Jim Gilchrist: Kirsty Law shifts in time and space

Kirsty Law. Pictured: Contributed
Kirsty Law. Pictured: Contributed
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CONSIDER the word “shift” and its multifarious meanings.

Most immediately, of course, it suggests movement, from place to place or in form, as in shape-shift, which is what primarily prompted singer Kirsty Law to use it as the title of her debut album, although the cover photographs show her wearing what one might also term a shift, in its sense as a shirt or chemise.

Shift, recorded at Heriot Toun Studio in Law’s native village of Heriot, in the Moorfoot Hills, opens with a song setting of north-east poet Marion Angus’s The Wild Lass which then shifts into Law’s incantatory delivery, in pithy Scots, of the child ballad The Two Magicians with its shape-shifting sequence.

“The word ‘shift’ has got so many connotations,” she explains. “I like the idea that it has energy and movement in it, and it also makes me think of things like time shift and geological shift, but I think what really sparked it was the shape-shifting. But I also just think that sonically, as a word, it’s nice.”

Considering that Law is just 24, Shift, on Toun Records, comes over as a remarkably seasoned-sounding piece of work, with her singing given dramatically taut but not overpowering accompaniments by the duo of Highland fiddler Rona Wilkie and Norwegian låtmandola player Marit Fält.

The associations of some of its songs – both her own and from the tradition – might suggest that she has delved deeply into her own Border roots. She gives a potently stark rendition, for instance, of The Border Widow’s Lament, over a spare, almost atonally out-of-tune piano, and has written or adapted two songs about Border shepherds, one of them using the tune of Time Wears Awa’, a staple of the grand old singer and Border shepherd Willie Scott.

Law takes pains, however, to dispense any presumptions that she is steeped in Border lore (even though she has been known to stand in the shell of Dryhope Tower in Yarrow and sing The Dowie Dens, as part of the Reiving and Bereaving project associated with a new edition of Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border).

“A lot of what I’ve learned over the years hasn’t come directly from my being in the Borders, although that has informed it,” she says. “I learned the songs mainly through things like the Edinburgh Youth Gaitherin and through seeking out people who could teach me.”

Initiatives such as the Youth Gaitherin, and more recently the Archive Project, which encouraged young musicians to trawl through Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies archives, she describes as invaluable, not to mention her degree from Newcastle University’s traditional music course.

In fact, it was as part of the Archive Project that I first heard her singing Barefit Lassies, a song based on old street cries, which she developed from a recorded fragment. Like much of the album, it demonstrates Law’s relish in deploying the guid Scots tongue – “I find Scots a really expressive language, with so much potential to paint a picture of places and people.”

Her ability to empathise with bygone folk and situations also shines in Soutra Aisle, a compassionate song inspired by the plight of “shamed” young women who apparently sought abortions in the 12th-century monastic hospital. “That was what the archaeologists found, although some of the song is based more on local hearsay. I wanted to bring some connection from now to the people who might have been there at the time. It’s a subject that’s still very relevant now.”

Elsewhere on the album is Riddles, an inventively tongue-twisting ditty based on bairns’ rhymes she sings with the Edinburgh singer Drew Wright, aka Wounded Knee. Collaboration, either with other musicians or with other disciplines, is something Law finds inspiring. “It enriches my work so much to be able to work with people from different disciplines, and it’s fun as well.”

To that effect, she has an ongoing project, Voyage, with the Lewis writer, storyteller and sailor Ian Stephen, visual artist Christine Morrison and sound artist Giles Perring, while this summer saw her singing in Away with the Birds, on the island of Canna, as part of the Commonwealth 2014 cultural programme. She’s now working with her mother, artist Pat Law, on a project which will exhibit on Lewis later next year.

In the meantime, with tours planned for early next year with Wilkie and Fält, as well as further work with Wounded Knee, things continue to shift.

• For further information, see www.kirstylaw.com