Aidan O'Rourke: 'Edinburgh is at a turning point'

Fiddler Aidan O’Rourke explains how the changing face of the city inspired a new series of concerts.

Fiddler Aidan O'Rourke. Photograph by Mihaela Bodlovic

The EIF concert series curated by fiddler and composer Aidan O’Rourke brings together notable Scottish and Irish folk musicians but also reflects wider issues. Taking its title, “A Great Disordered Heart”, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s vivid evocation of Edinburgh’s Cowgate in his Picturesque Notes, the concerts – and an associated film in progress – reflect not only the similarities and differences between the traditional music of the two cultures but also a musician’s place within community, as the Cowgate, where O’Rourke lives, draws breath following the tourist-free hiatus of lockdown.

O’Rourke wonders whether that “great disordered heart” of the Cowgate is threatened by a different kind of disorder as the tourist hordes return. When lockdown started in March of last year, the fiddler recalls, it was the first time he really started to get to know his neighbours, although he’d lived there for ten years: “I had never spent time with them because, a, my life was crazy and, b, there was a fug of tourism over that part of the city. Our courtyard is half Airbnbs or short-term lets, and that sort of hubbub seemed to smother any possibility for a community to interact.”

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Talking with (and playing for) his neighbours, instead of dashing from festival to festival, gave O’Rourke an insight into that Old Town community – the one-time heart of Edinburgh’s “Little Ireland”, particularly through his conversations with the 81-year-old women he refers to as “the three Margarets”.

From a part-Irish background himself, O’Rourke was intrigued at the community’s former strength, founded on centuries of immigration. “The Irishness was key to it all but it was also inclusive; there were Poles, Italians, Jewish, but everyone knew each other. There were pubs that were once key to the community, but they’re now oyster bars.”

A Great Disordered Heart is a trio of concerts – Shared Melodies, featuring O’Rourke along with the young Skye piper Brighde Chaimbeul and Kerry concertina wizard Cormac Begley; Shared Songs, with former Hothouse Flowers singer Liam Ó Maonlaí, Scots Gaelic piper Allan Macdonald, Gaelic vocal trio Sian, Connemara sean nós singer Róisín Chambers and American folk star Sam Amidon; while the concluding Shared Futures, includes O’Rourke’s high-powered trio Lau.

“It’s all about Irish and Scottish musicians sharing ideas,” he explains, “really getting inside the material, celebrating links, nuances and differences. ”

The cessation of O’Rourke’s touring and his immersion in community, he reckons, may even have affected how he plays. He’s speaking to me from Prague, where he had just made his first live festival appearance since lockdown. “Over the past year and a half, I’d felt equally fulfilled playing in that social role within my community. Saturday was my first professional concert after lockdown and I felt that I performed differently. It was much more about interaction, about the intimacy between musicians and audience.”

In the meantime, he and director Mark Cousins are working on a film in association with A Great Disordered Heart, which will feature musicians involved but also highlight what O’Rourke describes as “multiple Edinburghs”. He sees the Old Town as having two distinct rhythms – one that of a rooted community, “the other a rhythm of Airbnb-ers, bus tours and cashmere scarf shoppers.”

Lockdown saw that balance shift. “Edinburgh, it seems to me, is at a turning point,” he says, speaking from a Prague which, until lockdown, had become notoriously blighted by tourism. “The centre of Prague has turned into this tourist Disneyworld and Edinburgh is moving towards that. So do we go back to an Old Town where there’s no sense of community or do we hang on to what we have now?”

A Great Disordered Heart is in Old College Quad, 13-15 August. https://www.eif.co.uk/a-great-disordered-heart