Posts Tagged ‘Isle of Barra’

The Gurt Lush Choir Sing John Renbourne’s ‘Traveller’s Prayer’

May 23, 2021

I’m a fan of the British folk musician John Renbourne, formerly of the group Pentangle way back in the ’60s and ’70s. I first encountered his music through the album Ship of Fools, which I bought way back in the late ’80s/ early ’90s. ‘Traveller’s Prayer’ is a peculiarly haunting piece with its mixture of pagan and Christian imagery, addressed as a hymn to the moon.

‘Gurt lush’ is a Bristol dialect expression, used for anything tasty or delicious. I found this video of the Gurt Lush choir and the Gurt Western Orchestra – gurt is a West Country word meaning ‘great’, ‘big’ – performing the piece at the Colston Hall in Bristol in 2015 on the Choir’s channel on YouTube. They’ve put up this description of the piece and its origins in Scots Gaelic folk hymns.

This lovely pagan hymn was composed by virtuoso guitarist John Renbourn, once a member of Pentangle. The melody is very much in the Protestant hymn-tune tradition, but the harmonies sound older and darker; and the words seem to come from somewhere older still, from times when pre-Christian pagan traditions continued to be mingled in with superimposed Christian beliefs. Renbourn in fact based his lyric on a prayer titled A Ghealach Ur (The New Moon), which used to be recited on the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. This was collected in the late nineteenth century by an excise man and folklorist named Alexander Carmichael who travelled widely in the Highlands and Islands. Carmichael made friends with the Gaelic-speaking tinker folk in many places and they shared with him their traditional travellers’ prayers, stories, invocations and healing rites. He gathered these together and published them in 1900 as a collection titled Carmina Gadelica.

I’m definitely not a pagan, and just like this piece because it’s a beautiful piece of a music, although I must confess that I do like its pagan and Christian imagery. I hope you also enjoy it.