… And along came two in quick succession! – by Iain Fraser
📷 by Somhairle MacDonald
When the Rev. Norman McLeod set sail on the Barque Frances Ann from Ullapool heading to Cape Breton in 1817, he couldn’t have known that he would end his long life in New Zealand having led one of the nineteenth century’s largest privately organised emigrations. I came across his story while visiting Waipu museum in New Zealand’s north island and was struck not only by the scale of the endeavour but also by the commitment of this Gaelic speaking community of some 800 people. They had already spent 33 years in Cape Breton when they invested immense time and money building 6 ships to follow McLeod to New Zealand. The full story of the journey and the eventual settlement of the community in Waipu is full of adventure and some tragedy. For me, seeing the objects and artefacts that came with them, such as a pair of moccasins, or a Gaelic Hymn book, created a lasting impression and I left the museum in Waipu with the vague idea that it would be great to write some new music inspired by McLeod, his followers, their lives and their culture.
When the 150th anniversary of the death of McLeod was reached in 2016, these thoughts, which had been rumbling around in my head for some years, took more shape and I started work composing new music which also incorporated some older melodies such as Chagair, Chagair a’ Ghruaghach, found in the Rev Patrick MacDonald’s collection of Highland Vocal airs, My Brother’s Letter transcribed from one of the earliest Cape Breton Fiddle recordings and a couple of older pipe tunes composed in New Zealand. Working with the Auckland Scottish Fiddle Club, we performed this new piece, named Kōterana, which is the Māori word for Scotland, in Waipu in December 2016 and in 2018 it was also performed at the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention in Aberdeen, in partnership with the Scottish Culture and Traditions organisation. However, it always felt to me that there was a more developed version lurking somewhere in my head and in January 2022 I successfully applied to Creative Scotland for funding to extend and record a full album with musicians contributing from Canada and New Zealand as well as here in Scotland.
Although there is a chronological aspect to the re-telling of the story in that the 4 named sections (movements?): Scotland, Canada, Australia & New Zealand reflect their actual migration route, much of the music on this recording came from considering how they might have felt as they experienced new landscapes and tholed the repeated upheaval as they moved from unsettled to settled. Their feelings of belonging, of culture and land being linked, of dùthchas, would have been woven into their hearts and it must have been utterly heart-wrenching for them to have to break these links.
I’ve been exploring a number of musical ideas over the last few years, for instance, featuring instruments traditionally thought of as being in a supporting role, such as the viola, by giving them the tune sometimes, and breaking the convention of writing only 8 bar sections. I also love adding in irregular bars every so often and setting music in less common keys. Call me radical!
With 18 musicians involved, Kōterana is certainly the biggest recording project I’ve been involved with and I’m very grateful to Barry Reid for not only his amazing studio engineering skills, but also for managing to make sense of and bring together multiple takes from 5 different studios in 3 different countries!
Album releases are a bit like waiting for a bus for me – nothing for ages then along come two in quick succession! Last year my album Gneiss was released by Fèis Rois to celebrate 30 years of The Adult Fèis – an annual teaching festival which I have been fortunate to have been involved with since the first year. The music of Gneiss similarly touches on notions of landscape and place and takes as a theme the idea that our lives are lived on the rocks upon which we stand.
Both albums are available as a CD+ booklet package and digital download from Bandcamp.You can also find me on the following social media pages…
CAOIR: Making an Album in Covid Times – by Joy Dunlop
📷 by Euan Robertson
My name is Joy Dunlop and I’m a Scottish Gaelic singer and broadcaster. I grew up in the small village of Connel, outside Oban. I was brought up immersed in the traditional music scene of Argyll but also, listening to pop music on Radio 1 and Atlantic 252! I think that it’s because of this mix that I grew up loving artists that combined the traditional with the new; think Capercaillie, Croft No. 5, Peatbog Fairies, Shine, Treacherous Orchestra, whilst being obsessed too with the more traditional side of Gaelic song. I’m still listening to all of the above, whilst also enjoying newer acts like Niteworks, Project SMOK and Elephant Sessions – all combined with a healthy side of cheesy pop and songs from the shows!
How did Caoir come to be? Honestly, a new solo album was long overdue – my last one was released in 2013 and although I’ve collaborated with others on many different projects since then, it had been looming greater and greater in my mind! I had been thinking for a time that I wanted to try something different with my music and was quietly exploring how to achieve a bigger and bolder sound that could fill festival stages or large venues. I’ve always loved music that pushed the boundaries of what was considered ‘trad’, without losing the soul of the songs and as a Gaelic singer, I’m always trying to make my music accessible to even those who don’t speak the language. I was also aware when showcasing that many festivals / larger venues were looking for a bigger band, one that would fill their stages and this fitted in well with my idea of expanding my current 3 piece line-up. I had also noticed that it was often male lead acts who played these types of gigs, and that the gender balance at festivals was often skewed as a result. Whilst this wasn’t a driving factor, it did give me a push to try to do something to correct that. If you’re not part of the solution…
I decided to bring together a group of amazing musicians whose playing I loved; Ron Jappy on guitar, Mhairi Marwick on fiddle, Gus Stirrat on bass, Euan Malloch on electric guitar and Ifedade Thomas on drums. What started as a jam session, soon grew into something more: a selection of music that we all loved and a real friendship and bond between us all. That mix of trust, creativity and drive for exploration eventually immerged as Caoir – an album that will hopefully resonate with both trad fans and those who just love music. The word caoir (pronounced koor) can mean many things, including firebrand / a blaze of fire, fiercely burning, accompanied by noise / rapid torrent / gleams, flames, flashes. I hope that listeners will also be able to hear this in the music. It’s predominantly traditional Gaelic songs that I’ve recorded, although 2 newer songs also make an appearance. One is a slightly older song, Cadal Cuain, composed by Ceitidh Morrison and Kenna Campbell and the other is a newer one by Alasdair Mac’IlleBhàin, called Bàs na Cailliche Bèire. He created this from a recording that he found on Tobar an Dualchais containing a snippet of a traditional song that had been lost. I love mixing the old and new, traditional and contemporary, so this felt like the perfect fit.
