MAKING ‘VENT’ – by Laura Jane Wilkie

📷 by Ray Kelly Photography

I love living and working in Glasgow as a fiddle player. The sessions are some of the best in the world and I’ve always loved, and still love playing music in pubs with others whenever I can.
There was though, a moment around 2019 that I started to feel like there was a bit of a ‘glut’ of a certain sound or style of traditional music in the city and at music festivals I’d been to or played at.
The music was all brilliant, full of virtuosity and high energy.
I began to feel a bit disconnected emotionally from playing and hearing that so often.

I sought new sounds and material (accidentally) by going along to a gorgeous song session run by the wonderful and wonderfully versatile musician and singer Josie Duncan.

I brought my fiddle along and really enjoyed the way everyone was listening to one another. It was a very ‘responsive’ session and was loads of fun. From Bob Dylan, to the Beatles, to Dick Gaughan and then a good half hour of Gaelic songs and puirt a beul songs.
I had found connection to music and trad tunes in the city again!

Now, though my grandmother and her cousins had Gaelic, they were discouraged from speaking it or teaching it to the younger generation. Alas it never made its way to me.

Why did I feel such a strong connections to these songs when I a) didn’t have the language b) wasn’t a ‘singer’?

I began a search for more songs on the archive website ‘Tobar an Dualchais’ where I was really drawn to the contributions of Kate MacDonald of South Uist. Lots of her contributions were waulking songs. Such strong melodies and good stories when I read into them.

My friend and Gaelic singer Eilidh Cormack advised that though this contributor had passed away, her daughter lived in Inverness and was none other than the one-woman ceilidh, tradition bearer, piper, singer Rona Lightfoot.

After about a year of studying the tunes and having various conversations with my Gaelic speaking friends and musicians about whether I should pursue the idea:
To adapt these melodies as instrumentals in a bid to create something that felt new to me and would hopefully encourage other instrumentalists to engage with the wonderful music too!

With the help of Fiona Dalgetty (CEO of Feis Rois) I was put in touch with Rona and began studying the songs with her – trying my best to play things as closely to the way she or her mother had sung them.

Visiting Rona at her home in Inverness was my favourite part of the process. I was very nervous to get in touch. I thought she might wonder what on earth I was doing or think it was a daft idea.
However, she was extremely generous and over time I think she understood what I was trying to achieve and helped me hugely.
Her knowledge and passion (and humour) is amazing. She was 84 when we started hanging out. I feel so lucky to have spent time with her on these tunes and am proud to call her a friend. I visit whenever I’m in the area – sometimes I play the fiddle and she sings or we just sit and have a Gow’s roll (IYKYK) and a cup of tea.

With Rona’s approval I took the tunes to begin arranging – the tunes themselves were irregular in phrasing compared to the 16 bar forms I’d been playing for years.

Some of the songs are hundreds of years old. They were sung by women at work round a table ‘waulking’ tweed to render it useful for tailoring.

Waulking was a long arduous process – the workers sang and would change the words and make up new verses to allow them to tell the stories or gossip of the moment. Sometimes they would sing of grievances in their lives or aspirations. In this process none of their landlords/husbands/fathers or abusers were there to hear. It was a safe space to vent / process what was on their minds and feel support, release and often share humour with their peers.

I feel this really comes across in the melodies- even when you don’t speak the language. They’re looking for connection and are made to be shared.

I brought the arrangements to some of my most favourite musicians. Open minded, creative and brilliant at their instruments.

Each brought so much to the tracks – particularly Ian Carr. There is no guitarist like him on this earth and he is a wonderfully imaginative and skilled musician. I felt he and the others would approach the tunes in a way that would allow them to become pieces that would convey the emotions and the need for connection and community in a unique way.

The recording process was not without its difficulties! Travel and illness were both issues that got in the way a bit. But we got there.

As my first ‘solo’ record I found the process very challenging but gradually more and more rewarding.

I found myself able to let go of many insecurities and get on with the job a lot better than I ever had in my time as a musician. I wasn’t able to over think too much.
Really, what I wanted was the music to FEEL good and I knew that it would only feel good if everyone else involved was happy and comfortable.
The funding I got from Creative Scotland really helped me make that possible and cater to everyone’s needs as much as I could.

I had to change producer during the process and having Jane Ann Purdey helping me with the project was amazing. (I’d recommend anyone applying to make an album budget for a project manager to help oversee and problem solve! It’s invaluable!)

In the end, I co-produced the album with Sarah Hayes (Birdvox/Admiral Fallow/Wildings/Roaming Roots Review) it was a really fun part of the process and we had excellent mixing skills and experience of Andy Bell at Hudson Records helping us achieve the sounds we wanted.

Overall I learned a lot about: the music of the women in this country, the history of the women in the generations of Gaels, that in some ways not so much has changed(!)

I loved making friends with people embroiled in these traditions and listening hard to the music and information they shared.

I learned more about how individual all musicians are. Even the ones I’d worked with before. There is not one correct way to communicate musical ideas! It’s a bit of a journey, you need to trust each other and as a band ‘leader’ I really had to step up and adapt in order to get the most out of playing/recording/mixing and releasing this work.

I really hope that people who listen to it feel some sense of feeling, community and some humour too. Even more, I hope it might encourage other players to look into the archive themselves and interpret the material in their own unique ways!

Vent – by Laura Jane Wilkie
Released 5 July 2024
Available here

Artwork by Louise Bichan

Writing an Album with a Newly Invented Bagpipe – by Malin Lewis

My debut album Halocline is out. It’s been a long journey and it means so much to share it with the world.

I began making Smallpipes at the age of fourteen after approaching a local woodturner for lessons. I was always fascinated by sound itself, how simple tubes of wood and reeds could make such pure sounds and how their different shapes and styles influenced the timbre.

When I first heard about the Lindsay System Chanter I thought it sounded too good to be true; A Scottish Smallpipe with two octaves that was chromatic without any keys. When I auditioned for the Conservatoire in Glasgow I organised a meeting with Donald Lindsay the inventor of this magical chanter.

From the first note I played on these new Smallpipes I fell in love with them. They were rich warm and zingy but most of all they had this extended range the same as a whistle or Uilleann pipe. It felt like the potential was endless and no longer was I restricted by the 9 notes of the highland pipes. I asked Donald if he’d let me try making the first chanter out of wood and he generously shared the design and drawings with me.

I spent a month working away in my shed to build this new instrument which until now had only ever been made with a 3D printer. The result was better than I could have hoped. Eager to learn to play it, I fine-tuned the individual holes using a needle and beeswax, and I began to experiment with the shapes and intervals that fit under the hands.

I’ve always enjoyed writing tunes on instruments that I can’t play or have little understanding of; it forces you to listen and follow the melody, not your muscle memory. What I had now was a truly unique instrument with a familiar but new layout. It felt as though the instrument was guiding me as to what to play and what phrases it wanted to express. I started writing tunes that I would never have come up with on the fiddle or whistle. It felt like a blank canvas where everything felt fresh.

Hiraeth and Trans, the first two tracks on the album, were some of the first tunes I wrote with the chanter and they feel almost like a collaboration with the instrument itself. The two grew together.

At the same time as all of this I was getting to know my own identity as a trans person. It was a time for a lot of personal growth as well as moving to Glasgow from Skye.

