Folk, jazz etc: Weaving together a musical picture of Scotland over the years

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THE LATEST recording from folk label Greentrax is not so much a two-CD compilation as a big stitch-up, some 141 metres of it.

No, let’s clarify that: the East Lothian-based folk label’s latest release is The Music & Song of the Great Tapestry of Scotland, a long title inspired by a decidedly lengthy undertaking, one of the world’s largest tapestries, currently being embroidered by some 300 stitchers across Scotland.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland was the idea of author and polymath Alexander McCall Smith, who was inspired by the 104 metre-long Prestonpans tapestry, embroidered in 2010 to commemorate Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s much-vaunted victory of 1745. McCall Smith approached the artist behind the Prestonpans work, Andrew Crummy, and the project got underway, with McCall Smith and fellow author and Borders Book Festival director Alistair Moffat as co-directors.

As reported in this column in June, the Greentrax label, based at Cockenzie, just down the road from Prestonpans, which had already released a compilation CD associated with the battle tapestry, announced it would compile an album in association with the Great Tapestry of Scotland, its tracks representing 40 of the tapestry’s 150-plus square metre panels. The label’s MD, Ian Green, also offered a £1,000 prize to the writer of the best song to represent one of a handful of panels as yet unmatched with songs. The judging panel comprised Green, Crummy, Ian McCalman, Moffat and this writer.

Well, the album has now been released and the competition was won by Benny Gallagher, former half of the hit-making duo Gallagher and Lyle, with a catchy number called Tusitala, celebrating Robert Louis Stevenson, the eponymous “Teller of Tales” as he was named in Samoa. Gallagher was duly presented with his £1,000 cheque at the album’s recent launch – in the Prestoungrange Goth, Prestonpans’s arts and crafts pub and crucible of artistic endeavour.

Gallagher’s song consequently appears on the double album, which is mainly, but by no means exclusively, drawn from Greentrax’s compendious back catalogue. Meanwhile Crummy hopes that the music might inspire the 500 or so stitchers still involved in the final panels of the mammoth tapestry, which is due to be completed and initially hung in the Scottish Parliament building next August.

Covering more than four millennia of Scottish history, the compilation opens with Caithness fiddler Gordon Gunn’s eloquent air Orkney to evoke the standing stones of Brodgar and closes with the late Ishbel MacAskill’s limpid singing of An Ataireachd Ard – “The Eternal Surge of the Sea”. In between, an entertaining if sometimes bemusing clamjamphrie of songs and sounds ranges from the monks of Pluscarden singing plainchant to the roar of Flower of Scotland from Ronnie Browne and the 1990 Scottish Grand Slam Rugby Team.

I’m not sure if I wanted to reacquaint myself with Andy Cameron’s Ally’s Tartan Army ever again, but elsewhere you can find Robin Hall and Jimmie MacGregor’s Pack Your Tools and Go, marking the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ Work-in, and Sheena Wellington’s magisterial rendition of A Man’ a Man at the resumption of the Scottish Parliament.

Other nuggets range from the Proclaimers’ Letter from America to Robin Laing’s Forth Bridge Song. And speaking of Forth bridges, and a song that didn’t find its way into the collection, why hasn’t anyone suggested that the much debated proposed third crossing of the Forth at Queensferry be called the Sir Patrick Spens Bridge? After all, the ill-starred skeely skipper who never quite made it back from “Norowa’ ower the faem” lies, at least within the debatable annals of Scots balladry, somewhere between nearby Aberdour and Scandinavia ...

Half ower, half ower tae Aberdour And fifty fathoms deep Oh there lies the great Sir Patrick Spens With the Scots lairds at his feet.

Or perhaps it would simply give already fraught planners that sinking feeling.

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