Caoir was recorded in late summer / autumn 2022 but in all honesty, it’s been a Covid labour of love! We originally started working on material back in late 2019 early / 2020 but when the pandemic hit, the project was stopped in its tracks as we couldn’t meet up; let alone make music together. Once it was safe to reform, we reunited once more and juggled schedules to free up time to work on new material and create the album. Then late summer / autumn last year, we finally recorded the album. It’s been tricky logistically but so worth it! Due to everyone’s schedules filling up with rescheduled commitments and new projects, it was tough to find blocks of time that everyone could make. We instead worked over a couple of months, finding / creating time together and doing whatever we could, when we could, to make it happen. This was definitely an unexpected challenge but one to which we all committed and gave our all and I’m so gratefully to the other musicians for making it happen.
We recorded the album in Solas Sound, Glasgow with Gus Stirrat, who also plays in the band. It was really lovely to be able to record and mix in Gus’ studio, as it gave us the flexibility to try out ideas and record together as live, or break into smaller groups when needed. This low-pressure approach to recording feels much more natural to me and I loved being able to feed off the other musicians and to be able to naturally react to each other. Gus is also a musical genius and very generous with his expertise, which I think brought out the best in everyone. Despite the addition of bass and drums, the words are always front and centre and my goal is always that the sentiment of the songs come through, even if you don’t understand exactly what’s being sung. It’s a very different sound for me and one that I hope will pleasantly surprise people. I finally sent the album to Peter Beckmann at Technology Works for mastering, to add the final finishing touches and extra sparkle!
All musicians know that creating an album isn’t just about the music – there’s a huge amount of admin to make it happen, some of which is more exciting than others! I always love creating a visual concept for an album and this time, I worked with photographer Euan Robertson in the images for the album, who I can’t praise enough. He perfectly captured my essence of Caoir and I love how the photos relate to the theme. He also provided the perfect disco soundtrack for the photo shoot, which helped me twirl and prance round his studio much less self consciously! The look of the CD itself is also very important to me and I worked with Lewis based designers LOOM on the CD design. I wanted to include lyrics, translations and background information for all songs and they managed to produce a 24 page booklet that was also easy to read – not a simple task. I’m really happy with how this side of the project turned out, even if the bilingual proofreading nearly killed me!
The album was released on my own record label, Sradag Music and recently launched in Cottiers, Glasgow; where we performed it in its entirety from start to finish with the full band. This was an absolute joy and reminded us all why we do it: there’s really nothing like launching your new music to a packed audience of family and friends, old and new.
So, what’s next? I’m looking forward to seeing what future projects arise for Caoir; we have a few exciting performances planned for the end of the year and a tour of China in August/Sepetmber time. I also hope that we’re able to bring Caoir to new audiences – particularly festivals and largerer venues across Scotland and further afield. I often here the words “we don’t do Gaelic” or “our audiences don’t have Gaelic, so won’t enjoy your music” but I really don’t think this is true. Music is universal and whether or not you understand the words or not doesn’t matter. I look forward to combining performing and media as much as possible and seeing what exciting new opportunities are out there.
“Dialogues” – Debut Solo Album release – December 2022
Having been a professional musician for 30 years, many people have asked me why it has taken me so long to make a solo album. Quite simply, playing solo has never been my thing…I like playing with other people and collaborating. I have recorded on over a hundred albums with orchestras, chamber groups, bands and singers, but have never once had the urge to do it myself.
When the pandemic first hit in early 2020 and all work stopped overnight, I was locked down in the Highlands with my partner Hamish and he suggested that I did exactly that.
At first I was horrified at the idea, but after a long walk in the woods, I made the first phone call that set the ball rolling on this project which lasted for the next two and half years!
The premise of the album brings the voice of the cello to the fore. It celebrates elements of my non-classical career and the connections with some of my favourite folk musicians from around the world who I have worked with over the years. It is a series of 15 duos whereby each duo collaborator has carefully chosen a tune or song that is close to their home and heart, and one that also celebrates their connection with me. Many are original compositions, written especially for the album, while others are fresh arrangements of traditional tunes.
The album also explores the role of the cello in folk music. In fact, the cello is the original Scottish folk rhythm section instrument – famous Scots fiddlers of the 18th century, like Neil Gow, Peter Milne and James Scott Skinner were regularly accompanied by a cellist. However, the cello went out of fashion for a century or so, in favour of guitar, piano and other instruments.
The cello is currently undergoing a revival in the folk world, particularly through influential mavericks such as Natalie Haas, who is featured on track 3 of my album in an original composition dedicated to me… Waltzska for Su-a. There is already a wealth of wonderful cello talent which has surfaced in Scotland over the past few years including Alice Allen, Ellen Gira and Juliette Lemoine… all definitely names to look out for. I am keen to build on the use of more cello in trad music and am hoping this album will help to create repertoire to inspire other cellists.
Among those featured on the album are: Pekka Kuusisto, an amazing Finnish violin soloist, chamber musician and conductor; Donald Shaw (Celtic Connections and Capercaillie) on piano and harmonium; Gaelic vocal star Julie Fowlis; and ace Scottish US-based harper Maeve Gilchrist.
Dialogues contains a diverse range of tunes and songs. Virtuoso tango bandoneónplayer from the Netherlands, Carel Kraayenhof has made his own special arrangement for me of a Piazzolla milonga.
Mill O’ Tifty’s Annie, is an old Scots ballad about a real-life tragedy from the 1670s, which has a personal connection to Hamish’s family. Karine Polwart and I really enjoyed making a new arrangement of this 20-verse ballad (distilled down from 52 verses!)
The Wedding, which features accordionist and composer Phil Cunningham, is his slow air from his 1987 album The Palomino Waltz. We gave it a new lease of life to celebrate the fact that I proposed to Hamish in September 2020.
The album ends with a solo track, a beautiful arrangement of Ae Fond Kiss by Kevin McCrae, a talented musician and composer and also my late friend and colleague in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra cello section. Although this is not strictly a duo collaboration like all the other tracks, it is a meaningful nod to my dear friend and a ‘thank you’ to him for giving me a lifelong appreciation of Scottish folk music.