There was less queer representation within the folk scene then and I feel like the Lindsay Chanter gave me a voice. It’s timbre let me express individuality with a personal sound and helped me to view our tradition from a truly unique and new perspective. It also let me explore bagpipe music from all over Europe, with it’s extended range and chromatic scale it can play harmonic minor scales for example which are particularly good for Finnish melodies.

The tunes from Halocline were written over the next five years. Moments in my life that felt particularly poignant combined with shapes and patterns that formed on this new bagpipe.

In February 2022 I was asked to write a New Voices commission for Celtic Connections. Although I began by writing a folk/techno piece using only acoustic instruments I quickly realised that this was my opportunity to write and perform on this new bagpipe with a larger band and create an album (which would soon become Halocline) in the fullest possible way.

After the sold out New voices concert and with the generous support of Creative Scotland I recorded Halocline in March 2023 in Gloworm Studios in Glasgow. I enlisted the skills of Andy Bell to record and mix my album and together we produced the album.

What has emerged is a record that encapsulates many of the emotions that I’ve been trying to express all my life. It is a deeply personal account of the joys of humanity and being your true self. I hope that when people listen to Halocline they can find their own stories, memories and relationships with the tunes.

It feels like a huge creative relief to let these stories out into the world. I’m so excited to tour the album with my lovely band (Ali Hutton and Sally Simpson) and share it with live audiences before beginning the next creative chapter!

Website – malinlewis.co.uk

Listen to Halocline – https://hudsonrecords.ffm.to/Halocline

Hiraeth – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ura9KBlAcuo

Halocline Mini Documentary – https://youtu.be/UlmxkWHz1dE

 

LIGHT ON WATER – by Sophie Joint

Artwork by the wonderful Orcadian painter and pianist Jennifer Austin

In May 2023, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to record my debut solo album, Light on Water. The album was recorded at Wee Studio in Stornoway by Keith Morrison. I was surrounded by beautiful landscape – the studio looks out onto the gorgeous Lewis coastline which fittingly matches the album title. It was released in late March and feels totally surreal that it is finally out in the world.

The album encapsulates the inspiration I find from Scotland’s unique and varied seascapes – the music reflects the different moods created by the constantly changing textures and sounds of the sea. I aimed to create a wide range of musical ideas pulling from my influences in classical, traditional and jazz music and I am so happy with the result.

I wrote the bulk of the music during a week away staying in Port Appin. I took two weeks off to completely immerse myself in writing the album, which was a challenging but rewarding time. I woke up every morning greeted by a stunning, sunlit peninsula, made a cup of tea and got to work.

The opening track, Morning Sun, was written on one of those mornings when I had just sat down at the piano, enjoying the morning light pouring into the kitchen and the sweet, simple melody was written. The piece establishes a recurring theme in the album – repetitive bass lines accompanied with increasing amounts of chords and textures to enhance the melodies. This decision was to mimic the rhythmic nature of the sea – the water is perpetually moving and changing whilst the unpredictable Scottish weather shapes how calm or stormy the sounds shall be. This track is a peaceful, slow introduction to the album that then transitions into a more fast paced and frantic mood.

Racing, the second track on the album was inspired by the many creatures in the sea that are hurriedly journeying through the water underneath the fast flowing currents. It was a very fun track to write and it came very easily as a progression and development of the opening track. I used multi-tracking to layer the riffs and chords as I wanted it to have the impression of overlapping melodies, just as the sea creatures cross paths as they voyage through the water.

📷 by Paul Jennings

The fast pace is maintained for the third track, Storm, as the mood changes into a minor key. The accompaniment to this melody develops the theme of repetitive rhythmic patterns as triplets gradually build tension throughout this piece. I wrote it with the image of what begins as slow falling rain, transitioning into a dramatic depiction of fierce winds and thunder.

There is a musical interlude from the water theme with an amazing tune written by Donogh Hennessy, Iníon Ní Scannláin. Lunasa recorded this waltz in 2006 on their album The Merry Sisters of Fate. I play the tune much slower, and took the approach of how I would arrange a slow air, and really enjoyed experimenting with the harmony for this track.

The title for the fifth track, Apricity, is an unusual term for the sudden warmth of the sun in winter. This summed up the culmination of my musical exploration around Scotland, which ended at an Edinburgh harbour with shafts of brilliant sunlight transforming an urban landscape on one of the coldest days of the year.

The music video for the next track caused quite a stir. I had the ambitious (slightly daft) idea of getting a grand piano out onto a pier, and thanks to the incredible team at Pianodrome and my videographer Paul Jennings, we managed to do just that. We filmed the video at Wardie Bay in Edinburgh and the piano was wheeled out over the rocky, icy surface much to the confusion of the locals. The story was picked up by The Daily Record and The BBC, as after we finished recording the video the piano was left unattended for a couple of hours which caused people to wonder how the mystery grand piano ended up at Granton Harbour.

 

The next track, Easter Snow is a lovely traditional Irish air. It is a very popular tune among flute players and my version was particularly inspired by Matt Molloy’s version, recorded on his album Pathway to the Well with John Carty in 2007.

The Lighthouse was inspired by one of my walks in Appin during a break from writing. I had hit a wall in terms of coming up with new ideas and getting out into the fresh air had given me a new lease of life. The melody came to me as I sat watching the Sgeir Bhuidhe lighthouse that sits of the western side of Loch Linnhe, just across the coast from the island of Lismore.

Seaside is a short track that encompasses the peaceful joy of sitting by the water and watching the waves crashing. I recorded the album on the famous Yamaha C7 grand piano at Wee Studio and one of the obstacles we encountered was minimising distracting noises such as a squeaky pedal, or a chair creaking. However, in this track, we discovered a happy accident. If you listen closely to the recording, as I press the sustain pedal, the noise of the dampers lifting off of the strings makes a sound reminiscent of sea foam.

The final track is titled Church Bells. The chords are inspired by the noise of church bells ringing in the distance. Just as this sound echoes far and wide, this melody journeys through several different keys, starting in A flat major, modulating to D flat and finishing in G major. I though it would be a perfect was to finish the album as it’s a peaceful, serene ending. This composition strays away from the previously established musical themes, signifying the start of something new.

Writing and recording this album was a dream come true for me, it was a steep learning curve and I was supported every step of the way by Keith Morrison and Scott Macleod who as well as mixing and mastering the album were a great comfort to me throughout the process. I was very fortunate, and could not have done it without the never-ending support of my friends and family too!

I am so looking forward to making more new music soon, if you’d like to stay up to date please head to my website www.sophiejoint.com.

All the best,
Sophie

********************

Light on Water released 22nd March 2024, available from:

Bandcamp | Spotify | Apple Music

VOLUNTEERING – THE ROOTS OF TRAD by Rachel Hair

I’m Rachel and I guess I’m what you’d describe as a mid-career professional musician, having been fortunate enough to enjoy some 18 years freelancing in performing and teaching Scottish harp. It’s had its ups and downs but I’m now at a point in my career where I genuinely love everything I do, and I’m thankfully managing to survive financially.

