Ancient Scottish Music Goes GlobalFeatured, Music — By Anthony Easton on April 26, 2012 at 7:00 am
There is a bar called the Caledonia, on the far edge of College Street, in Toronto. It’s a new bar, and I had my first outdoor drink of the season there a couple of weeks ago. There, one of the bartenders chided me gently, because I ordered American whiskey, and that is not something to be done at this kind of bar — the kind of bar that had a taxidermy perch on the wall, and had a hundred Scotches on the wall. I was drinking with a friend who had some heritage, and though it was a new bar, the presence of those who are Scottish in Toronto is not new at all, and I should have known better. So I changed my order to something that would embarrass Wendy less, to something with more peat and smoke.
This is sort of relevant for a couple of reasons, the first one being that Canada was founded by the Scots. Even more so, the people who carried the beaver skins in canoes over portages came from the same islands — the Orkneys, for example — that provided many of the songs on the album Urstan. Mairi Morrison, who gathered much of Urstan’s material and sings on most of the tracks, comes from the isle of Lewis and spoke Scots/Gaelic before she spoke English.
Scotland has become politically interesting in the last few years: the language has returned, the culture is pushing its identity outside of the 19th century, and the possibility of a political split with Mother England has an icy elegance. Scotland lacks the anger, the sex, and the money of Ireland, but it has a flinty, granite desire for its own self hood. Singer Alasdair Roberts is an important part of this Edinburgh revival. He sounds a bit like the folk revivals that come around every few years, sort of like Sandy Denny or Nick Drake in the ‘70s or Eliza Carthy in the ‘90s, but he cannot sing nearly as well as any of them, and over the last decade his craggy, inelegant and often ugly voice matched with traditional percussion and fifes/pipes has had a quality of refusal. To put it another way, the songs are ugly, his voice is ugly, and the instrumentation is ugly, and some of his musical choices — including large sections of instrumentation absent his voice, or his curbed vowels or chewed-over choruses — isolate listeners.
Because the songs on Urstan are often in Gaelic or Scots — and because they are about fishing, gathering eggs, and waiting for God to gather bodies over the edges of Scottish cliffs — all of these stories, and the tongue they are told in, suggest an explicit Scots narrative. But even though the narrative is from Scotland, listening to Morrison and Roberts is sort of like being in the back of a bar with someone five or six generations Canadian, drinking peat and smoke. I am being colonial here when I say directly that their voice sound Canadian. But maybe it only sounds like that because the history of Scotland is so interbraided into the history of Canada in a very basic way.
For decades Roberts has been working, both as both a solo artist and in pairs or groups, to express what both modern Scottish and ancient Scottish culture means. Because Scottish culture is so close to Canadian culture, because the granite into Georgian Bay sounds like the granite that goes into the North Sea, one hears home in the narratives constructed here.
There are other similitudes. Scotland is figuring out how to be an independent nation in the midst of an empire that is collapsing. The songs here about maintaining linguistic or social culture in the midst of England are like Atlantic Canada, and how they mixed Gaelic and English and French, folk singing and new voices, into a sophisticated pudding unlike anything heard before. This album is not that new pudding — this is the old pudding done with deliberate care and too little sweetness. I want to like this album, I like that I cannot understand some of it because it is in Scots, I like it because it has ancient history, I like it because it is smart, and I like it because it is an album created while Scotland is in the middle of a liberating struggle, like when Super Furry Animals sang in Welsh in the midst of the scramble for Welsh independence. So this sounds like the edges of Canada that are not quite independent and not not quite integrated — like Newfoundland or Quebec. It means something that both of those places have a long history of working against the English, and this album delightfully works against the English.
There are problems with Urstan besides Roberts’s grating voice. Where his previous albums had a community feel that lifted the traditional instrumentation, this album has less of a community feel; it is slightly more competitive than his other work. This is a man who once sang a song called “The Whole House is Singing” with the verses in English and the choruses in Gaelic, and it was profoundly inclusive. Though I was reminded of his voice sitting in the Caledonia, and I am willing to drink more Scotch and less bourbon, Roberts does seem a bit more isolated here. That isolation might be monastic, though. He may be telling private stories instead of public schools, and that explains the ugliness of his voice, and maybe he’s giving me trouble for assuming it’s all Canadian.