Scotland in Six Songs, from Place to History to Legend

History, heritage, archaeology — Scotland has plenty of each of those. This year, the people of Scotland are inviting people from around the world and close to home to celebrate these things.

stone gate Glasgow Scotland copyrigh Kerry Dexter

Skara Brae Scotland by MJ Richardson

One of the ways to do this is through Scotland’s music. In honor of Scotland’s year of history, heritage, and archaeology, and in honor of its six World Heritage sites, consider these six songs. They may not be that familiar, and perhaps not what you first think of when Scottish music comes to mind. Take a listen though, and you will learn things about the landscape, people, and history of Scotland. Want to know about those World Heritage sites? I’ll let you in on ideas about them in a bit, too.

Loch Lomond is one of the best known songs of Scotland. Hundreds of artists, Scottish and not, have performed and recorded it, as a choral piece, as a folk song, as a rock song, and in classical context. An artist who brings the classical and folk together in her recording of the piece is Nicola Benedetti. Benedetti comes from East Kilbride, just a bit south of Glasgow. From a young age she was drawn to classical music and has made a top international career as a classical violinist.

nicola benedetti aly bain Scotland Celtic Connectionsmusicians by Kerry Dexter

After recording many pieces from the classical canon and a well received album of film music, Benedetti knew she’d reached a place where she could record a project she’d long thought of, one which would include composer Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, a classical piece based on four Scottish traditional pieces, with music from the tradition. The result is her album Homecoming. For some of the tracks Benedetti works with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and for others, she plays with a group of top folk musicians including Aly Bain (he’s alongside Benedetti in the photograph above), Julie Fowlis, and Phil Cunningham. Music from Robert Burns, Gaelic song, and yes, Loch Lomond, are among the pieces they chose to record.

Julie Fowlis comes from North Uist in the Western Isles of Scotland, where she heard Gaelic as often as English spoken, and heard songs from the tradition as often as top chart hits in English. After taking a degree in classical music, though, she found herself drawn to Gaelic song and has been honored for making it known to wide audiences in Scotland and beyond. Have you seen the film Brave or the promos for it? Then you’ve likely heard Fowlis sing, and perhaps you’ve heard her present television or radio programs as well. Music from the tradition –”When I say I’ve found a new song that usually means something from the seventeenth century,” she jokes — remains at the heart of her work for Julie Fowlis, though. Here is a piece from her recording Gach Sgeul/Every Story.

John McCusker’s instrument is the fiddle.

j mccusker, scotland fiddle by kerry dexter

He’s been playing and composing with it all his life, working with musicians across the spectrum of folk music. He’s an inspired backing player, that’s for sure. When McCusker takes center stage, though, you’ll have no doubt why the fiddle is such a creative constant in the music of Scotland. Here is a piece from his album Hello Goodbye. .

Part of Scotland’s music is a long tradition of outspoken comment on politics and social issues. Dick Gaughan is one of those who’s been carrying that tradition along in the present day. One of his better known songs (adapted from a traditional source, perhaps, or not) connects tradition and present day. At this writing the song seems especially timely as it is very likely that there will been another referendum on the subject of Scottish independence before long. The song is called Both Sides the Tweed. It was first recorded on his album Handful of Earth.

Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard, is widely known for his love songs and his songs of the natural world, and his songs, including Auld Lang Syne, celebrating friendship. He did a fair bit of social commentary in his writing, too. In the song Leezie Lindsay, Eddi Reader wrote verses to complete an unfinished Burns song in a way I think Burns would enjoy. She brings in love story, appreciation of natural world, and social comment all in one. Reader is a native Scot, a gifted songwriter as well as a singer of the songs of Robert Burns. You may find Leezie Lindsay recorded on Reader’s album Peacetime as well as on the extended/deluxe version of her album Eddi Reader Sings the Songs of Robert Burns. This performance of the song was recorded at the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, and you can see John McCusker playing fiddle at the gig as well.


Emily Smith, who sings harmony with Eddi Reader on Leezie Lindsay, is an award winning singer who often sings in Scots. She frequently sources music and draws inspiration for her own songwriting from her home area of Dumfries and Galloway in the southwest of Scotland.

musician Emily Smith Scotland Celtic Connections by Kerry Dexter

Smith travels the world, and the length and breadth of Scotland, with her music though. It was from Shetland in the far north of Scotland that she chose the mythological tale of King Orfeo. It would not be Scotland without myth and legend and things that cannot be quite explained, long traditions in Scotland’s history and music. You will find King Orfeo recorded on Emily Smith’s album called Echoes.

This is just a taste of the music of Scotland. May these ideas encourage you to explore further.

Ring of Brodgar standing stones at sunset Orkney Scotland

Scotland’s six World Heritage sites are: the Forth Bridge, the Antonine Wall, New Lanark, Saint Kilda, Old and New Town Edinburgh, and the Neolithic Heart of Orkney.
We’ve explored bits of several of these here already: Skye took you to a Christmas Market, Mike told you about his tour of the city’s closes , and I introduced you to one of my favorite aspects of the National Museum of Scotland, all in Edinburgh. I’ve shown you some of the Neolithic Heart of Orkney through its standing stones and at Skara Brae, and told you some of what you may find in the Western Isles, of which Saint Kilda is part. We’ll have more to come on these places, the other World Heritage sites, and other places in Scotland too.

Photographs by MJ Richardson (Skara Brae), Colin Ewing (stones at Ring of Brodgar), and Kerry Dexter (all others). Thank you for respecting copyright.

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