Side trip: Fear a’ Bhàta (Boatman)

Gathering material for a post later this month, I came across this video of Capercaillie’s Karen Matheson.  Fear a’ Bhàta may date to the late 18th century.  I first heard it perhaps 15 years ago, and only later learned that my mother sang it as a child.

(Gaelic fear, man, sounds a bit like the English word fair. In the chorus, because the singer is addressing the boatman, the case changes and the word sounds more like English ear.)

Fhir a’bhàta, na ho ro eile
Fhir a’bhàta, na ho ro eile
Fhir a’bhàta, na ho ro eile
Mo shoraigh slàn leat ‘s gach àit’an téid thu

Boatman, o ho ro eile
Boatman, o ho ro eile
Boatman, o ho ro eile
A fond farewell wherever you go

Is tric mi ‘sealltainn o’n chnoc a’s àirde
Dh’fheuch am faic mi fear a’bhàta
An tig thu an-diùigh no’n tig thu a-màireach?
‘S mur tig thu idir gur truagh a tà mi

I often look from the highest hill
To try and see the boatman
Will you come today or tomorrow?
If you don’t come at all I will be downhearted

Tha mo chridhe-sa briste, brùite
‘S tric na deòir a’ ruith o m’ shùilean
An tig thu a-nochd no’m bi mo dhùil riut
No’n dùin mi’n dorus le osna thùrsaich?

My heart is broken and bruised
With tears often flowing from my eyes
Will you come tonight or will I expect you
Or will I close the door with a sad sigh?

‘S tric mi ‘faighneachd de luchd nam bàta
Am fac’ iad thu no ‘bheil thu sàbhailt’
Ach ‘s ann a tha gach aon dhiùbh ‘g ràitinn
Gur gòrach mise ma thug mi gràdh dhut

I often ask people on boats
Whether they see you or whether you are safe
Each of them says
That I was foolish to fall in love with you

4 thoughts on “Side trip: Fear a’ Bhàta (Boatman)

  1. Gla Bha!

    I first heard this in 1980 when I joined a 15th cent Scottish living history group in San Francisco.

    aka Brenden Dhu MacColin

  2. Tapadh leat, James. Capercaillie has always performed Gaelic songs, one way to carry tradition from one century to the next. I don’t know how long it’ll survive as a living language, but I’m very grateful to those who work at renewing its cultural role.

  3. When I transfered to Maryland, I stayed active in living history and focused on things Celtic. Sorry to say my studies of Gaelic never progressed. From keeping touch with my friends in California, I see that An Comunn Gaidhealach Ameireaganach is still going strong. Many Celtic fusion musicians are fitting in songs in Gaelic, so I think that some of the Old Ways are surviving, and dare I say thriving?

    Although I don’t wear my kilt as much as I used to, I still mangage to get to a local pub with my bodhran for the weekly open seisiuns.

    I am sure this thread will have a number of the ISDs scratchin’ their heads……


  4. Jim, I’m confident that even my posts that are not labeled “side trips” provoke some head-scratching.

    I am pessimistic about the survival of Scottish Gaelic as a living language. I hope I’m wrong. See my post two years ago on the death of the last native speaker of Eyak, and especially the quote from linguist Geoff Pullum.

    As he says of another language in his post from which the quote is taken, “Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want Cornish to be dead; I love languages, and I traveled on my own initiative to the Isle of Man when I was an undergraduate in 1968 so that I could go and see the last native speaker of Manx, Ned Maddrell, and record him telling a story. I would have gone to see Dolly Pentreath too. But I was 200 years too late. Everybody is.”

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