A Visit to the Studio

Read about Thistle from the perspective of a well-known Scottish writer who visited Fiona in her studio. This article is reprinted from the October 2007 edition of THE Fiona in the studioSCOTS MAGAZINE.

(photo credit at right: ©Roy Summers/Scottish Field)


Kenneth Steven listens to Fiona Ritchie, producer and host of American radio show The Thistle & Shamrock®

On two occasions I’ve lectured in the United States. Both months of May were spent at a small liberal arts university at the heart of Michigan. Like many another corner of the States, Michigan has a generous (in all senses) population of second and third generation Scots and Irish. In each case, ties to “the old country” are hugely important. I remember the first time I casually mentioned to one group of friends that I knew Fiona Ritchie; there was a near explosion of amazed and envious comments and questions: “ I really knew Fiona? Fiona Ritchie from “The Thistle & Shamrock?”

Sitting talking with Fiona in her studio, I’m aware as much as ever of just how natural she is, how very easily she carries all this. The irony is that most people here won’t have the slightest clue that a radio programme is produced in this village, far less that it will then be broadcast across every part of the United States to a huge and devoted band of listeners.

Fiona and I share a river – the Clyde. I can remember my first years in Helensburgh – my father’s hometown – and last thing in the evening, as the bedroom curtains were being drawn, looking out over the dark river estuary and the twinkling lights of Greenock and Gourock. Fiona had the better view, we agree, from the other side. She was born in Greenock in 1960 but spent her first years in Gourock; from there she looked out to the hills to the north, the first real ramparts of the West Highlands. Often she heard the voices of American servicemen as they disembarked in Gourock on their way to the bright lights of the city; they had come from the other side of the Clyde so it was natural for her to think that “over there”, the north side of the river, was America.

The radio was very much at the centre of her childhood home. It was a real, old-fashioned wireless with its dials and its crackling. It was always on, because her mother was an avid listener – not just to its music programmes (though Scottish country dance music was of great significance) but radio drama and the work of Burns. This was still a focal point – something to gather round like a fire in winter. The radio was even put on when Fiona’s little brother was being born in the next room: all that changed was that the sound was turned up.

Radio became important to Fiona, along with a growing love of music. Not just the traditional Scottish music she had heard in her home but the sounds of America, too. With the money from her paper round she proudly purchased her first transistor (second-hand, it was bought from her brother). This was slipped into a pocket and sneaked into school so that on the way to and from home she could listen to the latest news and exciting sounds.

The seed of revolution were being sown in the traditional music world. Around the age of 15 she heard something played on radio that was utterly different to anything she’d hitherto encountered; the strains of the bagpipes were there, and of other “wild” instruments, but there was an electric guitar, too. And through this amazing melding of sounds were the words of a Breton poem.

This whole world of Celtic fusion was just beginning to find its feet. When Fiona went on to study at Stirling University, this new Celtic scene was something she sought out. It was gaining in confidence all the time; unafraid to experiment with blending the traditional with the modern.

The North Carolina happened. While still at Stirling she went over to study in Charlotte. She plunged into America headfirst, embracing its exuberant otherness, its vibrant celebration of living. There she was introduced to a whole new folk tradition – back porch music. People just sat playing instruments – fiddles and banjos – outside their homes; they still celebrated old Appalachian ballads, and woven through this native playing were the very real echoes of Scottish and Irish music, carried over by the settlers. (It’s an irony worth mentioning that the Highland Scots settled in the lowlands of North Carolina and the lowlanders in the west of the state, up in the mountains.) So here was another wonderful form of fusion, and Fiona took part in these fresh air sessions. They were ceilidh-like in their informality; everyone joining in to become part of the occasion.

After graduating from Stirling University in 1981 she went back to Charlotte, North Carolina. National Public Radio was a new phenomenon in the United States; until that time almost all stations had existed on a purely commercial basis, but now there was a real desire to move away from radio which thought only and always of commercial viability. (In the UK this evolution in radio was completely reversed; commercial stations only came late in the day, long after the establishment and reign of public broadcasting.)

So National Public Radio in the States – NPR – had to have a non-commercial basis. Fiona joined the Charlotte team that was busy helping to bring the new station to life. It was a case of all hands on deck as far as the workload was concerned, which provided Fiona with invaluable training in every aspect of radio production. But programmes of other kinds had to be made too, and at the close of 1981 – just before she returned to Scotland for Christmas – she was asked if she could put together a programme of music celebrating her tradition. She had only some 12 albums there with her in North Carolina, but from those she selected material which was built into the very first of her programmes. It was the start of a road she could hardly have dreamed would open up before her.

Just two years later “The Thistle & Shamrock” had national distribution on NPR and three years after that Fiona became full-time producer and host. By the mid-1990s she was back in Scotland, but she didn’t leave the show behind her. “The Thistle & Shamrock” came with her, but back in Charlotte an office was established, and an archive in Laurinburg, North Carolina, that would house the huge collection of music that had been amassed. That collection became in 1994 the Fiona Ritchie Archive – little over a decade after the first programme was broadcast.

I remember tuning in to “The Thistle & Shamrock” when I was in Alma at the heart of Michigan. It felt rather odd to be sitting there, thousands of miles from home, listening to a programme made in my adopted Perthshire village. Fiona’s soft Scots voice filled the room: a full hour of music, interviews with artists and live recordings – all interwoven with her commentary. It’s a lyrical melding of elements, and a format that hasn’t really changed since the programme’s inception all those years ago. Why should it change? The magic continues to weave its spell around the listeners to 390 stations across the United States.

What has changed is the manner in which the programme is made and delivered. At one time Fiona had to lug around clunky equipment for live interviews, and a tape of the weekly programme had to be sent off to the States courtesy of FedEx.

The evolution has been so fast and so dramatic it’s hard to believe possible. Now there’s no actual physical recording at all; the whole programme, once it’s made, is uploaded on computer and thereby made accessible to all those 390 stations. More than a little difficult for an ultra traditionalist like me to fathom. And there in that minute studio, with all its state of the art technology, “The Thistle & Shamrock” is produced. The digital era has changed the broadcasting world forever, and even I, Luddite though I am, can understand what a boon that transition has been.

I leave Fiona to continue work with the next programme. She has to be several months ahead of herself in terms of production, considering the themes she wants to explore, the music that will illustrate these best and the next set of interviews with musicians she has to arrange. But there’s no sense of flap, nothing of the usual stress and mess we’ve all become used to encountering in a western society driving itself ever more relentlessly.

As I go back out into the street I remember my old room in Michigan, and realise that’s the secret. It’s the genuine and natural way that Fiona comes across on the airwaves, talking about a music scene she’s come to know second to none, yet as if she could be speaking with a few good friends.

Long may the magic last.

Writer Kenneth Steven’s novels include “A Highland Trilogy,” and the children’s book “The Santa Maria. ” He has also published collections of poetry including “Wildscape” and “Salt and Light” and a CD of poetry readings entitled “Sanctuary.” His BBC radio program “A Requiem for St Kilda” won a gold medal at the 2006 Sony Radio Awards.