Touching base with tradition doon the watter

WHILE on holiday in Connemara last autumn I was astonished to discover, tied up at a pier near Letterfrack, the sadly rusting hulk of the Pibroch, a Clyde puffer, one of those feisty little steamboats - immortalised in Neil Munro's Para Handy tales - which maintained a vital cargo link round Scotland's west coast.

I've no idea how the Pibroch, built in 1957 for Scottish Malt Distillers, ended up mouldering away in the west of Ireland, but I was put in mind of her by Geordie McIntyre's affectionate rendition of The Shoreheid Boat on the album which he and his wife Alison McMorland have just brought out on Greentrax, White Wings.

It's nice sometimes to slip away from the high-powered, eclectic nature of much contemporary folk and touch base with tradition, as delivered here. There's more than a whiff of salt tang about White Wings, with its songs of voyaging, exile and return, not to mention the exploits of errant puffer crews. McMorland and McIntyre, both accomplished solo performers, have just returned from performing in Massachusetts and Connecticut, where, says McIntyre, their traditionally orientated repertoire goes down "wonderfully well". He agrees that the new album is less devoted to the magisterial "muckle sangs" than their last CD, The Ballad Tree, which helped consolidate - if such was required - McMorland's stature as an outstanding interpreter of Scots balladry. It does, however, reflect the pair's individual contributions to the Scottish folk revival over the past few decades - Geordie's The Shira Dam, for instance, a song of the "hydro boys". His songs travel, too: his anthem of an Orcadian's return which gives the album its title has been covered by the New York a cappella group, the Johnson Girls.

For my money, however, the album's show-stopper is McMorland's rendition of a song she learned from the late Willie Scott, Time Wears Awa, articulated with lyrical poignancy over the spare murmur of fiddle (Derek Hoy) and concertina (Norman Chalmers). McMorland collected a wealth of songs from the old Border shepherd, and at the beginning of the year republished a welcome expanded reprint of Herd Laddie o the Glen, the book she compiled with him.

But, while she was able to glean repertoire first-hand from the likes of Scott and other notable (and also now departed) tradition bearers such as Belle and Lucy Stewart, is she concerned that younger practitioners may not have the same living resources - or, indeed, whether there are sufficient young traditional singers emerging amid the current hotbed of instrumentalists?

"I do feel that my generation are the people that they learn the material from, because Geordie and I are direct links into the older generation of singers," says McMorland, who has taught on the RSAMD Scottish music course for the past ten years.

"The best of the early clubs were the bedrock of the revival, and older singers, such as Jeannie Robertson or Willie Scott, were honoured and indeed revered." However, she points to the vast resource of recordings which today's aspiring singers can draw upon, as well as "revivalist" (a term she dislikes) singers "worthy of emulation and not mimicry". Young performers like Siobhan Miller and Scott Gardner, she says, "already demonstrate interpretative skills of a high order and also a nurtured, family influence."

She's not pessimistic, although she does regret what she sees as the commercial pressure on young singers to use band backing. "Traditional unaccompanied singing as a whole suffers from not being given a public platform - such as Celtic Connections, which doesn't infer tokenism."

So for the moment at least, unlike the sadly rusting spectre of the Pibroch, the songs, old, tried and tested, are still sailing under a good head of steam.

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