Singer and guitarist Ed Miller shares his thoughts on the eve of flying from Texas to lead his annual folksong tour of Scotland.
Certain songs always manage to transport me to particular places in Scotland when I sing them; and I used to be intrigued by what images they evoke in the minds of American audiences who have never been to these places. So, in 2000, I took 34 intrepid folk music fans on a tour to sing songs "on location" throughout Scotland, to meet a variety of singers and musicians in different regions, and to get a feel for the landscape, history and social settings from which the songs grew. The first venture was a great success and on Sunday I'll be rendezvousing in Glasgow with 39 group members for the 7th Folksong Tour of Scotland.
My academic training is in Geography and Folklore. Those (along with good fun) are the basic themes of the 2-week tour, as I try to give people a taste of the various regions of Scotland, of songs old and new, and of singers traditional and contemporary. This is not a search for the Loch Ness Monster, Brigadoon or Braveheart; rather it's a chance to have an enjoyable and even an educational time seeing Scotland through the filter of music and landscape, rather than a veil of tartan romanticism.
We begin in the area my family came from, the Borders, a region steeped in history and ancient ballads of reiving and conflict - songs and tales such as "The Broom of the Cowdenknowes," "The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow," "The Douglas Tragedy" or "Thomas the Rhymer" come to life when sung overlooking the Tweed or standing in St Mary's kirkyard. As far as more modern songs are concerned, it is equally moving to visit the yew tree in East Lothian that inspired Brian McNeill's "Yew Tree" or the Newtongrange Mining Museum where he got the idea for "The Prince of Darkness," and we'll also hear songs of John Watt and Matt Armour in the Fife fishing villages of Pittenweem and Anstruther. In the Lowland based first week then, we will hear fiddler Iain Fraser, award winning singer Karine Polwart, "folk titan" Brian McNeill, Fife singer Jack Beck, the Singing Kettle childrens' songs project, bothy song expert Scott Gardiner in Angus and Jim Malcolm with his songs of Perthshire, as we gradually move north via Edinburgh, Fife and Angus, to Blair Athol.
After hearing the fiddle tunes of Neil Gow from Pete Clark and Scots poems by Carl McDougall, we will be joined for the Highland part of the tour by one of Scotland's treasures, Margaret Bennett, folklorist, writer, Gaelic singer and delightful person. To hear her sing a lament at the Culloden Battlefield, talk about her family's life on Skye in a "black house" in Trotternish or explain the Highland Clearances standing next to the ruins of an island settlement is unforgettable. With her as co-pilot, we'll visit Culloden, Kintail, scenic Plockton (with a ceilidh dance in the village hall featuring music from the pupils of the National Centre for Excellence in Traditional Music, based at the local High School), Glencoe, and Appin, before finishing up with a couple of nights in Glasgow. The final night is always a highlight with "Glasgow-on-legs" songwriter Adam McNaughtan and the rest of the Stramash group.
So, the music is great and varied, the changing scenery always interesting; but for my soul, it's always best when I can combine these with some hiking into higher or wilder places. James Michener wrote that you can never know a place if you haven't walked and picnicked in it; so I love to lead the fitter group members on easy-ish hikes over the Eildon Hills in the Borders, Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh, the hills around Dunkeld and the stunning Lost Valley trail in Glencoe. It all gives them a taste of the views and feelings for which an old exile like myself yearns while living in Texas. I am SO ready to be there and to escape the summer heat of Austin.
Ed Miller, 7 June 2005
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