The album has a 36-page booklet with actual dialogues between me and my duo partners discussing our relationship and the inspirations for each chosen piece. It is playfully laid out in the form of a theatre play with acts.
January 2020 and rehearsals had begun for my second studio album ‘The Dawning’ in the living room of my Glasgow flat. The music was coming together nicely, the studio was booked and I had finally cracked the availability code of five extremely busy musicians. And then we know what happened… Fast forward 18 months and I gave the album another push after waiting on restrictions to be lifted. However, during that time I was able to reflect on my initial ideas, develop them and try to envisage the final product a little more. I’m delighted that the outcome has been extremely rewarding for me musically.
It’s now six years since I released my debut album ‘Crossing Borders’ which was originally written for the New Voices series at Celtic Connections 2015. I had a clear vision for the project drawing on my influences from both classical and folk music worlds. Looking back, I have learnt a lot from the writing and recording process which has helped me to direct this new project.
Crossing Borders was essentially a concept album, drawing on my influences of the Scottish, Irish and Cape Breton fiddle traditions and weaving them in amongst my own compositions and arrangements. The Dawning was built on repertoire I’ve been playing over the past ten years as well as recent compositions I’ve written mainly inspired by the Scottish landscape. This is the format I would have liked for my debut album, however it just so happened with the timing of the New Voices opportunity that that was going to be my first release.
The Dawning features an incredible line up of musicians I’ve admired throughout my career. Jim Molyneux (piano, keyboards) and Innes Watson (guitar) worked with me on my debut album. Both of them are extremely versatile and bring so much flair and creativity to my music. James Lindsay (double bass, bass guitar) is in high demand as a session musician as well as member of Breabach and was a great addition to the creative process. Having not had a producer for Crossing Borders, I knew that was going a role I would benefit from this time around. I had approached Mike McGoldrick to play on the album as well as act as producer. Mike has inspired me for many years whether it be his playing or his compositions. Having his knowledge and expertise was essential in the album process.
I had never envisaged adding brass to my arrangements at the very beginning however it was something myself and Mike talked about once the tracks were beginning to form. Neil Yates, who has recorded on Mike’s albums, ‘Wired’ and ‘Aurora’ in particular, was an obvious choice to have on the album. Neil worked on four of the tracks and completely changed the direction with his innovative arranging. After hearing this new sound take shape, I asked saxophonist Matt Carmichael to join on one of the sets to add some brass melody.
The majority of the album was recorded at Gorbals Sound with Kevin Burleigh. In 2019, I was recording music for the ITV period drama, Sanditon in Gorbals and I knew then I would like to work with him and record my album in the studio. Kevin is not only a fantastic sound engineer with extremely good ears but he is easy to work with and has a real calming presence during the recording process. After the initial recording we spent the best part of 10 months on and off editing and mixing the tracks. It was then mastered by Jim DeMain in Nashville, an engineer who has worked with the music industry’s top performers including Dolly Parton and Robert Plant.
I feel I have a vision when it comes to the music side but when it comes to artwork for an album I don’t know where to start! Artist and photographer, Somhairle Macdonald and I travelled up to Loch Ard, an area I was familiar with having spent some of lockdown cycling around, to take photos for the front cover, with the title ‘The Dawning’ in mind. I think we have captured it well even if it did mean leaving Glasgow at 5.30am!
Birnam CD and Innes and Campbell Communciations helped with the production and PR for the album, two very important parts to any CD release.
I would like to thank both Creative Scotland and Friends of Highland Music for their financial support as this album would not have been possible without them. With their help, I was able to add so many layers to the recording and go into great detail to make sure it was an album I was proud of. The launch at Celtic Connections in the New Auditorium a few weeks ago with the full line up will be one of my career highlights that I’ll never forget!
‘Soaring’ –– Debut Album Release: 20th January 2023
When I see birds soaring effortlessly across the sky I am filled with awe and envy – to me, they embody absolute freedom.
This is why I decided to title my debut album ‘Soaring’. I wanted to capture and explore the overwhelming sense of freedom and new beginnings I was experiencing in early 2022, at the time of writing this music. The pandemic was finally loosening its grip on our lives, I was in great health after a period of illness, and I was on the brink of graduating from my degree and entering a new chapter of my life. I wrote this music primarily to preserve and remember those sensations, creating a window into that world, and hopefully allowing others to listen to the album and connect with it in their own way.
‘Soaring’ consists entirely of original music which draws influence primarily from Scottish traditional music, as well as western classical music and jazz. I don’t know which genre category I would class it in – probably contemporary traditional music. When writing I didn’t focus on trying to keep within a certain style but rather on trying to write something genuine and find some sort of emotional connection to the tune. Each tune is linked to a certain place or feeling which was significant to me in some way over the past few years, and I tried to reflect this in the artwork for the album cover and singles.
The album features some of my favourite musicians: Matt Carmichael (tenor saxophone), Charlie Stewart (fiddle) and Fergus McCreadie (piano). Their sensitivity and natural ease when improvising allowed me to leave space within the arrangements for us to interact with one-another and improvise. This was important to me because I feel like the spontaneous moments in music are often the most special ones because everyone — both listener and performer — is completely drawn into the present moment.
‘Soaring’ releases in just over a week on the 20th January 2023. The album launches with a sold-out headline launch gig at Celtic Connections on the 21st of January, followed by a launch tour which includes dates in Glasgow, Nairn, Stirling, Dundee, Newton Stewart, Plockton, Edinburgh, and Crieff. I’m really excited about this because it will be my first run of concerts performing entirely my own music – and also because it is a fantastic opportunity to showcase the cello as a tune-player in a contemporary traditional music context.
Historically in Scottish traditional music, the cello’s role was largely to accompany fiddle tunes. Today, pioneering cellists such as Rushad Eggleston and Natalie Haas among others play the melodies too, whilst also having developed accompaniment techniques to include rhythm, chords, and percussion. However, I think it’s still generally much more common to see cellists accompanying when in a traditional music context – or to be playing a supporting role e.g. playing string parts.
