For the last couple of years we have produced Christmas stamps using artwork provided by people from Islay or with associations with the island. Most of these contributions have come from young people and I am sure you will agree that the quality of their work has been outstanding.
This year when we asked for ideas for the 2020 Christmas stamp someone suggested an issue dedicated to our most popular Gaelic Christmas carol—Leanabh an àigh. We think that this is indeed a very fitting subject matter for this year’s Christmas issue. For those of you who live on Islay or in Gaelic speaking areas of Scotland this beautiful festive hymn will be very familiar to you. However, others might never have heard of it and therefore a brief history might be welcome.
Leanabh an àigh was written by Màiri Dhòmhnallach (Mary MacDonald), a resident of the Isle of Mull. She lived near the village of Bunessan and in addition to being a crofter’s wife and a devout Baptist was also a singer poet and songwriter. She didn’t write her own music, but would often set her songs to old folk melodies. We don’t know when exactly she penned the lyrics to Leanabh an àigh, or the origins of the tune the words were put to. The now famous tune, known as Bunessan after Màiri’s village, is a traditional melody and probably already well-known in local circles before Màiri became inspired to compose her new carol.
During her lifetime her work was not well-known outwith her community, but Leanabh an àigh was to become famous after her death. It was discovered in the 1880s by Lachlan Macbean, a local newspaper editor and talented translator based in Kirkcaldy with an interest in resurrecting lost Gaelic songs. Macbean used the Gaelic lyrics as a basis for Child in a Manger, published in 1888, which remains a popular Christmas carol in Scotland—particularly within the Church of Scotland. But it is more than just a well-known carol.
Leanabh an àigh is as much about local identity as it is about the Christmas message. It is THE Hebridean carol. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas on Islay (or any of the other islands, I suspect) without Leanabh an àigh, and both the Gaelic and Macbean’s English versions are widely sung in churches, schools, public concerts and homes. The lyrics speak to a particularly Hebridean non-conformist theology that even now feels rooted to a particular part of Scotland.
Sadly, once Child in a Manger came to the attentions of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Percy Dearmer, who were compiling a new hymnbook entitled Songs of Praise in the 1920s, they decided the tune needed new lyrics. The hymnal’s editor, Martin Shaw, commissioned Eleanor Farjeon to compose some new words and she duly produced a poem that would become world famous as Morning Has Broken. Consequently, Bunessan has become more synonymous with Cat Stevens than the island community in which it was born.
While the tune is now firmly identified with lyrics that are neither Hebridean nor connected to Christmas, within Scotland’s Gaelic speaking communities the ancient words are still celebrated. There are other Gaelic carols, but none that are either as well known or which play such a role in the life of our island communities. As such, these stamps are a small and simple tribute to the greatest Gaelic Christmas song ever written, and the woman who wrote it.
Full sheet £7.50 (UM or CTO)
Leanabh an àigh first day cover £3.00
Bunessan first day cover £3.00
Full set (UM or CTO) £2.50
Mini sheet (UM or CTO) £2.50