Of Bells and Haunting Melodies


Some days, I’m quirkier than other days.  Today I’m waxing nostalgic about church bells and psalm singing (in Gaelic no less) even though as my son describes me, “She’s allergic to going to church.”

One chilly spring  Sunday in the late 1990’s, we visited my sister-in-law in Calgary, Alberta.  Her house  overlooked Elbow Park.Adjacent to the park, nestled into the hillside sat Christ Church, a charming old Anglican church complete with bell tower that contained bats and…hand rung bells.  As I stood on the hillside that morning, the bells pealed out over the park.  I looked at my husband and said, “If we ever move here, we must live where I can hear these bells!” 

Several years later, we were living in a house so close I could see the bell tower.  Hearing the bells brought me peace – a feeling that all was right in the world (or at least my little corner of it).  Weather permitting, the windows of the house were flung open to let in the happy noise. 

Christ Church’s bells – there are eight – are hand rung in a very specific, mathematical sequence known as “change ringing.”  The bells are gargantuan but they hang in frames allowing them to be swung in an arc over 360 degrees easily – by children or seniors – pulling on long ropes.  However, it is an art that requires constant practice and attention.

Change ringing originated in England and has been practiced since the 17th Century.Churches all over Europe and North America have change ringing bells; in the United States, change ringing bells rang from Old North Church in Boston before the American Revolution. 

To hear bells in Toronto, I can’t just lean out my window. I have to go to St. James Cathedral at Church and King Streets.  This church, which has 12 bells (the only place outside of New York City with 12), known as the Bells of Old York.  They are the only set of change-ringing bells in Ontario. 

 Where the bells light a joyous light deep inside me, psalm singing rips open my heart, brings me to my knees and lays me bare.  How could such a thing be appealing?  I have no idea.  Closing my eyes when I hear these haunting melodies, I feel the wild landscapes, the angry seas even though I can’t understand the Gaelic.  My niece, who lives on the Isle of Skye, says the first time she heard it all the hairs on her arms stood straight up.  I had the same reaction and yet, in true Celtic fashion, I cannot resist.  I click on YouTube and dive in.   Hairs rise to attention while the haunting beauty of the music flows into me. 

Practiced first in the small, remote kirks of Scotland, psalm-singing exists elsewhere – brought by the Scots who came to North America in the 18th and 19th Centuries.  It can still be heard in the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee by Appalachian descendants of these immigrants.  It is sung “a cappella” traditionally and is led by a “precentor” – one who sings beforehand – who sings out a couple of lines to the congregation and they return it.  It is haunting, it is beautiful.  It is woven into the DNA of some of us like coloured threads are woven together in a tartan. 

As the congregations in places like the Hebrides age, the art of “presenting” is at risk of dying out.  Thanks to technology like YouTube, perhaps new generations will learn of it and continue to pass on the ancient tradition of this moving music. 

(Videos of change-ringing bells and Gaelic psalm singing can be found on YouTube – I don’t have a video upgrade.  For the bells try Trinity Church NYC, for the singing try “Gaelic Psalms,Back Church, Isle of Lewis”)


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