I’m really keen to explore the cello’s potential as a tune-player because I love its mellow warm sound, timbre, wide register…and I love traditional tunes. Combining the two has the potential to be incredibly powerful. My current focus is exploring the way the cello can take on a lead melodic role in the way a fiddle typically would, retaining the same fluidity, bowing, ornaments and authenticity. A huge inspiration to me has been listening to people like Caoimín Ó Raghallaigh and Jenna Moynihan’s playing because they are fiddlers yet share some of the low register and sonority of the cello. ‘Soaring’ is my first step delving into this kind of approach.
I’m so happy to be able to contribute to the developing scene of trad cello. It’s an exciting and inspiring time to be a cellist involved in traditional music, particularly in Glasgow where outstanding players are pushing boundaries in every direction. Some of my favourite new releases by cellists in the Scottish trad cello scene are Su-a Lee’s ‘Dialogues’, ‘Strathspey Queens’ by Alice Allen and Patsy Reid, and ‘All It Brings’ by Ellen Gira & Jocelyn Petit. It’s important to keep promoting the cello in traditional music because it has so much undiscovered potential, and lots of people still aren’t aware that the cello can be played in this way.
I really hope to see you at one of the album launch tour gigs if you’re around — I have more UK gig dates TBC so be sure to keep up to date on social media to stay in the loop!
My Mentoring Experience with TRACS – by Phyll McBain
The mentoring program was as important to me as learning to read. I have dyslexia. Storybooks as a child were alien to me but it was Glen Campbell’s “By the Time I get to Phoenix, she’ll be rising”, that opened up story through songs. These songs created pictures in my head which allowed me to use comic books to teach myself how to read. And at 12 I run through my Auntie’s home shouting at the top of my voice “I have Finished My First Book.”
When you struggle with reading and writing everything takes so much longer to achieve, and you spend so much of your time re doing what you have done to make it readable or understandable for others. It is too easy to get used to doing it wrong that you lose perspective.
The most important thing I was asked to do by Jackie Ross after my first mentoring session was to answer two questions. The first was – Where did I think I was as a storyteller now?
From that 12-year-old child whose world had just exploded open with the ability to read, a world of stories opened up to me. From being so close to be being expelled from school I had become a dedicated student. I listened to people telling me to write down my experiences. “You would never guess what I did at work today…” would be the conversation starter which has now turned into several wee stories you may have heard me tell, the like of “Mars, Bar, Irn Bru, and Bag of Smoky Bacon Crisps”.
Avron Foundation run residential writing course and over the years I have attended a few. At this point I am still not into Oral Storytelling, I am still banging my head off the brick wall of dyslexia. Pen and paper not cooperating! An email from Val McDermid (One of my tutors on an Avron course) who was taking part in the Orkney Storytelling Festival pointed me in the direction of GAS, the Grampian Association of Storytellers. This would give me a home to develop my oral skills and work out my own voice. A Voice which is full of all those things I learnt on creative writing courses, followed by storytelling workshops.
The best advice I got from Val was all about strip-mining. Write from what you know and use what you see and hear. Strip mine away to create interesting characters and situations. So, this wee look back to enable me to move forward into to the mentoring process was worthwhile. Little did I know that my personal Hokey Cokey had not just started with the mentoring but had been going on from when I was 12, quite a wee trip.
Now I thought I was about to enter six months of Storytelling Coaching, it turned out to be six months of self-analyses with a focus on myself which I had never experienced before or thought I would enjoy. If you ever get the opportunity to be mentored than jump at it and grab hold as you dance your own personal Hokey Cokey of aims, goals and how on earth you may be able to achieve these things. It is indeed a fascinating experience of self-discovery and it will only be successful if you are honest about where you are.
Now that second Question which I was asked by my mentor, Jackie Ross. “What are my priorities?” A question which was asked at every meeting, and it was fascinating to see that my list of priorities did not really change but the order of them moved up and down as the mentoring took shape. As I learnt how to plan towards my goals I asked myself, what was important for me? Do I have the tools in place? If not, what do I required to do to have these tools. and then also how do I achieve these goals?
My input into the process was vitally important, but the listening ear of Jackie was essential to the success. Whether it be a pointer or an answer to a question I was never spoon-fed but given options to work through myself. Being friends with Jackie beforehand was indeed an advantage, as we both know each other so well. It gave us more time to work on the important things rather than get to know each other, we already had a trusting relationship.
I can only hope I have expressed the benefits I have received from the mentoring experience. It spurred me on to start the storytelling apprenticeship as soon as I could. Right from my first apprenticeship day, it was so pleasing to feel so comfortable in my own skin. I felt that same joy I had as a 12-year-old child shouting at the top of my voice, “I have Finished My First Book.”
To Begin The Dance Once More: a musician’s view of the creative process – by John Bews
📷 by Adam Bulley
What can you tell me about Egyptian music?
That’s a question I was pestering a lot of friends with around the end of September. We’d just had a production meeting to set out a working schedule for a new collaboration project between choreographers and dancers from Scotland and Egypt, and finding out as much as I could about Egyptian music in the space of a week or so had suddenly become a matter of some urgency to me.
It would probably be polite to introduce myself before going too much further; hi, my name’s Jon, I’m a fiddle player, composer and arranger, and two and a half months ago I was invited to write and record the score for To Begin The Dance Once More.
For someone who loves to learn about different musical cultures, a joint project involving Egyptian music was an exciting opportunity. I’ve enjoyed listening to various strands of Arabic music for years but had never needed to work with it – not for any lack of enthusiasm on my part, purely because there’s so damned much music out there and time does insist on being finite. Nonetheless, here was my opportunity and I was delighted to have it.
So how does one go about learning a new musical style more or less from scratch? And why such a tight time limit?
I’ll answer the second question first because that’s so straightforward you already know the answer: dancers need something to dance to. Potentially a controversial viewpoint, granted, let me put it like this: If the film is to be of dancers dancing to a specific piece of music, that piece of music needs to exist before the rest of the project can get underway. I had to be more or less finished with my contribution before any of the rest of the project could begin. So, no pressure then. On the bright side, I now have time to write blog posts.
