The Story Behind the Song: Mairi’s Wedding
It’s one of the best-loved Scottish tunes of all time, and ever popular at weddings. But what was the inspiration behind ‘Mairi’s Wedding’? Our latest blog explores the song’s history...
‘Mairi’s Wedding’, or ‘The Lewis Bridal Song’ as it is also known, has been popular throughout the world since it was first written in 1934. Set to an old Scottish folk tune that was collected by the piper and composer Dr Peter A McLeod, the original words for the song were written in Gaelic by John Bannerman. Born in South Uist, Bannerman left the island for Glasgow aged seven, and was brought up in the local Gaelic community, developing a lifelong interest in the songs and literature of the culture.
In 1934, John Bannerman attended the National Mod, an annual festival of Gaelic culture in Scotland. That year at the festival, the Gold Medal, the premiere singing prize of its kind, was awarded to Mary MacNiven. Bannerman was so impressed by her voice and performance that day that he decided to write a song in her honour.
This song, ‘Mairi Bhan’, was first performed for Mary MacNiven at the Highlanders’ Institute, then located in Glasgow’s Elmbank Street. The venue was a focal point of cultural and social activity for the Highlands and Islands community in the city. It is widely believed that it was through this performance that Sir Hugh Robertson, then the conductor of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir, came to know the song. Robertson and Bannerman were long term collaborators, with John Bannerman producing a Gaelic version of Robertson’s song ‘Joy of my Heart’, and Robertson writing English words for the ‘Uist Tramping Song’, which had been written by Bannerman.
Robertson would go on to translate ‘Mairi Bhan’ into English, and in writing English words for ‘Mairi’s Wedding’, created a version that bears little lyrical resemblance to the original. Indeed, Robertson’s version makes no reference to Mary MacNiven’s Gold Medal win and it was retitled ‘The Lewis Bridal Song’ upon being published as part of his Songs of the Isles collection in 1936. Regardless, The Herald noted that an original copy of the translation autographed by the choral maestro was one of MacNiven’s most prized possessions.
Robertson’s version quickly became the popular and standard version of the song, and is likely the one you’re familiar with today. The song has since been performed by hundreds of artists across the world, including The Lochies, The Corries and Jimmy Shand, whose instrumental version is a ceilidh favourite. The song has even inspired its own dance, with James B Cosh devising a Scottish country dance to the tune in 1959.
Ahead of her 90th birthday in 1995, Mary MacNiven spoke to the Daily Record about the song saying, ‘I can’t believe it became so popular. But when it was first played to me I found it very catchy – and I still do’.
Whether you’re looking for a piper to play ‘Mairi’s Wedding’ at your own ceremony, or the perfect space to host a ceilidh, The National Piping Centre can help.
Through our Piper Hire service, we supply extremely professional, competent, expert pipers in full highland dress for any occasion. Our pipers have abundant experience in playing at all types of engagements and are guaranteed to add a special touch at any event. Click here to find out more.