Scotland's Music: A Saint Andrew's Day Tapestry

by Kerry Dexter /
Kerry Dexter's picture
Nov 16, 2015 / 0 comments

As autumn turns to winter in Scotland -- a transition which certainly happens during November -- days become shorter, temperatures fall, it may begin to snow, and that snow, already in place or oncoming, may begin to stay around longer. There are changes in the quality of light as the sun hangs low in the sky, and at night stars shine brightly. By the time Saint Andrew's Day arrives on 30 November, the weather itself, fair or stormy, seems to suggest that it is time for the festive season to begin.

What better way to kick off the time leading up to Christmas and the New Year than with celebrations for Saint Andrew's Day? And what better way to to that than with Scotland's music? Here are ideas to help you with that...

Scotland's Music: A Saint Andrew's Day Tapestry

Scotland's history woven into image: that is The Great Tapestry of Scotland. Music is part of the fabric of Scotland's history too. Ian Green of Greentrax Recordings has gift for putting together collections of music that illuminate aspects of Scotland's history, and so it is with the forty track two disc collection Music & Songs of the Great Tapestry of Scotland. The collection opens with Gordon Gunn's slow air Orkney and wends its way through love songs, song of politics, historic events, humorous songs, tunes for dance and for reflection, music of landscape whisky, battle, and emigration all the way to the late Ishbel MacAskill's graceful and passionate take on the Gaelic song An Ataireachd Ard/The Eternal Surge of the Sea. It is a fine journey, one well worth the taking. Those opening and closing tracks are highlights. Others to note include Bannockburn from Skyedance with Alasdair Fraser, MacDonald's March to the Wars sung in Gaelic by Margaret Stewart, also in Gaelic a song of the Highland Clearances Duthaich MhicAoidh/Mackay Country -- Sutherland from Kathleen MacInnes. No Man's Land from Eric Bogle, and Sheena Wellington with the Robert Burns Song A Man's a Man for A'That, a live recording made at the opening of the Scottish Parliament.

Nicola Benedetti has woven a tapestry of sorts herself with her recording Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy. Benedetti is one of the world's top classical violinists and a strong promoter of the importance of music in education. She is also a proud native Scot, raised in Ayrshire. Classical composer Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy, which draws on themes from Scottish folk music set in a classical context, had intrigued her. So has folk music itself, in part because her own musical path has taken her to quite a different direction and repertoire than would usually find from a Scot who plays fiddle. Folk music and classical music don't often meet in concert; even more rarely do they appear on recordings together. Challenging herself to learn new playing techniques as well as to explore where the voice of her playing could fit with folk music, Benedetti offers that on Homecoming. There is Bruch's Scottish Fantasy, and in collaboration with several of Scotland's top folk musicians including Phil Cunningham, Aly Bain, Julie Fowlis, and Duncan Chisholm, a selection of traditional and contemporary folk tunes, Gaelic song, and music of Robert Burns. For some of these, notably the Bruch and a gorgeous version of Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond, Benedetti is backed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. For several tunes from James Scott Skinner, original music from Phil Cunningham including the slow air The Gentle Light That Wakes Me, and Gaelic song from Julie Fowlis including the wailking song Coisich a ruin/Walk My Beloved, she works with folk musicians. It's a project with appeal to listeners with both classical and folk backgrounds. In fact, it has all the makings of a classic for both genres. Read the liner notes too: Benedetti offers insightful thoughts on her path to and through this music.

Alasdair Fraser is committed to the importance of music education, too. He has founded and teaches at music camps in California, where he now lives, and Scotland and Spain. It was when Natalie Haas came to such a camp one summer with her cello that a musical collaboration began which would see the two artists revive the Scottish tradition of fiddle and cello duos and create their own compositions flowing from Scottish tradition, too. Their album Abundance comprises music from Scottish tradition, from their own imaginations influenced by their travels, and from the Celtic outpost of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. Braigh Lochiall evokes Highlands of Scotland, while Ouagadougou Boogie, part of a commission for a friend's birthday, honors her time in that place with a mix of Celtic, jazz, and African elements. Through the sixteen tracks on Abundance, the conversation between the darker tones of the cello and the brighter sound of the fiddle, at times lively, at times lyrical, keeps the music ever engaging. In their liner notes, Fraser and Haas suggest that collaboration, both between musicians and between musicians and listeners, is in the true spirit of abundance.