Okay that explains the time frame, how about learning a new musical style?
Quick answer: I didn’t. Slightly longer answer: I assimilated as much as I could in the time I had. Egyptian music, like any nation’s musical tradition, is something people spend their entire lives learning and still find it impossible to reach a complete understanding of the whole subject; I had a week. The Egyptian team were enormously helpful and sent me several examples of the style, plenty to allow me to extend my own search.
One of the Egyptian choreographers was very keen I use the theme from a modern song by Hisham Nazih, the lyrics of which were taken from inscriptions on the wall of a temple in Luxor and the Book Of The Dead. Purely as a concept this grabbed my interest right away and, happily, the melody was wonderfully evocative so, having confirmed we could use it in the film, I had our Egyptian theme, “A Reverence To Isis”.
Given my background in Scots traditional music it was, at least on paper, by far the easier task for me to come up with music for the Scottish element of the piece. Of course, knowing that a thing ought to be easier tends to increase the pressure to find The Correct Thing.
The inspiration for the Egyptian theme was a prayer to Isis and a suggested inspiration for the Scots element was the poem Beira And Bride by Donald Smith.
It’s not at all true to say that Scots Gaelic mythology doesn’t have a spiritualism equivalent to that expressed in the prayer to Isis, it very much does; this element is much more commonly represented in poetry and stories, though, and it’s very difficult to find explicit representations of it in the music. There is, of course, the Christian tradition in Scotland; by comparison to the Egyptian pharaonic tradition, however, Christianity is in its infancy and it felt important to represent two ancient cultures as equally as possible.
This challenge was made more interesting by the inherent mystic and theistic nature of the Egyptian element.
There are a number of possible contributing factors to this – there’s a time honoured tradition for writing a completely new set of words to an existing melody in Gaelic song which combines with the aural nature of the tradition and the tendency of Christianity to superimpose its own interpretations over existing indigenous traditions to make following this more ancient mythic thread through the music as near to impossible as makes no odds.
In more recent years – by which I mean the last millennium or so – the majority of music throughout Scotland has tended to be named after specific events, people and places. Not much natural crossover with gods and goddesses.
I did, however, have a concept. This put me on thin ice, yes, but I at least wanted to explore it. The idea of a wellspring seemed to be equally appropriate to both texts and, having by this point decided that I wanted to balance the quintessentially Egyptian idea of a major goddess of the pharaonic tradition with a musical style unique to Scotland, I decided to search in the realms of the strathspey. And, lo and behold, there’s a traditional strathspey from the Simon Fraser collection (researched and gathered in the highlands during the first half of the 18th century) which goes by the name Mathair Spé, “The Source Of The Spey”.
Well wouldn’t it be great if something which was such a good thematic fit worked musically with the Egyptian theme? I decided to gamble a whole day of the precious time available on seeing if it could and, mercifully, it did. We had our themes.
Now you may have noticed a tendency towards the verbose thus far in this blog post. Fair comment, I cannot disagree. Let me tell you, though, I could go on for so many hours about the nuts and bolts of actually working these two themes together. I do recognise, though, that detail on that level would be of actual interest to a total of perhaps half a dozen people. That’s not a lot of people, and even then I’m almost certainly exaggerating.
Suffice, for the sake of your mental health, to say that the form I chose was: Egyptian theme, Scots theme, working together of both themes. This seemed to give a good compromise between allowing each musical style its own voice and giving the choreographers space to express and combine their dance traditions.
Without a doubt the hardest part of the project, from a musical perspective, was curating material. Specifically doing so from a musical tradition which was completely new to me. Certainly I’m very happy with how the music came out and the dance footage I’ve seen so far is glorious; I cannot wait to see the completed piece.
As to what I can now tell you about Egyptian music: I now know enough to know what an infinitessimally small amount I’ve managed to learn. Give me a decade or so and I might be able to be at least coherent on the subject.
Iona Fyfe on touring the US; the difficulties of touring “post-pandemic” and with chronic illness
📷 by Euan Anderson, Cove One Studios
Back in early 2019, Miki, my now-US booking agent approached me via email and asked if I wanted to work with her to tour the US. This was extremely exciting – I was 21 and didn’t have any agent booking for me in either the UK or Europe, let alone the US. I immediately said yes, and she got to work scheduling shows for 2020. I had just graduated from The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and had worked hard during my studies in order to line up tours for 2019 and 2020, in a sort of ‘hit the ground running’ type vibe.
Anyway, COVID came, and the world completely changed. Fast forward two years, the tour that was originally scheduled for 2020 was rescheduled for Autumn 2022. The visa process was made less stressful through the assistance of Covey Law, with a small grant from Tamizdat, but with a very large upfront cost into the thousands. All information regarding press, social media, awards, releases, nominations, competitions was handed over in what felt like an incredibly invasive process that, in my brain, could only be equated to DV clearance. Either way, the visa came through without need for an interview at a consulate in London, which was a bonus. I now had more right to work in the US than in Europe, an exciting but depressing thought.
My first stop was at TradMad camp in Plymouth, Massachusetts ran by Joy Bennett and Heather Wood (The Young Tradition). Without a negative test taken 72 hours before arriving at camp, you weren’t getting in! Campers and staff had to also take two lateral flow tests over the duration of their stay and only after everyone tested negative for a second time, were we allowed to unmask. Masks were initially required at every workshop, performance, dance and could only be removed when eating. There were no scares, and no one had to isolate or leave the camp. It was managed very well and was a firm reminder that COVID was very much still around and needed mitigated. These COVID protocols could be seen as “overkill” by some, but it created a safe respectful atmosphere where people were self-aware and looked out for one another.
