Jim Gilchrist: Voices raised in defence of the simple and unaccompanied sang

The musician Chris Wright
The musician Chris Wright
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‘OH SING to me the auld Scots sangs,” implores an anonymous songwriter from long ago.

But even amid the currently vigorous Scottish folk revival, the sang, it seems, is not the thing it once was – or at least it risks being drowned out by the massed pipes and fiddles of the burgeoning instrumental scene. Now, however, the singers are striking back, in the emergence of traditional singing clubs, with an emphasis on traditional, unaccompanied singing in Scots or Gaelic.

Bothan Inbhir Nis, the Inverness Bothy song and storytelling club, held a highly successful inaugural meeting at the somewhat untraditional sounding La Tortilla Asesina tapas restaurant last month. Its second gathering is at the same venue tonight, with local writer and performer Hamish MacDonald (see www.facebook.com/BothanInbhirnis). On Friday, 16 March, a new Edinburgh singers’ club, titled The World’s Room or Seòmar an t-Saoghail, opens in the Canon’s Gait cellar bar.

The World’s Room – a phrase chosen for its connotations of universality and its currency in such classic ballads as My Son David – is the brainchild of singer Chris Wright, who released an admirable album of largely traditional songs, The Speaking Heart, in partnership with Lucy Pringle a year ago. He has also assembled the club’s trilingual (Scots, Gaelic, English) website (www.seomarant-saoghail.com).

“In essence,” says Wright, “it’s not so much a reaction against the instrumental scene as to the fact that bands and instrumental accompaniment seem to have become the default position for traditional song.”

Part of the problem, Wright reckons, is that younger singers tend not to have much background in unaccompanied traditional singing: “I didn’t either when I was younger, and in some cases I had to ‘backward engineer’ what I was learning about songs because I was so used to hearing them with souped-up accompaniments.”

Wright, who is 32, perceives an increasing distancing between performer and audience. “I thought that we should be trying to get back to a more intimate, more traditional method of transmitting the songs for those interested in them, particularly young singers.”

Inverness-based Irish singer Brian Ó hEadhra, who is the Gaelic arts and culture officer for Creative Scotland, is involved in the Inverness Bothy and similarly interested in “finding environments where people are willing to sing and also listen to singers, in particular traditional or seann nòs (old-style) song in Gaelic and Scots, in a non-staged setting.”

Coincidentally, Ó hEadhra’s own Gaelic singing quartet, Cruinn, with Rachel Walker, Fiona MacKenzie and James Graham, plays at the Edinburgh Gaelic nightclub, Bothan Dhùn Èideann, also at the Canon’s Gait tomorrow.

Voices are also being raised on Sleat, Isle of Skye, where Gaelic singer Margaret Stewart, currently musician in residence at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, is keen to organise a singing circle that will continue as a community activity once her residency finishes.

Stewart feels that traditional singing is becoming marginalised in favour of more “celebritised” singers, to the extent that other grassroots singers may feel they are not good enough to perform, while other more genuinely traditional singers often merit only token inclusion in concerts.

Indeed, she feels that the very term “trad” these days “seems to denote music which is increasingly distancing itself from its traditional roots”.

Stewart, who has a distinguished back catalogue of recordings in her own right, and in duet with piper and singer Allan MacDonald, says: “There is still an audience for real ‘roots’ music. After performing during a recent festival, I heard many comments that there was too much instrumental music and not enough song.

“I’d like to take that performance aspect out of it and have a singing circle or club where everybody can feel comfortable, whether they are old or young, and whether they have only one song or a huge repertoire.”