A collective voice for literature and languages in Scotland

Sandy NicDhòmhnaill Jones – Prìosanachd nan Còisir / “The Choirs’ Imprisonment”

Prìosanachd nan Còisir

1.Fuirich a-staigh! Na gluais bhon taigh!


2. Rabhadh is bacadh! –

gun ur còisir a’ cleachdadh

ach gun fhuaim, ’s fo ghruaim.


3. Dhan donas an staing!

Glas-guib air beul na còisire;

làmhan an stiùiriche cuibhrichte;

a’ Cheòlraidh fo ghlais ’s fo chuing.


4. Ghoid an glasadh ar ceòl, ar brìgh bhitheil –

‘Na seinn, na gleus fidheall no cruit!’

Dhiùlt iad an tlachd as prìseil’,

’s tha ar n-anam fo phràmh is ìseal:

‘Na tog guth!  Bi sàmhach ’s diùid!’


5. An t-Sonaid-Bhraighe

San t-sàmhchair chruaidh, gun fhonn ’s gun cheòl

Shuidh sinn gu brònach bochd;

is ghuileadh leinn gu goirt ’s fo dheòir

le ar clàrsach ’s ar guth nan tost.

Oir chuireadh casg air còisirean

tighinn còmhla ’s togail fuinn;

cha cheadaichte ar companas

is toirmisgte dhuinn ar seinn.


Na ceannardan a rinn bràighean dhinn’

’s a thug sa phrìosan balbhachd sinn,

cha tuig iad an ciont gu bràth.

Ach mairidh ar ceòl bho linn gu linn:

an seo air cuirm-chiùil chuimhnich sinn,

is molar ar seirm – le àgh.


6. Nis! – cluinnear, à stèideam ball-coise

’s à taigh-seinns’ – eubhach àrd.

Fir bras, raoit, mu sgaoil nas tràithe

na sinn’ – a tha fhathast nar bràighean –

’s nach maoidh air càch: ceòladair, bàrd.


7. Nàire! Cha ghabh sinn fiù ’s

ri aon leisgeul faoin a bharrachd!

Mallachd air eu-cheart ’s air na clachan

maslach air càrn a’ chiùil.


8. Gun an còrr dàlach

air saorsa nan neo-choireach –

oir foghnaidh ar creach!


9. Nach b’ fhiach? – Is fhiach! Briseamaid a-mach!


Translation: “The Choirs’ Imprisonment”

1. You must stay indoors! You may not leave your home!


2. Prohibited acts! –

all choir rehearsals must be

noiseless and grim-faced.


3. Damn this wretched impasse!

Our choristers all muzzled,

the conductor’s hands chained,

the muses in bondage, held hostage.


4. Lockdown stole our music, our very being –

‘No singing, no tuning fiddles and harps!’

Denied our most precious pleasure,

dejected and sorely downhearted:

‘Not a sound from you!  Silence, forbear!’


5. The Captive Sonnet

In cruel silence, robbed of tune and melody

here we sit sad and sorrowing;

yea, we weep and shed bitter tears,

our harps and our voices mute.

Our choirs are prevented

from gathering and joining in song;

our companionship prohibited

our music-making forbidden.


The rulers who hold us captive

and threw us muted into prison

will never grasp their guilt.

Yet our music will ever outlast them:

for here we remembered our concerts,

performing to joyous praise.


6. What’s that now! – noisy shouting

from football stadiums and pubs.

Reckless, rowdy men, on early release –

while we’re still held captive – though we pose

no threat, as musicians and poets.


7. For shame! We will not accept

a single further empty excuse!

This accursed injustice’s a disgrace –

as are the stones piled upon music’s cairn.


8. No more delay now

in freeing the innocent –

our torment must end!


