Thursday, August 06, 2020

Scotland's Music: Steall/Torrent from Ewen Henderson

Ewen Henderson has been part of many aspects of the music of Scotland, from playing with the Battlefield Band and Manran, to studying with Aongas Grant Sr to writing music for film to researching music in the archive at the School of Scottish Studies. He comes from Lochaber in the Highlands, growing up in a musical family and along the way picking up skills on fiddle, viola, piano, Highland pipes and small pipes, harmonium, whistles, and singing in both English and Gaelic.

When he set out to make what would become his album Steall/Torrent. , he thought to make a work that would offer a curated journey comprised of pieces carefully structured to reflect these many interests and experiences.

As he began, the music took him in a different direction.

It did have its origins in his first plan, but

“When that particular creative sluice is opened, one can quickly find such fine intentions overwhelmed and engulfed by the cascade of memories, impulses, and ideas released in its flow,” he writes in the sleeve notes. Hence his choice of title for the album: Steall, which means torrent in Gaelic.

The result is a journey worth the taking, moving from jigs to airs to song to waltz and back again, all the while allowing Henderson to create good stories with his mastery of numerous instruments. Keeping him company are Ewan MacPherson (who produced the project) on guitars and jaw harp, Jame Lindsay on bass, James MacKinstosh on percussion, and Thomas Gibbs on clarinet.

Through eleven tracks, music from traditional sources meets with with original compositions. The album opens that way, in fact, as the Melbourne Morning set sees the originals A Melbourne Morning and The Pneumatic Drills bookending a longtime favourite traditional jig Gillean a Drobhair/The Drover’s Lad.

Henderson points out that once he began working on the music from a different perspective than he had planned, he decided to, in keeping with the torrent idea -- dive in. “I respectfully suggest the listener do likewise,” he adds.

If you do that you will enjoy a line of melody and story which unite Henderson’s diverse musical skills. In recent years he has worked as a musical director for various projects and written music for film, both of which require a good ear for and knowledge of the stories told by sequencing music. That is a strength here as well, with those opening jigs followed by the Duncan Ban MacIntyre song Oran a’ Branndaidh, and later finds MSR, a set of fast paced pipe tunes played on the fiddle moving into the gentle Dileab na h-Aibhne.

Henderson also knows well how to evoke ideas of place and geography in his writing and playing as well. Have listen to that Dileab na h-Aibhne to discover many layers of music which do that. The title translates as The River’s Legacy. Henderson was living in Glasgow’s West End when he was asked to compose a soundtrack for documentary concerning a youth pipe band being established in the area. “It was inspired by thoughts of the River Clyde’s lasting influence on Glasgow, Scotland, and the wider world, but, in particular, the role it has played in the changing fortunes of the Gaels,” he writes. It is a piece of depth and imagination which well brings in the voice of the river and the people along it.

Camus Daraich evokes a different sort of landscape, although also a waterbound one. The title comes from a beach in the western Highlands overlooking Skye and the Small Isles, a place of childhood memories and more recent ones, as it was where Henderson’s sister Megan married Ewan Robertson. They are musicians as well: you will know them from their work with Breabach.

There is much more to explore on Steall. Henderson draws the journey to close with a tune he wrote for his wife, Maria, which was meant to be a surprise gift to her on their wedding day. That didn’t go quite as planned. I will leave you to find that amusing story in the sleeve notes (which are offered in both English and Gaelic). It’s a fine tune, though, which draws many threads of the music on Steall together and makes a closer at once spirited and gentle.

Follow the music straight through or dip in and out of Ewen Henderson’s Steall: either way, you will find engaging, thoughtful music in which to immerse yourself and emerge refreshed. A torrent indeed.

Ewen Henderson is one of the founding members of the top group Manran. Another place to hear his work, in a bit of a different context, is on their recording An Da La.

You may also wish to see
Scotland’s Music:Breabach: Frenzy of the Metting.
At Wandering Educators Music for Hope and Celebration, part of the Music for Shifting Times Series, including a song and video from Manran
Scotland’s Music:Hamish Napier: The Railway
Scotland’s Music: Julie Fowlis: Alterum.

