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The title of Lauren MacColl’s most recent work, LANDSKEIN, suggests a thread or yarn in which the lifelines of a landscape, people, stories and memories are richly intertwined. The central thread of this skein traces the lifeline of MacColl herself, making her homeward journey to the Highlands, finding her place, awakening her senses in the hills and reconnecting with the taproot of the tradition that nurtured her. Her work reflects a personal journey through many layers of experience, a subjective view of multiple horizons, a singular interpretation of ancient melodies that have been shaped and reshaped by many hands. 


The album was recorded on location in Abriachan Hall – a small, crinkly tin-roofed building known for its fine acoustics and ceilidhs, high in the hills above Loch Ness – the very place MacColl first remembers hearing the elemental and enchanting power of unaccompanied fiddle. 


In a world of highly produced music, social media, flashing images, constant chatter and noise, this recording – of almost entirely solo traditional airs – is an uncompromising and rare delight. Bold in its simplicity, LANDSKEIN doesn’t call attention to itself, yet is quietly rebellious in its intent. The only addition is the sparse, subtle, sensitive accompaniment of pianist James Ross, giving MacColl’s exquisite fiddle lines harmonic lift and ground.


The Highland landscape that MacColl’s LANDSKEIN evokes has inspired many writers, poets, artists and musicians to creatively express something of this place, each contributing to its weave and texture. Novelist Neil Gunn writes,

“These outlines and these hills, the winding valley, the many valleys, the breasts of the hills, the little birch woods, the knolls, the humps and hillocks and boulders, the black bogs, and always for movement the streams winding like snakes in the green or grey-green bottoms. To know one valley amongst these northern uplands was to know all… For there are times when all persons are beings moving about in a valley and looking from a little distance as different from one another as does not matter.” Butcher’s Broom, 1934


‘Distilled out of this landscape’, writes Gunn, is ‘a music that is as singular and memoried as dark-brown honey.’ This is the old music into which MacColl breathes new life. In its play of melody and harmony, light and shadow, colour and tone, sharpness and sweetness, she has crafted something of accomplished and distilled beauty. 


Walking in the hills, MacColl reflects, has helped her slowly reconnect with and explore her relationship to this landscape and to this culture. In the opening track we find ourselves Air Mullach Beinn Fhuathais / On Top of Ben Wyvis, a vast and sprawling mountain that dominates the landscape and consciousness of her native Black Isle. Close your eyes and you are transported to that mountain path, worn into the ground through the passage of many feet, meandering upwards through the birches and old pines to the fragile carpet of moss on the summit ridge, now home to rare migratory birds.  It is as if this music has a life of its own, breathing in the sweet and clear mountain air, translating into sound and harmony what Nan Shepherd called ‘movements of being.’ Shepherd writes, 


“I have discovered my mountain - its weathers, its airs and lights, its singing burns, its haunted dells, its pinnacles and tarns, its birds and flowers, its snows, its long blue distances. ...But if the whole truth is to be told as I have found it, I too am involved. I have been the instrument of my own discovering and to govern the stops of the instrument needs learning too. Thus the senses must be trained and disciplined, the eye to look, the ear to listen, the body must be trained to move with the right harmonies...” The Living Mountain, 1977

LANDSKEIN also opens to that shimmering ‘other landscape’ that Gunn writes about in his novels. In his mind, there are two worlds: the world we see every day, and the world which lies beyond this – the realm of wonder and ‘delight’. This delight is not defined as the opposite of melancholy or sorrow, but rather as a flash of intuitive awareness, a sudden insight and understanding that we connected, that we are not separate from the world around us. 


For some, this delight is glimpsed in the natural world in all its sweet beauty, or in the bracing and invigorating weathers of its sublime and rugged bleakness. It can also be encountered in the creation and experience of great art. In music, it might be found on those rare occasions where an elusive creative power releases the deeply moving power of a song or tune. There is something deeply compelling about the sound of a slow air played on the fiddle – deceptively simple yet mysteriously stirring. 


Several of the old airs chosen by MacColl can be found in The Simon Fraser Collection, first published in 1816 (Captain Fraser had connections to Stratherrick on the South side of Loch Ness, near MacColl’s home today). Many of these ‘peculiar melodies,’ collected between 1715 and 1745, are instrumental settings of much older Gaelic songs. Mo Chràdhghal Bochd / Sad and Heartsore My Weeping, written by the bard Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh / Mary MacLeod (c.1615 – c.1707) is the saddest song MacColl could find; the poor lass was so stricken with grief at the loss of her love that she cried off her own eyelashes. A' Cheapach na Fàsach / Keppoch Desolate, a lament commemorating the massacre of three brothers in a clan dispute in Lochaber, is eerily evocative. In MacColl’s hands, these ancient airs have the power to suspend normal time, bring the past vividly into the present and open up worlds of the imagination.


LANDSKEIN is not all melancholy and dark; there are light-hearted moments to be found in tracks such as Iorram Iomraimh / A Rowing Time Piece, also written by Mary MacLeod, which brings to mind the peace and calm of a hidden loch on a glad summer’s day, with dragonflies hovering around its wildflower-fringed edges. 


The ‘other landscape’ is also suggested in otherworldly legend and folktale – the world of mind, myth and imagination. It is hinted at too in the visions of the ‘second sight’ /an da shealladh. There are two tracks on LANDSKEIN that evoke the mythic figure of the Cailleach, the wise old woman. “Ial, Ial”, Ars’ a’ Chailleach is a haunting reworking of a puirt-a-beul reel learned from the singing of Rona Lightfoot and Maeve MacKinnon. Sproileag / The Untidy Witch, light and nimble, conjures the timeless figure of Dark Mairi in Neil Gunn’s novel Butcher’s Broom (1934). Close your eyes again and you can picture her with her basket on her back, gathering herbs for her healing art, wandering among the hills and sea and sky, making her homeward journey to the strath. Dark Mairi embodies a way of life lost in the aftermath of the Highland Clearances; yet, even after her death, something vital remains: ‘a creative attitude of mind which survives because of an inner resilience which is the process of life itself.’


As its title suggests, LANDSKEIN is a work that is concerned with participating in this ongoing and unending process of life, contributing a new thread to its weave and texture. Our journey through these landscapes takes us back to where we started – out on the mountain. The closing track, Là Dhomh 's Mi Dìreadh Bealaich / One Day as I Climbed the Hill, is sombre yet enlivening, inviting us to lift our gaze out across the horizon of that long, blue distance – and perhaps we’ll even see a skein of wild geese heading home. 


Mairi McFadyen, Abriachan, May 2020

Mairi McFadyen is a creative ethnologist and writer who works under the name ‘Northlight’

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