Monday, September 7, 2015

OHP Chats with Gillebride MacMillan,
Castle Leoch's Gwyllyn the Bard

Outlanderhomepage originals
By J. Hines.

We recently had the distinct pleasure of sitting down via Skype to chat with Outlander’s resident bard, Gillebride MacMillan.  If you’re a fan of the show (and really, who isn’t?) you’re already familiar with his clear, mellifluous voice.  But, we thought you’d like to get to know a bit more about him.  First thing’s first... for the non Gaelic speakers among us, how do you pronounce Gillebride correctly? Phonetically, the Gaelic pronunciation of his name is Gil ye BREE’ djah  (4 syllables and don't forget to roll the "r"!).  So now that we all know how to address him properly...

OHP:  Tell us a bit about your background.  How did you become interested in the bardic traditions? 

GM:  I suppose it’s really just where I come from.  I’m from the island of South Uist, which is in the Hebrides, very far North and West of Scotland. It has a population of only about 1200 people and Gaelic is the language spoken there.  It’s my first language…I didn’t learn English until I went to school.  So I was brought up hearing and singing traditional Gaelic songs.  It was a big thing to compose songs there, everyone just did it. Knowing about poetry, especially Gaelic poetry, was also a very big thing in the community. I sang quite a bit as a child, and knew other children who sang or were children of bards.  So, growing up, it was just a very natural part of everyday life. 

OHP: Your brother and sister have accompanied you on some of your recordings.  Does everyone in your family sing or play a musical instrument?

GM:  Well my father was a very good piper and singer; he was a pipe major.  He knew lots of songs.  My mother doesn’t really sing, but she knows hundreds of songs as well.  Both of my sisters sing…they were always performing in concerts when I was young, so I would accompany my parents to hear them sing. I’m the youngest of 11 children (8 brothers and 2 sisters) and all of them can sing, but only 3 of us actually do sing.

OHP:  11 children…wow!  Did you start singing just to stand out in the crowd?

GM: (laughing) Yes, maybe!

OHP:  Did you study music or poetry at University?

GM:  No, actually.  I did Celtic Studies and Geography, and also Economics and Spanish.  So I actually didn’t study music at all.  Oh, except for the bagpipes. But it’s been 6 or 7 years since I’ve played, so I’m a bit rusty.  I keep thinking, “If I just had two months of playing, I could get it back!”

OHP:  I just wondered if you had studied classic epic poetry like The Canterbury Tales or Beowulf because of the type of songs you sing now.

GM:  I suppose in a way I did study song because of the poetry.   Gaelic poetry was all in song up until the ’40 and 50’s.  We didn’t really have any non-singing poetry until 1953.

OHP:  Really?  That’s so interesting!  Given that the tradition is so strong where you grew up, it must please you to see the renewed popularity of the bardic tradition in the 21st century.

GM:  Absolutely.  And Outlander just helps people to learn about this strong bardic tradition. I had actually been working with Clan Currie in the US before I got the job with Outlander.  Clan Currie were the hereditary bards of Clan Donald, one of the main Clans in Scotland. They were actually based in South Uist.  They've been doing a lot to let people know about the bardic traditions.

OHP: Do you still perform at traditional Gatherings in Scotland and elsewhere? 

GM:  Yes, but not in Scotland.  Most of the Clan Gatherings are in the US and Canada now.  I perform more at games and festivals in Scotland.  The Gatherings in Scotland traditionally don’t have singers; they have pipers and dancers, but not singers.  But they do have them at the US and Canadian Gatherings.

OHP:  Really…I didn’t know that.

GM:  I think it’s time to change that in Scotland!  It would probably be very well-received to have singing at the Gatherings. I think people would really enjoy it.

OHP:  I agree!

GM:  Before Outlander, I performed a lot at Gaelic Festivals in Scotland and Ireland, and throughout Europe.  Since Outlander, I’ve been entertaining at Outlander Gatherings (like the one I was at recently in Quebec), and for some of the tour groups.  I’ve gotten to meet some really wonderful people like that.  I’ll give a talk about bardic traditions and a bit about Scottish history and then sing for people.  That’s been going really well and it’s been so well- received (see below for a complete list of those groups). I was at an Outlander event in North Carolina in July, and worked with a group called Novel Adventures...they put together group trips based on novels. It was funny because I had just worked with them on a tour they did in Scotland a few weeks before, and there they were again, 10 miles up the road in North Carolina! It’s really been wonderful because I love doing it. I love singing and I so enjoy meeting the people afterwards.  It’s so nice when people come together and become friends through a common interest because you form such strong bonds.

