A compilation album isn’t something you’d normally find being discussed in any detail on these pages. There are some fine collections out there, the best of which focus on a particular era, or a certain set of influences. But how many ill-planned CDs line the shelves of the nation’s retailers, claiming to capture the elusive essence of Scottish music? Even worse, how many tartan clad abominations encourage the trade in tourist tat and do absolutely nothing to further the cause? Too many. Happily, there are exceptions; and The Ultimate Guide To Scottish Folk, from World music label Arc Records, is such a notable one that it certainly merits closer inspection.
The Ultimate Guide To Scottish Folk follows on from similar titles covering Spanish and Irish Folk, and continues what could well become a line of very useful grounders in world-wide tradition-based music. Two discs provide over 180 minutes of music that far from being the more usual, predictable, sampling of an advertising agency’s misguided notion of what constitutes the nation’s favourites, is in fact a richly varied and well-planned selection of some of the finest music Scotland has to offer.
Of course, Arc have enlisted some highly qualified help in making the selections, in the form of Mary Ann Kennedy. A Glasgow girl of Island parentage; classically trained harpist, singer, producer and broadcaster Mary Ann Kennedy is one of the leading lights of the Scottish music scene, and her Radio 3 world music show ‘World on 3’ is enjoyed all over the UK. Not only has she lent her expertise to the selection of music for this release, she’s also provided pages of detailed, informative sleeve notes, covering every track on the album.
One of the most important lessons the uninitiated could benefit from is that there’s no such thing as ‘Bagpipe Music’. Of course, refer back to those supermarket shelves and there are countless images of pipe bands and lone pipers; but that strict, military tradition bears little resemblance to most of the music played on the pipes. Nevertheless, it’s a great training ground for pipers, and probably the best known graduate of that system is the late Gordon Duncan. Gordon wrote Just For Seamus in response to scathing criticism from piping competition judge Seamus MacNeil – “If this is what piping has come to, I’m going back to the fiddle”. Well, Seamus got it wrong. Gordon was very much the future of pipe music. In his thirst for innovation he didn’t break away from the pipe band tradition, he encouraged the movement to embrace new styles and mentored many fine musicians, including Ross Ainslie. Just For Seamus combines Gordon’s fast, furious, flawless piping with a military percussion sound and Jim Sutherland’s big, big production in one of the most enjoyable pipe tunes of all time.
Bagpipes, in various forms are well represented in this collection; the energy and versatility with which they’re played being very much to the fore. Fred Morrison is exuberant and adventurous on the stage and a perfectionist in the studio; Kansas City Hornpipe sees Fred joined by banjo ace Ron Block. The Red Hot Chilli Pipers are there to show just how much fun can be had with a Coldplay tune (Fix You) and Breabach, with Proud To Play a Pipe, deliver a perfect example of what the latest generation of bands can achieve.
Those already familiar with the huge breadth of musical experiences on offer under the general banner of Folk may well revel in an opportunity to share their love of the music through this CD, and especially through the impressive collection of Gaelic song included. Ishbel MacAskill is widely regarded as one Scotland’s greatest Gaelic singers. Despite not performing professionally until in her 30’s, her contribution, in terms of both recording and teaching, has been significant. Thig an smeòrach a’s t-Earrach, (The Thrush Will Come In Spring) is highly evocative reminder of what was lost when she sadly passed away in 2011. Although each have individual and successful music careers, Elidh, Gillie and Fiona MacKenzie from Lewis, together weave a spellbinding blend of traditional Gaelic song, modern arrangements and simply beautiful close harmonies. Fight Le Fleur is one of their own – a spirited, elemental tribute to a Uist war veteran who turned to art. As with so many performers, award-winning Singer and harpist Mischa MacPherson found her way through Mod competitions, to the Feisiean tuition movement and the development of her own, distinctive, collaborative approach to the music of Gaeldom. The truly delightful Cha d’Fhuair Mi’n Cadel combines her enticing, lilting vocal with Innes White’s guitar and Conal McDonagh’s low whistle.
Traditional song owes its continued popularity to the tradition bearers in Gaeldom and Scotland as a whole, to the traveller communities who’ve handed down songs from generation to generation and collectors like Dr John Lorne Campbell and Hamish Henderson; contemporary song that can trace its lineage back to those bothy ballads and beyond while this generation, and the next, continue to take things forward.
Mick West is a tireless worker for the cause and his Will ye Go Tae Flanders is highly accomplished performance. Few voices are as instantly recognisable as Dick Gaughan’s. His presence on stage and in the music scene itself is striking and no compilation of Scottish music would be complete without him. What better way to celebrate his own contribution than with a song by the great Brian McNeil? No Gods and Precious Few Heroes encourages (demands, even) a realistic attitude towards Scottish identity and Gaughan delivers McNeil’s biting lyrics with typical passion and ferocity. Adored and admired by his audiences and his peers, Michael Marra’s dry humour and lyrical gift were unique. With Happed In Mist, we have contemporary song writing tackling historic issues with aplomb.
Karine Polwart‘s song writing is without parallel and it’s often her darker, more politically aware songs that stand out. I’m Gonna Do It All shows her ability to deliver a positive message with equal skill. It was my introduction to Karine’s music (thanks to Mary Ann Kennedy’s Radio Scotland shows), an introduction I’ll always be grateful for. Just as with Dick Gaughan, Karine Polwart is a name that could never be omitted from a conversation on Scottish music. Heather Heywood is one of the country’s most skilled vocalists and interpreter of song, and nothing demonstrates the emotional power of the lament quite like Heather’s heart-wrenching MacCrimmon’s Lament – a truly remarkable vocalisation of this famous pipe tune. Anyone who’s watched Sheena Wellington’s rendition of a Man’s A Man at the 1999 opening of the Scottish Parliament is well aware that Sheena is the very heart of Scottish song. This live version of The Tryst is absolutely flawless and truly inspiring.
