A Journey through Scotland's Music
Excerpts from "MusicScapes of Scotland: Vignettes from Prehistory to Pandemic"
Join me on a journey through a music and culture that is in some ways still uncharted territory. The material you’ll find here has been edited and compiled from 24 years of music columns written for Scottish Life magazine from its first year, in 1996, until it was sold in 2020, during the pandemic. You may enjoy purchasing the book as a paperback or ebook from Amazon in the U.S. or U.K., or a signed copy from my author site. Here on Substack, I will occasionally add updates and audio samples of the music discussed, and a few new articles as well.
Here, you’ll learn about ancient songs and instruments, and new music on the verge of breaking out. We’ll dig beneath the veneer of stereotypes and find the pulse that brings it all to life.
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The music of Scotland is rich and varied, influential in western folk and classical music, and yet relatively little examined in its own right. The stories here will be your tour guide to many nooks and crannies of an amazing musical landscape.
Each article focuses on one facet of Scottish music while offering a bird’s eye view of the broader context. We’ll examine a panorama of musical styles, songs in Gaelic, Scots, and English and music of the pipes, fiddle, harp and other instruments. We’ll tune in to music of Scots music abroad, pay tribute to those who make it all happen, and glimpse the future of traditional music.
The vignettes you’ll encounter here include research as well as personal experiences from listening, traveling, performing, and interviews of key personalities in Scottish music.
Scotland, being a part of the U.K., is often presumed to be a well-trodden path, but too many observers, including some academics, have viewed its culture as laboring in the shadows of England or Ireland. Meanwhile, the Scots themselves have never inclined toward self-promotion. As a result, many aspects of Scottish culture are well developed but not broadly appreciated or understood.
BBC Radio Scotland once established a program which was to cover the history of Scotland’s music in 26 half-hour segments. Much to their surprise, they ended up airing more than four times as much material without exhausting their sources.
The music of Scotland appeals to all listeners, regardless of background. Once upon a time, this kind of music was considered “ethnic” music, of interest only to local communities and experts. Then people began to think of it as “roots” music, suitable primarily for those who have Scottish heritage. More recently, the term “world music” has come into vogue, underlining the awareness that quality music with a coherent cultural backbone can enrich all of us, regardless of origin.
Personally, I find Scottish music captivating thanks to its melodies, rhythms and cultural context. I never tire of hearing it or playing it, whether for listening or dancing. My family’s connection to Scottish heritage has played only a small role in my journey as a fiddler, teacher, writer, judge, organizer and distributor.
If you have no Scottish heritage, how can you feel passionate about this music and culture? Perhaps the most amusing and thought-provoking answer can be found in an anecdote about Handel, the great German composer who lived in London. One day, after Handel had premiered a piece written in honor of an English military victory over the Prussians, an angry Londoner approached him and demanded to know how Handel, a Prussian, dared write music for the English king. Handel replied simply, “I, sir, am English by choice. You, sir, are English by accident.”
We can all be “Scots by choice” to the degree that we value and learn from the beauty of Scottish music and culture. The Scots themselves, and those whose roots are Scottish, are entitled to go one step further: they can take pride in it. And hopefully, they will also make sure to keep it alive and well. Fortunately, signs are pointing in the right direction, as you will see in these articles. Enjoy the journey!
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