James Ross and Alexander McCall Smith explore Scotland’s intimate relationship with the sea on new song cycle

Detail from the cover of These Are The HandsDetail from the cover of These Are The Hands
Detail from the cover of These Are The Hands
From wandering saints to longship-burning Vikings, herring fishers to men of war, Scotland’s relationship with the sea runs long, deep and turbulent, as evoked by a striking collaboration between the ever prolific author, Alexander McCall Smith, and Highland pianist and composer James Ross.

These Are the Hands, newly released on CD by the Greentrax label, first saw life as a Fringe show in 2015 and has been further developed into album form, with additional pieces dealing with the mining industry and the Forth bridges. The songs are performed with feeling and clarity by the Edinburgh-based Irish singer Michelle Burke and, from South Uist, Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes while, apart from Ross on piano, instrumental support comes from such stalwarts as fiddler Patsy Reid, bassist Euan Burton, cellist Su-a Lee, trombonist John Kenny and trumpeter Ryan Quigley.

McCall Smith, renowned for the best-selling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency stories, the 44 Scotland Street series in the pages of this newspaper and much else, is also no stranger to musical collaboration, having worked with composer Tom Cunningham on such ventures as their opera The Okavango Macbeth and, more recently, the operetta The Tumbling Lassie. He has long admired James Ross’s keyboard arrangements of Scots traditional music and they met a few years ago when the Wick-born pianist was playing at a book reading.

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“I very much like the way James uses traditional idioms in his music,” says McCall Smith. They found they were both keen to create a song cycle rooted in traditional music. “Then Sandy came up with the concept of Scotland and the sea,” recalls Ross, “which we both felt was a great concept due to the sea being such a strong theme in traditional music.”

That initial collaboration, premiered on the Fringe, was called The Silver Darlings, after one song about the once great herring fishery. “We discovered that the words and music just clicked,” says McCall Smith.

Ranging through Scotland’s maritime history, the songs include The Waves Bear the Saints, about the early Irish missionaries, and The Great Michael, evoking King James IV’s vast flagship, the building of which is said to have all but deforested Fife, not to mention a suitably racy Cutty Sark and the solemnity of Corvette Returning, mourning a life consumed by war. As songs they frequently echo the essential humanity which informs much of McCall Smith’s writings.

As he remarks in his sleeve notes: “Nowhere in Scotland is one all that far from the sea … [people] earn their living through the sea; they risk their lives on the sea; and it is the sea, only too often, that separates the exiled Scot from his homeland.”

Ross’s settings serve the context of each song: Built on the Clyde, for instance, has a folky, bairn-rhyme skip to it; in contrast, Miner is driven by a mechanised clamour, while the subsequent Miner’s Hymn instrumental is a poignant brass chorale. Burke and MacInnes, says Ross, were an essential part of the music’s development, both characterful singers who inform their performance with a powerful sense of storytelling. “My aim was to try and create folk songs within the structure of Sandy’s poems, and Kathleen and Michelle were a big part of the whole project.”

Perhaps prompted by the album sleeve’s archive photographs of long-gone fishing harbours bristling with masts and sails, drawn from the Wick-based Johnston collection, one is put in mind of such classic documentaries as Drifters and Seawards the Great Ships, which today evoke an inevitable sense of elegiac nostalgia for lost industries. McCall Smith agrees to an extent, but adds: “We still have fishing boats, we still have a fishing industry, and when you look at some of these stories, like the one about the returning corvette, these are about very brave people and still are; fishermen are still running risks. “So I just wanted to pay tribute, to tell that story of Scotland and the sea.” - Jim Gilchrist

These Are The Hands is out now on Greentrax, www.greentrax.com