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Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Lost Words: Spell Songs

Bluebell, snow hare, heather, owl, otter, acorn, conker, dandelion, kingfisher, wren...

Words contain images, history, stories. When words become names, that is even more so.

Artist Jackie Morris learned that a number of words were to be dropped from a popular children’s dictionary in the UK, where she lives. Most of those words had to do with nature and wilderness.

An award winning illustrator and author, Morris decided to create book with images from a selection of these words. She contacted well known nature writer Robert Macfarlane to see if he would write a forward to the book. He came back with another idea: what if he wrote spells, incantations so to speak, calling the words and what they named back to life -- back into imagination? Morris and Macfarlane created such a book, called The Lost Words.

The idea caught fire. Children and adults responded to the book. Two of those who were inspired were Adam and Caroline Slough of Folk by the Oak, who often commission music projects. The Lost Words: Spell Songs became their next endeavour.

Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis, Seckou Keita, Kris Drever, Kerry Andrew, Rachel Newton, Beth Pos addressed and connected with nature, place, and wild lands in their work. Among them, their work has touched a range of genres, spanned a number of instruments, included Scots, Mandinka, and Gaelic languages. It seemed they would make fine collaborators to create music that would, in essence, sing these bits of nature back to life,

That is true. The work they created is called The Lost Words: Spell Songs.

Each artist brings a distinct physical voice as well and distinctive musical skills, points of view, and backgrounds to the work. After an initial meeting and a time of mulling over each on his or her own whilst involved in other projects, the eight gathered for a week of residency, a time of collaboration to write and record what became the fourteen tracks on Spell Songs.

As with the illustrations by Jackie Morris, there is both intricacy and directness in the music they have created.

As with the spells of Robert Macfarlane’s words, there is pattern and breaking of pattern.

With all these, there is mystery and clarity, discovery and recognition, sorrow and hope.

The music is grounded in Celtic tradition and draws in elements of many other traditions. Classical music and music of Seckou Keita’s Senegalese griot background are among those which appear. Gaelic song, which is very often grounded in place,is present, as is Scots tradition of rhythm in service of story come in; four of the artists, Polwart, Fowlis, Newton, and Drever, are from Scotland.

As to the lyrics, some come directly from Macfarlane’s writing, some use phrases or words from his work, some are inspired by what’s written rather than speaking directly from it. Some, too, draw inspiration from the art by Morris, or the interplay between art and words.

It’s a recording that bears listening far more than once. As with a kaleidoscope, different colours and patterns and intersections come to the fore with each listening, and different stories resonate and connect with each other as these change. Producer Andy Bell has woven sounds of the natural world in with a light touch, too.

There is Heartwood, with Karine Polwart taking the lead voice in the song of a tree speaking to those who would -- those who will -- cut it down. It’s not a plea so much as a a story, a request, a knowledge that both tree and cutter exist in a shared space of time.

Time is an element that threads through all the stories, in varying ways: the Kingfisher darts and flashes in and out of landscape as Julie Fowlis sings lead and others’ voices come in. Fowlis, who comes from the Western Isles, has long had interest in folklore of the seal people, so it’s right hat she also takes lead on the story of the Selkie as he goes through his own changes in time, place, and being, finding his home with his water borne kin. The Snow Hare’s life is embedded in and connected to the change of seasons, which are themselves changing with climate change, a story told in haunting unison singing by Polwart and Fowlis.

Sadness and hope are both present. In Little Astronaut Jim Molyneux seeks seeks solace in looking to hear agin the song of the wren, and in Bethany Porter’s graceful Charm On Goldfinch, there is the lively joy of present birdsong and questioning of what may come. With the story of Scatterseed, ‘fallen hero of the football field,’ Kris Drever frames the story of the lost names of the dandelion.

Mystical aspects of the Heron are illuminated in intertwining songlines by Rachel Newton and Seckou Keita; their harp and kora, respectively, twine as do their voices and languages. The Ghost Owl haunts in melody and sound. There’s a bright snap of humour in the story of Conker. Newton brings light and image to Macfarlane’s words with her take on Acorn. Fowlis and Keita connect languages in Papa Keyba, which takes inspiration from the ideas the book rather than drawing directly from its word and image.

