Conair Bheag (A Little Rosary): New Music Based on Old Traditions

Transept’s exhibition (a)void opens today at 7:30pm. The exhibition is housed at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in St Andrews.



Thinking about the theme for this year’s Transept art exhibition, ‘(a)void’, brought to my mind the adage that idle hands are the devil’s workshop. In scripture Christ tells the parable of a man who being freed from demonic possession becomes possessed by an increased number of evil spirits because he is found empty.1 How can we avoid allowing the void to be filled with evil? As a Roman Catholic, I was taught the usual rote prayers growing up, to fill my mind with good things as Paul exhorts.2 In the Lord’s prayer, one prays, ‘lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’. The act of praying, in directing one’s attention to God, is not only an avoiding of evil but a pursuit of the good. The rosary is a popular devotional prayer which occupies the minds and imaginations of many Catholics.

The Rosary

Religious communities and the clergy traditionally pray the Divine Office, including the weekly recitation of 150 psalms, known as the Psalter. In thirteenth century London, bead-chains called Pater Nosters were used as an aid for counting 150 repetitions of the Pater Noster (The Lord’s Prayer). This devotion was ‘the uneducated person’s version of the 150 Psalms’.3 This gave the laity a simple and eminently doable devotion which connected them to the liturgical life of the Church. A similar practice of praying 150 repetitions of the Ave Maria (Hail Mary) became known as the Psalter of Our Lady.4 Confraternities developed in various countries in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, with men and women members committed to praying the forty-five-minute Psalter of Our Lady on a weekly basis.5 The Ave Marias were considered ‘verbal roses’6 offered to Mary, and there are beautiful images depicting this. Religious illustrations for meditation were included in confraternity manuals and there were many variations on how to pray the rosary.7

Over time the rosary became quite standardised and other prayers were included, such as the Apostle’s Creed, The Lord’s Prayer and the Doxology.8 There is a prescribed mystery to meditate upon for each decade (set of ten Hail Marys). These mysteries are particular events related to Christ’s life and death and resurrection. For example, the first Joyful Mystery is the Annunciation, the encounter between the angel Gabriel and the Blessed Virgin Mary, anticipating the birth of Christ.9 The devotion of the rosary remains popular today. Some Catholics set aside fifteen minutes each day to devote to a set of mysteries. Others fill the spare minutes of the day-walking down the street, waiting in a lineup, or sitting on a bus-with the mysteries of the rosary.

Studying in Scotland

In September 2023 I traveled to St Andrews, Scotland, for Sacred Music studies. As an international student, I have naturally been eager to explore Scottish culture and have an increasing affection for it. I have read about and been inspired by Scottish Catholics who lived and passed along their faith. I have also found inspiration in learning about Scottish Gaelic speakers who spoke their language and passed it on. I realised that I would like to learn some basic Catholic prayers in Gaelic. Just as I have found a deeper sense of connection to the universal Church by learning some prayers in Latin, I hoped that I would develop a deeper connection to the local Scottish Church through learning these prayers in Gaelic. My friend directed me to an online scan of a Gaelic Catholic prayer book called Iul a’ Chriostaidh. I became excited with the prospect of praying with the exact words the Catholics I was reading about would have prayed. I noted that near the end of the book there are also some prayers in Latin from the Traditional Latin Mass,10 making me feel at home. As a church musician, I wanted to go one step further: I wanted to sing the Gaelic prayers.

Conair Bheag (A Little Rosary)

Conair Bheag is a short musical psalter of organ alternatim music which will be premiered at Transept’s upcoming art exhibition. This piece is made up of Gregorian chant, Gaelic text of traditional Catholic prayers, and the sounds of traditional Scottish music. It is the fruit of my reflections on the beauty of Roman Catholicism, the Gaelic language, and traditional Scottish music. There is a mesmerising quality to traditional Scottish music. There is an insistence to the drones of the bagpipes, of songs with verse after verse of stories to tell, and in pieces with the heterophony of various instruments doubling each other’s melodies while often adding unique ornamentation. This almost hypnotic quality is also inherent to the practice of the repetitive recitation of the beads of the rosary. The person meditates on sacred mysteries as they recite the same prayers again and again, gleaning new insights and entering deeper into the mysteries over years of repetition.

My composition is primarily a musical offering to our Lady of Aberdeen in honour of Gaelic-speaking Catholics, and in thanksgiving for the blessings I have received this year in Scotland. Like the Marian psalter, it is simple and meant to be accessible rather than virtuosic. I aimed for it to reflect Roman Catholicism by limiting the instrumentation strictly to the traditional liturgical musical elements of Gregorian chant and pipe organ, and to reflect Scotland through Gaelic texts and sounds in imitation of traditional Scottish music. This piece has seven movements, each of which is based on a piece of plainchant, and each of which I will describe briefly.

I. An Ainm an Athar, agus a Mhic, agus an Spioraid naoimh. Amen.11 (In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.)

This movement is played on the pipe organ. It is based on the chant melody of the sign of the cross which the celebrant can sing at the opening of a Mass.12 For Catholics the rosary is considered a weapon in spiritual battle, and so I thought it fitting to open with imitation of co-thional (music to gather the clans for battle13) of the signature phìob mhòr (Highland pipes) with its drone on ‘A’.

