Rachel Walker and Aaron Jones on singing songs of Scotland's unsung women

For their new album Despite the Wind and the Rain, Rachel Walker and Aaron Jones decided to celebrate the achievements of Scottish women, writes Jim Gilchrist

The striking debut duo album from Rachel Walker and Aaron Jones, Despite the Wind and Rain, celebrates the unsung contributions of women in Scottish history. Celebratory yes – yet their ten songs also radiate compassion and a sense of outrage at injustices such as slavery and misogyny.

But if that suggests message trumping musicality, think again: Despite the Wind and Rain sees the duo’s fine singing and instrumental skills – Walker on piano, Jones on guitar and cittern – complemented impeccably by bassist Duncan Lyall and the strings of Patsy Reid and Katrina Lee on violins, Rhoslyn Lawton on viola and cellist Alice Allen.

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The Lochaber-based Walker, a Mòd gold-medallist, has sung with the Gaelic vocal quartet Cruinn and with folk-rockers Skipinnish, as well as releasing an acclaimed solo album, Gaol, last year. Jones, who lives in Galloway, plays with numerous other artists, including Old Blind Dogs and with his partner, flautist and fiddler Claire Mann.

Rachel Walker and Aaron Jones PIC: Archie MacFarlane

Immersed in traditional music, they became aware of a dearth of songs celebrating Scottish women. As Walker explains: “We discussed women’s songs and how there are a lot of them in the ‘my man done me wrong’ vein, but not so many actually celebrating women for their outstanding achievements. That was our starting point.”

“It was interesting,” adds Jones, “how, when we started to research the idea, a lot of the historical entries were ‘she was the wife of …’ or ‘the daughter of …’”

The pair found themselves delving into the invaluable resources of the National Library of Scotland, accessing letters, manuscripts and first editions: “That really helped bring their stories to life for us,” continues Jones.

From Walker’s luminous opening song in Gaelic, Sgàthàch, concerning a legendary warrior queen, and Jones’s Thin Black Line, inspired by the Glasgow-born artist, photographer and campaigner Maud Sulter, we encounter a wonderfully diverse pantheon of women who have often not received the recognition they deserve. Crescents and Stars, for instance, celebrates Mary Somerville, the 19th-centuiry, Jedburgh-born astronomer and polymath, while Riàbhàg Bheàg – “Little Sparrow”, is about the Pennsylvanian-born folklorist who settled in Uist then Canna, amassing an invaluable archive of Gaelic culture and describing herself as “a little sparrow, blown off course”. As in all the album’s Gaelic material, Walker co-wrote it with poet and singer-songwriter Marcas Mac an Tuairneir.

Jones’s stirring anthem Sunflowers is inspired by the women’s suffrage movement, but there is also darkness: he was moved to write Iron Bands by Glasgow-born Jane Smeal and her daughter-in-law Eliza Wigham, whose writings were credited with playing a part in helping to end the UK’s involvement in the Caribbean slave trade.

Outrage, too, in Walker’s song Rule of Thumb, inspired by Eilidh MacDougall, a “ladies assistant” in the Metropolitan Police at the beginning of the 20th century who championed the cause of abused women, eventually gaining an MBE. “The more I think about it, the more indignant I get,” says Walker. “We still see the same issues all the time on the news and I was frustrated by how long it has taken to put in place laws protecting women from abuse, and upset by how often victims are let down by those who are supposed to protect them. This song is a plea for change.”

On a much lighter side, they couldn’t resist memorialising Orkney’s extraordinary Bessie Millar who, in return for sixpence, would assure sailors of a safe voyage by offering them a prayer, a cup of tea and a burst of benevolent flatulence.

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Propitious winds or not, Walker and Jones will launch the album at Celtic Connections on February first with bassist Lyall and the string quartet as well as a guest third voice from Emily Smith. They hope to mount the full show again in suitable venues, but their core plan is to tour it as a duo, possibly involving a visual element, using the striking images created for the album sleeve by Lochaber artist Ali Berardelli.

For more on Despite the Wind and Rain, see www.rachelwalkerandaaronjones.com. Rachel Walker and Aaron Jones play the Mackintosh Church, Glasgow, on 1 February as part of Celtic Connections, see www.celticconnections.com