Drawing the recording to a close is The Blessing. Images, ideas, and characters from the songs and the book make a story, a journey if you will. which includes bright flashes of hope and darker threads of sorrow, and perhaps, a hint of warning, too.

What, after all, would the woods and waters, birds and animals have to tell us about our times now? How would we speak in that conversation? Spell Songs may be that answer.

Good places to purchase Spell Songs and to find out more about the project are at the Lost Words site and at the Folk by the Oak shop. The music comes with a book, as well. Though I’ve heard the music in several contexts I’ve not had opportunity to see the book, but I understand it includes lyrics and further written material, as well as artwork Morris created during the residency that conneets musicians and their instruments with nature.

You will also find tour posters for sale with art work from Morris, as well as a no cost download on the project for educators. There’s also a fine gallery of photographs by Elly Lucas from the residency where the music was created and recorded, and from several of the live concerts which followed.

You may also want to know: word is that there will be a volume two of Spell Songs, perhaps to be released in the autumn.

--> Speaking of concerts, Folk by the Oak is taking their summer festival online this year. .The Spell Songs collaborative as well as several of the individual artists are set to take part. This all happens on 19 July, and there’s further information at the Folk by the Oak link in the sentence just above.

You may also wish to see
A story about Alterum from Julie Fowlis
A story about Laws of Motion from Karine Polwart
A story about another nature related recording: The Woods, from Hamish Napier
Journeys through Landscape in Music, part of the Music for Shifting Times series at Wandering Educators

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Monday, May 25, 2020

Seeing Ireland: 3 music videos

Landscape and the love of it run deep in the heart of the music of Ireland. Whether you are dreaming of, remembering, or imaging a visit to the island of Ireland, here are three music videos that will help you see aspects of the place.

“This is what I believe that we bring to our audiences” says Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh. to her long time friend Moya Brennan, “that they can sense the beauty of this place.” The two are walking in Donegal where they both spent time growing up and where Mairead lives.

They go on share a memory and a song about the lights in the windows you see a at Christmas. Perhaps you are reading this at another time. It is a fine song nonetheless, good to enjoy at any season. As Ni Mhaonaigh and Brennan remark during their conversation, you are going to want to bring a heavy coat with you when you come to Donegal anyway...

You may find the song Soilse na Nollag/The Lights of Christmas, recorded on the Windham Hill collection called The Very Best of Celtic Christmas. You may find more of NI Mhaonaigh’s work on recordings by Altan, and of Brennan’s with Clannad.They each have solo albums out as well.

The Wild Atlantic Way has become the descriptive name for the many landscapes and places you will meet along the west coast of Ireland, all the way from KInsale in Cork to Malin Head in Donegal. There are six regions and, indeed all sorts of things to aexplore and all sorts of great music to hear as well.

Aoife Scott and Enda Reilly wrote the song All Along the Wild Atlantic Way, and with her partner and fellow musician Andy Meaney along for the journey Scott brings quite a bit of the place to life through this video as well as in the lyrics and melody.

You will find the song recorded on Scott’s debut album Carry the Day, and she has a second one out now as well, called Homebird.

There is much of the landscape of Ireland which lends itself to myth and legend, and many stories to go along. The stories may be true or may not, likely some of both in most cases. The song Port na bPúcaí/The Fairy Tune is one such. It comes from the Blasket Islands, which lie off the coast of west Kerry. Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh lives in the Dingle peninsula and across from the Blasket Islands.

The song, she says, was given her by her father, who told her the story that a Blasket Islands fisherman heard the music on the wind one night and played it on his fiddle. Some say it was a whale song, others that its origin was from the otherworld. The words are a story of a woman captured by the fairies. There is an otherworldly aspect to the landscape of the west Kerry shore where this video was filmed, and to the sound of the music, as well. Billy Mag Fhloinn constructed (after a concept of Gorkhem Sen) and plays the acoustic instrument called the yaybahar to compliment Nic Amhlaoibh’s singing. You will find the song on Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh’s recording Thar Toinn/Seaborne.

