Various ‘The Ultimate Guide to Scottish Folk’ 2CD (ARC) 4/5

scottish-folkThe annual Celtic Connections festival is now upon us and concert venues the length and breath of Glasgow are currently enjoying hearing sounds familiar and exploring the folk music of Africa, Latin and North America and the numerous inter-connections with Celtic folk traditions throughout the globe. BBC radio and internet listeners have the opportunity to hear this music across the various formats.
It is a propitious moment, then, to explore the roots of Scottish folk music, which has especially close ties to the Irish folk tradition in its highland manifestations, but is distinctive in its own right. This double CD guide does exactly what it proverbially says on the tin, namely provide an extremely useful introduction to Scottish folk music old and new, and it spans across the generations from the indomitable Sir Jimmy Shand to the more recent Lau. In the very capable hands of Gaelic speaking musicologist and BBC radio presenter Mary Ann Kennedy. who provides insightful liner notes, the compilation helps debunk a few myths south of the border about Scottish music being all bagpipes and little else and demonstrates beyond all doubt that Scottish folk music is a living and constantly evolving creature unlike the Loch Ness monster which is merely a fiendishly canny device to attract in the tourists.
One of the overriding impressions is that Scottish folk enjoys both an empathetic and symbiotic relationship with rock music and Scottish national identity is inextricably linked to both. Thus the Red Hot Chilli Peppers offer up ‘We will fix you’, while Capercaillie, who are conversant in both folk and rock formats, contribute ‘Seinneam Clù nam Fear Ur’ and elsewhere Karine Polwart continues the singer-songwriter tradition. The Transatlantic connections are an important aspect of the music contained within and there is a winning combination of South Uist piper Fred Morrison with American banjo player Tim O’Brien on a rousing ‘Kansas City Hornpipe’, unquestionably a musical highlight on the compilation. Sheltand fiddler extraordinaire Aly Bain has made a significant contribution to our understanding of the common roots of Celtic music across the Atlantic and ‘The day dawn’ is a sumptuous illustration of his craft. Bain is of course one of the co-hosts along side Jerry Douglas, of the critically acclaimed Transatlantic Sessions series. Gaelic song is a key element of the Scottish folk tradition and Mary Ann Kennedy provides some lovely examples of song in this most evocative of languages. The young Mischa MacPherson has great potential as evidenced on ‘Cha d’Fhuair Min Cadel’ which is a delightful pared down vocal and guitar number.

Some of the historically important figures of Scottish folk are included. Among these Archie Fischer was a personal favourite with his stunning reading of an original composition, ‘Reynardine’, while Dougie McLean, wrote what is considered a de facto alternative Scottish national anthem in ‘Caldeonia’. While that piece is not included here, the genial singer-songwriter does contribute the fine ‘Bonne Bessie Logan’. Ceilidh music is an integral part of the Scottish and, in marked contrast to the dour stereotype, Scots do like to enjoy themselves and let their hair down regularly. Jimmy Shand has been a stalwart of the ceilidh scene north of the border and his rendition of ‘Bluebell Polka’ is guaranteed to get the feet tapping frenetically. In an altogether different and highly politicised vein, Dick Gaughan is one of Scotland’s truly original singers with a principled stance to boot and his Topic albums from the late 1970s and early 1980s are the equal of anything else on that label of that era. Here, we hear a later a typically uncompromising, but deeply melodic, ‘No gods and precious few heroes’. Haling from the port of Leith in the nation’s capital, Gaughan expertly weaves his deeply held political convictions into his music and the listener is all the richer for his insightful lyrics.

One minor gripe. No inclusion of one of Scotland’s finest Gaelic-speaking singers currently, Julie Fowlis, but that may simply be down to legal complexities for forming part of the compilation. Another omission, that of Bert Jansch, is more logical in that his music revealed little of a Scottish influence in style, spending most of his professional life in England, though he was very proud, and rightly so, of his Edinburgh roots. Otherwise, this is an ideal place for the neophyte to begin and discover the wonders of a folk tradition that does not receive its fair due across the border.

Tim Stenhouse