Calum Stewart: Tales from the North
Earlywood Music – 17 October 2017
Calum Stewart grew up in the north east of Scotland, an area he describes as being ‘rich in history and legend; antiquity deeply rooted within her bold landscapes’, and which provides the inspiration for his new album Tales From The North. It is an album that illuminates his distinctive position at the intersection of the worlds of Scottish, Irish and Breton traditional music and demonstrates his outstanding playing on the uilleann pipes – together with his high-quality compositional abilities.
If you are at all familiar with Calum Stewart’s previous recordings, you will think of him as a flute player; that being the only instrument he played on his recorded work up to and including the 2012 ‘does what it says on the tin’ release with fiddler player Lauren MacColl titled Wooden Flute and Fiddle – read our review here. But Calum has been on a journey to add the uilleann pipes, which he has described “very versatile” and speaking “directly to you no matter what culture you are from”, to his range of instruments. He has said: “The Irish have a long history of taking on instruments and making them their own, so, being from the north-east of Scotland, I’m quite happy to take an instrument that was developed in Ireland and take it into my repertoire”. The pipes only featured on a couple of tracks on Hunter’s Moon, Calum’s preceding 2014 release with Heikki Bourgault, but here the balance is the other way round, with the pipes as the predominant instrument. Calum told me how he ended up playing the uilleann pipes:
“Growing up in a musical household, there were always different instruments lying around; fiddles, penny whistles, bodhran, guitar, and piano. I tried several instruments as a child, spending wee bits of time on fiddle, recorder, guitar, piano and even the drums! However, I got really hooked on the humble penny whistle. The music made most sense to me on this instrument. So I learned all the tunes I heard from local fiddle players and also from the recordings I heard. Eventually, I managed to acquire a set of Uilleann Pipes (no mean feat in the North of Scotland!), which is without doubt my favourite instrument and certainly form one of my first musical memories”.
The opening track on Tales From The North, Am Monadh Ruadh (the original Scottish Gaelic term for the area known as the Cairngorms) sets the mark. Written by Calum, it starts like a classic Planxty tune with bouzouki and pipes, but within a few bars, you hear a key additional ingredient, the double bass, played here by Yann Le Bozec. The bass feels like the underpinning for the much of the album, consistently fitting the requirements of the tunes in close understated company with a multiplicity of varying rhythm instruments – bouzoukis, guitars and cittern. Randolph’s Leap (named after an area of dramatic cliffs, waterfalls, and forest surrounding the River Findhorn in Moray, where according to local legend, Randolph, an ancient chief, chased one of the Comyn Clan, who jumped across the river and escaped back to the safety of his castle) is in two parts, the first similarly paced to the opener, the second kicks in stirringly at full ‘escape and leap’ mode, and both feature, the cittern and guitar together as the main rhythm accompanying instrument to the pipes.
Calum’s tunes – borrowed, traditional or self-composed – mostly have a distinctly Scottish influence, together with the odd Irish (and on previous albums Breton) tune. Nowhere is this more evident than in Calum’s interpretation here of two tunes by James Scott Skinner (1843-1927), a key figure in Scottish fiddle playing and composition (and one of the very first Scottish musicians to be recorded) but someone whose work frequently invokes a criticism about formality – Dick Gaughan apparently once said he ‘always had the notion that Skinner sometimes composed with the aid of a slide-rule’. Calum combines, on the pipes, two of his own fast-paced reels inspired by Speyside whisky making – The Angel’s Share (which is the amount of alcohol that evaporates from the casks during maturation) and Copper Stills – with a far from formal version of Skinner’s reel Gladstone (not the nineteenth century Prime Minister but apparently an Edinburgh man with a notable enthusiasm for Scottish music and a tune recorded by a number of Irish musicians, including Altan, The Chieftains and Sean McGuire), making for a lively, seamless set. Music O’ Spey is a lovely, more obviously Scottish, version of a Skinner air played on low whistle, joined by a pair of fiddles. I asked Calum to fill in the background of the Scottish and Irish music that had influenced him:
“My earliest musical influences were what I was brought up hearing: the fiddle music of Speyside and Morayshire, and from my parents and sisters collections, Sean O’Riada, Paddy Maloney, Liam O’Flynn, Boys of the Lough, Capercaillie and Davy Spillane. My roots are home in the North of Scotland – I love most of all the strident drive of a good reel in full swing, the snap of the strathspey, the rhythmic flow of a dancer. I always had these two complementary aspects to my own music: the close local tradition from home, and also traditional music from the outside world; the most influential being this crazy, wild and transcending instrument that I was mesmerised by at a young age… the Uilleann Pipes!”