9. Nothing to lose, everything to gain! Let’s stage a breakout!


Explanatory Notes

I took as my motivation for this forty-line commissioned suite of poetry the considerable privation to musicians, singers and other artists constituted by the severe restrictions on rehearsing and performing together, which were imposed during Covid lockdown. These restrictions remain in place at the date of writing – despite increased freedoms now permitted to other sectors of society which pose greater risk in a pandemic (such as crowded sports stadiums and pubs).  Commercial interests and lobbying influence appear to exercise greater power over politicians’ decisions than the value to society and individuals of the creative arts.

There are two metaphors flowing through the suite: grief and imprisonment.  The loss of communal music-making, for those to whom this is precious, has been nothing short of an existential sorrow and a grieving process.  I have therefore structured this poetry suite in nine stanzas, reflecting the different stages of the ‘cycle of grief’, from shock, through numbness, pain, depression, lamentation and anger, to resolve, renewed purpose and hope.

The structure of the suite’s nine stanzas is a symmetrical series using five different poetic forms, with a sonnet (which, like ‘sonata’, means ‘a little sound’) at its core.  The sonnet is surrounded by four outer layers, on either side: a one-line rhymed couplet; a three-line haiku; a quatrain; and a five-line rondeau.  This perfectly symmetrical overall structure is a metaphor for music-making gripped in a vice, or incarcerated deep inside a high-security prison.  The innocent, silenced sonnet – music itself – is in solitary confinement.  Imagine an imprisoned choir, with the choristers each singing their part to each other, from their cells.

I took as my inspiration for the central sonnet the ‘Prisoners’ Chorus’ (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) in Verdi’s ‘Nabucco’; which is itself in turn based on Psalm 137 ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’.  My sonnet is a hybrid between the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet forms (the Petrarchan structure of two quatrains, followed by a sestet; with a more Shakespearean rhyme scheme).

(The English translation does not replicate the formal rhyme and rhythm schemes of the Gaelic, but is in fairly free verse, conveying the meaning of the original.)

  1. One-line rhymed-couplet: shock
  2. Three-line haiku: numbness
  3. Four-line quatrain: pain
  4. Five-line rondeau: depression
  5. Fourteen-line Sonnet: lament for an inexpressible loss – the joy of communal music-making
  6. Five-line rondeau: anger
  7. Four-line quatrain: resolve
  8. Three-line haiku: renewed purpose
  9. One-line rhymed couplet: hope.

Literature Talks 2021 is a series commissioned by Literature Alliance Scotland, asking Scotland’s leading writers and literature producers to respond to the literary landscape by starting a conversation that challenges us to make change happen.


You can also listen to Sandy reading her poetry suite below, first in Gaelic and followed by the English translation.

LitScotland · Prìosanachd nan Còisir by Sandy NicDhòmhnaill Jones


Sandy NicDhòmhnaill Jones is the current Bàrd a’ Chomuinn Ghàidhealaich (Crowned Gaelic Bard, 2019-2021).  Her bilingual Gaelic-English collection of poetry and songs ‘Crotal Ruadh – Red Lichen’ (Acair Books 2016) was a prizewinner in the Donald Meek Award 2016. She has won the Wigtown Gaelic Poetry Prize (2013); the Irish/Scots Gaelic Poetry Prize ‘Choirnéil Uí Néill’ (2014); and a New Writer’s Award (Gaelic Books Council and the Scottish Book Trust, 2011).  Her new collection ‘An Seachdamh Tonn – The Seventh Wave’ was published in June 2021.

A Gold Medalist at Scotland’s Royal National Mòd (Oban Times Gold Medal 2017), Sandy has won various other Mòd music competitions as a singer, harpist and composer.  She is a Board member of the Gaelic College Sabhal Mòr Ostaig (SMO), and was previously a Board member of Bòrd na Gàidhlig.  She is an accredited FCIL (Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL), and former Chief Executive. In her earlier career, she was a senior executive in the UN and Commonwealth organisations.

Sandy holds Master’s degrees from Oxford, Harvard and London Universities. She is fluent in German and also speaks French, Spanish, and some Welsh and Greek.

Twitter: @sandynicdjones