Following on from the award-winning Farrar in 2008, and Canaich in 2010; Duncan Chisholm brings his Strathglass trilogy to a conclusion with Affric. The suite of albums celebrates Duncan’s connection with his ancestral home among some of the most dramatic and breathtaking landscapes the Highlands of Scotland have to offer. We took the opportunity to listen to the album, and talk to the man himself about the journey that brought us Affric.
This six year musical journey has featured a host of guest musicians, songs and tunes composed by Duncan himself and many of his contemporaries, and a sound that has grown and evolved as Duncan’s gift for music has flourished.
“I worked on all three albums with a very similar approach. I would say the first few months of putting Farrar together set my course for the entire Trilogy. For all three recordings I put in about 6 months work ahead of going into the studio, to map out the albums. Firstly I would imagine the soundtrack shape and structure, then once I had a firm idea of how the album would sound instrumentally and tonally I would piece together the music with finding appropriate melodies and writing and arranging my own tunes also. The overall task was to create a cohesive album every time, 45 minutes of music that told a story and allowed the listener to escape to a different place. “
The escape begins in a familiar, gentle opening style with an instrumental arrangement of the popular air An Ribhinn Donn setting peaceful scene. Big Archie picks up the pace with an unfamiliar (almost Caribbean) backbeat and the very welcome inclusion of Jarlath Henderson; hinting at new influences, and many voices, for Affric…“With Farrar and Canaich I very much looked on the albums as a soundtrack to a physical journey through the landscape of both Glens. Affric is different in that I don’t follow this particular route. A good analogy for this would be that if Farrar and Canaich were both novels, Affric is a book of short stories. Still very coherent instrumentally but drawing on various imaginings, all related to Glen Affric.”
Now that Duncan has reached the final installment of his trilogy, it doesn’t, of course, necessarily mean the work is done…
“It is definitely not ‘Journey’s End’. It is definitely the end of the beginning for me. The touring will be a heap of fun and I am looking forward to presenting the Trilogy live with a fuller line-up also. This time round it is with a trio but the musical arrangements tend towards a bigger line-up, a line-up that would comfortably fit into festival line-ups or bigger concert halls.”
The journey through Duncan’s homelands continues with Waltz Of The Grey River. Ali Hutton’s guitar, Jarlath Henderson’s pipes and Ross Hamilton’s rich bass combine with Duncan’s fiddle in a tune that flows as steadily and as invitingly as the River Glass itself.
The Flooded Meadow must surely be the stand-out track on this album. Its light, charismatic pace and switching themes make for a fascinating combination that could only have been inspired by real events…
“My great-grandmother and great-grandfather lived in an isolated cottage west of Loch Affric around 1900. The cottage is called Athnamullach and it is house where they brought up my grandfather. The cottage lies on the old drove road west to Kintail and is about 8 miles from the nearest house which would be Affric Lodge. Around the winter of 1900 there was a very big snowfall followed by a very quick thaw. The river Affric broke its banks and flooded over the meadow. The family were completely marooned in the cottage. My great-grandmother always said that when she looked out of the window at night and saw the moonlight reflecting on the flooded water around the house she found it very frightening but very beautiful. It’s the perfect story to write a tune for. “
Highland music has always been a rich source of shared stories. Duncan holds dear those handed down through his family and The Erchless Scout is no exception; celebrated in dramatic and uplifting style. But who was the Erchless Scout?
“The Erchless Scout was my grandfather, Duncan Chisholm. He was a hill man all his life, worked as a game keeper and was incredibly fit. During the war he was with the BEF and escaped from Dunkirk. He then joined the newly formed Lovat Scouts and was posted to the Commando Training Camp at Inverailort in the West Highlands as an instructor. He was seriously injured there when a live mine exploded next to him and was hospitalized for 6 months. When he recovered he was posted to the Cairngorms where he lived for a year in the mountains teaching the Commando’s survival training ahead of the raid on the Nazi’s Heavy Water Plant in Norway. He was an amazing man and I wanted to capture his spirit in the tune. For this set my imagination sees him stalking a stag and then chasing his prey. I am very happy with the feel of the set, and I found the perfect tune for the start with Rory Campbell’s beautiful tune ‘Innes Campbell’.”
Life in the modern Highlands can inspire just as much as stories from the past. Running The Cross plays at an almost frantic pace, and probably has more of a 21st century sound than anything else on the album. Are events like this an important aspect of modern highland life?
“Very much so. The Highland Cross is a duathlon in which participants run 20 miles from Kintail to Glen Affric and then cycle 30 miles to Beauly. It is an amazing event that will celebrate its 30 year anniversary next year. I was delighted to donate this track and have now applied for the run next year….gulp! “The voices of Duncan’s fiddle and Jarlath Henderson’s pipes blend beautifully in Affric – whether it’s as harmony or those brief, magical moments where the pipes sing along to the fiddle’s melody.