With Ron Jappy and Japanese band John John Festival at Mori Michi Ichiba festival

I’ve seen many changes in our traditional music scene in Scotland. Many of my personal experiences have been thanks to the work of volunteers: whether that be committee members at the local fèis, the Clàrsach Society local branch harp hire organiser, artist liaisons and drivers at festivals. All have helped me in my life, and all help shape our traditional music scene here in Scotland; helping keep it rooted in our communities.

With Celtic Colours festival volunteer driver Woody and Manx singer Ruth Keggin

But the last few years have been tough. Organisations and festivals have struggled to source volunteers – whether that’s committee or board members for year round planning, or people to help once the event itself begins. I remember a board member of a trad organisation speaking about “volunteer fatigue” – people have grown used to having more free time during lockdown, so have been hesitant to get involved again once life restarted.  I’ve also heard just this last month of 2 music/folk clubs who have pleaded for more volunteers to join their ageing committees; as if they can’t form a committee, they can’t continue to put on concerts.

So I’m hoping that this blog might help convince you to volunteer – whether you’re someone who enjoys listening to traditional music, plays it as a hobby, or is even a professional full-time musician, and help our traditional music scene to continue to flourish.

For the last 10 years I’ve been a volunteer committee/team member of the Edinburgh International Harp Festival. I was a bit of a surprise member – I remember observing a Clàrsach Society Executive Council meeting and they announced that harpist Patsy Seddon would be joining as an Artistic Advisor to the festival. Someone said something along the lines of, “Is there anyone else who’d like to join the committee” and I bravely raised my hand – I think folk were a bit surprised, however, I also remember Patsy keenly nodding her head at me!

Rachel playing in a session at the Edinburgh International Harp Festival (John Davidson)

Looking back, I think that I just wanted to be more involved in the festival, as I had enjoyed attending as a punter, and latterly, as a tutor. Now, however, I can see how my experiences as a professional musician have, alongside our fantastic team, helped us to grow the event into one of the world’s largest harp festivals.

Volunteering can be so much more than giving something back. As we grow older, we become more experienced in our chosen careers and I believe that using the skills we have learned in these is key to being a useful volunteer. At our festival, we have a team of 8 year-round volunteer organisers aided by 2 part time paid workers. We’re a mixture of professional and harp enthusiasts, with everyone on our team having a role in which they can use their own skills and experiences.

For me, it means sharing my knowledge of how other harp festivals I perform and teach at work, and using the skills I’ve learnt in publicising and marketing myself as a self-releasing artist to benefit the marketing of the festival. Our festival stage manager has been a professional musician for over 30 years. She’s had so many good and bad experiences in her career, that she knows exactly what the ideal on and off stage environment should be for artists, and how to effectively schedule soundchecks.

Our tech manager runs his own Event Services company, meaning he’s able to advise us on what we need in terms of crew and equipment for sound and lights; ensuring they have the right working conditions to do a top-notch job. Our sponsorship co-ordinator used to work for a global company, and this experience means that she always uses the right tone when approaching companies for sponsorship.

It’s not all about using the skills you already have: being a volunteers allows you to learn new ones. For example, I’m a talker; so I’ve tried really hard to listen more and be more patient. (It’s still a work in process!) Being involved behind the scenes at a festival has also helped me plan my own tours more productively.

Rachel with fellow Harp Festival volunteer committee member and steward co-ordinator Annette (John Davidson)

I’ve felt so many benefits from being a volunteer on our team. I find great joy in knowing that I’m helping create an event that people love attending; an event that creates work for artists and tutors, and allows people to engage with and learn traditional music. As a freelance professional, most of what I do day-to-day can feel self indulgent and self-centred; so it’s good to give back and be part of a team made up of people of all ages, and from a variety of careers and backgrounds.

Ultimately, the reward of seeing our festival successfully happen each year is the biggest thrill. I’ve made lifelong friends, that are both artists and repeat festival visitors. I also get to hear some phenomenal music for free every year!

Volunteers at the Edinburgh International Harp Festival (John Davidson)

So, do you have skills that could benefit a local folk club, festival or traditional teaching organisation? Are you a finance ace, meaning you could help cash up at the end of events or be a treasurer? A whizz with words, to help write funding applications or sponsorship emails?

Skilled at taking minutes at meetings? Or a people person, who could welcome visitors and take tickets at a door? If so, why not give it a go? Our folk clubs, festivals and organisations really need us to help our scene to continue to grow.

Some tips if you are going to take that first step into volunteering:

  • Be honest about how much time you can dedicate. Can you be a year-round organising volunteer, or are you better suited to a “during event” role?
  • Think about what you can bring to a team – passion is key, but do you have any other skills from your own experiences and career?
  • If you’re struggling with a task as a volunteer, ask for help or tell someone else in your team. Burnout is real, and I struggle at times with the balance of my freelance work and festival volunteer work.

 

And if you’re not yet able to take that step, some things to remember:

  • If you’re at an event, festival, or dealing with an organisation, please try to be nice and polite to those working there. Many will be volunteers, donating their free time.
  • If you’re emailing or contacting an event, festival or organisation on social media, please be aware that many of the people who will reply will be volunteers, and definitely won’t be working 24/7; so it may be a while until you get a reply.

 

To finish, I should tell you that the next Edinburgh International Harp Festival takes place from the 5-9th April at George Watson’s College and we’re still looking for volunteers! If you’d like to get involved, or just come along to our great series of concerts, courses, workshops and sessions visit: https://www.harpfestival.co.uk/about/volunteer/

THE NORTHERN ISLES SUITE – by Miguel Girão

📷 by Martin Venherm

The Northern Isles Suite is a collection of traditional tunes from Orkney and Shetland arranged for solo acoustic guitar. The piece of music draws influence from classical music, having a compositional/musical structure that has been used by composers, for a multitude of different musical works and genres across the centuries. It is also inspired by contemporary music, exploring new harmonies, inclusion of compositional passages at times stemming from fragments of traditional melodies, or sometimes introducing foreign musical elements to the overall musical arrangement. It brings together several musical worlds such as trad, jazz, classical, and modern music through my own creative lens.

It embodies my love and interest for the culture of the Northern Isles of Scotland, and the musician’s quest to create an artefact that will contribute to the preservation and renewal of their cultural heritage.

“These are unique arrangements of beautiful tunes, all played with great attention to detail and fabulous musicality.”
Will McNicol

The music, culture, and landscape of the Northern Isles of Scotland has provided me with a wealth of creative output as a musician for the past two and a half years. The process of starting to get to know this corner of the world has led me to a variety of learning experiences that have allowed me to develop my technical ability on the guitar, expand my creative conception, and finesse the idea of creating a body of work that exists in symbiosis with the perspective of an individual, an ancestral past, its relevance in the present, and the creation of an artefact that voices a place.

Initially I didn’t set out to make a new record. A multitude of professional, academic, and personal reasons led me down a path of creation and exploration. Above all I just found myself in a place of wanting to dive into tune collections and archive recordings aiming to find music that resonates within me and that conveyed a deep sense of place. At the early stages of development, I was also researching about differences and similarities between the wedding traditions of Orkney and Shetland. That was an incredibly enriching part of the whole creative process, not just in terms of self-enrichment, but also because I managed to conduct interviews with tradition bearers from both archipelagos that substantially fed into my understanding of this corner of the world.

