The traditional music scene in Scotland is alive and kicking, as Martin Hadden reveals.
Scotland is well-known for its proud musical history yet, just 50 or so years ago, there was a fear the tradition was in serious decline. Young people were showing little or no interest in traditional music and there were few signs of revival.
Fast-forward to 2020 and the country’s traditional music is more popular than ever, particularly among young people. ‘Trad’, as traditional-influenced music has become known, is now ‘cool’ due to several factors. The seeds were sown in the mid-70s when a handful of young Scots bands took a contemporary twist on Scottish music, giving it a respect which had all but been destroyed by years of kitsch and commercialism.
The revival reached all parts of the nation and was wholeheartedly welcomed in Orkney and Shetland, where the fiddle music tradition had never wavered. A group of volunteers established the Shetland Folk Festival in 1981. The festival would have celebrated 40 consecutive years in 2020, but for the global pandemic. The Orkney Folk Festival has been going almost as long. 38 years in 2020. We hope to see these popular festivals return soon.
The resurgence in traditional music received a boost at the end of the 20th century when it was integrated into mainstream Scottish education with the creation in 1999 of Sgoil Chiùil na Gaidhealtachd (The National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music), based at the high school in the West Highland village of Plockton. Suddenly, aspiring young traditional musicians and singers could develop their skills and knowledge alongside their regular secondary education. Before long, a Bachelor of Music with Honours degree course in Traditional and Folk Music was developed at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
Up and coming
Not all young traditional musicians have taken this route, but here are a few well-worth looking out for, many of whom did go via Plockton and Glasgow.
The young quintet Eabhal (pronounced ‘Ae-val’) came together while they were based in the Outer Hebrides. They play traditional songs and self-penned tunes on a range of instruments including bagpipes, fiddle, flute, accordion, guitars and whistles. This brand of Gaelic and Scots music won them the prestigious Battle of the Folk Bands event in 2018. Their debut album This is How the Ladies Dance, released in 2019, was longlisted for Album of the Year in the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards. In the past year they’ve performed across the UK, Europe and even in China. eabhal.com
The electronica duo WHYTE comprises award-winning Gaelic singer Alasdair C. Whyte from the Isle of Mull and electronic composer Ross Whyte (no relation) from Aberdeenshire. The pair came together in 2016 and have been raising the bar for innovation in Gaelic music ever since. The audio-visual live show of their debut album Fairich premiered at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2017. Last year, the duo received the Arts and Culture Trophy at the Scottish Gaelic Awards. Always seeking new artistic horizons, their latest project is “MAIM”, developed with contemporary Gaelic theatre company, Theatre Gu Leòr. Inspired by WHYTE’s second album Tairm, it includes live music, dance, spoken word and video. whytenoise.co.uk
Amy Papiransky was a finalist in the BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year in 2018 and nominated in the Scots Singer of the Year at the 2019 MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards. Yet for her debut album, Read me Write, she recorded a collection of self-penned folk-pop songs with an occasional hint of jazz. The decision proved right, with reviewers describing the versatile songstress as “a born storyteller” and “a treasure waiting to be heard”. A talented multi-instrumentalist , Amy has performed on numerous BBC shows, toured Europe and North America and played at the Lotus Temple in New Delhi. amypapiransky.com
The four young musicians in Gnoss are current or former students of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Gnoss began life as a duo when singer/guitarist Aidan Moodie and fiddler Graham Rorie, both from the Orkney Islands, joined forces in 2015. Among other distinctions, they won a Danny Kyle Award at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival. The duo became a quartet with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Connor Sinclair and percussionist Graham Baxter. Their album Drawn from Deep Water was shortlisted for Album of the Year in 2019 at the MG Alba Trad Music Awards. gnossmusic.com
The inspiration in Scottish traditional music skips across borders as proved by the six-piece instrumental powerhouse Pons Aelius who are based around Newcastle in the North-East of England. They describe their sound as “progressive instrumental folk” and the unbridled energy of their live shows has delighted audiences across the UK and Europe. The band has released two albums, both of which have achieved popular and critical acclaim, their latest being chosen as album of the week on BBC’s Scottish Gaelic station, Radio nan Gaidheal. ponsaeliusmusic.com
With talent like this (and LOTS more) around, the rude health of Scottish music seems set to continue.
Author Martin Hadden is founder and director of the Scottish Music Services company Birnam CD. He was a member of the influential Scots band, Silly Wizard, from 1976 to 1988.