(I promise, unlike Friday’s post, this one is about music.)
There is an elegance about the Gaelic language – a certain tactile satisfaction that lingers on the tongue after forming the words – that purveyors of such a vulgar language as English more than likely have difficulty understanding (I should know, I used to be one). So I was understandably offended when I read today that Highland councillor John Rosie called the establishment a Gaelic development officer for Caithness an attempt to “impose” upon the citizenry “an alien language, of no value to them”. Even more ironic is the fact that I first learned of this on the official release date for Uam, the third solo album from Julie Fowlis who, at least in my circle, has done more to spread the beauty of Scots Gaelic abroad than any other person.
If you are familiar with Julie’s other two albums, Mar a Tha Mo Chridhe and Cuilidh, you more or less know what to expect from Uam, though a few things have changed. Most notable is the presence of English, be it only on one track and used with interesting effect (more on that in a moment), it certainly stands out in context. Uam again features several songs native to Julie’s home island of North Uist (in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland) and Barra (to the south), but also includes a Breton song (“Rugadh mi ‘n teis meadhan na mara”) and one Irish-American tune (“Wind and Rain”). Somewhat less important, though still interesting trivia, Chris Thile doesn’t play on any tracks. As whole, Uam is a beautiful album rivaling in cohesiveness Julie’s hugely successful breakout album Cuilidh.
The first two tracks, “M’ fhearann saidhbhir”, a set beginning with a traditional waulking song followed by three tunes (two recent compositions and one traditional Highland tune) and “Bothan Àirigh am Bràigh Raithneach” (a slower piano/vocal number featuring lush three-part harmonies) set the tone for the whole album: an album that (thankfully) never settles on one style or tempo for too long. Still, this album is full of stunning moments, the most immediately captivating (at least for me) being the pairing of two songs recounting the story of “The Jealous Sister” (a story which has been dated as far back as the 16th century). The first song, “Wind and Rain”, of Irish-American origin, is performed here (partially translated into Gaelic) as a duet with Eddi Reader. This comes across as, more or less, typical Celtic festival fare, but the ensuing Hebridean take on the same tale, “Thig am Bàta”, is absolutely arresting. Featuring only Julie’s vocals and Martin O’Neill on bodhrán, it is highly percussive, rhythmically intoxicating, and easily the coolest song I’ve heard in months.
Of course, if there is one thing Julie Fowlis does well (and there are actually at least a dozen), it is to bring an album to a memorable conclusion. Whether it is “Moladh Uibhist”, the haunting ode to Uist that closes out Mar a Tha Mo Chridhe or “Aoidh, Na Dèan Cadal Idir”, the a cappella lullaby at the end of Cuilidh, they are without fail, the most charming, organic moments of their respective albums. The case with Uam is no difficult. Allan MacDonald and Mary Smith join in with striking parallel modal harmonies on “Hò bha mi, hé bha mi”, a night visiting song with the most beautiful, lingering lyrical image of the album: “’Cò tha còmhl’ riut, a Sheònaid? / A bheil thu ‘d ònrachd a’ bruidhinn?’ / ‘S làbhair Seònaid ghrinn uasal / Air uachdar a cridhe / ‘Barail leam gur e bruadar / A ghluais sibh nur dithis’.” (“’Who’s with you, Seònaid? / Or are you talking to yourself?’ / And noble, beautiful Seònaid / spoke from her heart. / ‘I think it was a dream that roused the pair of you’.”).
It deserves to be noted as well what a pleasure it is for me to once again hold an actual CD booklet in my hand as I listen to this record, especially one with real, substantive liner notes. The texts, translations, and detailed song histories are an integral part of this album, of the culture, and of human history. I read somewhere once that people of Scottish decent, no matter how distant, can feel the tug of the Highlands and Islands pulling them gently toward home. Had I never read that, I would still attest to the strength of that call. I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but a great many of my clan had already settled in the Americas by 1745. And even now, 250 years removed, listening to Uam (or Mar a Tha Mo Chridhe or Cuilidh for that matter), it has taken all the pragmatism I can muster not to drop everything and move to North Uist or Perthshire (where the Robertsons come from) and learn the (“alien and [useless]”) language and spend a few years studying this music – my music. (If anyone knows how I can do this, or can introduce me to someone who can help make it happen, and I mean this in all seriousness, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s talk.)