This latest studio album from one of Scotland’s most admired fiddle players and composers draws its inspiration from a single location in Sutherland, the furthest northwest part of mainland Scotland. Sandwood Bay is remote, at least by UK standards. Most visitors don’t even venture down the dead-end road to the fishing harbour of Kinlochbervie, much less the extra 3 miles to where the tarmac peters out. There to be faced with an hour and a half hike, picking a path between the bogs and the sandstone hills, traversing the low hummocks of gneiss, before reaching the bay. But Duncan Chisholm did, numerous times, describing it as “the finest and least accessible beach in Scotland”. Over the two years it took for him to produce this album, experiencing the bay in all seasons and weathers, the place provided endless inspiration. Inspiration to compose magnificently atmospheric pieces but also to enthuse ten of Scotland’s finest musicians, ensuring their participation, some just in the recording, others also contributing to the compositions.
The album opens with The Pilgrimage, the word Duncan uses to describe his first visit to Sandwood. This short track begins with a few, important, words, spoken by Donald ‘Dall” MacKay overtones that swell and fall. According to Duncan, Dall possesses the finest of North Sutherland accents. “Out here there is no time, time is our imagination, past, present and future”. A sense of time but also its absence, a vital element of the inspiration that Sandwood provided. Duncan’s fiddle then adds a short, repeating phrase complementing the background tones. This slow, quiet passage is brought to an end by the thump of a bass, giving notice that this album will have distinctly non-traditional elements to it. The bass is contributed by Ross Hamilton who, in addition to adding electric guitar, co-produced the album with Duncan.
From the outset, Duncan decided to work with another composer. He particularly wanted to work with pianist Hamish Napier, and this has resulted in five joint compositions whilst a sixth is entirely from Hamish who also plays piano and flute on the recording. I can’t emphasise enough the impact of Hamish’s piano, from delicate treble runs complementing Duncan’s fiddle in quieter passages to full volume crescendo building chord sequences. Neither man had collaborated while writing melodies before but found they had very similar styles of working. And once Hamish had visited Sandwood, they had no doubt the place inspired them both and the cooperation blossomed. There’s no better example than Dizzy Blue, the melody starting out as a snippet that came to Duncan whilst at the bay on a summer’s day. In its final form it’s one of the busiest, fastest paced tracks on the album, Duncan’s fiddle melody overlain by Hamish’s insistent piano, beginning to evoke the ceaseless swirling of seabirds in a clear blue sky, an image reinforced as multiple layers of other instruments, including Uillean pipes from Jarlath Henderson and guitar from Ross join the melee, all driven along by hectic percussion. Haze Across the Sun takes an equally rousing and layered approach to building up a big sound. Notably, on this track, Martin O’Neill’s bodhrán is prominent in the mix, giving the percussion a traditional edge that contrasts with the, at times, orchestral sound from the blend of melody instruments.
Elsewhere on the album, an orchestral sound comes to the fore as string arrangements are given full prominence. Arrangements devised by Donald Shaw and featuring a wealth of talented string players, Fiona Hamilton, Megan Henderson, Greg Lawson and Patsy Reid on violins, with Patsy also contributing viola and Su-a Lee on cello. It’s no surprise that Donald Shaw’s arrangements feature on the two compositions of his that Duncan has chosen to include. A Perfect Place, whilst not written about Sandwood was such an appropriate piece, running through Duncan’s head numerous times while at the bay, it begged to become part of the album. The second Shaw composition, Islands on the Edge, has a traditional feel with Duncan and Hamish weaving together fiddle and piano parts whilst Martin’s exquisite bodhrán, this time with a much softer sound, is again given prominence.
Three of the last four tracks collectively depict a less welcoming and, perhaps at times, even threatening side to Sandwood. The Burial Clouds, surely an allusion to Walt Whitman’s poem On the Beach at Night, starts the sequence, passing without a break into the frenzy that is The Perfect Storm. The opening passage of North to Cape Wrath – The Dark Reel calms things down but then builds into a candidate for Scotland’s most stirring and energetic reel. The first two are Duncan/Hamish compositions but Dark Reel first appeared on the multi-talented Fraser Fifield’s first solo album. Simply listening to these 3 tracks leaves me with an endorphin high, as if I’d just had a workout and, in response, the closing Bagh Seannabhad, a fiddle/piano duet restores feelings of serenity and timelessness.
With the Dark Reel, Duncan brings in a mention of Cape Wrath, the headland roughly 5 miles north of Sandwood that marks the NW corner of Scotland, associating it with death and a dark history. Even without records, there can be little doubt that Sandwood itself has such elements in its history. The rocks surrounding the bay are some of the oldest that can be found in the UK, the earliest signs of human activity are pre-Roman and it was a favoured place for Viking longships to come ashore. But of modern man, there is little trace. A forceful reminder of the transient nature of human existence and the inspiration for Duncan to make his own “eternal link to this beautiful place”. For us, as listeners, this is music in which to immerse ourselves, allow our minds to build our own links and maybe, one day, to visit. For me, the next time I venture north of Scourie, that visit is a certainty.
Those lucky enough to have a ticket for the last night of Celtic Connections 2018 at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall will experience Sandwood live. The concert sold out before Christmas, I guess before the official release of the album, otherwise, I’d be booking my flight to Glasgow right now.
Sandwood is available to buy now on CD/Download.
Order it here: www.duncanchisholm.com
Upcoming Live Dates
GLASGOW, Royal Concert Hall (Celtic Connections) **SOLD OUT**
4 February @ 7:30 pm
New Auditorium, Royal Concert Hall
LONDON, Cecil Sharp House
19 April @ 7:30 pm
Cecil Sharp House, EFDSS
EDINBURGH, Queen’s Hall
28 April @ 7:30 pm
INVERNESS, Eden Court
29 April @ 8:00 pm
Eden Court’s Empire Theatre
PERTH, Perth Concert Hall
5 May @ 7:30 pm
Perth Concert Hall
ORKNEY FOLK FESTIVAL 2018
24 May – 27 May