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Issue 6 - Bigger than Madonna

Scotland Magazine Issue 6
February 2003


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Bigger than Madonna

Roddy Martine talks...

Bigger than Madonna My discovery of ceilidh music took place when I was seven years old and living in the south of England. I was watching one of those ‘teuchter’ Hogmanay television programmes which during the ‘60s and ‘70s so profoundly influenced Scottish popular culture at home and abroad. Aged seven, it was the first time I had been allowed to stay up to see in the bells and to watch such a programme, and I have to admit that it made a lasting impression. It might sound a ludicrous confession given my subsequent immersion in the ‘real’ Scotland, but it was through such legendary performers as Kenneth McKellar, Moira Anderson, Andy Stewart, Jimmy Logan and Duncan MacRae – those Caledonian superstars of the late 20th century – that I discovered just how different the Scots are from Anglo Saxons.

The English are incapable of submerging themselves in such unashamed sentimentality, which some might claim is to their advantage. Not so, the Scots. We have no such inhibitions. We revel in it.

But how do we get away with it?

It is all about knowing who you are and where you come from, even when you live far, far away, which gives you all the more reason to make a noise about it. There is nothing wrong with being vulnerable to emotion. Have you ever heard a Scottish football crowd sing Flower of Scotland? Have you ever been to a Kirkin o’ The Tartan ceremony in Australia? The blood, as they say, is strong. Even when you have never been to Scotland. In later years when I actually came to meet Kenneth, Moira and Jimmy in person, all I could do was to thank them for the enjoyment they had given to me and the millions around the world who grew up with their recordings. The tunes they sang along to may have become clichéd through popularity, but all of them remain timeless.

In America, in another millennium, it gave me enormous pleasure and pride to join in the words when the Three Scots Tenors entertained us with the songs of Harry Lauder, Lady Nairne and Will Fyffe for Washington’s Tartan Day. A couple of our younger nationalist politicians who
attended were visibly seen to cringe; more’s the pity. The rest of us revelled in it.

Only a few weeks ago I was staying with a friend on the island of Lewis and discovered that it was his not-so-secret pleasure to take his boat out into the middle of the Sound of Shiant and play Highland Cathedral at full volume on his on-board sound system. The locals, his wife told me, thought him plainly eccentric.

But such music liberates us because it touches all of us with an equal measure of happiness and sadness. Such sensibilities reach out across continents. On Burns Night, on St Andrews Night, or when the critical midnight hour strikes on New Year’s Eve, in New York’s Time Square or Sydney Harbour, it is always the Scots who come to the fore.

Think of the words of Auld Lang Syne – “Should auld acquaintance be forgot / and never brought to mind?”

Noel Coward, an Englishman, called it “the potency of cheap music,” but he was not belittling it. He knew exactly what he was doing when he made his own contributions to the genre. It made him immortal.

There will never be anyone to replace the legendary Jimmy Shand, who died two years ago and whose accordion music spanned more than 70 years, but consolation can be taken from the body of work he left behind. Through the process of sound recording, it remains as evergreen as the fiddle music of Niel Gow two centuries before him.

But time does move on and everything evolves. In the world of rock and reel, the past decade has seen a rush of up-tempo ceilidh music carried forward on the shoulders of the Skyebased Runrig, and the Orlando-based USA pop and trad band Seven Nations.

Go to a Scottish shop today and you are confronted with a wall of tapes and cds with offerings from Ally Bain and Phil Cunningham, apercaillie, Jean Redpath and the Whistlebinkies, proving that the contemporary sounds of Scotland are as potent as ever.

For Tartan Day in New York, guests at the Tunes of Glory Ball held at the Waldorf Astoria heard the superb Katie Targett-Adams sing accompanied by her clarsach (Celtic harp). At various recent events in Scotland, Norma Murray from the Isle of Islay has been enthralling audiences with her rendition of the Skye Boat Song.

While Scotland itself undergoes significant political change, a generation is emerging with just as big a talent as those giants of the past.

However, we must never lose sight of those giants of the past.

As Scotland re-brands to keep pace with its modern aspirations, there is a tendency to dismiss the influence of Sir Harry Lauder when he played the Music Halls of the world in the first half of the 20th century.

He may well have a lot to answer for in the image of the couthy, canny, kilted Scot he portrayed, but let us never forget that at the pinnacle of his career he was as big an international star as both Robbie Williams and Madonna rolled into one.