The Rough Guide To Scottish Music

Scotland’s modern social history has engendered the re-imagining of folk and traditional music to suit life amidst the mountains, on the farm or croft, up the close-stairs of city tenements and now as part of a modern, mobile and cosmopolitan world. This Rough Guide offers a contemporary view of Scotland’s finest folk architects. 

Contemporary trio Lau are named after the Orcadian word meaning ‘natural light’ and shed new rays of meaning on the Scottish repertoire. ‘Butcher Boy’ is a brooding track with gentle electronica post-production that subtly extends and warps their guitar, fiddle and accordion tones.  Acoustic quartet Salt House sing ‘Katie Cruel’ accompanied by a chilling fiddle that echoes high in its tessitura before looping cellular minimal motifs.

Another traditional re-interpretation is contributed by the multi-generational family ensemble, The Campbells Of Greepe, one of the great dynasties of Gaelic music rooted in a part of the Isle of Skye famed for its musical connections. ‘Sìos Dhan An Abhainn’ is Gaelic reworking of the 1867 African-American spiritual ‘The Good Old Way’, and inspired by the Coen Brothers’ film, ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’. Joy Dunlop & Twelfth Day also give us an updated version of the traditional waulking (cloth-working) song ‘Faca Sibh Raghaill Na Ailean?’. Driven by its steady beat, you can still imagine the women of the community working the tweed while making this laborious task pass the quicker in song. 

Young traditional music champion Rona Wilkie has blended her dual musical heritage in classical and traditional music, working with her Norwegian-Swedish partner Marit Fält’s låtmandola (a ten-string Nordic mandola) and a classical string quartet. Together they explore, in a beautiful slow air and joyous jig, music that belongs to both traditions and to the coastlines either side of the North Sea.  

Illustrating the current blurring of borders between Scotland’s folk and indie pop worlds, Glaswegians Admiral Fallow forge a path into this territory with their full-on track ‘The Paper Trench’, with an accessible sound that has seen them tread the UK’s festival stages widely. Dundee’s Anderson McGinty Webster Ward and Fisher have a vocal-rich sound of a similar arc, perhaps indicating that the distance from west to east Scottish coasts are not as transcontinentally American in their dimensions as some Scots would have you believe. 

Celebrate the new folk radiating from Scotland’s creative core with this Rough Guide album.

ADMIRAL FALLOW – This merry band of indie-folk troubadours are growing in popularity and have gained plaudits from a host of prominent musicians including Elbow’s Guy Garvey. The Glaswegian six-piece work layered vocals, hammering drums and propulsive guitars juxtaposing their mod-rock sensibilities with folk references.

BREABACH – Breabach are a contemporary folk ban made up of graduates from Scotland’s finest  music conservatoires. Megan Henderson studied her trade at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and also plays with fusion band Salsa Celtica. Among her bandmates is James Mackenzie, a piping specialist who played with the Scottish Power Pipe Band. 

KARINE POLWART – Karine crafts sensitive songs that tell stories of love, despair and rebellion. Having worked in women’s rights, her music is full of message and aims to ‘make sense of the world’ as she puts it. Listen out for her chalky smooth singing voice underpinned by rippling guitar figures. 

LAU – This trio’s unique vision has inspired their rich catalogue of reworked folk songs coloured through with subtle electronica. They have collaborated with Karine Polwart (who also features on this Rough Guide) and the Northern Sinfona among others. The band’s fiddle, guitar and accordion combination expands beyond traditional homage and into Lau’s nebulous neo-folk soundworld.

ALASDAIR MACILLEBHÀIN (ALASDAIR WHYTE) – This young Gaelic singer hails from Salen village on the Isle of Mull. ‘Tuathal’ is a tale of passionate love gone awry and is an emotional ballad. It is taken from Alasdair’s debut album Las which was recorded in the West Highlands with the support of not-for-profit enterprise Stòras Watercolour. 