Over the course of time the search for music, meaning and sounds converged closer and closer together and then the idea of working towards a new recording project dawned on me. I still didn’t have all the music ready, but now I had a very clear view of what to achieve and how to do it.

At this point it is important to mention the fact that all throughout the creation of this project, I was incredibly fortunate to have the advice and guidance of guitarist and composer, Will McNicol. Will’s input proved to be paramount, and I am ever grateful to have had the chance to have him with me along the way.

In line of pledging my gratitude to those who in any way contributed to the making of this project, I’d also like to leave a heartfelt Thank You! to all my Kickstarter Crowdfunding supporters, everyone who came to my house gig and donated towards the cause, and lastly and certainly not least, to the Martyn Bennett Memorial Trust. The Trust has done remarkable work in preserving Martyn’s memory as well as providing support for young and upcoming artists. To ALL of you, thank you so much. This wouldn’t have come into reality without you.

The melodies featured on this EP all refer to different places, artefacts, rituals, and creatures, associated with the Northern Isles of Scotland.

The 1st movement – Da Day Dawn – is an ancient melody from Shetland which in the old days would only be played at dawn of the 1st day of the New Year. In a parish, in Shetland, a fiddle player would go from door to door and play this tune as a means of symbolising a new beginning. It’s one of Shetland’s most iconic tunes, and one that allows us to gaze at old customs, which, although more sporadically, are still practiced in modern times.

The 2nd movement – The Deerness Reel / Shelders Geo – takes the listener to the East side of Mainland Orkney with The Deerness Reel, and references the Oystercatchers that can be seen soaring around the Northern Isles with the Shetland tune, Shelders Geo. In this movement there is a wide array of guitar sounds, techniques, and textures. It serves as a testament to the sonic capabilities of the instrument.

The 3rd movement – The Standing Stones of Stenness – it comes back to the evocative landscape of Orkney with this iconic landmark. It also takes us into a deeper more pagan past that is embedded in Orkney’s history and Scandinavian connections. This is a murder ballad I found while on Tobar an Dualchais. The narrative refers to a couple who pledge their love to each other, after which the man is killed by his rival out jealousy and the lady is left to mourn.

Not disregarding the tragic nature of the lyrics that go with inherent beauty of this melody, the aspect that most draws my attention is the pagan ritual to which it refers to. In the old days, in Orkney, there used to be a ritual that was performed to secure a couple’s love for each other. During this ritual, the couple went to the Temple of the Moon (Ring of Stennis), where the woman would pray to the god Wodden to enable her to fulfil her promise. Afterwards, the man would do the same at the Temple of the Sun (Ring of Brogar). Finally, they would both go to the Stone of Odin, which had a hole on it. They would both kneel, one on each side of the stone, and lock each other’s right hands through the hole and swore to be faithful to one another. This ritual was regarded as sacred and failing to commit to it would cause an individual to be excluded from the community.

The 4th movement – Da Trowie Burn – In a way the whole thing ends at the beginning. When I first started delving into these tunes, Da Trowie Burn marked the beginning of the process. Through the exploration of this melody I developed a harmonic vocabulary and use of guitar technique that shaped the conception of the entire suite. It also allowed me to develop a musical discourse with which I identify myself a lot with. In a way it felt like I discovered a form of expression which I had been looking for a long time.

Originally composed by Friedeman Stickle, this tune comes from the Isle of Unst, the most northerly point in the UK. Stickle was originally from Germany and there exists some speculation as to how and why he ended up in Shetland. One theory – which is presented by the account of John Stickle (Friedeman’s great grandson) – says that in the second half of the 18th century a sailor had washed ashore in the Isle of Unst. Having survived the shipwreck, he then established himself in Unst for the rest of his life. He was the first in a long lineage of celebrated musicians in the Isle.

I’ve had the chance to travel up to Shetland a good number of times over the last couple of years. I normally stay at the southern end of the Mainland, in Sandwick. To me Da Trowie Burn is incredible evocative of this part of Shetland and whenever I’m not there and listen to this melody, it instantly takes me back to the landscape there.

Da Day Dawn – Filmed and Edited by Vaila Walterson. Shot at The Perace Institute, Glasgow.

“A new and genuinely unique voice in contemporary Scottish trad. You really haven’t heard this before.” Martin Green (Lau)

Finally, I want to make the point that this project stands as a testament to the idea that the traditional arts are one of the several threads that constitute the cultural DNA of a nation and its people, but also have the capacity to be the assembly point between themselves and other forms of artistical expression. This project is very special to me. It comes from a place of curiosity and respect for the past, the need to understand it, cherish it and project it onwards with the carrying stream.

If you’d like to chat about this or any other projects of mine the best way to do so is to go on to my website – https://miguelgirao.com/ – I’d be delighted to discuss any questions.

All the best,
Miguel

The Northern Isles Suite – by Miguel Girão
Released 9th Feb 2024
Available from bandcamp
Artwork and design by Chloe Keppie

In the Hartwood

Jane Mather

Anyone think it’s a good idea to write and perform a faerie story about a paupers cemetery in the grounds of a decommissioned psychiatric hospital?

Anyone?

It’s a wet November day, on the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh, I glance out of the window and see a grand, baronial-style mansion looming out of the mist, but it’s derelict, no more than a charred husk. The next station is Hartwood. Sensing a story, I google ruined mansion, Hartwood and Hartwood Hospital pops up on Wikipedia; a psychiatric hospital for 100 years decommissioned in 1995.

If I hadn’t met Margaret McSeveney a playwright from Shotts, my curiosity might have ended there, but when we meet to discuss storytelling and Spotlight Shotts, an organisation committed to reinvigorating the once thriving arts scene in the area Margaret asks if I’d like to write a play together and without hesitation I reply Yes!

Later as we leaf through Margaret’s amazing collection of theatre posters and programmes, I talk about my work in mental health and mention Hartwood Hospital.
Everyone in the area knows Hartwood, a local landmark with imposing towers. Margaret tells me her sons had summer jobs there, one worked in the library and the other served tea, she asks if I’ve heard of Hartwood Paupers cemetery, where patients who died with no money or family to claim them were buried with only a number to mark their grave.

After the closure of the hospital, the cemetery fell into neglect and many lairs and their markers were lost under mud and undergrowth but, Margaret tells me, a group called Friends of Hartwood, are dedicated to finding them and reuniting each with the names of those interred.

Would I like to visit?

Our first meeting with Loraine Duncan and Rona Condie Barr from Friends of Hartwood is in the cemetery, now a beautiful space, with flowers, teapot planters left by visitors, benches, interpretation boards displaying names and corresponding lair numbers, and even a wee library.
We learn that nobody was buried here after 1954 and hear some histories. Felice McHardy, was an enigmatic figure in dark veils, known as Stra’ven’s Russian Princess; John Williamson or Jock O’ Law believed he was a knight of the realm; baby Martha’s grave has windchimes which tinkle even on a still day; thirteen soldiers are buried without military honours because they died after the great war; and there are women who drowned themselves in a nearby reservoir.

Rona has planted hundreds of bulbs and seeds which bloom and fragrance the air. She tells me about her dreams, in one, she saw a line of soldiers, in the corner of the cemetery where they’re buried, long before the lair markers were recovered.
Most people laid to rest in Hartwood were othered in life, and not all experienced mental illness, among their number were unmarried mothers, gay men, and people with dementia or epilepsy…I learn that when the hospital closed and old administrative documents were cleared out, a ledger containing the only record of burials, was
chucked into a skip.