After a week of singing, swimming, and meeting new and familiar faces, I flew to Los Angeles, ready to meet the two musicians I was touring with. The cost of visa petition, application and paperwork made it financially impossible for me to take musicians who I usually work with, so my agent put me in touch with Seattle-based Brian Lindsay and AlexSturbaum. It’s always scary meeting and working with new musicians, let alone touring with musicians who you have only met with via Zoom to sort set lists out. Luckily, it all worked out and they proved to be brilliant humans to work with and be around, but the panic of a socially awkward singer (me) meeting brand new people, rehearsing for a few days then setting off on a month-long tour certainly stressed me out.
In late 2019, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition which causes chronic fatigue and pain. 2020 allowed me to reset and figure out how to manage the incurable condition. Apart from a week-long tour of Denmark in 2021, the US tour was my first “dip the toe in the water” of touring in a “post-covid” world. But my health had changed, the industry had changed, and in the midst of a cost of living crisis, audiences’ willingness to book tickets in advance had also changed.
Merchandising however, is still very relevant, especially in the folk community – people want to support musicians, and many like a physical product they can hold, and liner notes they can flick through. So, it made sense to manufacture disks of my previous CD’s, two EP’s and an album. Musicians rely on merchandising to supplement their income, but on this tour, merchandising was a case of either losing money or breaking even. Despite ordering the CDs in July, with complications between the plant, customs and Fedex, long story short, the full shipment of CD’s only arrived in LA a few days after the entire tour ended. It was devastating – not to mention micromanaging the mix-up from 8 hours behind. Staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning almost each and every night in order to chase up answers from EU manufacturers would exhaust anyone who had to sing for 90+ minutes each night, let alone someone with chronic fatigue.
Managing chronic illness whilst being on tour is exceptionally difficult – understanding and empathy is needed from any and everyone you work with.
I used to struggle to articulate the complexity of fibromyalgia and hypermobility syndrome, so when I was previously on tour, it felt hard to explain to my band members, promoters, agents, tour managers that the lights couldn’t be too bright because it would trigger a migraine, I needed rest, or needed healthcare, or that I didn’t want to drink or socialise after the show because I was trying to pace myself. When your condition is overlooked or made light of, you leave the room feeling like a commodity and not a human. A few years ago, during soundcheck, a lighting engineer used extremely bright lighting in a lighting check, it triggered a migraine and violent sickness. I paused the soundcheck and asked if the engineer could dim the lights. In response, the lighting engineer asked the band if anyone else had “special needs”. I felt humiliated, on top of feeling physically unwell. Another instance when touring with a tour manager in Germany, my knee dislocated and popped back in. I knew I needed to see a doctor, and at 21, I knew that my knee wasn’t properly healing. Iwas in a lot of pain and self-medicating on tramadol and other painkillers which were previously prescribed. For almost twenty-one days, I was denied the opportunity to be taken to a doctor, with the tour manager citing “time” as the issue. When I got back to Glasgow, I was listed for emergency surgery and spent three months recovering on crutches and had to take time off. When someone puts the importance of the show over your health and wellbeing, you know it’s time to run, and never work with that person again. I don’t want to ramble, but when you have access needs, and your condition is underplayed and not taken seriously on tour, it can have very real and serious ramifications. I’ve now reassessed who I surround myself with, and the industry representatives that I will work with.
Thanks to the Musicians Union Access Rider template, I’ve managed to create a document that can be easily sent on to venues and promoters detailing the different needs that I have, and protocols in case of a bone dislocation. Almost 100% of the organisations and venues that have received this document have been extremely supportive. The Musicians Union have a great advice section for people who experience chronic illness, health conditions or disabilities. You can create an Access Rider for yourself here.
Luckily, Miki the agent, Brian and Alex were extremely understanding of fibromyalgia and supported me throughout the tour. But it was only two days in when one of the musicians tested positive for COVID, yet the other two of us didn’t. It was heart-breaking – myself and guitarist had to continue the tour, and I had to find the means to pay for isolation hotel and hire car for our bandmate who unluckily contracted COVID. We were already wearing masks out and about, and at the CD stand but not all the audience members did. In the US, many venues have their own mask and vaccination policies. More liberal areas, like California saw us play shows where most of the audience remained masked throughout and would certainly wear masks at the merch stand and when talking to the band, with some exceptions. Other, often more rural, areas barely had any mask wearing at all, with many people adamant that they would shake your hand. It’s hard to not be rude when you say “let’s just elbow bump”. But after the COVID case, I decided to outwardly recommend that audience members wear masks when approaching us. Some listened, some didn’t. I very quickly saw the consequences of a COVID case completely dismantling a tour and creating far more financial constraints that we didn’t have pre-COVID. Fibromyalgia is a condition that will in turn affect your immune system but is not an auto-immune disease. A common cold will completely floor me for weeks, let alone COVID. Whilst my bandmate unfortunately got sick and was prescribed Paxlovid, I have still not *touch wood* had the misfortune of getting COVID myself. I’d love to keep it this way and have continued to exercise good mask wearing and hand hygiene. I urge all audience members to do this too. A COVID case can completely dismantle a tour.
Whilst it was an incredibly bumpy tour, it was so rewarding, meeting Alex and Brian, performing some old and new songs in new venues. Being able to tour in a nurturing positive environment where your health and you as a person is taken seriously sounds like a low bar to set, but is incredibly important in getting by and having a good time.
Làithean trang le siubhail is planaichean – le Brian Ó hEadhra
09 Dàmhair 2022
Tha mi nam shuidhe aig port-adhair Barcelona a’ feitheamh airson itealan dhachaigh gu Inbhir Nis (tro Lunnainn). Tha mi air a bhith aig co-labhairt Lìonradh Folk Eòrpa ann an Catalòinia far a bheil fèill reic chiùil Fira Mediterrania sa bhaile Manresa faisg air am mainistir ainmeil Montserrat.
Thàinig barrachd na seasgad daoine bho air feadh an Roinn Eòrpa còmhla airson bruidhinn mu staid na h-ealain tradaiseanta agus ciamar a b’ urrainn dhuinn a bhith ag obair nas dlùithe ri chèile airson mathas nar n-ealain diofraichte.
