boru Harp.” A legend has arisen around this harp claiming that after Brian Boru’s death, his son brought the instrument to the Vatican where it remained until a 16th-century pope gave it to Henry VIII. In reality, the harp postdates the death of Brian Boru by about 400 years, but I think the existence of this legend shows that the harp is a powerful symbol of Irishness, if it’s considered worth connecting to one of Ireland’s most famous kings. Made of oak and willow, the Trinity College Harp has been reconstructed at least twice, first because it was falling apart from age, next because it had been taken apart for examination, so it might not look now like it did in 1500.


The modern “Irish Harp,” while it looks like the medieval harps, is actually the 19th-century invention of John Egan, though it draws on the ancient Irish harping tradition. Egan took the shape of the medieval Irish harp but altered the instrument with elements of the orchestral harp: gut strings instead of metal strings and, to quote Simon Chadwick, Honorary Secretary of the Historical Harp Society of Ireland, “mechanical semitone-fretting mechanisms.” As I can figure out, that gives you more versatility in terms of the notes you can play.

This summer in my class on Irish mythology, folklore, and music I got to hold and play an Irish harp. I wish I had a picture but it looked something like this:

I wasn't dressed like that though.

I wasn’t dressed like that though.

It was the kind you can hold on your lap, not the huge kind that you have to set on the floor. I don’t know how to play the harp but it’s such a cool instrument that all I had to do was touch some strings and it sounded beautiful. At the time, I knew nothing about the long history of Irish harps. If I had, I might have pretended I was the cute little guy on the Breac Maedoc.


“1916 Easter Rising: Irish Citizen Army flag returned to Dublin by Enniskillen museum.” BBC News, 22 March 2016, www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-35875676.

Chadwick, Simon. “The Early Irish Harp.” Early Music, vol. 36, no. 4, 2008, pp. 521–531., www.jstor.org/stable/27655252.

Dooley, P. (2014). “Reconstructing the Medieval Irish Harp.” The Galpin Society Journal, vol. 67, 2014, pp. 107-142, 267-268, 271. search.proquest.com/docview/1534494343?accountid=11321.

“Mary Louise O’Donnell discusses the Brian Boru Harp.” YouTube, uploaded by Patricia O’Callaghan, 16 March 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0ccbVqH8O8.

“Queen Mary Harp.” National Museums Scotland. www.nms.ac.uk/explore/stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/mary-queen-of-scots/mary-queen-of-scots/queen-mary-harp/.