“I never felt dull in Ettrick a’ my life, but there’s a bareness aboot Yarrow that makes ye feel fair melancholy.” Thus speaks a shepherd in Ratcliffe Barnett’s once popular Border By-Ways & Lothian Lore, going on to describe his neighbouring Ettrick as “a far couthier valley than Yarrow”, while “dowie is the word for Yarrow”. Cue, naturally, The Dowie Dens of Yarrow, just one of several sanguinary epics associated with this beautiful if historically melancholy dale – The Douglas Tragedy, The Border Widow’s Lament and Willie Drooned in Yarrow among them.
This ballad-rich realm has long fascinated Lori Watson, the Glasgow-based, Border-country-reared fiddler and Scots Singer of the Year in last year’s Scots Trad Awards. Watson’s music has long been informed by her native turf, resulting in material as diverse as her song Born in the Borders, or her piece for instrumental ensemble plus tape, As Water Wears the Rock, inspired by the writings of James Hogg. Now her Yarrow project is, as she explains, “exploring connections between human, nature and sense of place through traditional and original songs in a contemporary folk album and a series of acoustic singles”.
This month has seen the third Yarrow Acoustic Sessions single available for download from her website, having been recorded in the home studio she and musician and producer Duncan Lyall have in their Glasgow home. “My head’s in two places at once,” the 35-year-old Watson tells me about the project, involving both traditional song and also original work forged from the music and traditions with which she’s been familiar since childhood. “I may be working in Glasgow or wherever I happen to be, but I’m transporting my mind to the Yarrow valley, in thinking about the themes and imagery of the songs.”
Cusped in its trough of hills, St Mary’s Loch, from which the Yarrow Water flows to join the Ettrick near Selkirk, has long exerted a fascination for Watson, while James Hogg, “the Ettrick Shepherd”, whose statue overlooks the loch, has also been an influence – “he’s very much in everything I do at the moment” – and was the subject of a musical show which she and her musician brother Innes toured with actor John Nicol.
The first three singles from the Acoustic Sessions are an intriguing mix, starting with one of the great Border ballads, Johnnie Armstrong, about the powerful Border reiver who was hanged without trial by James V. Watson spells out the song’s fateful dialogue between the two rulers, the doomed Armstrong bitterly declaring, “I have asked grace of a graceless face” – a line, she says, which may well provide the makings of another song of her own.
Last month’s single was Watson’s setting of a poem, Yarrow (a charm), by the Border historian Walter Elliott, who has invited her to delve into the vast archive of material he has accumulated about Yarrow. Over spare harmonium, the song lists the legendary properties of yarrow the herb, as opposed to the valley. This month’s single is another well-known traditional song, Fause, Fause, which Watson declaims starkly over plucked fiddle.
The monthly releases will culminate in what she says will be a more contemporary-sounding folk album, but not for a while: “I did initially think of bringing the album out at the end of the year, but now that I’m in the thick of the creative work, I don’t want to commit to that. One of the great things about this project, which I haven’t ever done before, is trusting my musical instincts in sharing it as I go, but also having that space to let creative work evolve.”
In the meantime, forthcoming monthly singles are likely to include Hamish Henderson’s great allegory, The Flyting o’ Life and Daith – “I love the natural imagery in it” – as well, of course, as those Dowie Dens of Yarrow.
To download songs from the Yarrow Acoustic Sessions, see www.loriwatson.net