Bha na panailean, bùthan-obrach is còmhraidhean gu math inntinneach agus bha e math a bhith cluinntinn mu dheidhinn suidheachaidhean eile far a bheil daoine a’ feuchainn an cultar is ealain tradaiseanta aca a dhìonadh is leasachadh.Bha còmhraidhean ann mu na dòighean as fheàrr cultar “folk” a neartachadh is leasachadh eadar ginealaich agus dè an dòigh as fheàrr ar luchd-ealain a “reic” gu h-eadar-nàiseanta.
Mar as àbhaist, dh’fhàg mi a’ cho-labhairt le barrachd ceistean na freagairtean, ach bha an cuairt air fad na deagh chothrom dhomh ionnsachadh mu dheidhinn na tha dol le buidhnean ann an dùthchannan eile agus ciamar a b’ urrainn dhuinne ann an Alba a bhith nas fheàrr a bhith a’ dèanamh cùram air ar cultair is cànain.
Bha mi ann mar neach-ciùil is cuideigin aig a bheil ùidh ann an cultar “folk”.Tha ceum agam ann am Beul-oideas agus tha ùidh mhòr agam ann an ceòl is òrain tradaiseanta bho dhùthchannan eile.Bha “bonaidean” eile orm cuideachd is mi a’ riochdachadh NASC (North Atlantic Song Convention), Findhorn Bay Arts, agus Traditional Music Forum (Alba).Tha mi air a’ bhòrd de gach buidheann siud agus tha mi cinnteach gum bi an t-ionnsachadh a fhuair mi bhon turas seo na buannachd dhaibh san àm ri teachd.
An ath-sheachdain bidh mi a’ siubhail thall thairis a-rithist leis na h-aon “bonaidean” orm ach an turas seo, bidh mi a’ dol dhan taisbeanadh ceòl “world” WOMEX ann an Lisbon, Portagail.Bidh cothrom agam ceanglaichean a dhèanamh le luchd-ciùil eile bhon t-saoghal air fad agus tha mi a’ dèanamh fiughair coinneachadh ris na buill eile a tha san World Music Pan Indigenous Network.
San Dùbhlachd bidh mi a’ dèanamh a dh’Èirinn son beagan làithean.Tha mi a-nis nam Riochdaire Albannach airson am Fèis Eadar-Cheilteach Lorient a bhios a’ tachairt anns a’ Bhreatainn Bhig gach Lùnastal agus bidh mi a’ coinneachadh ri muinntir na fèise is na riochdairean dùthchail eile airson a’ chiad turas ann am Baile Àtha Cliath.
A’ bruidhinn mu cho-labhairtean, bidh NASC a’ cumail ar co-labhairt bliadhnail aig deireadh a’ Ghiblein ann an Dùn Èideann.Bidh seinn, cainnt is deagh chompanach aig an tachartas beag seo a bhios ann an Ionad nan Sgeulachdan.Thig fiosrachadh a-mach mu dheidhinn seo ann an mìos neo dhà.
Bidh na clasaichean Seinn Air Loidhne agam a’ tòiseachadh a-rithist san t-Samhain airson còig seachdainean agus tha fàilte ort tighinn a-steach uair sam bith.Bidh daoine air feadh an t-saoghail a’ nochdadh airson òrain Gàidhlig ionnsachadh.
Feumaidh mi ùine a lorg airson clàr ùr a dheasachadh is clàradh; thig e!
Uill, chì sibh gu bheil gu leòr a’ dol agus ma tha ceist sam bith agaibh mu na diofar tachartasan/planaichean a tha seo, dìreach cuir fios thugam.
In this blog, singer and cultural consultant Brian Ó hEadhra tells us about his recent trip to the European Folk Network conference in Catalonia as well as his future plans and events including attending Womex in Lisbon, a gig in Stonehaven, teaching Gàidhlig songs online, meetings in Dublin as well as planning the North Atlantic Song Convention in Edinburgh 2023.
Brian Ó hEadhra
Based in Inverness, Brian Ó hEadhra is an established musician, singer, and songwriter and records and performs with acclaimed acts McKerron Brechin Ó hEadhra, Cruinn, Brian Ó hEadhra & Fionnag NicChoinnich, and as a solo artist.He has also toured extensively and recorded with Anam, Christine Primrose and many other folk-music acts from Ireland and Scotland over a 30-year career.
This year marks Scotland’s year of Stories, a cultural year to celebrate Scotland’s iconic stories and storytellers. I was lucky enough to be commissioned by Blas Festival to write new music relating to this theme, specifically focused on the lives and stories of the Highland Travelling People. This new piece of musical work was premiered at venues across the Highlands this September as part of the annual Blas festival celebrating Highland music and culture.
The Summer Walkers was the name the crofters of the north west Highlands gave to the Travelling People. Each year, during the summer months, from April to September, these indigenous Gaelic-speaking Travelling People would take to the roads, visiting remote communities across Sutherland and Ross-shire. They were known to be skilled tinsmiths, horse-dealers and seasonal labourers, and were welcomed by the crofting communities. Year upon year, they would follow the same routes, travelling on foot, with horse and cart, spending the nights in tents or round the campfire, singing, entertaining and telling stories.
Despite growing up in Tain in Easter Ross and having spent my childhood years dotting about Sutherland, this part of my local history was not known to me. I came across Hamish Henderson’s recordings of revered storyteller, Alec Stewart, known as Ailidh Dall (Blind Sandy), on Tobar an Dualchais.
Hamish Henderson recorded Ailidh Dall and his family extensively in the years after he first discovered them, camped at Braetongue on the north coast. He spent the summer of 1957 on the road with the Stewarts, always with his recording device at the ready to document their lives and stories.
The recordings on Tobar an Dualchais provide a window into the lives of the Stewarts. I sometimes forget how lucky we are to have access to these archive recordings. You can hear the voice of Ailidh Dall as he settles into the rhythm of telling a story, the voice of Essie Stewart, his granddaughter, age fourteen, explaining the traveller routes and describing a fairy she saw. In some of the recordings you can hear birds flying overhead or the mutter of people in the background, coaxing Ailidh Dall to tell a story or play a tune on the pipes.
