HAVE you ever danced at breakfast, while willing your favourite hen to lay an egg for your lover and to hell with your mother? No. I thought not. But have a read of this:

B’ fhearr leam fhìn gum beireadh an t-eile
Màireach dhe na h-eireagan –

I wish the other pullet would lay tomorrow –
One of the white pullets.

Gheibheadh tu fhèin a ghaoil an t-ubh
Gur bith gu dè gheibheadh do mhàthair

You yourself would get the egg my love
Whatever your mother would get.

It may sound ridiculous and in a way it’s meant to be. It’s a port-à-beul (singular spelling) – “mouth music”, sung to accompany dance and without any instruments. I’ve given you the skeleton. It’s full of repeated lines and it’s as crisp as eggshells. It’s also as crisp as a strathspey, and that’s the kind of tune it’s sung to.

My good friends Will Lamb and Michael Newton have been arguing over the origins of the strathspey for an age, but if you’re looking for that characteristic rhythm, then look no further than the words of this port-à-beul. Which came first, words or music, chicken or egg? Neither. Fun and delight and the freedom of young love from family ties are what come first; and it’s all as compact as – well, as compact as an egg.

Alan Riach and I have been promoting Celtic gloom for the last few weeks and you might be excused for imagining that Scotland’s Gaels were and are living in a state of permanent misery, deprivation and dislocation, devoid of fun and joy.

Well it’s not like that, and it never was. If you listen to puirt-à-beul (plural spelling), they are full of wit and mischief and require a proper choice and steadiness of tempo, and an ability to point the rhythm and articulate the words with great accuracy.

There’s nowhere to breathe, so you have to cheat by dropping a syllable here and there without anybody noticing. The skill not only involves remarkable feats of breath control, but also a nimbleness of lips and tongue, as many of the words are designed as tongue-twisters.

For instance, the piece above is often followed by a reel and it’s meant to go as fast as you can sing it and the dancer can dance it. It’s fiendish. All those words that look just the same but many with an “h” in different places are pronounced differently, and you’re not allowed any mistakes.

Geala bhodaich ’s a’ bheinn duibh,
Geala bhodaich anns a’ bheinn
Geala bhodaich ’s a’ bheinn duibh,
Bodaich dhubha bha ’s a’ bheinn (x2)

White old men in the black mountain
Bad old men in the mountain.

Bodaich dhubha, dhubha dhubha,
Bodaich dhubha bha ’s ’a bheinn (x3)
Geala bhodaich ghearram dhubha,
Bodaich dhubha bha ’s a’ bheinn

There were bad, bad, bad, bad
Old men in the mountains
White bad short old men,
Bad old men in the mountains.

What in the name of the wee man is that all about? Any suggestions – other than the obvious fun with words – welcome. One white bad old man on a mountain was Samuel Johnson – but Rowlandson’s satirical image of him and Boswell dancing on the top of Dun Caan on Raasay puts the pair of them in proper perspective. They had fun, and we can have fun at their expense. Some puirt-à-beul push the edges of decency, but they are mostly subtle enough for the innocent to be unharmed by the innuendo. Try this to test your purity:

Lennanachd air feadh na coilltean
Lennanachd na coill’ na h-àirigh...
Agus bha ‘n dannsa sùrdail,
Ruidhle cùirteal anns an àirigh.

Courting among the woods
Courting in the woods of the shieling...
I had a spirited dance,
Courtly reels in the shieling.

WELL, if there’s one thing that never happens in a shieling, it’s “courtly” reels.

I remember passing a sign for Àiridh na Suiridhe – the Shieling for Love-making. It’s on the Armadale road on Skye and one of the old boys in the car with me was saying: “I could never understand that name. There never was a shieling that wasn’t for love-making.”

Back in 1901, Keith Norman MacDonald brought out a book called Puirt-à-beul. He gathered his material from generations of traditional singers who would have regarded the scholarly study of their singing as a manifest absurdity.

So why bother? Well, because it’s not only fun; it’s instructive. If you don’t live in that world – and most people don’t – then you can get a feel for a wonderfully lively tradition of singing, usually for dancing, but always for fun.

And it’s peculiar to the Gaelic-speaking world. There are a few examples from other corners of the universe, but they are few and far between compared with the repertoire of the Scottish Gaels – and I mean the Scottish Gaels in particular.

It is one of the gems of Scottish culture and most Gaelic singers love to include it in their gigs and on their albums. If you want to find out more, Will Lamb edited MacDonald’s Puirt-à-beul and you can buy it from Taigh na teud on the Isle of Skye – at £18 it’s a snip.

Puirt-à-beul was far from being the only fun to be had were the times good or bad. Waulking songs were full of opportunities for fun and gaiety, and dance in general, including acrobatic dances. But that’s for another time.