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  • Writer's pictureRob Gibson

Musical musings around St Andrew's Day 2023

Our native language is the song of our soul

Frieda Morrison observed that ‘our native language is the song of our soul’ on gaining her Janet Paisley Award for Services to Scots leid/language, one of the highlights at the 21st MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards on 2nd December. Frieda tapped into a timely and thoughtful seam in deeply disturbing days for the wider world. A world in which Ukraine, Gaza and Yemen are bombarded by aggressors and the growing threat of elections for far right demagogues are so very real. In Scotland the rising cry for greater security and funding for our thriving arts and inclusive culture is critical for a cash-strapped Scottish budget at the mercy of blinkered London bosses who place markets above communal good.

Around St Andrew’s Day this year many songs were sung but many more hands were wrung. We had news of the passing of Shane McGowan, chief Pogue of the London Irish. His Christmas faux-carol, Fairytale of New York, shot up the charts again and further added to Spotify profits.

On 30th November itself we took the time to remember the centenary of the death of John MacLean, socialist teacher of Red Clyde. We witnessed  the unveiling of a stained glass window at Pollokshaws Public Library. Later that evening loud applause greeted the final performances of new songs for John MacLean in a contest organised by the resourceful Fraser Bruce. Three sets of three songs from previous heats entertained and called us to join the choruses in MacLean’s former stamping ground, Pollokshaws Public Hall.

On December 2nd #NaTrads, the 21st MG Alba Trad Music Awards was attended by six hundred supporters and performers of Scotland’s very own musical diversity in all its rude health. Thousands more watched the Awards on the tely at home. Director Simon Thoumire showcased as many aspects of Scottish music as possible to fill the stage. There was wide agreement that three heartfelt songs by duo of Karine Polwart and David Milligan were the highlight of the night.

A week later, a remarkable ten thousand folkies filled the Hoolie in the OVO Hydro, Glasgow’s largest music venue. Curated by Manran as last year, it celebrated fifty years since the birth of Gaelic rock band Runrig who had formally retiral five years ago with huge outdoor concerts in the shadow of Stirling Castle. This December’s massive Hoolie in the Hydro quickly led to announcement of the date for its third outing to be 7th December 2024.

What should we make of current musical weave in the tartan of our vibrant traditional scene? And how does this engage with wider world cultural trends?

A week into the Israeli blitzkrieg on Gaza, the wife of Scotland’s First Minister, Nadia El-Nakla pled for the safety of innocents in Gaza City where her mother and father were then trapped.

Addressing the SNP Conference in Aberdeen she called out the Israeli Defence Minister who described Palestinians as ‘human animals’. ‘We are a proud people’,  Nadia explained, ‘We love to sing and dance, and eat, and sit on the beach. We love to learn. We are warm. We have dreams and we have goals…So let us survive, let us have peace. Give the children of Gaza a chance of life.’

The hopes of a host folk musicians in many lands sing of hope peace and plenty. But at the United Nations the hang over from its foundation by the big five victorious empires which hogtie united action today.

As mentioned above on 30th November Shane McGowan passed away. He was aptly described by The New York Times as "a titanically destructive personality and a master songsmith whose lyrics painted vivid portraits of the underbelly of Irish immigrant life".

His popular appeal rooted in the punk era gathered a huge fan base. Record-breaking sales in the UK, Ireland and North America for his unique brand of Celtic punk endures. His army of fans revel in the music of this ravaged character with buckets full of literary expression. He usually avoided direct politics in his songs despite his Irish Republican family background. Nevertheless his folk ballads of urban existence are timeless in our deeply class-divided cities.

Returning to the Trads to Dundee, we were treated to old Doric songs and tunes. Aberdeen-based Scottish Cultures &Traditions mounted a forty-strong youth group to play bothy tunes and sing Guise o’ Tough, a classic bothy ballad of hard lives in Aberdeenshire a century ago.

Anent a similar song, Mains of Culsh, that features a hard-driving farmer and poor farm workers, Dave Francis of TRACS remarked that such ’little pieces of artistic expression connect us now with people who shaped the land we live in, cultivated it, providing the means of life to our forebears’.  No narrow thing this folk music then?

Disruptive events forged the modernisation of farming leading to the Highland and Lowland Clearances throwing rural life into convulsions for a century. The evicted folk walked to towns and the prospects of work there in new industries. Scotland became one of the most urbanised societies and the greatest exporter of her people than all but Ireland and Norway.

The old rural links were riven but survived in some small communities of landless people on the edge of enlarged capitalist farms. In towns entertainments and pastimes such as music halls, mass football crowds and cinema-going masked the common roots of people while the waves of refugees from Ireland, Italy, Lithuania and later Pakistan and India added hugely to an often uneasy cultural mix. In time they would make a diverse nation as Scotland now is.

