📷 Nicky Murray 06/22
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.