Fraser Fifield on One Great Circle, a musical tribute to storyteller Stanley Robertson

Fraser Fifield’s new album draws on the extraordinary legacy of story and song left behind by the late, great Stanley Robertson. Interview by Jim Gilchrist

Stanley Robertson, the remarkable North-East Traveller tale-teller, singer, piper and tradition-bearer, used to describe human existence, in his dulcet Doric tones, as “aa one great circle”. Robertson, who died in 2009, frequently recounted out-of-the-body experiences and encounters with the numinous among his rich hairst of folk tales.

Now Robertson’s legacy has indeed come round, although perhaps not quite in a manner he might have expected, inspiring vivid instrumental music composed by piper, saxophonist and low whistle virtuoso Fraser Fifield, current traditional musician in residence at Edinburgh University’s Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies. It was within the department’s renowned archives of traditional music and lore that Fifield unearthed Robertson’s often extraordinary legacy of story and song.

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Informed by Robertson’s tales and his near-mystical view of life, Fifield, himself originally from Aboyne in the North-East, was moved to compose a tune sequence, titled One Great Circle, that he premiered last autumn with two other notable folk musicians, fiddler Chris Stout and harpist Catriona McKay, at a memorable concert in Edinburgh University’s venerable St Cecilia’s Hall. Now he has released an album with Stout and McKay, One Great Circle, on his Tanar Label.

Although he never met Robertson, Fifield was well aware of his reputation and recalls: “As I listened to these recordings of him telling stories that had been in his family for generations, I found him to be a fascinating character and I realised his storytelling wasn’t just fanciful tales. There’s a lot of truth in the imagery he describes and his way of speaking has its own rhythm that can lead to musical thoughts.”

Fifield agrees that Robertson’s “one great circle” references reincarnation. “That’s my interpretation of it. Beliefs around the world, from Indian to Native American – they all seem to share this notion that we come back.”

It’s a notion to which Fifield is fairly sympathetic. Track titles such as An Indian Death, Celestial City or an An Owl at the Window reflect Robertson’s recollections of unearthly experience or uncanny happenstance, while the three instruments – whistle, fiddle and harp – dance blithely together in the Pool of Forgetfulness or the joyful Celestial City, Fifield’s smallpipes emerging for The Auld Road o Lumphanan.

“They’re all remarkable, extraordinary – literally,” says Fifield of the source stories. “I love that sense of otherworldliness that seems to accompany him.”

Fraser Fifield PIC: Douglas RobertsonFraser Fifield PIC: Douglas Robertson
Fraser Fifield PIC: Douglas Robertson

While during the St Cecilia's concert Fifield played some extracts from the archive recordings of Robertson, for the album he has stuck to music only, but commends listeners to access Robertson’s many recordings on that copious online well of folk song and lore, Tobar an Dualchais / Kist o Riches (

The music he wrote very much with the acclaimed duo of Stout and McKay in mind, having known them since their student days at the RSAMD (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland). “I left room for them both to express themselves because I wanted their personalities to come through.” They subsequently went into Glasgow’s GloWorm studio and recorded the album in a day.

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Fifield’s next public manifestation of his three-year residency with the university combines The Poor Had No Lawyers, a talk by land reform activist Andy Wightman, author of a celebrated book of that title, with the premiere of Fifield’s Ardoch Suite, which he’ll perform with fellow piper and whistle exponent Ross Ainslie.

“Ardoch was the home of Jean Bain who was the last native Gaelic speaker in that area of Deeside. I went to one of Andy’s talks years ago and I found it fascinating. It occurred to me to link the two and have Ross and I play some new music to signpost these issues and have Andy deliver a talk in between our musical bookends. If things aren’t protected then they’re lost.”

The Ardoch Suite / The Poor Had No Lawyers is at 50 George Square, Edinburgh, on 26 March. One Great Circle is launched at the National Piping Centre, Glasgow on 9 March

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