If a member of nursing staff hadn’t rescued the ledger and given it to
Motherwell Heritage centre…

When the friends started clearing weeds from the cemetery and researching its history, they met with resistance. Not everyone wanted the secrets of Hartwood cemetery to be revealed, but undeterred they navigated ill-will and bureaucracy to transform the place from an eerie wilderness where no birds sang, to a cherished community space.

I ask if I can share the story and they give me their blessing. but Lorraine asks,
How will you share the stories?
I can’t answer yet, all I know is the story, like the cemetery, needs a community.

We are commissioned to create a storytelling performance for SISF Right to be Human and begin by hosting three community workshops. The first happens at Hartwood attracting thirty attendees, the second at Lanarkshire Association for Mental Health’s Wellbeing Hub and third at Stane Primary School in Shotts where the children give up their golden time to participate. They’re lively, social affairs which create space for people, interested in Hartwood’s story, to contribute ideas and reminiscences. Each workshop begins with a traditional tale: Rashiecoats, Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin and participants craft felt flowers, which I sew onto an army surplus blanket creating the blanket of Earth and flowers which will symbolise Hartwood in our storytelling performances.

An online search for further information about Felice McHardy, one of Hartwood’s interred, leads me to local historian, Bob Currie who wrote a book about Stra’ven’s Russian princess. I reach out and he invites me to lunch at his retirement community in Lesmahagow. Here I discover that Felice, really a Polish baroness, was married to an
Edinburgh Doctor of Music, Robert MacHardy, whose compositions, commissioned by aristocracy and world-famous sopranos, have all but disappeared into obscurity…though a few copies remain in the music archives of the British Library.

Hartwood is already a faerie tale, more than any municipal graveyard, it offers a space where living and deceased commune, a place of dreams and stories, I imagine the faerie queen leading us to this liminal realm and can almost hear harp music.
I am excited when Heather Yule agrees to accompany the story, and her playing creates enchantment. All I can find of Robert MacHardy’s music is a fragment of his Fantasia which Heather weaves through the performance like a golden thread.

October and the Storytelling Festival approaches, I’ve lived, breathed and, as Rona predicted, dreamed the story for months. Margaret who has been with me on this adventure, helps prepare the performance, having staged two plays at the Netherbow in the 90’s her flair for dramatic tension and focus on detail is reassuring.

Without giving away the narrative or any surprises, I can reveal that fantasy and reality merge in the Hartwood, but the true story’s even more incredible.

Is it the responsibility of the living to share stories of those who no longer have a voice? I believe so, and the Friends of Hartwood’s mission resonates, but whatever you think, or whoever you choose to remember, the ones who lived before us paved the way for all we hold dear.

Since SISF 2023 Friends of Hartwood have become National Lottery’s Scottish Charity of the Year and secured official recognition for their thirteen soldiers who will be honoured with a war memorial. They prove in all they do, that a few determined people who care can make a difference. Hartwood may no longer be a hospital, but it is a place of healing and the cemetery, now a tranquil green oasis, welcomes visitors and inspires wellbeing.

DIARIES FROM INDIA – by Mischa Macpherson

Towards the end of November ’23 as the temperature dropped and the rest of Glasgow was beginning to feel Christmassy, I found myself running from chemist to supermarket trying to find factor 50 suncream and a good mosquito repellent. I was heading back to India for some more concerts, after an incredible trip there to perform as part of the G20 Summit for the Indian Government in Varanasi 4 months earlier in August.

I landed in Kolkata at around 2am and was met by a friendly face from the production team. He didn’t speak English, and so I was put on the phone to the production co-ordinator, still in Mumbai, who welcomed me back to India and told me where I was going. We jumped in a car with a driver and drove for an hour through the pitch black streets of Kolkata to the venue’s location, and our hotel for the next 4 nights.

I sat in the back – unable to converse properly with either men in the front – and smiled. Nothing makes me feel more alive than driving through the streets in India. Even in the small hours, there was so much to see and take in. Whole families, piled onto the backs of single motorbikes, in a hurry to get somewhere; stray dogs playing and chasing each other; and the odd shack still open, serving chai and snacks to those who walked the streets at night. It was funny seeing the roads so quiet, where I imagined gridlocked traffic and noisy car horns to soon fill up the space.

I landed almost 36 hours earlier than my duo partner for the trip, Andrew Waite. I’ve learnt that I need at least one day to acclimatise to Asian heat and the new time zone before beginning any work. So my first day was a snoozy one. I walked around the ‘venue’, which was a never-ending golf course of well-manicured lawns and neatly planted trees – and home to some beautiful and exotic birds, as well as hyenas and fox-like creatures called jackals. I knew that it was a stark contrast to the bustle of the city centre just an hour away, but it made for the perfect location to ease into Indian heat and pace – I was going to be in India for just over 3 weeks, so a gentle start felt good. The sky painted itself pink and orange over the green fields, and I sat watching the sun slowly set as I sipped my first chai of the trip, beginning to come round from the jet-lag.

Andrew arrived the next morning for our rehearsals and soundchecks later that day. The festival, known as ‘Ruhaniyat’ – which runs over 2 months and in 8 different cities – pulls together a diverse selection of Indian artists from all over the country, each presenting their own traditional music, as well as a few international acts from abroad at each event. And so we met with a handful of the musicians and watched the magnificent transformation of the unassuming golf course into a large outdoor stage set up – with tall speakers (several times my height), a red carpet running through the audience to the stage and an impressive lighting rig that projected purple and blue onto the towering trees behind the stage, making the most spectacular backdrop. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about Indian production, it’s that they don’t do things by half.

That evening, we met with the festival directors – a husband and wife, and two of the kindest souls I’ve ever met. They’re visionary in preserving traditional art forms in India and giving voice, stage and status to otherwise declining traditions from rural and often forgotten about communities. They welcomed us – as they do everyone – like well-loved, returning family and introduced us to the remainder of our new collaborators for the next few days.

There are two sayings in India I’ve come to learn; the first is that ’the world is one family’, and the second, that ‘guest is god’. After three visits to the country, I’ve yet to experience any place or situation where I haven’t instantly felt these with great warmth and affection – and been handed a cup of sweet, hot chai in the process, which they also did immediately.

We were sharing the Kolkata stage with three sisters and their father from the Punjab region; a band from Maharashtra, which included an extraordinary blind harmonium player; a group from Rajasthan; flautist from Kolkata; and a lively Qawwali band called The Nizami Brothers. Also joining the team, was Ripon Sarkar from Bangladesh, who I had met and performed with as part of the G20 Orchestra in Varanasi. Rippon is one of life’s great characters and musicians. He breathes, eats and sleeps music – it’s beautiful and infectious, and it was a great pleasure to get to introduce him to Andrew and watch them match each other’s energy and enthusiasm.

We rehearsed under the open sky late into the night – working on a collaboration with the entire team of musicians – and then Andrew and I joined the directors and some of the production team for a close-to-midnight dinner of various curries. I’m in love with Indian food and spice and although it wasn’t a competition, I utterly out-spiced Andrew, who will unfortunately never live down claiming to ‘love spicy food’, and then almost choking on the dhal.

