Interview: Angus MacKenzie on the evolution and continuing adventures of Gaelic supergroup Dàimh

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Observe closely the uncompromising-looking character who glares from the sleeve of The Rough Bounds, the latest album from the powerful Highland band Dàimh. Your first impression may be of a Gaelicised version of that sou’westered fisherman who adorns sardine tins, with a dash of Popeye thrown in, but note carefully the tattoos on his well-toned arms.

The Rough Bounds – Na Garbh Chrìochan – is the traditional name for that area of west Lochaber roughly between the lochs of Hourn and Shiel. A Gaelic stronghold, it was in places like Glenuig in Moidart that the earliest incarnation of Dàimh played for concerts and dances. The fisherman’s tattoos illustrate aspects of both territory and band, points out Dàimh’s piper, Angus MacKenzie; among other things, you might pick out the Glenfinnan Viaduct, a Jacobite white cockade and what appears to be a sailing ship beleagured by a kraken-sized bagpipe.

It’s a rugged area which continues to inspire the band, says MacKenzie, as they prepare to launch the album for an extensive tour, ranging from Berwick to the Hebrides and including a gig on 26 May at the Stables at Skye’s Armadale Castle – 20 years to the day after they played their first gig at nearby Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.

Dàimh means “kinship”, summing up the group’s origins as a sort of microcosm of Gaelic diaspora. “Colm O’Rua came up with the idea,” explains MacKenzie, who hails from Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Gaeltacht and who, like the Irish O’Rua, was studying at Sabhal Mòr. They were joined by fiddler Gabe McVarish, a Californian whose people originally hailed from Morar.

While O’Rua is no longer with the band, for the new recording they’ve been joined by another far-flung Gael – US-based Battlefield Band fiddler and Lewisman Alasdair White, alongside another co-founder, Highland guitarist Ross Martin, Murdo Cameron on mandola and accordion, and Gaelic singer Ellen MacDonald. Album guests include bassist Duncan Lyall and backing vocals from Kathleen MacInnes and the band’s former singer, Calum Alex MacMillan.

The band’s last offering, The Hebridean Sessions, was recorded live, during some of the band’s many Hebridean excursions (they’re gradually ticking off an island bucket list, chalking up Muck and Canna during the forthcoming tour). The Rough Bounds – recorded, appropriately enough, at Watercolour Studio at Ardgour, on the area’s south-eastern periphery – is a mixture of their own compositions and traditional material, with a couple of pipe reels by the late, great Donald MacLeod bridging the gap.

“The two previous albums had strong themes,” says MacKenzie. “Tuneship was all our own material and the Heb Sessions was the opposite, very traditional. This time we just wanted to play, with no specific theme.

“Having two of the best fiddle players in the same place at the same time was a luxury,” he adds, although it will be McVarish and not White on fiddle during the forthcoming tour, while White occupied the fiddler’s chair during their recent US tour.

The new album showcases the band’s heady blend of exuberance with tight playing, the two fiddles, for instance, crisply locked into Mackenzie’s piping in the strathspey and reels of the Mary’s Fancy set, or the pipes skipping alongside singer MacDonald’s nimble puirt à beul, while Cameron’s accordion brings a mellower vibe to the intriguingly titled Fossilised Fisherman.

One reason for the band’s longevity, MacKenzie suspects, could be that outside touring and recording they all have their own projects: McVarish runs a microbrewery on Eigg with another Dàimh alumnus, Damien Halliwell, Martin has just recorded an album with his wife, Eilidh Shaw, while MacDonald juggles singing with acting, including the BBC Gaelic drama Bannan. Mackenzie, who turned 40 at Christmas, has been busy building a house outside Portree, but is also considering a solo musical project: “I’ve never been in a rush to do my own thing, but I do want to produce something.”

Dàimh’s Rough Bounds tour starts at the Maltings, Berwick-upon-Tweed, on 11 May then heads north. For details, see www.daimh.net