So along comes Outlander…
OHP:  I understand that you were the Gold Medal Winner of the National Mòd in 2004 (Note: A Mòd is a festival of Scottish Gaelic song, art and culture).  Did the Outlander casting people know that and come to you for the part of Gwyllyn or did you audition for it?

GM: They put out an advert for a Gaelic singer for the cast, so I went to Edinburgh, and basically sang into a camera. The tape was sent off to California, and then I didn’t hear anything for about 2 months.  The next thing I knew, they called me and basically told me that they were keen on my voice and that I got the part. 

OHP:   Well, you do have a beautiful voice!

GM:  Oh, thank you.

OHP:  Once you had accepted the part, since you’re not a professional actor, how did you prepare for the role and “become Gwyllyn”?

GM: Well, first I was in contact with Bear McCreary to arrange the song “The Woman of Balnain” and they also asked me to choose 2 other songs from the period that I liked. So I did that and sent them off to him.  I was working with Declan Hegarty, an Irish harp player from Derry, Northern Ireland, who teaches here in Glasgow. He did the harp arrangements ( I don’t actually play the harp; I don’t know if you knew that.

OHP: No, I thought that was you playing on the show.

GM:  No, that was my acting skills! (laughing)   We went in and recorded the songs first, then went into the film studio to the Great Hall set to “act” out the scene.  All of the close-ups of the harp-playing were actually Declan’s hands, so it’s fortunate that our hands are similar. He was my “hand double.” (laughing). 

OHP:  Were you actually singing during the filming of the scene in the Great Hall?

GM:  Yes I was, but because of all noise from the other activity going on, they edited in the recording so that you could hear it in the final version.  There was actually a funny story…it was at the end of Ep. 3 where everyone was standing and clapping, and they asked me to sing an upbeat,  jolly sort of song. And it was improvised, so I knew I’d be singing a capella, and I was thinking “Right, I have to sing this really well because it’ll be live.” And if you look, you can see me singing, but you can’t hear me. So all my worry over doing it perfectly was for nothing, because they were more interested in the look of the shot (laughing).  But anyway, it was great fun!

OHP:  Among OL fans, you’re best known for singing The Woman of Balnain in Ep 3 (The Way Out).  You mentioned previously that you did the arrangement. Can you elaborate on that...did you collaborate with Bear McCreary on the music or lyrics of that song (or any other songs on the soundtrack)? If so, what was that process like? 

GM:  Well, Bear McCreary composed the music, based on English lyrics from the story in the book, then Àdhamh translated the lyrics into Gaelic, and then I adapted the Gaelic lyrics to fit the music, so it was a bit of a collaborative effort.

OHP:  How was it for you on the set; what did you enjoy the most about being on Outlander?  Was there anything that surprised you about the filming process? 

GM:  Well, I recently saw that someone, I think it may have been Cat, tweeted that the OL cast and crew were the happiest and friendliest she’d ever worked with, and although they were the only one I’d ever worked with, I can say that was very true. They were all genuinely friendly, helpful and lovely people… Sam, Cat, Gary, Graham, Ron…everyone.  They’re all such lovely people. 

Something that surprised me, since I was one of the named actors for the day, was that I got my own caravan (trailer) and my own Personal Assistant, and I didn’t quite know what to do.  I should have taken a photo of myself in the caravan or something.  Maybe I should have upped my diva tendencies! (laughing). 

OHP:  Have you been surprised by the, ah, intensity of Outlander fans?  

GM: (laughing) Yes, but in a very nice way!  By far the very best fans out there.  I think it’s because they love the books so much and, most, if not all, are happy with the way they’ve been adapted. They’re genuinely happy that the books they love so much have been treated so well and brought to life in a way that does them justice.  And they’ve been the most amazing fans and so good to me…I’ve met so many wonderful people as a result of this on Twitter and Facebook, and in person, and they’re all so passionate about the books and the show. They’ve really embraced the culture and Scotland in general, even if they’ve never been here. 

OHP:  Do you have any funny stories you can tell our readers about filming? 