But the casualties of wars and the growth of radical political alternatives drew increasing support from the overcrowded and badly-housed majority. Socialist and communist ideas would compete for votes and against old ideas like Home Rule. Around and after the war to end all wars the Scottish and British middle classes and social elites had done everything possible to stamp out what they deemed sedition.

The protest music of Red Clydeside birthed a new strain of popular workers’ songs at their rallies, strikes and marches. In this working class maelstrom in particular one man, John MacLean, won the people’s heart.

A hundred years ago exactly, John MacLean met his untimely death at 44 years of age, weakened by serial imprisonment and persecution. A few weeks before he passed his Scottish Workers’ Republican Party launched a local government manifesto that stated, ‘The hope of humanity and the path to progress lies in the revolt of the wage-earners against the propertied class, the seizure of political power from the propertied class, and the seizure of the land and means of production from the propertied class…’

It wasn’t to be in the 1920s as Clydeside Labour MPs elected were tamed by the grindstone of Westminster’s majoritarian anti-democracy. But strands of working class culture survived to flourish after a 2nd World War and modern media opened ears to older musical roots reclothed in modern garb.

This led to growing cultural confidence that would underpin the campaigns for a Scottish Parliament. In 1999 at its official opening the outstanding moment was the singing by Dundee’s own Sheena Wellington. Her clear distinctive voice was joined by many that day in the final verse of ‘A Man’s A Man For A That’ Robert Burns’ anthem for the common man.

The songs of 1796 and 1999 continue to engage and inspire us in 2023 when we consider the great sources of each nation’s cultural life. Scotland’s and Ireland’s histories are so intertwined that our songs and tunes pass back and forth across the North Channel as our distant ancestors once did in their currachs. Especially our Gaelic folk memory carries so many shared stories and the Donegal Glaswegians remind us of our mutual debts today.

At this year’s end, we witness stalemate in the six counties due to the ultra-protestants refusal to join Sine Fein in power sharing, but as junior partners at Stormont. Coincidentally and consequentially Sine Fein could be the largest party in the 26 counties election in 2024. Thanks to Ireland’s EU link, Scotland is only 20 miles from the island that could break finally the stalemate of London rule. Ireland’s eight hundred years of occupation and Scotland’s three hundred and seventeen year-old Treaty of Union underlie so much of intergenerational aspirations to be free from the failed British Empire and its painfully slow demise.

The Celtic connections of music, songs and stories continue to underpin our next chapters of national rebirth reinforcing shared and persistent beliefs in our distinct identities. Here in Scotland we need to compose new songs from an independent prospect. 

We can learn a lot from musicians of the Northern Irish minority who sang for peace and helped achieve it in the Good Friday Agreement. The break out from the violent uprising and reprisals of 1916 via the century-old break from London founded in the Free State would open the door through accession to European Union in 1973, the same time as the more reluctant UK. We sing songs of old certainties while those of new struggles and possibilities excite today’s folk singers.

After ten years loan of his autobiography, I reread The Songman by Tommy Sands. Based on the small farm communities along the Ryan Road in South Down, Tommy is the leading political activist for peace and reconciliation in the 6 Counties who gave us hope even in the darkest and most confused of times in the Troubles.

The heart-wrenching tale There Were Roses of the revenge killings that scarred his religiously mixed community and Your Daughters and Your Sons which is set in the wider world of struggle, Highlight a songwriter of subtle but direct positivity.  Not long after his father passed away Tommy coined a way to remember better times. He put it this way,

‘I have heard the springtime singing

And I’ve seen the young girls laughing

And I heard an old man sing this song,

There’s light in the eye, never say die,

We will rise again.’

In 2022 Alan Riach’s monumental Scottish Literature – an introduction homes in on geographies and languages being key to identity in local and national cultures. When he was teaching in New Zealand he was able to lecture on post-colonial literature in 1986. His university had a visit from Irish President Mary Robinson. Her words ‘haunted me ever since’ he recalled. They were, ‘The arts are genius of your country, and education is the key with which you unlock the door.’

Amidst the Pisa study’s critics of school performance which dipped in many nations as a result of the Covid disruption, other research shows Scots youngsters still score high marks for empathy with others. John MacLean would have welcomed this but insisted that the Curriculum for Excellence  should be laser-focused on imparting knowledge that can ensure students have the tools to make a much better world.

Maybe, just maybe, today’s sense of Scottishness is positive and fuelled both by education and growing confidence in our multilingual small nation. The credos of Frieda Morrison, Mary Robinson and John MacLean mesh.

Around St Andrew’s Day 2023, young girls as well as old men are singing out strongly.

RG Dec 23

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