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