It so happened that this year marks Essie Stewart’s 80th birthday. Essie is one of the last people to have lived the traditional traveller way of life in the Highlands. She is a celebrated storyteller herself, still telling the ancient Gaelic stories she learned from her grandfather. She lives just 15 miles up the road from where I grew up. We sat at her table, eating biscuits and looking through the old photos in Timothy Neat’s ‘The Summer Walkers’ book (Sir Timothy as Essie calls him!) as Essie recounted memories of her life as a traveller. The book features accounts from Essie herself, her cousin, Gordon Stewart, as well as fellow Highland travellers, Eddie Davies and Alec John Williamson.
On my next visit to see Essie, she took me up to Remarstaig, a piece of ground 3 miles out of Lairg, between the railway line and the road, where the Stewarts were based during the winter months. Ailidh Dall built their house himself with stone from the quarry just north of Lairg station. Essie told me that, after her grandfather died, her mother, Mary Stewart, had to move into a council house in Lairg and the house at Remarstaig was demolished. The gate that led to their house is still there and you can still see the two rowan trees Essie’s mother planted on either side of the house.
After visiting Remarstaig, I followed the road the travellers used to take from Lairg, up past Altnaharra, to Braetongue. The Stewarts called Braetongue ‘The King of Campsites’ and Essie described it as her favourite of all the places they camped. From there, they would go west to Durness or east to Strathy, only going beyond Strathy to Thurso for the big horse market in the autumn. They would also head north west to visit Scourie and Kinlochbervie, and west to Lochinver, Polbain and Achiltibuie.
These landscapes feel so familiar to me, but it feels different picturing them through the eyes of the Travelling People. The weather can be so wild, even in the summer months, and the expanse of land from Lairg to Tongue seems so desolate, as though it would feel endless if you were passing through on foot. Ailidh Dall was in his seventies when he last went out on the road, sitting up on the cart, rather than walking. He had completely lost his sight by that point and the Stewarts took to the road more as a force of habit than anything else.
However, Ailidh Dall would still tell stories. He told the stories to Hamish Henderson just as he always had. Essie and her mother would tell them too; these ancient Ossianic tales, as well as stories of encounters with sìthichean – faeries. They almost always told them in Gaelic, their native language and the language in which they would have first heard the stories.
The music for the commission was inspired by some of these ancient stories, as well as the stories told to me by Essie herself. The commission was mostly comprised of new original compositions with the addition of a few old local melodies. The piece opened with the voice of Ailidh Dall describing his fondness of storytelling, with the music building from an exposed air into a reel. The next piece was a pipe jig I wrote for Remarstaig, followed by an old north Highland jig from the Patrick MacDonald Collection, collected by his brother, Joseph MacDonald, who had lived in Durness.
Next there was an archive recording of Ailidh Dall telling the story of Oisean, gradually building into a piece I had written, inspired by the story. This was the first story Ailidh Dall had told, age seven, and it was the first story he recorded for Hamish Henderson. This was followed by a piece I wrote for Braetongue, opening with the voice of Essie Stewart, age fourteen, describing the main traveller routes in the north.
After that was the Gaelic song, Am Bròn Binn – ‘The Sweet Sorrow’. This song was also among the earliest recordings Hamish Henderson took of Ailidh Dall. It is one of the oldest songs in Europe, dating back to 500 AD. I followed that with a tune I had written inspired by the stories of faeries and a traditional reel, Bog An Lochan, named ‘The Devil’s Tune’ by the Travellers.
Next was a waltz I wrote for Essie, leading into the puirt, A Cur nan Gobhar as a’ Chreig. There is a recording of Essie and Ailidh Dall singing this song together on Tobar an Dualchais. This was paired with a new reel I’d written, Strathy Sands, after my trip along the north coast visiting the Traveller campsites.
The piece concluded with The Last Walk, a reprise of the opening melody, written for the last time the Stewarts went out on their traditional Summer Walks, marking the ending of the era of the Travelling People in the north Highlands.
This first airing of this music was at the Blas Festival opening concert, a concert celebrating Essie’s birthday and her contribution as an acclaimed storyteller and tradition bearer. The concert took place at a packed Carnegie Hall in Clashmore, Dornoch. It was a beautiful start to the evening with piping from Duncan MacGillivray, storytelling and songs from Margaret Bennet and a selection of local songs from Duncan and Rona Macleod.
In the second half, I was joined by Brìghde Chaimbeul on smallpipes, Innes White on guitar, Juliette Lemoine on cello and Alistair Iain Paterson on piano and harmonium – what a team!! It felt so special to play this music with Essie there in the front row and with many people in the room who remembered/had known The Summer Walkers.
This commission has been a means of highlighting the vital contribution of a marginalised community; an opportunity to celebrate the instrumental role the Travelling People played in the preservation and transmission of ancient Highland traditions. The travelling way of life sits in stark contrast to our fast-paced modern world. We are at risk of losing the stories, customs and traditions the travelling people carried with them for centuries.
As things move forward at such a rate, we sometimes neglect to look back, to value what has come before us. This project has been an opportunity for me to do just that, to sit with the past for a while. I think I needed that.
I am so grateful to all those who have given me their time and have helped me along the way with this project. Thanks to the Blas Festival team – Arthur Cormack, Calum Alec MacMillan, Chrissie Macrae and Abi Lightbody. Thanks to Essie Stewart, Marie Fielding, Nicky Murray, Gordie Bryce and to Flòraidh Forrest, Louise Scollay, Iseabail T MacDonald and Stuart Robinson at the School of Scottish Studies. Thanks also to the lovely musicians who played on the gigs with me – Brìghde Chaimbuel, Innes White, Alistair Iain Paterson, Juliette Lemoine and Gillie O’Flaherty.
Hopefully there will be opportunities to share this project with you in the future. Thanks for reading.
TRACS (Traditional Arts & Culture Scotland SC043009) brings together the Traditional Music Forum (SC042867), the Scottish Storytelling Forum (SC020891) and the Traditional Dance Forum of Scotland (SC045085). TRACS is based at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, which is a partnership project between the Storytelling Forum and The Church of Scotland (SC011353).