We went back for more rehearsals the following day, after inviting a flautist to join one of our slower songs and two percussionists (on tabla and dholak) to join a Puirt-a-beul. We were so entertained by the group from Rajasthan. They wore beautifully vibrant turbans and waistcoats and had come from the Rajasthani desert, travelling for over 24 hours by train to get to the festival. Despite speaking no English, they were desperate to have some craic, and sat next to me and Andrew for most of the afternoon speaking at us in fast Hindi, with great entertaining facial expressions and hand gestures.

The gig itself was sold out, with an electric atmosphere backstage – chai and savoury Indian snacks in abundance. The festival has run successfully for over 20 years and built a loyal and appreciative audience in the process, so their excitement and energy generously filled the space. The format seemed to work well and I found something very refreshing about each act unapologetically presenting what they know best, without bells or whistles. I sang a selection of Gaelic songs with Andrew, Rippon presented traditional material from Bangladesh and so on, and the magic lay within the simplicity and variation between each act, before the finale collaboration when we all came together at the end of the night.

One of my favourite things is to sing outside in uncovered spaces. We could see the audience in front of us and the huge expansive sky behind them. It feels like you’re no longer just singing to the people on seats, but to the hyenas, birds and wildlife listening in too and the horizon itself. We were both really chuffed at the warm reception and after the formalities of being presented with flowers and some official photographs on stage, we were handed the best gift of all – a hot, fresh samosa in the dressing room. I took my heels off and Andrew and I stood side of stage, with our happy, post-gig adrenaline and samosa in hand, watching Rippon single handedly bring the audience to tears with his voice under the purple lit trees and warm evening breeze. It was one of those rare moments where the rest of the world dissolves away, but you’re still fully aware of how lucky you are to be there.

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Our first internal flight was leaving Kolkata the following afternoon, and so Andrew and I woke up at the crack of dawn, determined to explore some of the city before leaving. We jumped in an Uber to a temple in the city centre, but unfortunately Andrew was refused entry since he was wearing shorts. They let me sneak in, after covering my hair with a headscarf, removing my shoes and confirming that I wasn’t taking a phone inside. I walked through a narrow hallway into a tardis sized kaleidoscope of mosaic glass and colour, trying hard not to make a sound with my bare feet. A group of around 30 people sat, kneeled and stood in the middle of the room – praying, singing and chanting. I sat quietly at the back with my eyes closed – breathing in the heavy scent of incense, deeply moved by their powerful, spiritual singing.

I could have happily stayed sat there until our flight – I find huge peace in almost any temple – but I tip-toed back outside after a short while to meet Andrew. We found, on the same street, carts of fresh green coconuts and young men selling them after chopping the top off with a machete and sticking a straw inside. It’s the nectar of gods and highly addictive. We decided to walk around the neighbourhood instead of jumping back in a taxi to our next pinned location, and within 5 minutes found a parade beginning a few streets down with excruciatingly loud drummers, horn players and singers warming up with large speakers. Everyone was dressed in red and we were told it was ‘a celebration of all the gods’. They immediately invited us to join them, and so we did, drinking our fresh coconut water and trying to dance like the locals, which caused much hilarity, especially with the children.

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This was just the first 3 days of a 3 week long trip to India. From Kolkata we flew to Mumbai, where we stayed in the heart of the city next to the ‘Gate of India’ for just over a week and took part in the slightly longer festival there, with a host of different musicians – including great singers, friends and characters from around India, Egypt and the UAE. They transformed the impressive ‘Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya’ Museum into the backdrop for another spectacular outdoor stage. It looked like something from Hogwarts, and possibly even trumped the backdrop of purple-lit trees, which I didn’t think would be possible.

It took me a while to warm to Mumbai, missing the rustic nature of the more rural places I’d visited before – like Hampi, Dharward and Varanasi, where cows and monkeys line the streets – but by the end I was completely converted to the ‘New York of India’ and had decided I wanted to move there permanently.

The city has so much to offer and an incredible charm, unlike anywhere else I’ve been before. It’s stretched across the coast, and every evening thousands of locals sit on the edge of the famous ‘Marine Drive’ to watch the sun set and birds dip into the ocean. Andrew and I tried to join them as often as we could. It was very special to feel some independence in the city, discover our favourite coffee shops and restaurants and make friends (literally) wherever we went, navigating our way ourselves – almost always successfully (with the exception of getting on the wrong boat on our first day and ending up 7 hours away from where we were supposed to be).

The festival brought all the magic and energy of Kolkata, but as the production team and majority of sponsors are based there, it felt more like a ‘home gig’, with much excitement and adrenaline. The stage was breathtakingly beautiful – with palm trees dotted around the audience and birds and bats flying over head as we performed. We had invited friends we made throughout the week to our concerts too, and performed in two large cross-cultural collaborations, in addition to our selection of Gaelic songs. After upping our spice tolerance, and baffling the producers by choosing to walk through the hot, crowded streets of busy Mumbai to get to rehearsals and soundchecks instead of using their dedicated drivers, on the last night we received a round of applause on stage – cued by the festival director – for being new adopted locals.

It was an emotional goodbye with Mumbai as I travelled north by myself to Rajasthan for the last 10 days of the trip, for more adventure and the chance to explore the rural mountains (mostly on mopeds, sorry Mum). Each day was filled with music and more unexpected turns than the last. We woke up at 5am some mornings to drive high into the hills and watch the sun rise from different points, with men at the top making us fresh, hot chai with tiny stoves and bags of spices they’d carried up. I watched a folk dance show with women balancing buckets of fire on their heads, got invited into small shacks to share tea with fellow musicians, and got lost in the markets, narrow streets and ancient palaces of Udaipur. Very quickly my travel notes from Kolkata felt like a distant cosy memory, as India continued to surprise and delight in all the ways it does.

It’s been a real privilege getting to explore this country more and to sing to local audiences in Gaelic has felt particularly special. I’m also very grateful to have shared the experience, in August with Angus Mackenzie, and in December with Andrew Waite – both of whom were the perfect travelling companions, musicians and humans to have around.

If anyone is considering going to India – if the itch is there, for work, or to go on holiday, or to travel – I can’t recommend it enough. You’ll need to bring some patience and an open mind for the chaos and madness – which we didn’t experience in the bubble of our Kolkata venue, but you’ll find in abundance almost everywhere else. The place pushes you in beautiful ways and has expanded me as a human. It has reminded me of the genuine kindness in people; the connections you can make so quickly, if both parties are open and willing; and the simplicity we can find and enjoy in life, within the complicated tapestry of the world.

Mischa x

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Mischas next concert is on Saturday 20th January (2024) in Barony Hall, at Celtic Connections. Featuring Gaelic songs with Donald Grant, Jarlath Henderson, Innes White, James Macintosh and the Scottish Ensemble, as well as special guests Ailie Robertson (Harp) and Edgar Meyer (Double Bass). 

Tickets: https://www.celticconnections.com/event/1/scottish-ensemble-with-edgar-meyer-mischa-macpherson-donald-grant-and-ailie-robertson

 

 

The Global Cohort Where the Sun Never Sets – by Simon Bradley

“Artistic activities vibrate between nationalism and internationalism. The one is as necessary as the other is indispensable.” Internationalism in Music, The Musical Quarterly (1925), Guido Adler and Theodore Baker

As the nights draw in and belts are tightened a temptation is to batten down the hatches and posit a false dichotomy between celebrating the local or embracing the exotic. I know what I like and like what I know.

