Composers Calum Martin and Craig Armstrong in celebration of Free Church psalm singing

The little-known delights of Free Church psalm singing are about to reach a much wider audience thanks to an intriguing new collaboration, writes Jim Gilchrist

Calum Martin
Calum Martin

One evening, 17 years ago, I sat in Back Free Church of Scotland, outside Stornoway, in a state of dumb awe. It was the first psalm and the precentor at the front had just “given the line” to the congregation, who answered back in a hair-raising swell of free heterophony that washed over me like a great, rolling wave.

The evening was the first session of Calum Martin’s Salm project to record the unique sound of Gaelic psalm-singing, as practised in the Free Church. Now a lot more people are likely to discover this extraordinary a cappella form of praise, as Martin – himself a Free Church precentor as well as composer, Gaelic and country singer with serious Nashville connections – has collaborated with the award-winning Glasgow composer Craig Armstrong OBE, renowned through his scores for films such as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge, and, most recently, Mrs Lowry & Son. The result, The Edge of the Sea, is a powerful, beautiful and at times profoundly moving sequence of music which brings together a choir drawn from congregations in Lewis and Harris and the strings of the widely acclaimed Scottish Ensemble, as well as Highland fiddler Duncan Chisholm and Lewis-based cellist Neil Johnstone.

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Released yesterday on BMG’s Modern Recordings label, The Edge of the Sea comprises two multi-movement psalm settings, Ballantyne and Martyrdom, the latter based on an existing tune, while the Ballantyne melody was composed by Martin and dedicated to Armstrong’s late father, a lay preacher in the Church of Scotland.

Craig Armstrong
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Martin and Armstrong were introduced to each other some years ago by Celtic Connections director Donald Shaw. Steeped in the Free Church psalm tradition, Martin nurses concerns about its future. “This is a uniquely Scottish ‘sean nòs’ old vocal style, nurtured in its natural environment of family worship, but it is facing a real danger of disappearing and we see this recording as an opportunity to both archive it and introduce a new audience to the tradition.”

The album’s release is timely: Martin has recently launched online workshops in Gaelic psalm singing: “It’s incredible the people who have shown an interest, from all over the world.”

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Both Martin and Armstrong were anxious from the outset to avoid orchestral settings that would compromise the melismatic nature of the normally unaccompanied praise singing. Accordingly, when the choir or the two soloists – the Reverend Calum Iain Macleod and Martin’s daughter Isobel Ann – are singing, Armstrong’s settings remain non-intrusive, often a drone effect underlying impassioned vocals. Elsewhere, orchestral interludes surge and shimmer with a tidal power of their own, with lyrical contributions from Johnstone and Chisholm.

Armstrong first heard Gaelic psalms at an early age, as his mother’s family hailed from Balintore in Easter Ross. He maintained interest, but it was only after meeting Martin that he really started delving into them. “That record is really the product of the last six years of Calum coming to Glasgow and me going up to Lewis,” he says.

“I’ve worked with the Scottish Ensemble over the past 20 years so we managed to get them involved. We recorded it in Dundee’s Caird Hall with Mike Hatch, a fantastic sound engineer.”

Trained in the western classical tradition, but also taught Scots fiddle tunes as a youngster, when Armstrong first heard Gaelic psalm-singing, he recalls, “It was one of these moments. I thought, ‘I have never heard anything like that. How could that come from Scotland?’”

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Later, studying at the Royal Academy, he became interested in the Hungarian composer György Ligeti: “His music is very similar to what the psalm singers do naturally – lots of different parts slightly displaced.”

He hopes the new recording will help this unique tradition to gain wider recognition. “If you’re religious that element is there for you, but it works as a piece of music too. Gaelic psalm singing is just so evocative – a sound like no other.”

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Editorial Director