Monday, May 13, 2019

Scotland's Music: Hamish Napier: The Railway


Perhaps you ride one every day on your way to work or school. Maybe you take a lighthearted ride at holiday time. Perhaps you know trains mainly from children’s toys or pictures in books.

Trains hold a combination of grit and romance. They pass through landscapes, and are part of them. Trains help create community, and communities. Trains and train tracks are of the present, and evoke stories of other times.

Whatever way you’ve come to know trains, you will find much to enjoy in Hamish Napier’s recording The Railway.

He draws from the stories of one specific railway line in one specific place and time, the Great North of Scotland Railway in the Speyside region of Scotland’s Highlands. To research ideas that would inspire his music, he read accounts of the railway’s history. He interviewed three men who had worked the railway, all now in their nineties and with many stories to tell. He walked the landscapes the trains had traversed, and drew on his own memories of growing up in the Speyside area.

That grounding in specifics allows the tunes and songs to reach beyond the Great North Railway’s story and draw in the imagination of anyone who has ever taken a train journey, or dreamed of taking one.

Hamish Napier is a composer, performer, and music tutor who grew up in the northeast Highlands of Scotland. His main instruments are the piano and the flute. He has supported musicians including Gary Innes, Eddi Reader, Karen Matheson, and Donald Shaw, appearing often in concert and on more than forty recordings. His own recording The River explores and celebrates landscapes, experiences, and people along the River Spey.

When he was performing music from that recording in a series of concerts across Scotland, the new owners of Grantown East: Highland Heritage and Cultural Centre came to one of the shows and knew that Napier was just the person to compose the soundtrack to go along with their project, the restoration of the Grantown East Railway Station into a place marking this history of this Highland railway line, which had ceased operation in the 1960s.

The music on The Railway indeed takes listeners on a journey -- several journeys, rather. The opener, The Speyside Line, draws one in to a musical journey with cadences which suggest Highland landscape. The Firebox, as lively and flickering as its title may suggest, draws on the history of the steam powered trains and the stories told to Hamish by driver Jimmy Gray, driver Jocky Hay, and signalman James Telfer. So does a tale of races between trains back in the day called Jocky the Mole, which is a song with lyrics Hamish’s brother, Findlay Napier.

Fire and water, smoke and steam
A train is like a living thing
Driver, engine, fireman
It takes us three to make her sing

Findlay sings in the chorus as the story unfolds.

The lighthearted tune Cheery Groove pays tribute to Hamish and Findlay’s parents and their home at Number 2 Cherry Grove, where it’s said many great house ceilidhs were to be had.

Mixing respect for history with love for the land and its people and regret for some changes seen, there’s another song with lyrics from Findlay called The World Came In by Rail...

We walk along the railway line
Among birch and wild rose
And all that’s left are outposts
Of an empire no one knows

A different look at a related idea is found in the tune The Old Ways, a slow march written to honour those who respect and keep up the traditional crafts, stories, language -- and music -- of, Napier writes in the sleeve notes “what is unique and special about our culture.”

Those joining Hamish Napier on the recording include Fraser Stone on percussion, Gillian Frame on backing vocals, James Lindsay on double bass, and Patsy Reid on fiddle. There are also cameo appearances by the sounds of a fireplace, Broomhill sheep, and whistle, brakes, wheels, and other railway sounds. Andrea Gobbi co-produced the album with Napier and recorded and mixed it. You will also enjoy the album artwork and design, which are by Somhairle MacDonald.

There are many more gems among the music -- every track is a keeper, and the journeys of history, music, landscape, and reflection are well worth the taking as Hamish Napier has organized them. He draws things to a close with The Railwayman, and three part suite inspired by the story of driver Jimmy Gray’s career on the railway.

Take the journey on The Railway. Take all of the journeys offered through this music. You’ll come away with much to reflect on and much to enjoy.

Also of note: at this writing word comes that Hamish Napier is at work on his third album, to be called The Woods.

You may also wish to see
Hamish Napier: The River
Eddi Reader: Cavalier
Scotland’s music: Sarah-Jane Summers: Solo

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posted by Kerry Dexter at


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