Funerals, for as far back as we know, have always been accompanied by music – from pre-Christian times to the present day. While we can only imagine what the music must have been like in the distant past, there are many references to the moving, and emotional effects of music performed on these occasions. Music and song often had a function aspect, as a means of ensuring a safe passage to the afterlife, and was also used as a means of honouring the person who was being buried. Below are descriptions of the types of music which might have been heard at funerals at Kildonan on Eigg at different times throughout history.
Pre-Christian Times (pre-6th century)
The main reference we have to singing in pre-Christian times is in the form of mourning songs (Seisig-bhais), aimed at ensuring that the person being buried has a safe journey to the afterlife. One song which survives from these times is called ‘Pill-il-il-iu’. This is a musical call to the redshank, a bird which was responsible for guiding the person’s soul to the next world. The song and its tune are still in tact, and it is still sung today. It has been recorded by artists including Judith Peacock and Mary MacMaster. The words are as follows:
In our funeralscapes re-enactments, we sing this song, both on the hillside above the beach at Kildonan, and also inside the chapel, where a carving of a sheelanagig, thought to be pre-Christian, can be found. Ronan Martin, the fiddler with the funeralscapes team, also plays an instrumental version of this tune as a funeral lament. He plays the tunes whilst the participants process from the shoreline, and also through the burial ground at Kildonan chapel.
Although we don’t have any direct references to music used in Viking burials on Eigg, we do have information on music and chant at other Viking burials, and it appears that this music played an important role in burial rites. We can only assume that burial customs across the Viking world would have been similar to one another. In 922AD, for example, Ibn Fadlan wrote an eye-witness account of a Rus (eastern Viking) ship cremation funeral in the Volga region of Russia. He reported the following:
‘They advanced, going to and fro [around the boat] uttering words which I did not understand, while he was still in his grave and had not been exhumed.’
Later he wrote about the sounds which he heard during the occasion:
‘The men began to bang their shields with the sticks [during the sacrifice immediately prior to cremation].’ (Montgomery, 1-25)
Beowulf, which is set in pre-Viking Age Scandinavia, was written down during the Viking Age and gives funerary details which are more likely to be of that time, rather than representing rites from centuries earlier. One account is as follows:
‘Wailing her woe, the widow old, her hair upbound, for Beowulf’s death sung in her sorrow’
Then about that barrow the battle-keen rode, atheling-born, a band of twelve, lament to make, to mourn their king, chant their dirge, and their chieftain honor. They praised his earlship, his acts of prowess’ (Gummere, 1)
For the fieldwork on the Isle of Eigg we combined the snippets of information which we have on Viking funerals to create a plausible funeral chant sung in a procession around the burial mound, accompanied by the banging of sticks on shields. Our text was taken from a skaldic poem by Egil Skallagrimsson about the death of his son written in the first half of the tenth century, roughly contemporary with the burials on Eigg. This was set to a chant modelled on a rimur, Icelandic folk music/poetry which has existed since at least the 14th century. We used one of the verses, which was repeated, accompanied by humming and shield banging. In the evening performance, we also carried torches. Whilst singing, we processed around two of the Viking burial mounds in a figure of eight.
We´ll make offerings to Odin
Though not in eagerness,
I´ll make my soul´s sacrifice
Not suffer silently: