The Old Dance School set course or Scotland in May for a great tour during which band member Robin Beatty will showcase ‘Sula Sgier’, a song inspired by a unique and ancient ritual he first witnessed as a five-year-old boy.
Once a year, ten chosen men make a trecherous journey out to the remote island of Sula Sgier to take part in a unique and ancient ritual – the harvesting of Gannet chicks, or ‘gugas’ – and return to the small community of Ness on the Butt of Lewis, where they are a celebrated delicacy. This controversial tradition is still allowed to continue today under a special license from Scottish Heritage Trust. In 1991 a Derbyshire photographer was the first ever ‘outsider’ to accompany the ten Lewis men on the hunt. Now his son returns to the island with a song honouring the centuries-old tradition he witnessed as a five-year-old boy.
Two decades after accompanying his father on that gruelling photography expedition to Lewis, Derbyshire musician Robin Beatty has written a song in tribute to the ancient Hebridean tradition he was privy to. This May, Robin along with The Old Dance School with whom he performs will showcase the song in a series of concerts across Scotland. Robin says he is “excited, and even a little nervous” to be returning to the island that informed his love of Celtic music. The band’s elegant contemporary folk sound draws strongly from this early inspiration.Over a period of two weeks, Robin’s photographer father John Beatty documented the catching, plucking and salting of 2000 sea birds on Sula Sgeir. While he worked on the rock, his young family – including five-year-old Robin – was immersed in the community of Ness in northern Lewis.
Robin said: “We’d spent few weeks trundling around in the van while Dad worked on Sula Sgeir with the men of Ness. I was only young but I still remember the sounds and colours of music sessions going on in the local pubs. It was tremendously exciting. I loved wandering across the expansive peat bogs and windswept beaches with my little sister.”
His father remained friends with the men he photographed taking part in the ‘guga’ harvest and wrote a book about his experiences. Occasionally through Robin’s childhood, the family were sent a guga for Christmas by the friends they’d made on the island.
“We kept it in a bucket of salt water in the cellar,” the musician said. “It was very fatty and salty – we always said we were getting a taste of the sea.”Now aged 28, Robin is an acclaimed guitarist and songwriter. Seven-piece folk outfit The Old Dance School’s third album Chasing the Light was recorded in Glasgow by celebrated producer Calum Malcolm and was lauded as folk album of the year by The Scotsman, and BBC Radio Scotland’s Album of the Week. The song about the gannet hunt, Sula Sgeir, is the centrepiece of the album.
“For years, I always wanted to write a song retelling the extraordinary tradition of the guga harvest,” Robin says, “But when I started, I realised it was reflected against an even more controversial backdrop.”
The song juxtaposes the ancient sea bird hunt with the large scale wind farm scheme proposed for the island in 2006.
He said: “I was following the story of the campaigns and legal battles that went on for a decade with the windfarm proposal, which would have been the biggest in Europe had it gone through, and thinking about how it would affect the small community we had spent time in.”
In the form of a moving conversation between a father and son, his song pits the arguments for and against windfarms as well as the Guga harvest, with lines such as “White wings on the slant atlantic air”.
The Old Dance School have performed Sula Sgeir on tour and at festivals across Europe, but this will be the first time Robin returns to Lewis to perform as part of their first-ever Scottish tour.
“I’m really excited to present it to the islanders, it means a lot to me,” Robin said. “I know that for many, it will be a heartfelt issue. And it would be amazing to meet some of the men who took my dad out with them all those years ago.”
Wen (At Shambala Festival 2012)
30th April Alnwick, Playhouse
1st May Portree, Aros
2nd May Stornoway, An Lanntair
3rd May Glasgow, Oran Mor
4th May Dundee, Gardyne Theatre
6th May Aberdeen, Lemon Tree
7th May Findhorn, Universal Hall
8th May Montrose, Folk Club
9th May Edinburgh, Pleasance Theatre
10th May Moniaive Folk Festival