Shiorraidh, I think, it’ll be cold in here tonight. It’s the evening of Thursday 11 May. I’m teetering on shaky legs up the roughly cobbled driveway leading to Nunton Steadings in Benbecula. The occasion is an instrumental soiree of traditional music organised by the South Uist Folk Club. The headline performer is James Duncan Mackenzie, champion piper and gifted flautist, supported by John Lowrie on percussion and keyboards and Allan Nairn on electric guitar. An accordion/clarsach duo who calls itself Peach/Skeoch will provide a warm-up overture.
As I crawchle up to the entrance, I anticipate an uncomfortable evening, with uplifting music certainly, in a space bounded by gloomy stone walls and cobblestone flooring. The only thing missing from this environment, I speculate, will be a massive steel butcher’s hook from which the carcass of a cow may be suspended. Brrrrr!
I am suddenly struck by a flashback of my maternal granduncle, Seumas Mòr mac Aonghais ‘ic Iain Mhòir. He spent a considerable period of indentured servitude as a cattleman/shepherd in this gloomy place when the MacLean family from Coll occupied Taigh Mòr Mhic ‘ic Ailein over a hundred years ago.
I enter the West wing and Immediately all my doors are blown off at the hinges. Shazam! The place has been transformed. A lot of money and hard work has been expended in the refurbishment of the gaff. Gone are the hulking stone walls and the uneven cobblestoned floor. Swathes of magnolia cotton drape the walls and, at regular intervals oil paintings and watercolours, some framed and others in canvas print, hang just below the v-lined roof and gleam invitingly. The smart terra-cotta tiles would not be out of place in any well-appointed mansion on the Mediterranean coast. The creaky sound I hear as I lower my skinny tòn into a well padded chair in the front row doesn’t come from my rickety knee joints but, I swear, from Seumas Mòr turning in his grave.
The place was full to bursting. Congratulations, organisers, for having the nous to pre-sell tickets electronically. Anyone who has ever shopped for anything online knows that the costs to the purchaser are next to nothing. Unless you have to dig into your wallet or purse for paper currency, you don’t really notice what you’re spending, do you?
Peach/Skeoch aided by friends on percussion and synth /keyboard opened the concert itself. I liked the look of these guys – tall, handsome guy with an engaging smile on accordion and a lovely young woman on clarsach – but I’m embarrassed to confess that I personally didn’t fancy their energetic and innovative sound that much. I accept, however, that contrast is useful and their music may have appealed more to others in the audience. The continuity definitely needed tightening up a bit. If they really feel they have to comment on a previous or forthcoming set, they ought to write their thoughts down, memorise them and deliver them at a leisurely pace. Less confabulation and more projection, please.
Peach/Skeoch took us on a musical tour of Europe, starting in Ireland, moving over to Northumberland, briefly visiting Belgium, and ending up in Norway. It was at this point I realised that, irrespective of claimed provenance, the repetitive musical figures they favoured was the really the same tune. It was shortly after this I fell into a metaphorical snowdrift and a deep dream of peace.
The James Mackenzie Trio rocked. James has not just awesome technique, he almost has demonic power – in a positive sense. He took up the traditional wooden flute and played impeccably some of his own compositions. The stand-out set was a version of the Gaelic song Mairead Og:
‘O, Mhairead Og, ‘s tu rinn mo leòn,
‘S tu dh’ fhàg fo bhròn ‘s fo mhulad mi . . .
This was pure bliss. He also played on a well-tuned Highland pipe a set of 2/4 Marches and a medley of P/M Donald Macleod’s Jigs and Hornpipes. This galvanised Allan Nairn to show us what he was capable of on his magnificent Gibson guitar. John Lowrie on drums and keyboards displayed admirable restraint in his contributions.
Oh, yeah, when the large crowd dispersed just before ten o’clock, there I was, clutching the portrait I’d won in the raffle and bopping like a teenager down to the car.
Truly there was voodoo abroad in the Township of the Nuns that night.