You may also wish to learn more about
Altan’s album The Gap of Dreams
Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh’s Foxglove & Fuschia
Another Irish musician who draws on landscape in her work to learn about
One of the most loved stories at Music Road: Irish music, Irish landscape

From the Music from Shifting Times series at Wandering Educators
Music for Connection and Contemplation, with music from Aoife Scott, Matt and Shannon Heaton, Cathie Ryan, and others

Photographs by Kerry Dexter, Thank you for respecting copyright.

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Monday, May 11, 2020

Scotland's music: The Woods from Hamish Napier

When you walk in a wood, what do you see? Weathered bark and new green sprouts, tall trunks and saplings, mosses, lichens, green leaves, red ones, brown ones, ones which have turned to gold, flowers, evergreen branches, yellow gorse, purple heather...

What do you hear? Bird song, the rustle of a deer as it moves through the wood, the dart of a squirrel, the voices of the waters, your own footsteps over rock and soil and leaf.

Perhaps you sense a whisper of stories of those who have walked this way before you, as well.

Hamish Napier has heard all these things, and more.

The woods he has in mind, and in experience, are those in the Cairngorms in Scotland’s Highlands.

The ideas, and the place, became resources he’d draw on the create the music for his album The Woods. Napier was commissioned to create The Woods by Cairngorms Connect, which is a joint project of RSPB Scotland, Wildland Limited, Scottish Natural Heritage, and Forestry & Land Scotland.

Through the album, Napier and his musical friends offer a journey that draws on music of Scotland’s traditions and ideas from nature, history, and language to create new stories and honour older ones.

Just as you experience light and shadow, close up views and wide ones, intricate tracery of fern and flower and boldness of high soaring tree trunks when you are in a forest, so to Napier and his musical friends reveal and share aspects of many aspects of woodlands on their journey

It used to be that children in Scotland were taught the Gaelic alphabet through learning names of trees. That comes into play as Napier chooses names for many of his tunes and draws inspiration for their creation, from different sorts of trees and the roles they play in the forest. Other aspects of woodland landscape, creatures and stories appear from time ot time as well.

Of the opening track, The Pioneer, which is tied to beith, the letter b, Napier writes “A Slow air for the beautiful birch. B is the first letter of the Early Medieval alphabet (the Ogham) which is very apt as it was one of the pioneering species to spread across the barren post ice age landscape 10 millennia ago...”

He goes on to talk of birch across the seasons, and of the uses to which it was put by Highlanders of old. You do not, of course need to know any of this to appreciate the beauty of the tune. It does give context to inspiration, creation, and connection, however. On The Pioneer, Napier plays bamboo flute and piano. He is joined by Steve Byrnes on guitar and drums, Innes Watson on fiddle and strings, Jarlath Henderson on uilleann pipes, James Lindsay on double bass, Su-a Lee on cello, and there are vocals, so to speak, from natural sounds of woodpecker, chaffinches, and swifts.

The Woods is an album that invites and rewards listening all the way through as the musicians have presented it. Much like a wander in physical woods, though, you can follow markd paths or go along other ways.

That said, several tracks I’d point out to you:

The Capercaille Rant/An Taghan is a fast paced celebration and evocation of the at times dramatic and in Napier’s words, otherworldly bird of the woods. “The giant grouse fly through the Scots pinewood with all the grace of a cannonball,” Napier writes. In nature the capercaillie’s rival is the pine martin, an taghan, “one of Scotland’s most beautiful and beloved predators.”

On The Tree of Blessings, you will hear Napier’s solo piano as he plays in tribute to the juniper. The Tree of Life/The Tree of Lightning is a a majestic and complex tune for the dair, the darach, the mighty oak. Though these days oak are more abundant in the west of Scotland than in the Cairngorms, there is archeological evidence that they were important centuries ago. Individual oak tress may in fact live for centuries. Druids and others considered the oak to be a doorway between worlds, too. More than enough from which to be drawing ideas for a tune...

