“It always evokes huge emotion” - Celtic Connections performers pick their favourite Burns songs

Karen Matheson
Karen Matheson
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The legacy of Robert Burns will be celebrated at Celtic Connections’ Auld Lang Syne concert on 25 January, when Eddi Reader, Karen Matheson, Jarlath Henderson and Shona Donaldson perform some of the bard’s greatest works, accompanied by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. But the Ayrshire poet’s influence extends well beyond Burns Night, and his songs are loved by musicians performing across this year’s festival. Here Celtic Connections artists pick their favourites…

Singer Karen Matheson, who performs at Auld Lang Syne on 25 January – Bonnie Jean: “This song, written in 1793, was inspired by Jean McMurdo – daughter of John McMurdo of Drumlanrig – and not, as often assumed, by Jean Armour, his long-suffering wife. The lyrical use of nature to create a scene of beauty and innocence coupled with the hypnotic melody written by Ross Kennedy is a winner. I love performing it.”

Eddi Reader, who performs at Auld Lang Syne on 25 January – Ae Fond Kiss: “Whether expressing deep longing or taking the piss, the genius of Robert Burns has always helped me to access my own creativity and unravel my own knots. All great poets help us do this, and I found this to be true with Ae Fond Kiss, a song I heard throughout my music-seeking life. However, it was only when I was personally broken-hearted that the song come into my life to heal. When it healed me, I think I became qualified to record it.”

Isobel Campbell, who appears with Hannah Fisher, Sorren Maclean and Nina Violet at the Mackintosh Church on 30 January – Green Grow The Rashes: “I first heard this on the BMX Bandits’ 1991 album, Star Wars. It gave me goosebumps: it was exciting hearing someone I could identify with singing a traditional song like that. Auld Lang Syne, too, has always sent a shiver down my spine and a tear to my eye. As a little child, I instinctively felt this was a mystical song. It feels nurturing to honour days gone by and old friends and ancestors – as though they’re in the room with us.”

Phil Cunningham, accordionist and composer. Phil Cunningham: The Big Six-O Birthday Bash, is at the City Halls on 26 January – The Soldier’s Return: “I remember with great fondness, finding this song with my late brother Johnny around 1977. We stumbled on it whilst searching for material for our first duo recording, Against The Storm. We were both drawn to the simple message in the lyric and the perfect pairing with the melody. Sung slowly, rather than stridently, I find it very moving.”

Gaelic singer Kim Carnie, who performs as part of Mànran at The Barrowland Ballroom on 24 January – The Silver Tassie: “This song is said to have been inspired by Burns seeing a sailor kissing his sweetheart goodbye on Leith Pier before leaving for war. Both the words and tune are powerful and beautiful, shedding light on the hardships that war brings and the painful – and potentially final – farewells said between loved ones.”

Singer and broadcaster Jamie MacDougall, whose show Lauder is at the Tron Theatre on 22 January – Bonnie Wee Thing: “This was the first Burns song I ever heard. One of my grandpa’s favourites, it’s the one he chose while on duty trying to get me to sleep as a baby. I’d later continue the family tradition, singing Bonnie Wee Thing to my own children. There are two tunes, both beautiful, and I’ve recently had the opportunity to sing and record classical composer Joseph Haydn’s version. Utterly enchanting, it captures the delicate description of this bonnie wee thing.”

Uilleann piper Louise Mulcahy, who performs at A Celebration Of Women In Piping on 19 January – Auld Lang Syne: “I’ve been performing this since childhood with my father, Mick and sister, Michelle on New Year’s Eve at family gatherings, concerts and performances both in Ireland and abroad. It’s a very nostalgic song and happens to be my mother’s favourite. It always evokes huge emotion and has a special place in our family.”

Celtic Connections Creative Producer Donald Shaw. His band, Capercaillie, play at Coastal Connections on 18 January - Now Westlin Winds: “Many people will be familiar with Dick Gaughan’s superlative version of this beautiful song. In Burns, nature and landscape are often used as a metaphor for love and loss, and that’s poignantly true in this piece, which has all the qualities inherent in his poetry.”
Roddy Hart, who directs Born To Run: two Roaming Roots Revue 70th Birthday Tributes to Bruce Springsteen on  26 and 27 January  Green Grow The Rashes: “I have a soft spot for Michael Marra’s stunning version. Deep Dundonian purr and all, it breaks my heart every time I hear it. ‘The sweetest hours that e’er I spent were spent amang the lasses, o ...’ Just gorgeous.”

Jazz saxophonist Tommy Smith, who performs with Brian Kellock and Kathleen MacInnes at The Mackintosh Church on 31 January – My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose: “I first heard this sung by my uncle and immediately fell in love with its beauty, and its deceptively simple and intriguing melody. Any time I have an opportunity to perform it, I do, whether in my solo concerts or with other musicians.”


Singer songwriter Boo Hewerdine, who plays The Tron Theatre with Gustaf Ljunggren on 24 January – Ae Fond Kiss: “This is the most aching song I know and Eddi [Reader]’s performance of it is otherworldly. I love so much of Burns’s work but this one has a special place in my heart.”

Jazz musician Fergus McCreadie, who plays the City Halls Recital Room with Matt Carmichael on 2 February – My Heart’s In The Highlands: “I was born just outside Strathpeffer, and I’ve always felt a connection to that part of the country and can relate to all the things Burns is saying farewell to – the mountains, straths, forests and the torrents of rainwater cascading down the ravines. These are the sorts of things I try and capture in my own music, which has its roots in jazz but is very much influenced by the Scottish landscape and musical traditions.”

Singer and flautist Ríoghnach Connolly, one half of The Breath, which performs at The Tron Theatre on 30 January – Scots Wha Hae: “The Burns writings I love most are hugely political, covering a wide range of socialist themes and issues including revolutionary change, radicalism, republicanism, religion, poverty and class inequalities, migration, self-determination, Scottish cultural identity and the environment. He’s also a champion of the oppressed and an enemy of the ruling classes, producing savage satirical poetry castigating the Highland landlords and their treatment of tenant farmers. Burns’s support for Irish freedom was an inspiration to the Ulster Weaver poets who supported the United Irish Rebellion and one of the songs I sing, Scots Wha Hae, was printed after his death in 1796 in The Northern Star – the paper of the United Irishman Society. For this reason, my father Tarlac – a learned poet and Uilleann piper – demanded I learn it. He recently passed away, and I will sing it in his memory every chance I get.”

Celtic Connections runs from 16 January until 2 February, wwwwww.celticconnections.com