In order to ‘get away and explore something new’ Calum has for some years lived in Brittany. That connection was reflected in his two earlier collaborations with Breton guitarist Heikki Bourgault and now on Tales From The North in the participation of Ronan Pellen (Cittern), who has played with Paddy Keenan, Yann Le Bozec (double bass) and Gilles Le Bigot (guitar), who has played with a host of Irish musicians, most recently with Gerry O’Connor, Nuala Kennedy and Martin Quinn on the superb 2012 album Oirialla. The lengthy cast list also includes: Eamon Doorley (bouzouki) and Tony Byrne (guitar), Lauren MacColl (fiddle), a regular on Calum’s albums, and James Alexander (fiddle), both from the North of Scotland; Adam Rhodes (bouzouki), raised on the Isle of Man, now Glasgow based and a member of Barrule: Adam Brown (guitar) from Edinburgh, and; Ross Saunders (percussion) who plays with Mànran (which Calum was also briefly a member of).
A set of two of self-composed tunes, The Bell Of Ardclach, which displays a Breton influence (Ardclach Bell Tower is said to have been built by the local laird Alexander Brodie in 1655 as a safe place for his family in case of any future Royalist uprisings, but was never used for that purpose, instead being adapted in the following century for use as a detached bell tower for the, then, new Ardclach Old Parish Church) and Rose Of Rothes, sound tailor-made for the Calum’s low whistle, with gentle rhythmic guitar accompaniment. Calum provided me with the story behind Rose Of Rothes:
“Rose of Rothes is a lesser known local story, quite possibly a true story… similar to Romeo and Juliet in its sad outcome. The story is played out on the banks of the River Spey, on the land below the now ruined Rothes Castle, and ends with a tragic scene at ‘Tuprun Well’. The “Rose of Rothes” was Mary Leslie, daughter of Alexander Leslie, Thane of Rothes, and her lover was deeply envied by “The Wolf of Badenoch” (Alexander Stewart) a renowned and dreaded local lieutenant, who allegedly arranged for his murder. Instead of killing the young lover only (allowing “The Wolf” to continue his advances on Mary Leslie un-challenged), the murderer mistakenly killed both Mary and her lover.”
The Big Grey Man, a creature said to inhabit the higher reaches of Ben MacDhui, the highest peak in the Cairngorms, inspired Am Fear Liath Mòr, another uplifting, confident tune of Calum’s which starts on low whistle with bouzouki and switches to the pipes in the second half. Garster’s Dream, a Shetland tune recorded by the Boys of the Lough, opens a set of three lively jigs on the pipes, followed by an original The Seven Men Of Glen Moriston (The Seven Men protected Bonnie Prince Charlie when he escaped through Glen Moriston after the battle of Culloden in 1746) and lastly an Irish tune, Fisherman’s Lilt. Sueno’s Stone, again on the pipes, was inspired by the largest Pictish stone in Scotland at some 6.5 metres tall. Tales From The North is rounded off which another stirring set of reels on the pipes, a set which is a regular feature in Calum’s live performances: Tailgating The Minister (composed by Kathryn Tickell) and then Lasses Of Stewarton and Loch Ear, both Scottish tunes popular amongst Cape Breton fiddle players.
Calum’s previous recordings have all included a few of his own tunes but Tales From The North represents the emergence proper of his notable skills in that direction, featuring as it does primarily his self-compositions. It is not other musicians/composers that inspire his tunes; rather he told me:
“I’m mostly influenced by place, by home, where I grew up and the traditions of the North of Scotland. More recently I’ve been influenced by travel and encounters along the way. Sometimes I’ll have a tiny piece of a tune, or a phrase or something… usually I let the idea brew until the day that it comes out on its own and presents itself.”
Calum straddles overlapping Celtic musical forms with ease through his combination of Scottish influenced tunes, chosen instruments that are usually associated with Irish rather than Scottish music and a bunch of Scottish, Irish and Breton musical mates as accompanists. Calum’s music for the most part will sound to many ears not unlike that made by the likes of Mike McGoldrick and John McSherry, not least on At First Light their much lauded 2001 duo album and perhaps more so John’s brilliant The Seven Suns album from last year on which the tunes are similarly inspired by place and legend – you can read our review here. Not bad company to be in.
The evidence of the playing on Tales From The North, with its evocative sense of place, and from having seen Calum play at the North West Pipers annual concert back in March, suggests that Calum has quickly gained a mastery of the pipes on a par with his consistently excellent flute playing. It is no exaggeration to say that with Tales From The North, Calum Stewart, joins the ranks of thoroughly modern uilleann pipers, who are steeped in their own tradition but cross borders to bring in other influences, and can write a damned fine tune.
Tales From The North is released on 17th October and is available from Calum’s on-line shop.
Calum will be doing a UK launch tour early in 2018.
Photo Credit: Archie MacFarlane