Forest Folk is a tune at once lively and gentle, with a melody you’ll quickly catch on to. It is inspired by the flowers of the forest, and dedicated to those who go for a wander in the woods. “Find a big tree, lie at the foot of the trunk, and gaze up at the clouds drifting high above the branches,” Napier writes in the sleeve notes booklet, which you may gather from these excerpts I’ve ben sharing it is quite extensive and well worth repeated reading. The booklet also includes outstanding art work by Somhairle MacDonald. Take some time with his drawings, and with what Hamish Napier has written as well. Both will add to your understanding and appreciation of the music.

Hawthorne River/The Witches’ Tree begins with the voice of the River Spey and moves into tunes which, though newly composed, readily evoke Highland music of older times, as well as the presence of the river, the hawthorn, and the blackthorn.

The Tree of the Underworld speaks of the elm tree and draws on a story from 19th century forestry, I’ll leave you to seek that out through the sleeve notes. Suffice it to say that in addition to fine work on the cello, Su-a Lee plays her musical saw to haunting effect.

The March of the Lumberjills, and the letter R, ros for wild roses, give the nod to the Women’s Timber Corps, who came to work in forests during World War II. One of these women was Hamish Napier’s grandmother, who subsequently married and settled in the Highlands. The Regeneration March holds a bit more stately aspect, as befits a tune drawn from the idea of heather and forest reclaiming land which had been changed by both felling and wild fire. Calum MacCrimmon (you will know him from his work with the band Breabach) lends Gaelic singing to The Highest Willows which, though in the style of a lament, is a hopeful piece drawing many threads of the stories told in The Woods together.

There is quite a bit more to unpack and enjoy in The Woods, both in the music and the sleeve notes booklet. Both are well worth repeated exploration.

Here you may find out more about The Woods as well other projects from Hamish Napier.

You may also wish to see
Hamish Napier: The River
Hamish Napier’s album The Railway.
Eddi Reader: Cavalier
The Ledger, an album from Hamish Napier’s brother Findlay Napier and sister-in law Gillian Frame, with their friend Mike Vass

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Sunday, April 26, 2020

Creative Practice: spaces between


Musicians -- all artists, indeed -- know that the silences, the rests, the pauses, the time for breath, are right, are needed, are as much a part of the creation, as are the notes, the words, and the voices.

As much as they are a natural part of creation, it often takes patience to see them and to hear them, though, to live through them with attention and acceptance. True in other areas of life as well.

Related ideas and music you may wish to explore

The album Alterum, from Scotland’s Julie Fowlis, in a story here at Music Road

From Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, a recording called The Quiet Room. Learn about why they chose the songs and the name of the album.

At Wandering Educators, Music and Horizons: Stories of Hope, which is part of the Music for Shifting Times series I have been writing there for some time. This story includes music from Breabach, Zoe Conway and John McIntyre, Eddi Reader, Sarah-Jane Summers, and Cathie Ryan. You will have met some of the work of these artists here along the music road too.

From harpist, composer, and singer Aine Minogue, the album In the Name of Stillness, in which, in the sleeve notes and through videos, she pairs her music with words from Irish poet and author John O’Donohue. The story is here at Music Road.

Quiet and reflection: I wrote this for publication a few days before Christmas one year at Perceptive Travel; the ideas work at other seasons as well Christmas, Reflections, Travel.

Photographs are by Kerry Dexter. They were made in County Louth, Ireland. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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Saturday, March 14, 2020

Ireland's music: Aoife Scott: Homebird

Aoife Scott opens her album Homebird with a song called Another Reason. It’s a song of hope and welcome and celebration, written by Scott and Andy Meaney for the birth of their niece Kitty.

It’s a song both gentle and lively at once. It begins a path into fine and varied storytelling through the tracks which follow.

Scott has a a warm and lovely voice, and well knows how to use the colours of it in the stories she chooses. Whatever sort of story she offers in a song, her love and respect for being a singer and sharing music come through clearly.

There is Ireland’s Hour of Need, in which the singer connects heroes from Ireland’s history to the present. It was written by Barry Kerr. On a somewhat related theme, Scott and Meaney wrote Fuel I Need. The idea there, Scott writes in the sleeve notes “is to know that your own strength and power will prevail,” as you turn anger in a better direction.

