Amid the sonic crosscurrents of bands and soloists from all around the globe performing at Glasgow’s Piping Live! festival next week, one particular concert promises to be a heartfelt yet jubilant act of commemoration. On Monday, the opening day of the festival, at the St Luke’s music venue, some of the cream of the Scottish traditional music scene will take the stage to launch an album celebrating the music of the late Fraser Shaw, a piper, whistle player, composer and enabler who succumbed to an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis in May 2015, aged just 34.
Brought up in Glasgow, Shaw spent his life between the city, where he was a pivotal figure in pub sessions, and Islay, where his father’s family came from, and where he instigated regular sessions in the Port Charlotte Hotel, where he worked, and established the annual Islay Sessions festival.
The 17 musicians on Mac Ìle: The Music of Fraser Shaw, and in the forthcoming concert, reflect the regard in which Shaw was widely held as a musician and as a person. These “Islay Sessioners” include the likes of Adam Sutherland, Lori and Innes Watson on fiddles, Angus Mackenzie and Calum MacCrimmon on pipes, accordionist John Somerville and bassist Duncan Lyall, who produced the recording.
An obituary for Shaw in the Ileach newspaper, stated: “He will be missed by so many and will leave a gap in the traditional music scene that will undoubtedly never be filled.” As his brother Greig puts it: “I’m still gobsmacked by the number of people Fraser seemed to know. There was something about him that just seemed to touch everybody he met, right down to guys that maybe met him only once or twice at the hotel but went to visit him in hospital.”
Growing up in Rutherglen, both Fraser and Greig learned the pipes from an early age, but it was Fraser who pursued his island roots, from attending Glasgow’s first Gaelic-medium school, Sir John Maxwell Primary, to studying at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye (where, among other things, he and fellow-musicians formed the band Cluanas).
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2011, Fraser returned to Islay until his condition became so bad – he had developed progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML) – that he was moved to Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital, dying in May 2015.
Before his death he had considered publishing a book of his tunes, with the idea of raising funds for MS-related charities in Argyll. Following his passing, friends and family started the Fraser Shaw Trust to bring this project to fruition and much more. In November 2015, a special concert at the Islay Sessions helped lay the groundwork for the album. The newly released recording enjoyed an enthusiastic Islay launch in June at Bruichladdich – where in 2016 the distillery’s chief distiller, Jim McEwan, auctioned some of his single malt collection to raise an impressive £4,000 to kick-start the trust.
Completed largely by Lori and Innes Watson, Fraser’s tune book should appear later this year. Meanwhile, on 16 September another fundraiser, the third Shawfest, takes place in St Peter’s Hall, Partick, with crafts stalls and live music.
Another tribute has been the installation on the Bruichladdich foreshore of “Fraser’s bench”, carved from the limb of a venerable Cedar of Lebanon from Dryburgh Abbey and engraved with the notes of a lament written by him. The same lament can be heard on the album, in a plangent string setting by Innes Watson which incorporates a recording of Fraser himself playing it on whistle.
Much of the album, however, is defiantly up-tempo, not least the wonderful Islay Skies, which includes Shaw’s tune Murmuration, inspired by the spectacular swarms of starlings he watched on the island. Clever sleeve artwork by Somhairle MacDonald depicts the birds settling along telephone wires, like unruly notes on bar lines, reflecting the vigorously ongoing and life-affirming music contained within.
For further details, see www.frasershawtrust.com; Piping Live! runs from 7-13 August; see www.pipinglive.co.uk