Fully opened ears though are capable of an appreciation of new harmony and counterpoint that it would be a shame to miss out on. The potential for music to transcend borders of space and time is our Access All Areas Backstage Pass. Add in our digital connectivity and powerful learning environments and global citizenship can feel close enough to touch.

The French-Scottish poet and essayist Kenneth White has died at the age of 87 – Livres Hebdo

The Scottish writer Kenneth White, who passed away in August 2023, founded the International Institute of Geopoetics in 1989 which called for transnational and transdisciplinary creative practice. When asked Where do you see yourself going now? in Conversations with Scottish Poets (Marco Fazzini, 2015) he replied, “In towards greater and greater concentration, out in ever widening circles.”

Kenneth Clarke in his seminal Civilisation book and TV series (1969) suggested that “nearly all the steps upwards in civilisation have been made in periods of internationalism”.

Creative Scotland state in their international funding criteria that “Working internationally increases diversity, encourages creative experimentation and excellence, strengthens communities, boosts tourism, and connects Scotland to the world.”

The Blog title came to me scheduling classes in my role as Programme Leader for MA Music and the Environment which draws on Geopoetics and Ecomusicology. We are blessed with students spread across multiple time zones spanning California to New South Wales via Zululand. Rather than the domination and exploitation often associated with the empire building alluded to in the title we seek collaboration and mutual learning opportunities.

In conversation I discover linguistic and cultural insights comparing notes as musicians working in diverse environments. Busking as ‘pasar la gorra’ or ‘Straßenmusik machen’ and the sharing of creative alternative business models for touring. We get a close-up sense of how green the grass is on the other side and find solace and inspiration from the solutions found.

Image: Ellen Grieve

MA student Ellen Grieve in Orkney captures our ethos with her working on a modern-day musical revisiting of the St. Kilda mail boats which reached out to as yet unknown friends and kindred spirits.

The following short quotes from current MA students convey this sense of cultural exchange and international connectivity.

“For me the fact that the digital space became an effective creative environment – which was something I didn’t really expect – was a really positive outcome of the course and something I’ll carry with me.” Adam Cameron Taylor, New South Wales

“It gave me more vibrant, ‘actual’ tastes of the culture and lands from which they came.”  Lisa Lulis, Chicago

“The more I learn about how music is being created around the world the more I’m drawn to experience it in person.” John MacLean Allen, California

“In spite of the virtual nature of our interaction, I now consider them to be people that I know very well.” David Starke, South Africa

Image: Simon Bradley & Peter Noble

We will be showcasing these students’ work at a free event on 17th January in The Bungalow in Paisley which will also be live streamed on the venues Facebook. There will be live music, students presenting their creative outputs and a guest talk from TRACS Director Steve Byrne on Intangible Cultural Heritage. It will also be a celebration of internationalism in music and an example of the leading role Scotland can surely play to this end.

https://www.facebook.com/thebungalowpaisley

“Let us raise ourselves from the narrow perspective of being a citizen of a particular country to global citizenship that is the greatest demand of modern world.”
― Preeth Nambiar, 
The Voyage to Eternity

 

The Making of Fragments in Time: The Debut Album from Rhona Stevens & Joseph Peach

📷 by Orla Stevens

Our album ‘Fragments in Time’ has been out for just over a month now, which after three years in the making, is still quite hard to fathom!

We took the very first steps towards the project way back in May 2020. A couple of months into the first of the Covid-19 lockdowns delirium was setting in. We were incredibly lucky to be able to be at home and safe from most of the health risks that existed at that time, but we were truly climbing the walls of that wee Ibrox flat. 

The length of that first lockdown was almost exactly the same amount of time as we had lived together – Rhona having moved up from London and taken over a then-vacant room in Joe’s flat. Before that, we hadn’t played music together (or really hung out that much), since we were at music school together – almost ten years previous. Thankfully, settling into locked down life as flatmates, we got on like a house on fire. 

Like for all folk who might be self-employed and connected in some way to the world of events, the first few weeks of lockdown were quite insane: Rhona was nearing the end of the final year of her music degree, with an honors project of self-penned indie bops for herself + band still to record, and Joe was gearing up for a year which was set to contain upwards of 80 shows across multiple continents. For us both, there was a period of weeks of re-arranging, re-arranging again and then trying once more, before accepting that life as we knew it was going to be on pause for the foreseeable. 

Initially, we coped with that in different ways. Rhona made one thousand paper cranes (yes, it was really one thousand – she counted), and Joe compiled and released the Braw Sailin’ Collection – a compilation of original tunes from members of Tannara, Westward the Light and Charlie Grey and Joseph Peach. With those projects complete, our minds both seemed to turn collectively back to music. 

At that time, Joe was a member of a small production studio just a stone’s throw away from the flat. Once we established that it was legal for us to travel from the house to spend time there, we started doing so frequently. Not with any particular ideas in mind, but rather just to re-engage with the act of creating. 

One of those early studio days led us to a common ground in the writing of Violet Jacob. She was a Scottish writer, alive between 1863 and 1946, who wrote across mediums and languages. We discovered we had a shared love of her Scots poetry. Her work brims with themes of nature, place, longing, loss, grit, determination and the passing of time – all of which were particularly salient in those early, uncertain pandemic weeks.

Fellow folkies will definitely know a couple of her works previously set to song – The Wild Geese (also known as Norland Wind), and Baltic Street. 

Our journey with her work for this album started with what ended up being the 4th track – Lirk O’ the Hill, or to give it its full and proper title – The Field By the Lirk o’ The Hill. Rhona had set this poem to music a number of years previously, and taking her original melody, we piled a whole bunch of ideas in. Working mainly in Ableton, that early draft was a washy, electronics and sample-based soundscape. To us, it worked. Working quite quickly we found a number of Jacob’s other poems that suited being re-made as songs. 

The music we made in those initial steps in the project was very tactile and exploratory. It was quite new to us both and really exciting to be building soundscapes around songs – using found-sounds and making new sample instruments to draw out themes and ideas present in Jacob’s lyrics. 

That process quickly grew further arms and legs again. We happened upon a number of ideas and sounds that while really exciting on their own, were not working in the context of the songs. These turned into instrumental numbers, which we were thinking of almost straight away as interludes. Sculpting those bridging tracks brought us to the realisation that we could aim to make this body of music (we still weren’t thinking about it as an album at that point) a straight-through listen. 

The end of 2020 brought with it a first draft of the Fragments in Time album. Left-field and experimental, it would never have stood up as an album release, but it was certainly unlike anything either of us had made before. 

At the turn of the year, moving flat, starting new “we can’t be musicians so what else can we do for the moment” jobs, and a couple of other changes meant the project was shelved for almost 12 months. 

Returning to it, the delirious time in which the music was made shone right through. We were amazed, and slightly horrified at some of the creative decisions we’d taken – there were a lot of weird synth sounds! 

But there was something about it that merited more attention. Over a few months of listening to the demos, and a huge rake of other stuff, and chatting influences and ideas, we settled on an approach that kept some of the original idea, but that also contained a path to making something “finished”. 

