[28 October 2008]
Julie Fowlis comes from North Uist, part of the Outer Hebrides, the westernmost group of islands off the west coast of mainland Scotland, a place of cairns, crannogs, peat bogs, gannets, and a community whose history of occupation goes back to the Mesolithic period. The music on Cuilidh is native to that area. It’s folk music with a lively, lilting sound, often jigging or reeling, often telling a story in the lyrics, which are sung in the local language, Gàidhlig, or Scottish Gaelic. When I told a friend that I’d been listening to a Scottish folk album, she said, “Really? I like bagpipes too”, so it seems worth pointing out that this is not a recording of the big Highland pipe bands, or of anything that sounds like a big Highland pipe band. It is scaled to fit rooms, not battlefields, and the stories are the kind that you would share around in a circle of friends. “Listen, let me tell you what I did yesterday … There was a scandal over in Skye, did you hear? Well this is how it went …” Or: “Oh, I love you. My brown-haired lad.” News, reflection, and gossip, in other words.
The liner notes include short explanations and attributions, like this one for “Turas San Lochmor”: “I learned this song from Lachie Morrison (Lachlann Phadraig) last summer in his house in Grimsay, North Uist. This was a song that his father, Peter Morrison, composed after a particularly memorable journey on a well-known boat …”
Jo MacDonald gives us translations of the lyrics so candid that they reach a level of poetry. The sea under Peter Morrison’s boat was rough, we learn. A strong southeasterly wind was blowing. The passengers grew seasick. Morrison threw up. “Sadly I had to part from the dram I drank in Cearsabhgh.” In other songs Fowlis takes on the role of a woman choosing one man over another, or a soldier home from World War I. The singer points out that people from her part of the world have kept an oral record of their lineage going back centuries. “Some of these songs are ten years old and some are five hundred.” We’re being admitted into a community history lesson. “Aoidh, Na Dèan Cadal Idir” dates back to a time of guerrilla warfare without guns. “Ensure your sharp sword is on your thigh,” it advises its hero. “And take to the hills immediately.”
Two of the tracks are arrangements of mouth music, puirt à beul, a bubbling, pattering style that moves like a tapdancer singing a tongue twister. It’s the style that Talitha MacKenzie and Martin Swan drew on in 1991 when they released their album of the same name. Mouth Music is possibly the most widely known mouth music release to date. Fowlis’ rendering is less abrasive than MacKenzie’s, more pliant, less nasal, more like an invitation to dance. This unforced sound is typical of Cuilidh as a whole. Fowlis has a sure voice, and her light, decisive handling of the songs is pleasant to hear. If she feels any pressure representing her small community on a world stage, then it doesn’t show. The playing of the other musicians is as assured as the singing. The album has a good, clean ring wherever you tap it, the chime of civilisation and intelligence.