“I love Jarlath’s playing, he is an outstanding musician. I have known him for about 6 years and I have worked with him live on a few occasions. The Uileann pipes are obviously not Highland but he projected exactly the feel and sound that I was looking for in Affric, I hope to work with him a lot more in the future.”
There are other, more familiar voices on the album. Tony Byrne on acoustic guitar and Patsy Reid on fiddle and viola have been an essential part of the Strathglass trilogy.
“They are incredible musicians and very easy to work with. The recording of Affric was a highly enjoyable experience. Because everyone had worked together before we knew everyone’s capabilities and strengths and worked to highlight them. I also have two great musicians with me on the tour, Matheu Watson who will be guitar and a bit of fiddle and Allan Henderson who will be playing piano and also fiddle from time to time.”
Piper Allan MacDonald has made two important contributions to this album. His lovely pipe tune We’re A Case (The Bunch Of Us) is beautifully translated for fiddle and this version benefits from Phil Cunningham’s light touch on the piano. Allan’s evocative Gaelic tones quote Neil Munro’s ‘The Exiles’ to grace Night In That Land; the late Johnny Cunningham’s exquisite, plaintive air. Duncan’s fiddle, Phil Cunningham’s piano and Patsy Reid’s viola come together to close the album, and the trilogy, on a heart-warming and memorable note.
The Strathglass Trilogy followed on from Duncan’s solo album Redpoint, in which he paid tribute to the great poet Sorley MacLean. Just as with Munro’s ‘The Exiles’, MacLean’s ‘Hallaig’ dealt with enforced emigration and exile – themes that are everlasting to the Highlander…
“They are ageless, as all good art should be. Glen Affric is a beautiful place but it is bereft of people. The great clearance of Chisholm’s started in the late 18th century and extended as far as into the 1850′s. I couldn’t approach the Trilogy project without touching on this history. Craskie which was a tune that I wrote for the Canaich album was named after a small township in Glen Canaich. This was where my family lived in the mid 1800′s and we escaped deportation because it was owned by a Mary Chisholm. She was the daughter of a previous chief and was very much against the enforced clearance of people so that was why we stayed. The vast majority of the clan were sent to Nova Scotia. The ‘To Exiles’ poem is paraphrased and translated to Gaelic to get the exact feel that I wanted for the Trilogy. “
It’s clear that poetry, and especially Scottish poetry has been a major influence in Duncan’s music..
“Yes and it always will be a major factor for my life and my music. I am excited about what will come next for me. I do believe it will be literature again that will light the next spark of inspiration in some way…..”
The Strathglass Trilogy is an impressive body of work; its central themes of wilderness, history and family would clearly invite further exploration – perhaps with an orchestra?
“It is very high up on my list. I have thought about this since Farrar was recorded, please watch this space…… “
Affric has taken Duncan Chisholm into new and unexplored territory with Uileann pipes and tropical rhythms. It has also, however, confirmed his outstanding ability as a composer, arranger and player of traditional music. Affric, and the Strathglass Trilogy in its entirety, are as wide in their scope and their appeal as the sky above the lands the music celebrates; and the music is every bit as compelling, fascinating and evocative as the landscape and history that inspired it.
Duncan Chisholm (fiddle) with Tony Byrne (acoustic guitar), Phil Cunningham (piano, accordion, whistle), Ross Hamilton (bass, electric guitar), Jarlath Henderson (uillean pipes), Ali Hutton (bodhran, acoustic guitar, whistle), Iain MacFarlane (accordion), Patsy Reid (fiddle, viola) and Allan MacDonald (reading of excerpt from ‘To Exiles’ by Neil Munro).
Album Launch and Tour
MULL: Tues 2 October 2012
Isle of Mull, PA75 6PB
Tel: 01688 302211
EDINBURGH: Fri 5 October 2012
Official Album Launch
The Queen’s Hall
85-89 Clerk Street
Edinburgh, EH8 9JG
Tel: 0131 668 2019
Tickets also available at:
12 Bank Street
On The Mound
Edinburgh, EH1 2LN
Tel: 0131 622 7246
BANCHORY: Sat 6 October 2012
Banchory, AB31 5QA
Tel: 01330 825431
INVERNESS: Sun 7 October 2012
The Empire Theatre
Inverness, IV3 5SA
Tel: 01463 234234
SKYE: Wed 10 October 2012
Isle of Skye, IV51 9EU
Box Office: 01478 613750 Talla Shomhairle, The Aros Centre.
KIRKCUDBRIGHT: Thurs 11 October 2012
Kirkcudbright Parish Church
40/42 St. Mary Street
Kirkcudbright, DG6 4DN
Tel: 01557 330429 (Halls)
DALMENY KIRK: Concerts in the Kirk. Sunday 28 October 2012
Midlothian, EH30 9TT.
Box Office: www.dundasfoundation.co.uk Tel: 0131 331 5912
Track & Samples
Affric is released on Copperfish Records (3 Sep 2012). Buy Direct from the Artist