II. Urnaigh an Tighearna14 (The Lord’s Prayer)

This movement is sung a cappella, as are all the sung movements. I simply set the Scottish Gaelic text to the notes of the Pater noster chant.15

Ar n-Athair, a tha air nèamh, gum bu naomh a bhios t’ainm; gun tigeadh do rioghachd; gun dianar do thoil air talamh mar thathas ga dianamh air neamh. Thoir dhuinn an diugh ar n-aran lathail; math dhuinn ar fiachan, mar a mhathas sinne do luchd ar fiach: ’s na leig ann am buaireadh sinn; ach saor sinn bho ’n olc. Amen. 16

(Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil. Amen.)

III. Na Rùin Eibhinn17 (The Joyful Mysteries)

This movement is played on the pipe organ in imitation of the pìob-uilinn (Irish bagpipes) and the flute, in part to make this Marian movement gentler than the outer movements which focus on the Trinity. The drone of pìob-uilinn is a ‘D’. I chose to imitate the Irish bagpipes here to reflect the Celtic connection between Scotland and Ireland. The ‘bagpipes’ play a melody based on the Ave Maria chant three times. The second time through, the ‘flute’ comes in with the melody of the first half of the Ave Maria chant and the third time through it plays the second half of the chant.

IV. Na Rùin Dhòruinneach18(The Sorrowful Mysteries)

Fàilt dhut, a Mhoire, tha thu làn de na grasan; tha an Tighearna maille riut; is beannaichte thu measg nam mna; agus is beannaichte toradh do bhronn, Iosa. A Naomh Mhoire, Mhathair Dhè, guidh air ar sonne na peachaich, a nis, agus aig uair ar bàis. Amen.19

(Hail Mary, full of grace; The Lord is with thee; Blessed art thou amongst women, And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.)

I set the Gaelic text of the Hail Mary to the notes of the Ave Maria chant found in the Liber Usualis.20 While this prayer is very familiar to Catholics, the melody is less well-known than that of the Pater noster because this chant is not included in the Mass.

V. Na Rùin Ghlormhor21 (The Glorious Mysteries)

This is a jig with a 6/8 time signature and is a dance of celebration and victory. It is meant to imitate the pìob-uilinn with a reed in the pedal part adding some excitement. This movement uses material from the Ave Maria chant.

VI. Gloir don Athair (Glory be to the Father)

Gloir do ’n Athair, ’s don Mhac, ’s don Spiorad Naomh; Mar bha, ’s mar tha, is mar bhitheas fad shaoghal nan saoghal. Amen. 22

(Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.)

I set the Gaelic text of the doxology to the notes of the Gloria Patri (Move V)23 chant.

VII. Beannachadh (Blessing)

This last instrumental movement is a final blessing based on the final benediction which the priest can chant at the end of Mass.24It is imitative of the Highland pipes like the first movement, giving a sense of full circle, closure, and a sense of the repetition in prayer which is intrinsic to the rosary. The rosary begins with a blessing and closes with another blessing, sending the listener into the world, hopefully equipped for spiritual battle.


I hope this composition will be a source of meditation and that in re-presenting these traditional melodies and these traditional prayers in Gaelic, it will introduce listeners to some of the religious and cultural treasures which have been preserved and passed down. I am grateful to my friend Hannah Scholz who will play the organ at the exhibition; I will sing the chants. I hope you will join us. This piece is not the rosary, but it was inspired by the rosary, and I hope it leads to the rosary. If idle hands are the devil’s workshop, why not pick up a set of beads?


  • Catherine Helferty is an MLitt candidate in Sacred Music at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. She specialises in Roman Catholic liturgical music. She recently taught Sacred Music at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College, Barry's Bay, Ontario (2021-2023) and has directed music in various parishes, including the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Kingston, Ontario (2013-2017).

1. See Matthew 12:43–45.
2. See Philippians 4:8.
3. Anne Winston-Allen, Stories of the Rose: The Making of the Rosary in the Middle Ages (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), 112.
4. Ibid., xi.
5. Ibid., 116–117.
6. Ibid., xii.
7. Ibid., 33.
8. Ibid., 2–3.
9. For additional reading on the history of the rosary see Nathan D. Mitchell, The Mystery of the Rosary: Marian Devotion and the Reinvention of Catholicism (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2009), and Lorenzo F. Candelaria, The Rosary Cantoral: Ritual and Social Design in a Chantbook from Early Renaissance Toledo (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2008).
10. Iul A’ Chriostaidh, National Library of Scotland, Internet Archive (Innernis: Clo-bhuailte aig Ofig an Teachdaire, 1872)., 223–228.
11. Ibid., 10.
12. See the chant score here:
13. ‘LearnGaelic - Dictionary’, n.d. Accessed March 22, 2024.
14. Iul A’ Chriostaidh, 3.
15. See the chant score here:
16. Iul A’ Chriostaidh, 3.
17. Ibid., 209.
18. Ibid., 215.
19. Ibid., 3–4.
20. See the chant score here:
21. Iul A’ Chriostaidh, 218.
22. Ibid., 38.
23. See the chant score here:
24. See the chant score here:
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