Alasdair Roberts & Robin Robertson - Hirta Songs
Rich work exploring St Kilda and summoning the old, weird Scotland via Gaelic melodies
This article is from 2013.
On Hirta Songs, folk singer Alasdair Roberts and poet Robin Robertson set sail for the remote Hebridean archipelago of St Kilda. After at least two millennia of human settlement, St Kilda was evacuated in 1930, leaving this rugged Atlantic outcrop to the vast colonies of seabirds who nest among its vertiginous sea stacks. On this collaborative set of songs and poems, Roberts and Robertson explore the geography, history and mythology of the islands, imagining life at the edge of the world.
The St Kildans’ diet was primarily based around seabirds, and the opening two songs depict the lengths the islanders would go to in their ‘harvestry of wild birds’. ‘A Fall of Sleet’ describes the islanders rowing four miles north ‘across the rolling coalface of the sea’ to the gannet colony of Boreray, where the birds appear ‘like blowing ash’. The melody, based on the Gaelic song ‘Latha Inbhir Lòchaidh’, evokes a sense of tough men persevering against the elements, while a swooping fiddle captures their wonder at the birds ‘rising up and falling free/arrows in the sea’. ‘Farewell to the Fowler’ tells the true story of Neil MacLeod, who fell to his death from Stac Biorach on Soay while collecting fulmars. ‘Buoyed up by the ghosts of birds’, his drowning was delayed by the air in the bodies of the dead birds tied to his belt.
Elsewhere, the pair explore the island’s mythology. ‘The Plain of Spells’ lists the wild plants of the island known for their medicinal and magical properties – ‘moss to staunch an open wound’ and a daisy wreath ‘to open up the otherworld within the holy stones’. ‘The Drum Time’ imagines the islanders, temporarily stranded on Boreray, exhuming the ‘war pipes’, drum and fiddle of their ‘pagan’ music from the ‘long and low grave’ dug for them by a puritanical Kirk. Yet Christian imagery runs through the evacuation song ‘Exodus’, with Roberts as the precentor, leading a congregation of raw voices and droning fiddles in an austere chorus of ‘we can not return now’.
The song structures are less baroque and the arrangements sparser than those of Roberts’ other 2013 album, A Wonder Working Stone, yet Hirta Songs is just as rich a work, summoning the old, weird Scotland via Celtic melodies and Robertson’s clear lyricism. Special mention must go to Corrina Hewat, whose starkly beautiful harp provides reflective interludes to the songs and poems.