By Iain MacInnes
(From the February 2020 Piping Times)
Scotland’s musical roots run deep, and on the evidence of this new CD, have spread far. Recorded in Arlington in Washington State on the west coast of the USA, Westering Home features two distinctive musical strands: the Highland pipe tradition as embodied in an impressive line-up of top soloists and pipe band drummers; and the Scottish-inflected fiddle tradition of Cape Breton Island in Canada.
Together these make for good listening – an engaging blend of solo piping, pipe band music, fiddle tunes and even singing, involving 19 musicians playing in a variety of combinations over 17 tracks. As well as pipes, drums and fiddles, Ross Martin is on hand to provide tasteful guitar accompaniment, and Troy MacGillivray plays piano, most memorably on an exquisite rendition of Scott Skinner’s fiddle pibroch The Piper’s Weird. (The word ‘weird’ is used here in the old Scots sense of ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.)
Produced by the Celtic Arts Foundation, the project features the teaching staff at the Foundation’s annual Winter School, recorded over a single weekend in a good local studio. The tracks are played ‘as live’, with no overdubbing or studio gimmickry, and a pleasing edge of spontaneity and energy.
At its heart lies a pipe band featuring the nine pipers and four drummers involved in teaching at the school, all highly-regarded soloists and bandsmen. Roddy MacLeod takes the helm on the piping side, and Steven McWhirter looks after the drumming. Together they produce a powerful sound, with pipes beautifully set and a strong underpinning of precise and imaginative percussion. I was particularly drawn to a brisk March, Strathspey and Reel arrangement of Dugald MacColl’s Farewell to France, Dora MacLeod and Thompson’s Dirk, and also a set of dance tunes culminating in Mrs MacLeod of Raasay – not breaking any musical boundaries, perhaps, but providing what old Angus MacPherson might have called “good, substantial, Highland fare”.
There is also a wonderful arrangement of the piobaireachd, The Old Woman’s Lullaby, orchestrated by Murray Henderson, and with a strong harmony line running through the first variation. The pipes here are at their most mellifluous, warm and rich, and nicely recorded in the large studio space. The track perhaps pays homage to the original Invergordon Distillery recording of the same tune released in 1966, a seminal moment in pipe band history which helped pave the way to an expanded pipe band repertoire in which ceòl mòr could certainly play its part – though not, it has to be said, without a degree of resistance from the more traditionally-minded.
In the video which accompanies the CD, Henderson describes himself as a “progressive traditionalist”, and, listening to this tune arrangement, I think I know what he means. The ceòl mòr tradition is respected, rhythms are given room to breathe, the sound remains true, and yet the overall impact of nine pipers playing in unison is very distinctive, and moving. Possibly what makes the track work so well is the fact that all the players are masters of the idiom – they simply know what they’re doing. It’s a great piece of music.
The other main strand to the recording has a folkier feel, with fiddlers Andrea Beaton, Wendy MacIsaac, Katie McNally and Troy MacGillivray providing a solid bedrock of good Cape Breton tunes, to be joined on three tracks by smallpiper and whistle-player Gary West and guitarist Ross Martin. Indeed, this combination produces a couple of the outstanding moments on the album, one a version of James MacKenzie’s reel Smelling Fresh, imbued with a vivacious Cape Breton swing, and the other a beautifully sparse arrangement of Finlay MacDonald’s tune for his son, Elliot Finn MacDonald. Sometimes simplicity is the way to go.
West also contributes two songs, his setting of Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come-All-Ye in particular providing a suitable vehicle to bring pipes and fiddles together in a crescendo of voice, melody and counterpoint. I suspect Hamish would have approved, as would John McLellan, who wrote the original tune (The Bloody Fields of Flanders), and was known to compose the odd bit of poetry himself.
The CD comes with an accompanying video which charts the recording process fly-on-the-wall style. It is professionally made, and reveals the extent to which great musicians can come together in a pressured environment to create something special – and scarcely a sheet of music in sight! There are short interviews, too, with many of the players. Wendy MacIsaac talks of the importance of the regular 6.00pm fiddle broadcast on her local radio station (“a lot of the music was just ingrained in us”). Willie McCallum and Angus MacColl talk of distinguished piping forebears, musical roots running deep. Mike Cole modestly suggests that “we’re just putting out a body of work, something that will live-on for a while”.
He’s right – it’s good work, and it should live-on.
Pipers: Roddy MacLeod MBE, Callum Beaumont, Brian Donaldson, Bruce Gandy, Murray Henderson, Jack Lee, Stuart Liddell, Angus MacColl, Willie McCallum.
Drum corps: Drum Sergeant Steven McWhirter, Blair Brown, Mike Cole, Tyler Fry.
Folk band: Andrea Beaton (fiddle), Wendy MacIsaac (fiddle), Troy MacGillivray (fiddle, piano), Ross Martin (guitar), Katie McNally (fiddle), Gary West (smallpipes, whistle, vocals).
• The CD is available from the website of the Celtic Arts Foundation at