The bones of the album are as they were in late 2020 – underpinned by hardware synths, sampled instruments and natural world samples. Given Rhona’s background in Indie stuff, and having listened to a lot of 60s-70s big band, soul and jazz stuff, we were really keen to see if we could get more of a core “band” sound coming through, with some of those bigger sweeping string textures you’d hear on an Etta James record. 

So with that, we set out to re-make the album, with a band and instrument list comprising: vocals, piano, harmonium, rhodes, various synths (those are the bits we played); and string quartet, saxophone, kit, bass and backing vocals. 

One of the first steps in the project’s transition from left-field experiment to the album was in developing our use of natural world samples. Our first draft drew heavily from the BBC’s sound effects library, an amazing bank of samples gathered by the BBC over a period of decades. These were only placeholders though. Aside from licensing challenges to use those sounds commercially, for the real thing, we felt it was essential for us to be more connected to the sonic world we were creating. 

Happily, soon after reaching this decision, we set off to walk the Camino Frances. A 700km hike from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, through the Pyrenees and then heading West, crossing Spain to reach Santiago de Compostela. Along our way we captured a huge range of sounds, which went on to form the bulk of the samples used on the record. Aside from being a big ol’ trachle, the walk was quite a transformative experience for us both, so it’s been wonderful to be able to bring that into this album in a really tangible way. 

As an aside, the sample which perhaps features most prominently on the record is of Joe’s great granny Kate Shaw. In the 1960s, Dr John MacInnes spent time in Joe’s native Achiltibuie, recording the local stories, music and language for the School of Scottish Studies. Dr MacInnes made almost 30 recordings of Kate, discussing everything from place names, her day to day life, legends, and the supernatural. All in her native, very distinctive Gaelic. We thought long and hard about including spoken Gaelic on an ostensibly Scots language album, and settled on the conclusion that while separated by language, the themes and heart of both VJ’s lyrics and KS’s chat are deeply shared. 

Returning from the Camino, our minds turned to writing string parts and recording our instrumental parts. At its heart, this is a very home or close-to-home made album, almost all of that took place in the home-studio corner of our living room – this is also where all of the music videos were shot. 

Largely, we didn’t have to travel far either to record the other musicians who so beautifully lent their talents to this record. It was a mere hop and a skip down the road to the Sherbrooke Mosspark parish church for strings recording. Our quartet: Laura Wilkie, Chloë Bryce, Eilidh Randall and Alice Allen made an incredible job of bringing the parts to life. 

Percussion and bass gurus Mattie Foulds and Charlotte Printer beamed themselves in from their home studios, coming up with the goods with total ease. And our apologies to Matt Carmichael for coming round to the flat for what we wouldn’t be surprised to hear would be the least professional recording session of his career. He spent the day sandwiched into our homemade “sound booth”, consisting of a pile of duvets piled up on Rhona’s bed in front of an open wardrobe. We also owe him our sincere thanks for absolutely knocking it out of the park, despite the circumstances!

A notable exception to the close-to-home theme was in making the cannonball run up to Ardnamurchan for the day to record Annie Grace’s backing vocal for Baltic Street – the final song on the album. Making this trip was the realisation of a long-held ambition of Joe’s, who since re-making the melody for the song, had been sure that Annie and Rhona’s voices together would be the finishing touch that would bring the song together.  

We were delighted to discover that this was exactly the case. After much back and forth on diaries, we managed to find a time to grab Annie’s vocal three days before the album was due to go to mix. She very graciously made time for us on her lunch break, and we tracked the very last piece of the album in her living room. It works wonderfully, and if we could change one thing about the album it would be to have Annie on there throughout. 

In post-production, we were lucky to have the ears of Mattie Foulds on mix. We both love working with him – he’s done a couple of Rhona’s recent singles, and this album represents the 14th release he’s worked on with Joe. He really made the sound of this music the best it could be. Katie Tavini added the cherry on top with a sensitive yet punchy master. 

The visuals for the album: cover, photography and videos, and animation were made by Scottish (but Berlin-based) artist Orla Stevens. Her approach and artistic vision aligned really well with the feeling and themes of our project. Orla is also Rhona’s older sister, so it was a great excuse to get to spend some time together and collaborate! 

And after all that, Fragments in Time launched on 29 September, the day after Rhona (and Joe’s mum’s!) birthday! We’re incredibly proud of it, and it’s wonderful (if slightly surreal) to finally have it out in the world. 

In making all of that happen, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the funders who supported the project. Creative Scotland, the Marchus Trust, Fenton Arts Trust and Hope Scott Trust’s investment in this album allowed us to take it from something which existed as 0s and 1s to something tangible. 

Making this album has been a huge constant in three incredibly turbulent years. Working on it kept us (somewhat) sane, creative and inspired. Crafting this music was an escape from the upheaval and uncertainty facing the rest of our professional and creative lives, and to boot we’ve ended up with some lovely music!

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Fragments in Time is available here

Rhona & Joe’s socials:
Instagram – Rhona | Instagram – Joseph | FB Page – Rhona | FB Page – Joe

THE VALUE OF TRADITIONAL ARTS – by David Francis

As cuts to culture funding continue to hit the headlines it’s worth reflecting on the importance of the traditional arts to communities and to Scottish culture in general. 

Folk arts are the source of human creativity and value worldwide, but the living flow of traditional song, music, dance, and story enjoys a prominent place in Scottish culture.  In them people find meaning and connection. They are part of what allows us to express and share an inclusive Scottish consciousness, and are an important part of our image throughout the world.  It is also that very distinctiveness which gives us the security to accept what is unique in other cultures, and to explore what we have in common.

These traditional arts can illuminate contemporary experience, as well as our history, and link directly into regional identity and the three indigenous languages, Gaelic, Scots and English, as well as the cultures and languages of new Scots. They are a collectively created and re-created expression of people’s encounter with geographical, historical, psychological and social circumstance, including the processes of settlement, relocation and dislocation. They are in short what unite collective identity, sense of place and cultural memory.

In practice the arts of tradition are inherently accessible. They enable artistic participation for all levels and abilities with the potential to provide an entry into wider artistic activities.  The traditional arts can support renewal and innovation and are an important source of cultural energy and confidence.

This cultural energy also derives, in large part, from the way the traditional arts in Scotland are structured and supported.  At their base is a strong voluntary and community effort, focussed on teaching and learning, local festivals, and informal social events.  Those who work professionally in the traditional arts acknowledge their debt to this base, and, especially when teaching or working on community projects, never lose contact with it.  There is a continuum between voluntary and amateur activity, through to professional, commercial activity, and people will find themselves at several points on the continuum (sometimes simultaneously) at different times in their creative life.  

The model for the development of the traditional arts embraces, therefore, five key ideas: Knowledge, Access, Practice, Advocacy and Sustainability: the interlocking of access to the traditional arts for people as creators and audiences, addressing existing and latent demand; an infrastructure for the development of skills; the cultivation of excellence in teaching and performance; support for the traditional arts’ place in Scottish culture, their sustainability and their potential value to communities.

The Traditional Music Forum’s hope and intention is that the value of traditional arts continues to be recognised and that they continue to play a full part in Scottish life.