Aidan O’Rourke’s lament for a lost world

Aidan O'Rourke in the doorway of an abandoned farmhouse

Aidan O'Rourke in the doorway of an abandoned farmhouse

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AIDAN O’Rourke’s music is a response to the land and history around him, with his new release reflecting the ruin-haunted landscape near the Aberdeenshire town of Huntly

Growing up in Argyllshire, Aidan O’Rourke had plenty of room to roam, and he became increasingly fascinated by the landscape he was exploring, wild, beautiful and waymarked by the tumbledown relics of former human habitation. “I was very fond of wandering and discovering abandoned shielings and crofts, it’s something that’s always been with me,” the fiddler and composer says.

Now a respected musician and composer, both as fiddler with the powerful contemporary folk trio Lau, and for numerous other projects, O’Rourke regards himself as lucky to be able to indulge that continuing fascination with the land and its history, not least through his latest commission, Imprint/ Abandon, which has seen him walking and absorbing the ruin-haunted landscape around Huntly at the behest of the Aberdeenshire town’s ever-creative Deveron Arts.

He launches the resulting suite, on an EP called Imprint (Reveal Records) today, on a bus tour and walk around some of the sites which inspired him, from Neolithic standing stones to the abandoned steadings and deserted schools which reflect relatively recent social history and also raise issues of land use and ownership .

Speaking from Manchester while touring with Lau, O’Rourke, 40, agrees that his imagination continues to be exercised by abandoned places. Two years ago, as part of the 2013 Cultural Olympiad, his Hotline project was inspired by, and partly recorded in, a subterranean former Cold War listening station in his native Argyll. A residency with Deveron Arts for the past year or so resulted in Imprint/ Abandon and the album. “I’m lucky in that I sometimes get commissions from quite rural organisations, like An Tobar in Tobermory and Deveron Arts. And I’m definitely drawn to all these hidden stories that let your imagination run wild – who was here, who put this lintel in, who was the last person to light a fire in here?”

He credits Deveron Arts as “the most unique arts organisation I’ve worked with. Their slogan is ‘The venue is the town’ and they use it as much as possible, between Huntly town square and little church halls. The catalyst for theproject is [the organisation’s founding director] Claudia Zeiske, who’s a keen walker.”

The organisation has a strong walking ethos, taken to its limits this summer when artist Anthony Schrag walked 2,500km from Huntly to Venice for the Biennale. O’Rourke’s peregrinations were rather more local: the initial idea was to look at some of the area’s many Neolithic sites, but the whole question of Man’s imprint on the landscape and why once-thriving communities now lie deserted was thrown into broader focus with inspiration from land ownership activist and author Andy Wightman, of whom O’Rourke is a fan. “On one of my visits, Andy had just been to Glenbuchat giving a talk on one of his books and he had really stirred the community,” he says. “It got me thinking about connecting the use of land from Neolithic times right through to modern times, especially in an area called the Cabrach, just south-west of Huntly. It’s a kind of barren, man-made wilderness that has been described as Europe’s largest memorial to the First World War. So many young men went off from there and didn’t come back. Most of them died in battle, but a lot also died of measles, because the community was so isolated that they had no immunity.

“The place is dotted with abandoned crofts and schools, but there is also, in a more muted way, a modern-day clearance, with certain landlords simply not making it easy for tenant farmers to renew their leases. So we decided it would be interesting to look at how over thousands of years we’ve left our mark on the land around Huntly and how we’ve moved on, for whatever reasons.”

So he spent time walking there and talking to local historians and others who were steeped in the area’s past. The lingering soundings of the track which opens the EP, The Burn of the Shelter, are threaded through with the reminiscing voices of one of the last families still farming at the Cabrach, after having done so for generations. The oldest member, says O’Rourke, “talked about how when he was younger there were still so many families there and he went to the school which is now lying abandoned. It’s quite potent modern history and, for me, a great subject to meditate on musically. I find the ideas flow quite smoothly.

“I could have written a suite on the Cabrach alone,” he says, moving on to describe the intriguing “tuning fork” symbol which adorns one of the many Pictish stones found around Rhynie – one theory is that such forks may have been struck with a hammer to crack open stones through their vibrations. “It’s just one theory, but I love the idea.” Hence, another track is titled The Ardlair Tuning Fork.

He worked closely with archaeologist Gordon Noble, who describes Imprint as being “inseparable from the flows of landscape change and the fusion of history and place”. The resulting suite is uncompromisingly contemporary – driving, moody and atmospheric, the urgency of its drums and electronic pulses evoking inexorable time flow, tempered by an inevitably elegiac sense of loss.

O’Rourke has recorded it with Anna Meredith (a former composer-in-residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra) on laptop electronics, Tom Rogerson of London band Three Trapped Tigers on keyboards and drummer John Blease, who has worked with Goldie and Antony & the Johnsons.

All three travelled from London to rehearse and record the EP in Huntly – clearly something of a culture shock, suggests O’Rourke. “They loved it. Getting out to an area like this, the days seem longer, the air clearer and I think it really does affect the music. We would have come up with completely different music if we’d gone into a studio in Glasgow or Edinburgh or London.”

• Imprint will be on sale at today’s event, and can also be bought at www.aidanorourke.net; www.deveron-arts.com

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