The Scotsman Sessions #313: Arun Sood, Alastair Smith & Fergus MacDonald

Welcome to the Scotsman Sessions. With the performing arts sector still impacted by the pandemic, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on, with introductions from our critics. Here, Arun Sood, Alastair Smith & Fergus MacDonald perform a piece called Vasa, taken from Sood’s new album Searching Erskine

Arun Sood is a writer, musician and academic, born in Aberdeen to a Punjabi father and a West Highland, Gaelic-speaking mother. From childhood he was aware that his maternal grandmother, Katie MacNaughton, had been born, lived and worked on Vallay, a now deserted tidal island just off North Uist. In 1905 Vallay became the home of the industrialist, antiquarian and pioneering archaeologist Erskine Beveridge, who build an extravagant mansion, Taigh Mòr, on the island, where Katie and many others were employed. Beveridge died in 1920 and then, in 1944, his son George drowned, succumbing to the tide while trying to cross the strand. With no further heir, the house became neglected and the island’s population gradually left.

The island became “a source of perpetual intrigue” to Sood, now 36 and, having lived in Glasgow, Amsterdam and Washington DC, currently a lecturer in English at the University of Plymouth. A few years ago, he camped alone on the island, gaining “a heightened sensitivity to the sounds of the place. The geese, the gull shrieks, the grassy whispers. I began to wonder if my grandmother might have heard similar sonic tapestries to the ones I was hearing, only in a different time.”

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The result of his preoccupation is Searching Erskine, an album of extraordinary sound collages of music and song, field recordings, archival material and electronics, exploring, as he puts it, “how sound can trigger memories and re-imaginings of the past”.

The album’s poignantly atmospheric soundscapes involve ancestral voices, narration, snatches of Gaelic song and pipe tune melling with state-of-the-art electronica to evoke the lost music of what once went on in this deserted island, still crowned by the gaunt ruins of its “big house”. Multi-instrumentalist Sood is joined by collaborators including Alastair Smith on synthesisers and “sonifications” and guitarist Fergus Macdonald, with further contributions from cellist Alice Allen, fiddler Laura Wilkie and singer Rachel Sermanni. A 64-page book released with the album by Blackford Hill audio and publishing studio is illustrated with photo-collages and artworks by Emile Kees, Rosalind Blake and Meg Rodger.

For his Scotsman Session, Sood contributes a sequence from the album called Vasa. Having traced Erskine Beveridge’s great-grand-nephew in New Zealand, he enlisted him to read snatches from his ancestor’s 1911 book on North Uist, in which Beveridge discusses the etymology of the island’s name, Vallay, apparently deriving from old Norse Vasa – “to wade”.

The performance, with Sood on piano, Smith on synths and samples and Macdonald on guitar, was filmed in a house called The Tidal Dwelling on the North Uist shore, right opposite Vallay and its fickle connecting strand. The low-lying island and its ruined mansion are visible in the opening shot through the window.

Meanwhile, an exhibition, Searching Erskine: On Art, Ancestry and Place, runs at Taigh Chearsabhagh gallery in Lochmaddy, North Uist, until 28 May. Including visual artworks by the artists contributing to the project, it further explores Sood’s ongoing preoccupation with “ruins, land, memory, and the intersections in between”.

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