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Issue 21 - Adopted by good Scottish folk

Scotland Magazine Issue 21
July 2005


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Adopted by good Scottish folk

In the last issue we looked at some of the best venues for folk music. Here Kathleen Spiessbach sets out in search of Scotland's best folk music

It all started in Peebles. We had just arrived in this small Borders town on the banks of the Tweed, a sundry group of Yanks under the wing of folklorist Ed Miller.

As we watched the setting June sun ignite the Border hills that first night, the air seemed charged with promise. For the next two weeks, we would experience Scotland as few Americans could: not only would we meet her spectacular landscapes on intimate terms, but also hear them sing. We’d just embarked on Scotland’s first and only traditional music tour.

City and village jaunts, pastoral walks, mountain hikes and museum forays flavoured with folksong by day, cozy exclusive sessions with Scotland’s leading folk musicians and singers by night, have made Miller’s unique ‘Songs of Scotland’ project an extraordinary pilgrimage.

“The idea came to me one evening as I sang one of my favorite Border songs, The Broom o’ the Cowdenknowes, to a group of Texans,” Miller told me.

“That song always takes me back to a hillside in the Borders, a particular place where that song ‘lives’,” he explained. “Then I wondered, what could Texans possibly be thinking when they hear it? I knew that I had to bring people here… to the landscape that inspires the songs.” Miller’s degrees in both geography and folklore, together with what one critic called his “decidedly not run-of-the-Miller” way with a song, make him a natural. A dry Scottish wit and a disarming humility match his rapport with the music, turning listeners into fellow singers in short order.

Miller knows the way to Scotland’s heart, and he would lead us there song by song, jig by reel. His musical compass obeys a kind of cultural magnetism that pointed us first toward a rich heritage in Borders balladry.

This is Walter Scott country, a man whose deep affinity for the oral tradition of the area prompted him to publish his 1802 collection The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.

The still palpable aura of drama that binds Borders sites and songs together soon held us in thrall.

Avisit to Smailholm Tower, a forbidding 16th century stronghold, conjured as vividly for us as it did for Scott the dangerous and violent history that permeates ballads such as Johnny Armstrong. Supernatural intrigue marked the spot we reached on the slopes of Eildon hills where Thomas the Rhymer is said to have lost his heart to a fairy queen. For the sake of love he remained silent in the land of the fairies for seven years.

When he returned to the human world, he possessed the gifts of truth and prophecy – an unusually upbeat denouement for a Scottish ballad, but a strong clue to the value of poets and their songs in Caledonian lore.

Star-crossed love, another popular theme, was grounded for us on the hill beside the eponymous farm in the title of the seminal Broom o’ the Cowdenknowes. Miller’s poignant rendition there of the song (a shepherd laddie’s anthem to a forbidden sweetheart) was well worth the climb.

Our next stop was a lonely, ruined churchyard on a windswept plateau, the locus of the woeful Dowie Dens o’Yarrow. Once these mournful verses of warfare, family strife and death had pierced the air and gone, Miller surprised us.

“Now that I’ve shown you how songs can belong to a place,” he said wryly, “I have to turn the tables and say that some songs appear in different guises in many cultures.” Is it that a given song has travelled, or does it somehow spring up de novo? The folklorists’ answer, said Miller, is that “some themes are so fundamental to us as human beings that they’re common to nearly all folk traditions.” As this sank in, we began to think of ourselves less as American outsiders looking at old Scottish folksongs than as participants in something more universal and ongoing. Folksong, we learned, is about joining in.

And join in we did. Singing was de rigueur, and as our coach made its way around the land o’ the leal we chanted her choruses. From Peebles up to Edinburgh and on to Fife, Angus and Perthshire, we sang the songs of miners, fishermen, shepherds, cattlemen, dairymaids and bothy workers, past and present.

The grand epics of archetypal angst had given way to eminently simple, down-to-earth poetry set to music. The elemental humanity of these songs is still salient in Scottish folk music today.

Brian McNeill, Director of the Traditional Scottish Music Programme at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) in Glasgow, joined us at the Lady Victoria Mining Museum in Newtongrange to play several of his contemporary songs inspired by the plight of Scottish miners.

That evening he and Janet Weatherston of Scotland’s Traditional Music and Song Association shared their tremendous talents with us in a medley of labour-inspired song. The mood was dynamic. McNeill’s stirring polemic and Weatherston’s irresistible heartiness drew us into the kind of active participation that transforms a ‘concert’ into a party, a family gathering.

“The music is riveting, people love it,” McNeill declared. “Why? Because of the emotions that the songs communicate… We want it to be seen as the complex, incredibly joyful thing that it is, a cultural gift we can give to people.” Miller’s plan to that end was coming close to fruition. He had got underneath the familiar tartan-and-shortbread image many Americans harbour to celebrate a genuine, robust and rich Lowland culture. Once we were well-versed in Lallans ways, he turned the tables again.

“For such a tiny country,” Miller reminded us, “Scotland is anything but monolithic… As far as traditional Lowland and Highland cultures are concerned, we are as different from each other as the cowboys were from the Apaches!” To guide us through the Gaelic terra incognita on our route (the Central Highlands and Inner Hebrides), Miller gave us a guardian angel: the peerless Margaret Bennett of the RSAMD. A distinguished folklorist, Bennett’s genius for storytelling and subtle power as a singer opened the doors of her native Highlands to us like the gates to paradise.

A paradise lost, it seemed, as we relived the pain of doomed battles and forced emigration seared into the songs that linger there. Our visit to Culloden moor, the site of the final and catastrophic defeat of the Highlanders by Hanoverian forces in 1745, marks the most riveting moment of all.

Standing on that field Bennett sang AThearlaich oig (O Young Charles Stewart), a Highland lament for the lives – and the way of life – lost on that day.

And in those instants, the mother tongue of all grief was Scottish Gaelic.

If we shared their sorrows, we partook as well of the Highlanders’ joys. Hospitality is one of them – and residents of the village of Plockton gave us a welcome in full measure.

We’d come to love the jocular comity of our folksong evenings, but we hadn’t lived until we’d tasted the exuberance of a Plockton ceilidh, or dance party.

Students from Plockton High School’s National Centre for Excellence in Traditional Music played the reels and strathspeys that sent us whirling around the dance floor, arm in strapping arm with our Highland hosts.

We literally danced until we dropped, much to Miller’s growing satisfaction. He now had us singing, composing our own verses to Scottish airs and dancing. What final rite remained to complete our folk cultural formation – besides a good dram?

The answer: to be ‘makars’ of music ourselves.

Group member Dicksie Schmitt of did just that in the Plockton pub on our final evening in town.

Gathered for an informal session of music and song amidst the convivial company of our ceilidh friends, we were no longer simply visitors enjoying the ‘pub scene.’ We were part of it.

In the crowning moment when Dicksie Schmitt picked up the fiddle lent her by the Plockton musicians and played with them, we all reached the pinnacle.

We belonged to Scotland that night.

As honourary Scots, we shared our own original contributions to Caledonia’s musical canon at a farewell gala in Glasgow.

The aptly titled Gie the Fiddler a Dram, a tune of Miller’s with words by Brian McNeill, perhaps best sums up our Songs of Scotland idyll: ....every string of the fiddle finds the strings o’ your heart And then the music takes a hold o’ the Scotland in your soul Till ye cannae tell the two o’them apart.