Jim Gilchrist: Mike Vass’s ode to a sea odyssey

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There’s a moment, early on in Off in a Boat, Neil Gunn’s chronicle of the transformative voyage he and his wife, Daisy, made around Scotland’s north-west seaboard in 1937, when they are sailing past the towering basalt cliffs of Skye, having just passed a school of basking sharks, their dorsal fins cleaving the water “like the mainsails of miniature yachts”.

Gunn asks Daisy – referred to affectionately throughout the book as “the Crew” – for an opinion on their course: “She smiled and turned away, and all in a moment I saw she was so sick with excitement that her dry lips refused to come adrift. The sea’s depth had got her ...”

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Not just the sea, but the gravity of what they had embarked upon. Deciding to write full-time, Gunn had just given up his secure civil service job in Inverness, sold their house and bought a less than dependable 27ft-motor cruiser and he and Daisy set sail on a three-month voyage around the Inner Hebrides and up the Caledonian Canal.

When multi-instrumentalist and composer Mike Vass retraced the Gunns’ route in May of this year, he had a rather more seaworthy boat, but for him, too, the voyage was, if not quite such a dramatic turning point, certainly what he describes as “a journey of recovery and discovery” following a major crisis. The previous summer, the Glasgow-based musician became seriously ill with neuroborreliosis, or late-stage Lyme disease, which affected his central nervous system so badly he was in an induced coma for a week. Recovering in hospital, he read Off in a Boat and decided to recreate Gunn’s voyage. While for Gunn the voyage inspired a book, for Vass, naturally, it inspired music, newly released on an album, In the Wake of Neil Gunn (Unroofed Records). Vass and the band who played on the album begin a short Scottish tour in St Andrews on Tuesday.

“When Gunn made that voyage back in the Thirties he did it against all advice, leaving his job with the Customs Office and giving up his pension, although he’d been working for them for 20-30 years, so it was a brave thing to do,” says Vass.

“I think it was less of a brave thing for me – I’m still doing what I was doing previously, working as a musician; but the illness definitely refocused me, gave me a different perspective and a new drive to follow what I wanted to do with my music writing.”

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Growing up in Nairn, Vass had gone sailing with his father since the age of eight and, before music took over his life, was often the fiddler for Nairn Sailing Club’s annual cruise. “I’ve always loved the water, but I’ve only sailed the west coast two or three times, for a week or so, and the way that Gunn wrote about his travels really inspired the love of the sea in me again. His writing is great. It’s so different to any modern Scottish writing and he’s so passionate about the country and about the Gaelic culture.”

Vass’s project won the support of Caledonian MacBrayne, Enterprise Music Scotland, Creative Scotland and Colonsay-based publisher House of Lochar, which has re-issued Off in a Boat. He also sailed with the blessing of Gunn’s nephew, Diarmid Gunn, an ex-naval officer.

Neil Gunn described his boat, the Thistle, as “bought in ignorance and navigated by faith and a defective engine”. Almost 80 years on, Vass set out to follow him in his father’s rather more generously proportioned yacht, a 45ft Jeanneau Sun Odyssey called Wingsong. He had with him a small crew largely consisting of musicians who joined him along the way, and with whom he played concerts at various ports-of-call such as Skye, Eigg and Iona.

“The musicians all got a shot on the boat for a few days, getting their sea legs,” he explains. And, yes, there was seasickness. “The weather was mostly amazing, but on the first day there was still a bit of a swell and three of our brand-new crew were sick for two or three hours. After that, though, everybody was fine.”

Fair weather and foul both inform the resulting music, with Vass, who handles everything from fiddle and guitars to melodica and percussion, joined by pianist Iain Hutchison, Jennifer Port on clarsach and oboe, Hamish Napier on flute and whistle and bassist Euan Burton, while orchestral tone is added by the Cairn String Quartet.

As befits the subject matter, this is expansively flowing, often luminous music that runs with the tide, not least in the opening Settled in Clay, which builds up from Vass’s rippling guitars, Port’s oboe adding a plaintive, reedy note before the strings pulse and drums crash. There is judicious use of electronic effects and samples, such as the coastguard’s weather update which opens the nocturnal chiming of Sphere Music, while the syncopated beeping of a Morse code SOS which opens the brief Lock Keeper is urgently taken up by oboe, then the rest of the ensemble.

The music is frequently programme-ish and at times almost ambient, and during live performance it will be interspersed with readings from Gunn’s book and projected footage from Salmon Films, documenting the voyage.

Ask Vass what the trip’s highlights were, and he recalls particularly the concert he and guitarist Innes Watson (who also joins the forthcoming tour) played amid the ancient stones of Iona Abbey. A downloadable recording of the gig is now available from Unroofed Records (www.unroofed.com).

“These old churches and abbeys were really built for sound – maybe for voices more than instruments, but for me, one of the highlights of the trip was playing in the abbey. The sound was just incredible.”

• Mike Vass and company play the Byre Theatre, St Andrews, 7 October; Eden Court, Inverness, 8 October; 
St John’s Cathedral, Oban, 9 October; Sabhal Mor Ostaig, Skye, 10 October; and Lyth Arts Centre, Wick, 11 October. For further details see www.mikevass.com and www.inthewakeofneilgunn.com