THE CAMPBELLS OF GREEPE – The Campbell family are a multi-generational family band of pipers and singers from a village called Greepe on the Isle of Skye. In their home town music was a constant force for communion with songs accompanying every waking moment of the day. They are experts at puirt-à-beul (rhythmic dance tunes) as well as pibroch (a highland theme and variation style).

FINLAY NAPIER & THE BAR ROOM MOUNTAINEERS – Finlay Napier leads his attitude-soaked band on ‘Cut Me Off’. The subject matter deals with restraining orders and obsessive behaviour. The line-up and sound is no-frills, with thick guitars and drums driving Finlay’s rough and ready Scot singing voice. Only Gillian Frame’s fiddle mellows the mix as she navigates the fingerboard with the agility and off-hand flutter of an old bluesman.

RONA WILKIE AND MARIT FÄLT – Together this duo explore the folk of their homelands; Scotland and Scandinavia. Rona plays the Scottish fiddle and has been awarded for her expert performances with a BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year award. Marit is from Norway and plays the Låtmandola and cittern.

AMWWF – AMWWF are composer of three songsmiths; Gavin McGinty, Dave Webster and Stevie Anderson. Billy Fisher and Robbie Ward make up the rhythm section. The band was formed out of chance meetings at open mic nights: an organic arrangement that is reflected in their easy-going creative outlook. Band members play a host of instruments from mandolin to kazoo and freely draw on multifarious musical sources for inspiration. ‘Pigeon Song’ is a catchy pop inflected number that bears a striking resemblance to  the output of English band Mumford & Sons.

RACHEL SERMANNI – Rachel grew up in Carrbridge in the Scottish Highlands. Her voice bears the influence of Eva Cassidy strongly and is accentuated by Sermanni’s stylized guitar lines. Her career has seen her support Fink, Rumer and Elvis Costello among others. ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ is an arrangement of Robert Burns’ famous 1791 song.

JOY DUNLOP & TWELFTH DAY – Twelfth Day are a Scottish folk duo featuring Catriona Price on fiddle and voice and Esther Swift on harp and voice. Their collaborative project with Gaelic singer and dance Joy Dunlop explore the lives of women in Scotland via traditional waulking songs and a specially composed poem by Sheila MacLeod. Their album is titled Fiere, the Gaelic word for friend.

KATHLEEN MACINNES – Kathleen’s career started in TV and to many she is known for her roles in shows like Gaelic soap opera Machair or comedy shows Ran Dan and PC Alasdair Stewart. Aged twenty-nine she began to explore the music of her idol Nan MacKinnon of Vatersay and soon found herself centre-stage and singing out. Kathleen sings in Gaelic (her first language) with pride and resolve.

EMILY SMITH – Emily Smith’s 2010 album Traveller’s Joy spotlights songs written by her on the road alongside folk songs learner from the travelling communities of Scotland. Emily’s crystal clear voice soars atop sweet-toned fiddle, guitar and rhythm. Her music draws inspiration from the traditional repertoire but are embued with a personal narrative via Emily’s intimate lyricism.

MÀNRAN – Mànran are a six-piece that contribute infectious up-beat folk. Unusually their line up includes both the Highland and Uillean pipes which imbues their sound with a lush, almost orchestral, texture. The band has graced stages at Cambridge Folk Festival, Shetland Folk Festival and The Hebridean Celtic Festival to name but a few.

THE CHAIR – The Chair are a riotous musical octet. On stage they mash together fiddles, banjos, drums and accordions with high rock energy. Describing themselves as ‘red-blooded stomp music from Orkney’, don’t be surprised to hear a fleeting Klezmer riff or dub beat sneaked in amongst the fray.

SALT HOUSE – Salt House are an acoustic four-piece that draw on grassroots folk and contemporary influences. Composed of talented stock, the band’s members are previous recipients of BBC Young Folk Awards and a Scottish Jazz Award. Harmonium nestles among bristling fiddles, guitar, banjo, viola and mandolin.