Irish Born, which Andy Meaney wrote, has a lively tune with a memorable sing along chorus. The words talk of experiences of the many Irish people who travel and live far from home.

There a gentle contemporary love song in Irish, Do Mhuirin O, and The Night Visiting Song from the tradition.

There a song from another tradition, too: a family tradition. Aoife is the daughter of Frances Black; her aunt is Mary Black; and many other Black family members are musicians too. It was her Granny Black who taught all of them how to sing, Scott says, but it was from her Nana Scott that she learned the sprightly song The Dublin Saunter. In Nana Scott’s honour and memory, she sings it here. Through her rendition you can see a lively atmosphere of a walk in Dublin on a spring day, and perhaps hear a bit of the love and joy Nana Scott shared in teaching the song to her granddaughter.

There are more tracks on the album; all of them are keepers and well worth your listening more than once. Scott brings things to a reflective close with a quiet take on a song by Briege Murphy called The Sea.

Ron Block (yes, that Ron Block, of Alison Krauss + Union Station) produced Homebird. He plays banjo on the album as well, along with Nashville compatriots Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Sierra Hull on mandolin. The contingent of Irish musicians in addition to Scott and Meaney includes Cathal O’Curran on bodhran, Floriane Blanke on harp, and Mary, Frances, Martin, and Michael Black along with next generation Black family members Roisin O, Danny O’Reilly, and Eoghan Scott on backing vocals.

You may also wish to see
Aoife Scott’s web site
Listening to Ireland:Patrick Season
About Aoife Scott’s album Carry the Day
Ireland’s music: Foxglove & Fuschia from Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh

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Thursday, February 13, 2020

Love Songs, Love Stories

Love is an eternal source of inspiration for artists. Here are five stories about romatic love you may not have heard, or may enjoy hearing again. The stories come with recognition that love holds its own challenges, of varied sorts.

The singer in Fear a Bhàta is waiting for her boatman to come home. That’s not an uncommon theme in songs from older times when, really, nobody knew if a loved one would return, for all sorts of reasons. In this song it is mot clear if th weather, the dangers of the work, or the possibility of change of heart are on the woman’s mind, but nonetheless, the longing is clear, even if Scottish Gaelic is not your language. Karen Matheson sings it here, with the band Capercaillie. You may find it recorded on their album The Blood is Strong. This video was recorded at a concert during the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow.

Tha mo Geal a Aird a Chuain/My Love is on the High Seas, is also a song of waiting for a man who works on the waters to return. This one has a bit of a more defined ending, though, which Julie Fowlis, who sings it here, talks about in the clip. The baby Julie is cradling in the story is a big girl now, but it is still a lovley way to see and ehar the song presented. You may find it on the album Mar a tha Mo Chride/ As My Heart Is.

There’s a swirl of hope, a challenging of invitation, a suggestion of strength, of passion, of the power of love in the face of heartbreak and danger; a lot going on in a few short minutes of the song What’s Closest to the Heart. Cathie Ryan sings it, and she also wrote the song. You may find it on her album The Farthest Wave.

There’s certainly a mystical aspect to the tale of King Orfeo and his lady, whose happy life together is disrupted in an unexpected way. The power of music, and the power of love, brings things right in the end, however, in this song which comes from Shetland in Scotland’s Northern isles. Emily Smith sings it here, and you will find it on her labum Echoes.

Scotland’s far north plays a part, at least through the visual aspect, in the song. Thugainn, It is by the band Mànran and it is part of the soundtrack for a forthcoming film on Scotland’s North Coast 500. The director of the film made this vidoe to go along with the song. Thugainn means Come with me in Scottish Gaelic.

At Valentine’s Day and beyond, may you.enjoy celebrating love through these songs.

If you'd like to support my creative work,
here is a way to do that, through PayPal. Note that you do not have to have a PayPal account to do this.

You may also wish to explore
Capercaillie:At the Heart of It All
Cathie Ryan: Through Wind and Rain
Music for a New Year at Wandering Educators
Seven Ways to Explore Scotland through Music at Perceptive Travel

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