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:


Pill-il-il-il-il-il Eòghainn


Pill-il-il-il-il-il Eòghainn


Pill-il-il-il-il-il Eòghainn

Pill-il-il Aodhainn

Pill-il-il heòin

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.

Viking Times

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:

Early Christianity
In the Gaelic-speaking West Highlands of Scotland, as in Ireland, references to keening, or mourning, women were common from the seventh to twelfth centuries, and again from the sixteenth century until the early nineteenth century. This act of lamenting the loss of a person through vocal improvisation is common in many cultures of the world, including – as demonstrated in Beowulf – among the Vikings. The act of keening took place at the time of the funeral and burial and was performed by the mourning woman (bean-tuiream), who was a professional and often paid for her services. Collinson writes about the act of keening, that ‘It was a ritual which was looked upon as the proper right and need of everyone high or low, to ensure their happy passage to the next world, the bàs sona or ‘happy death’.’ Mourning women were as much a necessity as midwives, and in the island of Barra, it was reported in Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (V, p.345) that there was a bean-tuiream in every parish. Keening women were believed to have used stock poetic elements (for example praising and listing the genealogy of the deceased, and emphasising the woeful condition of those left behind) set to vocal lament. There were usually one or more women who sang a chorus, accompanied by physical moevements including rocking, kneeling, and hand clapping (bais bhualadh). (Collinson, Keller). The laments were sung to a special kind of music which was heard regularly and was well-known to community members.
According to Collinson:
There were two distinct kinds of mourning song, one which was sung in the house, the ‘Seisig-bhàis’ (literally the death-tune or air) often shortened to seisig, or seis; and one sung during the procession of the coffin to the burial ground, the ‘tuiream’. 
The Coronach
The Coronach, or tuiream, was the elegy, or dirge, which was sung outside during the funeral procession. This was performed by a single bean-tuiream from the locality. Carmichael writes about this that:
The bean-tuirim followed the body, every now and then striking the coffin with her hands like a drum and making all the din possible, and keeping time with the movements of the men (i.e. the bearers). All the virtues of the dead, and a few more, were mentioned and extolled, and the genealogy for many generations praised and  lauded.’ 
In Ireland, the practice became obsolete as the result of, among other factors, consistent opposition from the Roman Catholic church in Ireland from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. The church was so opposed to the practice that they recommended excommunication for offenders.
Carmichael, Alexander, Carmina Gadelica, Vol.1-5 (Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, 1928).
Collinson, Francis, ‘Mourning and Funeral Music’, in The Traditional and National Music of Scotland (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1966), pp.113-118.
Marcello Sorce Keller, “Expressing, Communicating, Sharing and Representing Grief and Sorrow with Organized Sound (Musings in Eight Short Sentences)”, in Stephen Wild, Di Roy, Aaron Corn, and Ruth Lee Martin (eds.), Humanities Research: One Common Thread the Musical World of Lament, Australian National University, Vol. XIX (2013), no. 3, 3–14.


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