GM: One week before filming I had to go for my wig and costume fitting.  The wig took a while to fit properly to my head and they used some kind of glue on my scalp.  All I know is that it was quite sore when they took it off, I have to say.  So I was glad to get it off…and yet on the on other hand, I was also bit sad at the same time because I’d always wanted long hair!

OHP:  Did they let you keep the wig as a souvenir?

GM:  (Laughing) No, unfortunately not.  What I would have loved to have kept was the jacket I wore. It was so fine and detailed.  Just beautiful.  And it was like that with all of the costumes…I was amazed at the level of detail…from the socks, to the shoes, to the undergarments, to the frills at the neckline and on the sleeves, down to the stitching.  When you think that some of the costumes are only on the screen for a short time, and yet you know the amount of time and work that’s gone into it…it’s just amazing.  But I suppose that’s why the look of the show is so fantastic…all that attention to detail.

OHP:  I know what you mean…I often go on to Terry’s blog about the costumes.  She and her crew have done such an amazing job.  It’s hard to imagine the amount of work that’s gone into everything.

GM:  Yes, the whole look of the show is so authentic.  And the story, too, has been mostly very true to the books.

OHP:  I agree.  I’m a huge fan of the books, so I know that there were some variations, but I understand why Ron had to do some things differently in order to move the story forward within the time constraints. I think everyone’s done such a wonderful job with the show.

GM:   Right, yes.  I’m a bit sad that Gwyllyn doesn’t return in the books, though…but you never know!

OHP:  I hope he does return!  I’m not sure if you would know this, but I was wondering  if you’ll be doing any more vocals for the soundtrack next season?

GM:  I would love that, but I haven’t heard anything yet.  I do have a song on Volume 2 of the Season One Soundtrack…you may recognize it if you’re familiar with Episode 3.  There was about 20 seconds of it in near the end. (*Gillebride then proceeded to give me a huge thrill by singing some it for me! Yes, his voice really IS that angelic! It’s called An Fhìdeag Airgid  (The Silver Whistle).  It’s funny,  as I said earlier, I was in North Carolina recently and one of the fans…I believe she goes by Sheugs  on Twitter, started a #BringBackTheBard hashtag (laughing). (Yay @sheugs! Excellent idea!)

OHP:  We know Sheugs!  We just may have to revive that hashtag and see if we can get it trending! Speaking of season 2, I’m sure Bear will be writing a beautiful score as a backdrop to the Culloden scenes, if they include that battle next season.  Personally, I think it would be amazing for you to be singing some sad, haunting vocals with it.  Any possibility of that happening?

GM: That would be fantastic.  I do sing a lot of Jacobite songs, and even some specifically about Culloden.  One of them even lists some of the people and clans that died on the battlefield.  Maybe I’ll send Bear an email about it!

OHP:  I think you should!  It would be wonderful to hear you singing those.

GM:  Well, the other thing is that according to the history, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Gaelic tutor was also a bard, and one of his main warriors on the battlefield was a bard as well.  So even though Gwyllyn doesn’t return, there may be room for a bard.  I haven’t heard anything to that effect, but I’d love to do more!

OHP:  Last question:  What’s next for you?  Any plans to do any more television or film appearances? Are you working on new recordings/upcoming concerts in the US?  We’d be happy to promote your upcoming projects to Outlander fans…you have quite a following!

GM:  I have the US National Mòd in Ligonier, Pennsylvania in September, I think on the 25th and 26th, then it’s back to Scotland.  Provisionally, I may be joining Clan Currie in their annual event The Pipes of Christmas in New York next year. (The concerts are held each December at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City and Central Presbyterian Church in Summit, New Jersey. And of course, I'll continue to do some Outlander-related tours and events.  I should also put out another CD…it’s been awhile, so I need to do that!

Gillebride performing at the NY Caledonian Club (thanks to the NY Caledoninan Club
 for the use of the photo and to Liz Mercado (@MzLiz61) for sharing it!)

OHP:  Gillebride, Thank you so much for giving up part of your Saturday evening to speak to us.  It was such a pleasure to meet you! 

Please be sure to visit Gillebride’s website at to check his upcoming appearance schedule and for information about his CDs.


  1. Thank you for this! Any chance of getting the lyrics in Gàidhlig to The Woman of Balnain so we can learn Gàidhlig while singing them? Tapadh leibh.