It’s no coincidence that the word gem is often used to describe a particular performer, song or piece of music. The tradition is as multi-faceted and as precious as any diamond but not, thankfully, as incapable of change. Of the many innovators and pushers of boundaries involved in Scottish folk music, could anyone personify the progressive element in today’s folk music better than Lau? From their debut release in 2007, Intro to Hinba showcases the guitar/fiddle/accordion sound that heralded a new beginning in folk music. Blazin’ Fiddles provide a unique slant on Scottish fiddle music that isn’t as pronounced as the changes offered by Lau, but The Cascade Set is typical of their unique high-energy blend of regional Scottish fiddle styles. This spirit of innovation isn’t restricted to these shores, either. From a wide family of Cape Breton islanders, Ashley MacIsaac has grasped the treasured traditions brought there by his ancestors and nourished for successive generations, and hurtled the music headlong into a 20th Century rock setting. Sleepy Maggie features the incredible voice of fellow-islander Mary Jane Lamond. More of that fiddle-driven Cape Breton sound is provided by Angus & Kenneth MacKenzie, When Harry Met Sally.
Martyn Bennett‘s influence on, and contribution to, Scottish music is immeasurable. Ten years after his death at 33 years old, the world is still coming to terms with his music, and that music continues to find new audiences – Nae Regrets sums it all up. Play it loud, then play it again, louder.
Not as readily identified these days as ground-breakers, there are some stalwarts of the Scottish scene without whom we’d have nothing like the breadth of music we have today. At the fore-front, of course, Capercaillie. Seinneam Cliù nam Fear Ur is typical of the sound that gave them the first ever UK singles chart placing for Gaelic music. In the 1990’s Scottish folk enjoyed a big, noisy revival. At the head of this movement were The Iron Horse and Runrig. While The Iron Horse also excelled in more gentle traditional ballads, as perfectly exemplified on this CD with Helen of Kirkconnel, in an energetic, folk/rock influenced setting; RunRig took a similar approach from the West Coast perspective, in a mix of Gaelic and Scots song. The Old Boys is one of Calum MacDonald’s own songs and, just as with The Iron horse, shows their more contemplative side. The Gaelic influence permeates the whole country, of course. Dougie MacLean – singer, songwriter, and gifted interpreter of Scots song has a voice as gentle as the Perthshire valley he lives in. Bonnie Bessie Logan shows not only the influence his Perthshire upbringing has had on his music, but that of his Western Isles ancestry too. More a collective than a single band; for decades Ceolbeg have embraced a wide spectrum of influences; the inclusion of Gordon Duncan’s Zito The Bubbleman epitomises their skill, their imaginative approach and their sense of fun. It wasn’t until Alasdair Fraser left Scotland and moved to California that he found the musical freedom he yearned. It’s a move we can all be grateful for. Currently best known for his hugely successful partnership with Cellist Natalie Haas, Nighean Donn a’ Chuailean Riomhaich takes us back to his 1998 project with American pianist Paul Machlis and their ground-breaking collection of 19th Century Scottish fiddle music in contemporary settings. Ossian are to Scottish music what The Chieftains are to the music of Ireland and their outstanding contribution deserves more recognition. Be Sud An’ Gille Truagh hands the melody to pipes and harp in a timeless set of tunes. Aly Bain – probably the best known of the great Shetland fiddlers, founding member of Boys Of The Lough and co-MD of Television’s best ever music program, Transatlantic Sessions. From his beautifully orchestrated album in collaboration with the Scottish Ensemble, Follow The Moonstone, The Day Dawn (Da Day Dawn) showcases that glorious Shetland fiddle sound and the magic it can weave in a big, big setting. A far faster-paced fiddle, from the West Coast, is provided by Archie MacAllister (Skipinish/ Black Rose Ceilidh band) in Salute to Frank Ferrell. Archie Fisher’s career as songwriter, musician and broadcaster has had such a wide influence on the Scottish music scene it’s near impossible to document (although the sleeve notes make a good attempt). His own arrangement of the English folk standard Reynardine, from 1968, is sublime.
And there’s also a nod or two to what might be termed ‘the old guard’ in this selection. The music I grew up with included Radio Scotland’s ‘Take the Floor’ drifting from the kitchen radio on a Saturday evening. My Dad would sit, ever attentive, absorbing every detail of every set; hearing successive generations take hold of this particular branch of the tradition that seems to inhabit a niche all of its own, and is certainly neglected by the wider ‘Folk’ media. Yet here we have, albeit in a refined form, the dancing tradition that great names like Neil Gow and William Marshall were so much a part of. Nothing could be more evocative of those Saturday evenings than Sir Jimmy Shand, playing The Bluebell Polka. Its inclusion here summarises why this compilation works so well.
The Ultimate Guide To Scottish Folk covers the whole country in almost every sense. Geographically, we have music from the Selkirk to Shetland, from Stornoway to Stonehaven. The music itself spans the globe, with influences from Brazilian beats and Cape Breton’s treasured traditions; and there’s a taste of almost every identifiable flavour of the music and song that’s evolved from centuries of music in Scotland. It’s a collection that’s worth delving into, but with Mary Ann Kennedy’s notes, there’s also a wealth of insight and information, especially for anyone who’s beginning to realise just what’s on offer from Scottish Folk music.
The title may be heavy on the hyperbole, but the content really does deliver. If I’d been planning to introduce someone to the various joys of Scottish music I’d be hard-pushed to improve on this.
Review by: Neil McFadyen