Bruce MacGregor: "Folk music has always had a political edge"

The Blazin’ Fiddles founder isn’t afraid to take on the establishment on his new album, The Road to Tyranny, writes Jim Gilchrist

Bruce MacGregor PIC: Archie MacFarlane

It’s an ironic sign of the times that fiddler and broadcaster Bruce MacGregor has just released an album, The Road to Tyranny, representing some two decades of tune-smithing, but at the time of writing was unsure whether he’d be able to launch it with a live performance.

Not that the Inverness-based musician is alone in his frustration at the current Omicron-prompted restrictions on audience numbers. A few days before our conversation Glasgow’s Celtic Connections – Europe’s largest winter music festival –announced “with a heavy heart” that its 29th iteration would not be going ahead with its full programme, that some shows would be cancelled and others affected by restrictions. Due to front a launch concert for the album at the festival on 26 January, MacGregor was still waiting to hear whether it could go ahead. He had already postponed an Inverness launch scheduled for tonight at the Eden Court Theatre until May.

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A lad o’ pairts, the 51-year-old MacGregor may be best known as founder of the renowned Highland band Blazin’ Fiddles back in 1998, but has also presented BBC Radio Scotland’s Travelling Folk for more than a decade. He also runs the award-winning MacGregor’s Bar in Inverness and is in the process of opening a small hotel in Golspie.

The new album sees him bowing amid sterling company, including guitarist and accordionist Tim Edey, whistle player Ali Levack and Shetland fiddler Jenna Reid who, with cellist Su-a Lee added some choice string harmonies. Co-produced by Angus Lyon and Anna Massie, its 14 tunes can be seen as a musical chronicle of an often eventful life and are frequently delivered with kind of virr which would doubtless have gladdened the heart of McGregor’s late teacher, the renowned Highland musician and fiddle-maker Donald Riddell.

The flamboyantly Cajun-flavoured The Big Yin’s, for instance, recalls a couple of memorable visits by “the Blazers” to Billy Connolly’s Aberdeenshire mansion, Candacraig. In contrast The Lament for Captain Simon Fraser is a beautiful air named after the fiddler, composer and music publisher – MacGregor came up with idea for a play by Hamish MacDonald about this conflicted individual, who died in 1852.

The album also features a scaled down version of Doddie’s Dream, which MacGregor, a rugby player himself, dedicated to the rugby legend battling motor neuron disease, then produced as a single and video which featured such notable musical acquaintances as Nicola Benedetti, Aly Bain, Phil Cunningham and Sharon Shannon, raising thousands of pounds for the My Name’5 Doddie foundation for research into MND.

The title track, a suitably dark-sounding jig, is indeed a warning, inspired by an observation by Lord Neuberger, a former president of the Supreme Court, that the UK Government’s controversial Internal Market Bill, which would allow the UK to breach obligations under international treaties, put the country on the slippery slope to dictatorship. “Folk music has always had a political edge,” says MacGregor, “although I don’t think there’s a huge amount of it out there at the moment, which seems bizarre considering the situation we find ourselves in.”

And the situation for himself and other musicians remains worryingly uncertain. At the time of our interview, he thought his Celtic Connections gig might go ahead but was awaiting clarification. Despite having more than one string to his bow, the impact of Covid on both entertainment and hospitality sectors has been a double whammy for him. He and guitarist-producer Anna Massie, however, have been attracting global audiences with their online Friday night Live at Five sessions on the bar’s Facebook page.

“That helped us get through lockdown, but the uncertainty has been horrendous. I’ve been speaking to musicians who have been struggling with it mentally and I know others who have given up and are going to do something else. It’s going to be really difficult getting people back to gigs again, when you’ve been knocked out of the habit for two years.”

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