Mairi’s Wedding is a Scottish song which has been popular throughout the world since it was first written in 1934.
The original words were written in Gaelic by John Bannerman and set to an old Scottish folk tune collected by the piper and composer Dr Peter A McLeod. The lyrics were later modified and translated into English by Sir Hugh Robertson.
John Bannerman was general superintendent of the General Post Office in Scotland but his passion was for Gaelic music and literature.
In 1934 he attended the National Mod, which is the annual festival of Gaelic culture in Scotland. He looked on as a young singer called Mary MacNiven won the gold medal in the singing competition. Bannerman was so taken by her voice and performance that he decided to write a song for her.
The result was Mairi’s Wedding, which also became known as the Lewis Bridal Song and is sometimes anglicised to Marie’s Wedding. It’s not clear why he chose the title because MacNiven’s wedding did not take place until 1940 when she married Captain John Campbell.
Mary didn’t become a professional singer but continued to perform at festivals and ceilidhs until she died at the age of 91.
John Bannerman was a friend of the Sir Hugh Robertson, who was conductor of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir. The two had collaborated on several songs such as Joy of My Heart and the Uist Tramping Song.
Robertson decided to translate Bannerman’s lyrics and published his version in 1936 under the title of The Lewis Bridal Song. It was, however, a very loose translation which could almost be classified as a different song altogether.
For example, Bannerman’s song opens with the words:
“Si mo ghaol-sa Màiri Bhàn
Màiri bhòidheach sgeul mo dhàin,
Gaol mo chridh’-sa Màiri Bhàn,
S tha mi ‘dol ‘ga pòsadh.”
A reasonably literal translation would be something like:
Beautiful Mary is my darling
Pretty Mary, the inspiration of my song
The love on my heart, beautiful Mary
I’m going to her wedding.
In Robertson’s translation this becomes:
Step we gaily on we go
Heel for heel and toe for toe
Arm and arm and row on row
All for Mairi’s wedding
The remaining verses also deviate from Bannerman’s original but Robertson does retain the Scottish rural setting and the sense of joy and celebration. The wedding guests travel over hillways of “myrtle green and bracken brown”. There are also a few Scottish Gaelic words thrown in such as ‘sheiling’ meaning shepherd hut, “bairns” meaning children and ‘creel’ meaning basket.
The third verse, the wedding toast to Mairi, highlights the concerns of the country people in Scotland at the time and also throughout the rest of the world. It wishes that Mairi should have plenty of food, plenty of fuel to warm her home and plenty of children to light up her life.
Robertson presented Mary MacNiven with a signed copy of his version of the song, which quickly became the popular and standard version. When Robertson published it in his collection, Songs of the Isles, Bannerman was not credited or even mentioned.
Mairi’s Wedding has been performed by hundreds of artists across the world including The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Jimmy Shand, The Rankin Family and The High Kings.