It doesn’t take a musicologist to recognise differences in the traditional music of those two great Celtic nations, Ireland and Scotland, the mix of instruments is often enough. But the more you listen and learn, the more the commonalities become apparent. You can while away hours, tracing the twists and turns of tunes and songs as they crossed and re-crossed the 12 miles of sea separating the two countries. And nowadays we’re used to musicians, of whichever nationality, collaborating in groupings that may last for a single album or a professional lifetime. Battlefield Band are no strangers to all of this, whilst the heart of the band is undeniably Scottish, the bands repertoire over the years has ranged well beyond Scotland’s borders and many of their line-ups have included Irish musicians. Two of the most notable are singer guitarist Pat Kilbride, who had been around in the band’s early days and re-joined in 2002, and current member Sean O’Donnell who took over from Pat in 2005. The three current members of the band, Sean, Mike Katz and Alasdair White, along with producer Robin Morton came up with the notion in late 2014 of a project that would bring together a wide ranging mix of Scottish and Irish musicians, musicians with fine track records of playing mainly within the living traditions of their homelands. The music would explore some of the roots and expressions of the shared tradition of Scotland and Ireland. To quote Robin’s liner notes –
The cross-fertilisation is as strong as ever, at all levels, though perhaps less obvious because we now take it for granted and miss many of the subtleties and differences that remain.
The project’s had a year and a bit to gestate and has now given birth to a fine bouncing baby of an album with the highly appropriate title Beg and Borrow. The album is long for a single CD, 71 minutes playing time, but even so its eighteen tracks merely give, in the band’s own words, “one layer of evidence of two intertwined and, by definition, living traditions which continue to beg and borrow from each other”.
The eighteen tracks are supported by extensive liner notes in a sixteen page booklet and the notes supplied on the five songs in particular provide a fascinating insight into the ways and means by which the two traditions have intertwined. The final song, The Mickey Dam, illustrates one of the simplest. The construction of Milngavie waterworks in the late 1800’s brought vast numbers of Irish labourers to the area, just north of Glasgow. Conditions were harsh and, as so often happened, triggered the inimitable Irish wit. This resulting song has been sung by Glasgow’s Irish community ever since. Playing harmonica on the track is Mike Whellans and, as with all the guest contributors, the liner notes include a potted biography. Mike personifies the comings and goings of musicians over the last few decades. Originally from the Scottish Borders, he teamed up in the late 60s with fiddler Aly Bain from the other end of the country, Shetland. A couple of years later, they’d joined with two Ulstermen, Cathal McConnell and Robin Morton and the trail blazing traditional grouping, Boys of the Lough, was born, adding immeasurably to the traditional music heritage of both Scotland and Ireland. Ten years later Mike moved on, both geographically and musically, to Denmark and the Blues. He’s no stranger to Battlefield Band, though, having guested on a number of their albums.
Mo Buachaill Dubh Dhonn is a far older tale and illustrates a more subtle coming together of the two cultures. A Barra waulking song, the vocals are supplied by guests Nuala Kennedy from Dundalk, Co. Louth and Christine Primrose from Lewis. The song originated as the story of a Barra woman whose betrothed went across the water to Newry just to buy at the market but stayed, abandoning her for a Newry woman. What better example of music reflecting the close social ties between the communities? But just to add a modern cross-cultural twist to the story, Nuala has translated the original Scots Gaelic lyrics into Irish.
The tunes, thirteen tracks but most tracks are three and four tune sets, range widely, slow airs, strathspeys, jigs, reels, hornpipes, marches. In most sets, tunes of Irish, Scottish and, most often, mixed origins have been brought together. The variety of styles and instrumentation that the guest artists have contributed results in an album of far greater scope than one might expect. So, we have the delightful harp and cello from Alison Kinnnaird in the slow air, Ellen’s Dreams, and, in stark contrast, the hornpipes and jig set, Fingal’s Weeping/Caberfeidh/Gillespie’s Hornpipe features the astounding snare drum expertise of Jim Kilpatrick, more usually heard in the context of pipe bands. But Beg and Borrow by no means has the feel of a compilation album, the care and attention given to researching, performing and explaining the material ensures that the underlying theme is always, and pleasurably, apparent.
The complete list of guest musicians is:
Scotland (Gaelic Song)
Ireland (Gaelic Song and Flute)
Scotland (Scottish Harp & Cello)
Scotland (Snare & Bass Drum)
Ireland (Vocals &Bouzouki)
Scotland (Moothie / Harmonica)
Australia (Highland Bagpipe)
The whole album, music and text, is an education of the best possible sort, packed with great music and enough background information to satisfy your immediate needs. I found, though, that it piqued a deeper curiosity and sent me off to You Tube, tracking down other versions, and to the wider web as other questions popped up. But why not disconnect the Internet and simply revel in a splendidly varied and expertly performed hour and ten minutes of Celtic music?
Review by: Johnny Whalley
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