Collaboration is something the Paul McKenna Band knows a bit about, too. Forging a distinctive upbeat sound around McKenna's voice and guitar, band members David McNee on bouzouki, Sean Gray on flute and whistles, and Ewan Baird on percussion including bodhran make a tight unit which, on their album Elements, shows they can handle fast flying tunes as well as slower ballads to great effect. They offer a selection of music that shows their skill at tradition, for instance on the song Mickey Dam, their ability at original tunes on Flying Through Flanders composed by Sean Grey, and their understanding of contemporary folk music on the ballad Indiana

Archie Fisher has a deep understanding of these elements of music, as well. On his recording A Silent Song, he has mixed things up among songs from the folk tradition, contemporary folk song, and his own writing, just the way he most often does in his live sets. A storyteller at heart, Fisher has been making music his life long, and now in his mid seventies, his gentle style and taste for good songs continues. "You never know what's going to happen next, of course," he said in a recent conversation, "but it's occurred to me quite recently that one of the things that keeps me going is the desire to hear that next song -- one that will be a springboard to something that I want to write!" On Silent Song, Fisher's own songs include Song for a Friend, Half the World Away, and Waltz into Winter, which stand naturally with songs from the tradition including Lass from the Low Country and Bonnie Annie Laurie.

Hanneke Cassel has a gift for understanding the connections and relationships between Scotland's traditions in music and the place of that music and that tradition in contemporary life. Her main instrument is the fiddle, and on her recording Dot the Dragons Eyes, most of the music is of her own composition. An in demand and dedicated teacher, Cassel's teaching and concerts have taken her to China, India, all across Europe and North America, and to Kenya, where she visits and often raises funds for the students at One Home Many Hopes. As is common in Scottish tradition, on Dot the Dragon's Eyes there are tunes for friends and family members, for a wedding, in honor and remembrance of places she's traveled, and a nod to her longtime hometown of Boston. Taking Scotland's music forward based in and with respect to its traditions: that is what you will hear in Hanneke Cassel's music.

You will hear tradition in the music of Julie Fowlis, too. Fowlis loves to explore songs in Gaelic, and often jokes that a new song for her might be one that's only three hundred years old. Growing up in North Uist in the Western Isles, she heard top chart hits along with the music from tradition bearers, and Gaelic was spoken as often as English. Though she took a university degree in classical music, the path of tradition opened before her and she has in recent years become one of the most well known artists in Gaelic music. Her album Gach Sgeul / Every Story is indeed filled with stories well sung, with her voice as lodestar and contributions from her road band members fiddler Duncan Chisholm, guitarist Tony Byrne, and bouzouki and guitar player Éamon Doorley, along with guests Karen Matheson, Donald Shaw, Ewan Vernal, Michael McGoldrick, and the four women of the north of Scotland fiddle group RANT. There's a fine set of puirt a beul (fast paced lilting singing) called Ribinnean Riomhach, there are story songs, ballads, a song about the mysterious waterhorse of legend, a lullabye and a song in praise of Clan MacDonald. Fowlis gives lyrics and comments on the songs in English in the liner notes, but listen, just listen, and you will certainly hear the sound of Scotland.

That is true of all of these albums, from music created by a long time icon of the genre to the work of contemporary musicians who write their own tunes, from a band on the rise to a top classical violinist to a singer in an ancient language. All these artists love Scotland, its landscape, its people, and its history. At Saint Andrew's Day and all through the year, listen to their music and you will connect with Scotland as well.

Scotland's Music: A Saint Andrew's Day Tapestry



Kerry Dexter is music editor at Wandering Educators. You may reach her at music at wandering educators dot com.
You may find more of Kerry's work in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, Symphony, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, and other places on line and in print, as well as at her own site Music Road.



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