Heid:Land: IT’S a timeless enough sight and sound at this time of year – some two dozen choir members, all but three of them women, giving a Yuletide concert in a small chapel to appreciative locals as, outside, a dark chill settles itself about a hilltop village.
This isn’t quite your ordinary village choir, however. Quite apart from an interestingly eclectic repertoire, in which traditional standards such as Deck the Halls rub shoulders with numbers by Tom Waits and Coldplay, it is directed by two singers with established reputations on the Scottish jazz scene and beyond, while one of its three outnumbered male voices is, in fact, a full-time jazz bassist. Other professional musicians are sprinkled throughout the good-natured audience.
This is the Pathhead Choir, just one manifestation of the phenomenon that is the Pathhead Music Collective, which earlier this year saw the Midlothian village win a Creative Place Award, recognising the imaginative musical input enriching the community. An otherwise unassuming cluster of stone houses straddling the A68, Pathhead – Pathheid or simply “the Heid”, as it’s known – has become home to some 15 or more well- established musicians.
Apart from choir leaders Gina Rae – a member of the formidable Rae jazz clan, and, from another notable Scottish jazz family –and singer-songwriter Sophie Bancroft – whose partner, bassist Tom Lyne, sings (bass-less) in the choir – the Pathhead Music Collective includes such notable names as Rae’s husband, acclaimed jazz drummer and educator Tom Bancroft, Martin Green of the powerful instrumental trio Lau, award-winning singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, harpist Corrina Hewat and her husband, jazz pianist Dave Milligan, and fiddlers Amy Geddes and Jenny Gardner.
Many of them, including choir members, will appear on New Year’s Day in an afternoon performance, Heid:Land, as part of nine individual Scot:Lands cultural showcases during Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations. The precise location of the Heid:Lands venue remains secret – the arrangement is that audiences assemble at the National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street and are directed to an Old Town location, depending on which land they want to experience.
Was it design or happy chance that caused these musicians to converge on Pathhead? A mixture of both seems the answer. Rae, currently cutting a new album with the doowop vocal group, the Bevvy Sisters, claims first arrival in the village with husband Tom some 12 years ago. “It was chance, rather than by choice – we desperately needed somewhere to stay. Then Sophie and Tom moved to the village and one day I saw Inge Thomson and Martin Green, whom I knew as folk musicians, walking past my window. She’s from Shetland and he’s from Cambridge and I’m like … ‘What are they doing walking past my window?’ So I ran outside and asked them and they were looking for a house. They’ve now had two children since they came here.”
Her fellow choir director, Sophie Bancroft, reckons it was a case of “reaching a critical mass between all of us and deciding we should try and make it a bit more formal, because it had become such an unusual situation. We did a concert series and started putting on the occasional family ceilidh and then got a bank account and that’s when we decided on the name.”
The Collective’s website (www.pathheadmusiccollective.org.uk) gives some insight into the inordinate number of musical initiatives in the village. Karine Polwart hosts her Wee Song House sessions, bagpipe maker and musician Nigel Richard has been a catalyst in organising pub sessions, Tom Bancroft runs African drumming workshops (to which end he was in Ghana at the time of my visit) while Amy Geddes and Jenny Gardner are mentoring numerous young fiddlers.
The Creative Places Award from Creative Scotland, says Bancroft, “enabled us to get ourselves more organised and has given us more profile as a collective.” The funding that came with the award also enabled them to engage some administrative assistance, including advice from a facilitator, Alan Caldwell, which was vital, according to harpist Corrina Hewat: “With 15 artistic folk in the same room, it gets impossible to reach a decision, so he was great in giving us direction.”
Hewat, voted Tutor of the Year in the Scots Trad Awards earlier this month, runs a Harmony Song community singing group and plans singing workshops at nearby Newbattle Abbey College in the new year, that is when not teaching at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, performing with her band or her jazz pianist husband, Dave Milligan, with whom she directs the occasional but spectacular Unusual Suspects folk-jazz big band.
When she and Milligan came to Pathhead five years ago, she was about to give birth to their daughter. “Two of my close friends, Karine Polwart and Inge Thomson, were already there with young children and I was looking for support and friendship.” As it was, the two other members of her husband’s Dave Milligan Trio, drummer Bancroft and bassist Lyne, were already living there.
The impact of the Collective has been good for the village reckons Bancroft, who is due to play with her husband at New York’s prestigious Rochester Jazz festival next summer: “It’s really quite a vibrant wee place and I think the Collective has had quite a part to play in that.”
Pianist Milligan identifies a desire within the Collective to give something back to the community: “We’re all busy following our own careers, but there is an element of wanting to pass things on that seems very important. I think everybody feels strongly about leaving some kind of legacy.”