7 Ways to Explore Scotland Through Music

Scotland has widely diverse landscapes, from rocky shore to verdant forest, high mountain to secluded glen,rushing stream to quiet loch. Scotland’s music holds many varied strands, too.

burn nr dunkeld scotland autumn j paren

If you think mainly about bagpipes when the music of Scotland is mentioned, come along to learn of other ways Scotland’s musicians draw on landscape and tradition. If you love the pipes, be assured there will be bagpipes in the mix; if pipes are not to your taste, there’s plenty of music without them, and you may even get to hear piping in ways you’ve not imagined, as well. Know, too, that these recordings I am introducing to you here are just the beginning of a treasure trove you will find in the music of Scotland.

Archie Fisher has been involved in many aspects of music, worked his way through several folk styles, from skiffle band to Irish folk. It is in his work as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist that you will come to learn the most about Scotland and about this creative artist whose career spans more than five decades. Whether he is interpreting songs of the tradition, covering songs from other contemporary writers, or sharing songs he ahs written, there’s a clear line between Scotland’s past and present in his work. As a former seaman, there’s also often a line of nature and the sea in Fisher’s work, too. “Songs, whether they be my own or that of my fellow songsmiths or the unknown bards of the tradition, become very dear friends, worthy of respect in their own right,” Fisher says. “Once written and sung they have an existence of their own and will travel through many other performances.” A good place to meet Archie Fisher’s work is on his recording The Silent Song.

Julie Fowlis is an artist who has chosen to record a song of Archie Fisher’s, a mystic mysterious song of the sea and those who sail on her called Windward Away. Though Fowlis most often sings in Gaelic, as she was researching and gathering songs for her album Alterum, she found that the song resonated with the ideas of the Celtic Otherworld she was using as her guide to choosing what she would record. Most of the songs are in Gaelic and tell stories of an otherworld which is both mystical and real; stories of love, loss connection, journey, and questioning which work whether you know Gaelic or not.

Scotland singer Julie Fowlis

Mary Ann Kennedy sings in Gaelic too. Her recording Glaschu is about a very real place, the city of Glasgow where she grew up. There are stories of laughter, sadness, place, sport, conversation, and what it felt like for Gaelic speakers from the Highlands and Islands to come to live in the city. You’ll have no trouble following Kennedy’s music working with song and poetry from folk who made this journey (as did her own family).

Karine Polwart sings in English and in Scots. Before choosing a musical path she studied and taught philosophy, and worked as a social worker. Both of those aspects of the way Polwart engages the world come through in her music. Her album Laws of Motio n has songs of emigration, of travel, of connection with nature, and a song about the 45th US president framed in a conversation with the ancient rocks of the isle of Lewis from which his mother’s family came.

Scotland songwriter karine Polwart by Reid Ingram Weir

On their album Frenzy of the Meeting, the members of Breabach decided to include songs of emigration and of travel, too along with music of landscape and stories of change and of hope. The five members of the band, who are James Lindsay on double bass and vocals, Calum MacCrimmon on bagpipes, whistle, bouzouki, and vocals, James Duncan Mackenzie on bagpipes, flute, whistle, Ewan Robertson on guitar, vocals, cajon. and Megan Henderson on fiddle and vocals each have original pieces on the recording, which comprises insturmental pieces along with songs in English and in Gaelic. Birds of Passage may offer you a perspective on immigrants and refugees you’ve not thought of, while the pairing of the tune Knees Up in Hanoi, from Calum MacCrimmon with Gaelic song Dòchas Glan Na Fàire sung by Megan Henderson, and writen by MacCrimmon and Megan’s brother Ewan Henderson, contemplates journey, change, and hope. Some of the Gaelic translates as

The road must be taken
Living in pure hope of the horizon
Until the day breaks

Sarah-Jane Summers knows of hope and change too; she speaks her musical truths through her fiddle. A native of the Highlands, she has long been drawn to explore connections between the musics and languages of Scotland and those of the Nordic lands. On her album Owerset, Summers chose words in Scots and in Old Norse which are them same or very close as inspiration for a series of tunes. The tuens stand well on their own whether you know anything about the language connection or not, though you will hear it in the playing. Summers offers succinct and occasionally humorous sleeve notes explaning the background to each tune which are well worth your reading — but listen to the tunes first.

Scotland musician Sarah-Jane Summers

Humour is something Eddi Reader knows how to use to spice her music too, as you will know if you have seen her in performance. She well knows how to balance that with the serious side of things too. Those are both present, as well as her fine taste in song selection and skill as a songwriter on her album Cavalier. Reader also has one of the most expressive voices around and great musical intelligence in using it. On Cavalier you will find songs of joy and of bittersweet sorrow, a Robert Burns song reminding of the need for respect for everyone, a story about the classic boat Maid o’ the Loch, and a lively piece drawn from ancient poetry about Pangur Ban, an Irish cat, among other things.

Love of the land, concern for social justice, respect for history, love of Gaelic,love of story, understanding of change, looking out for hope: there are these aspects and so much more to learn about the music of Scotland, and about Scotland through music. I hope this will get you started on exploring the work of these artists; I am sure your journey will be an enjoyable one. As I write this, Saint Andrew’s Day, Scotland’s national day, is on the horizon, but whenever you may be reading this there’s no better time to begin.

scotland loch tummel daisies

Photograph (top) of the burn near Dunkeld by Julian Paren; photograph of Julie Fowlis courtesy of the artist; photograph of Karine Polwart by Reid Ingram Weir; photograph of Sarah-Jane Summers by Kerry Dexter

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