A new generation of talent tell us why contemporary Scottish trad music is defying expectations
Scotland is a country with many fine musical exports, ranging from summery indie pop bands to old-school punk rockers. But in amongst the many different strands of popular music on offer, you'll find a genre that is often overlooked, despite being enjoyed and celebrated all over the world. Scotland's trad scene is thriving and evolving constantly, thanks in part to a new wave of artists that are experimenting with the very notion of what trad music is and where it is heading. In the 21st century, trad music in Scotland is more than just bagpipes and ballads; it's full of excitement, energy and lots of surprises.
To delve deeper into what Scotland's trad scene is all about, we caught up with a few of our favourite acts to hear their thoughts on why in 2017, the genre deserves your attention.
Left to right: Rachel Newton, Niall Munro, Mohsen Amini, Joe Peach, Ruairidh Graham, Mark Bruce
On what makes trad music special in Scotland today
Rachel Newton (BBC Radio 2 Folk Award Musician of the Year 2017): Trad music is special because it's taking something that has been around for centuries, and is such an important part of Scotland's heritage, and adding other influences a Scottish musician inevitably has being part of a multi-cultural, outward-looking country.
Niall Munro (Skye Live): Trad music has evolved into an exciting contemporary form, with an amazing group of young players across Scotland always willing to extend the reach of trad music and experiment with new forms.
Mohsen Amini (Talisk, Ímar and BBC Scotland's Young Traditional Musician of the Year 2016): Trad music in Scotland has always been very strong and personally I would say it's the frontrunner when it comes to celtic music. Every year there are more bands being formed and pushing the boundaries, coming up with new unheard of ways to express the genre.
Joe Peach (Tannara): 2017 has been a great year for Scottish trad music. It seems that year on year there's always more: more great new music being released, more exciting collaborations, great gigs and such. We find this both as musicians and as audience members.
Ruairidh Graham (Niteworks): The growth of the folk and trad scene in Scotland has nurtured and breathed new life into one of Scotland's real treasures. The evolution of the music has brought in whole new audiences with an appreciation for our musical roots, and it is a music scene that has retained much of the community spirit from which it originated.
On how to get more young people involved
Mark Bruce (The Elephant Sessions): We all came through the Fèisean movement. It really encourages Gaelic and traditional music in young people so we owe a lot to that and it's still doing great things for traditional music and culture in young people in Scotland.
RN: I know I was encouraged to stick with trad music because it is such a sociable and creative activity. Playing in sessions and forming bands, attending the Fèisean nan Gaidheal tuition weeks and festivals where there are so many likeminded people is so exciting. There are lots of opportunities for young people to get involved including the Fèis, the Youth Gaitherin and Tinto Summer School.
MA: We live in a digital age where any genre is only a click away and trad music is no exception. There are also organisations such as Comhaltas and the Fèis where young people – and old – can receive tuition on a wide range of instruments all circulating the trad scene. But, if you're over 18, undoubtedly the best place to hear and play trad music is at the pub. All over Glasgow there are sessions every night with world class musicians and this is by far the best way to become completely immersed in traditional music.
JP: In our younger years, everyone in Tannara had a great experience with the Fèis movement. It's a truly great model for getting young people involved in trad music, and it's great to see this area continue to grow, and attracting new participants, right across Scotland. There are also lots of brilliant Scottish festivals, such as Hebcelt, Belladrum and Skye Live (these are just a couple of examples!), that do much to attract a younger audience.
Tannara RG: Investing in the arts would be one such way. Providing opportunities for youngsters to get involved in music is key to engendering a life-long passion for music. Most of the band were involved in the Fèis movement and consider its impact even today – even though we have taken our music in different directions since. Kids need role models in the folk and trad scene as well – and these days there are many.
On the crossover between trad and other forms of popular music
MB: We all listen to a lot of different music as a band. Some of the lads love dance music, some funk, some electronica so I think when we get together it makes for an interesting blend of ideas. Being firmly rooted in the tradition but all having other musical interests has enabled us to take a slightly different approach to our writing.
RG: The loose rule of thumb that we follow is to ask whether both the trad element and electronic element would stand up as credible within their own right, and also if the crossover works as well. A reel is in 4/4 timing which is the mainstay for most other popular forms of music so if you have that in common, the rest are details to be worked out.
On trad audiences and the best places to experience the music
NM: As a result of crossover, the trad music audience has expanded massively. It has a well-established and exciting circuit, but with Celtic Connections being the primary focus as a major international event. As an up and coming young festival, Skye Live itself provides great a opportunity to experience some of these crossover acts, in an unique and iconic location.
MA: Trad has an incredible diverse audience ranging from young to old. You can find yourself playing a gig to an audience of 60+ and it all being very tame and then the next night playing to 14–30 year olds and the place going absolutely wild. Some of the best gigs I've played in Scotland would have to be at Celtic Connections in Glasgow. The place is buzzing for a month solid and everyone is in great spirits coming to the gigs. Other great festivals are HebCelt, Killin Music Festival, Shetland Folk Festival and Orkney Folk Festival.
JP: Trad audiences are very loyal and supportive. We've only been on the go as a band for a couple of years now, but we've been incredibly lucky with the amount of support we've had from audiences across Scotland. Our favourite venue in Scotland (and possibly the world!) is The Ceilidh Place up in Ullapool. There are also loads of great festivals in Scotland, in pretty much every corner of the country. But the biggest one is Celtic Connections, which takes place over the month of January in Glasgow each year. We're really spoiled by it; the depth and breadth of the Scottish folk scene are there, as well as acts from far beyond.
MB: A home audience in Scotland is always amazing. Celtic Connections is a brilliant festival and it champions traditional music from all over the world. Some of the best and most inspiring gigs we've both played and watched have been part of Celtic Connections. Our own sold out show at the Òran Mór this year is something that we will never forget!
Rachel Newton / credit: Somhairle MacDonald
On making the trad music scene more diverse
RN: Like most music scenes, trad music is still male-dominated in certain areas, particularly at festivals. Things are definitely changing for the better, but I'd like to see an equal gender balance on our stages, especially among instrumentalists. Representation is so important, the more young women see other women on stage the more they believe they could do the same. So the promoters and festival bookers must play a part in taking responsibility to represent a wider, more diverse line-up. I believe this is a good thing for the scene as a whole. Awareness among both musicians and others working in the industry of inclusivity and encouragement is vital. I recently co-founded a group called The BIT Collective to look at ways of addressing gender issues in folk and trad music.
On where to start if you're new to Scottish trad
RN: I would recommend any song on Martyn Bennett's album Grit. This record to me frames traditional material in a new, inventive and totally brilliant way by someone who excelled in all sorts of musical genres and had such a deep connection with traditional Scottish music and the people making it.
NM: 'Maraiche' by Niteworks is a great track that I'd definitely recommend listening to. Any work by the late Martyn Bennett is always worth a shout too!
MA: Well I would have to be biased and pick one of my own and it would either be 'l'Air Mignonne' by Ímar or 'Echo' by Talisk.
MB: Well, I'll go for the shameless self-plug of 'Wet Field Day' from our latest album All We Have Is Now. We also really like Inyal and Tannara at the moment – check them out!
RG: 'Cold Light' by Duncan Lyall. This I think was born out of his New Voices Commission – it's a total belter.
The singer, harpist, fiddler and founding member of The Shee, the Emily Portman Trio and The Furrow Collective takes time away from collaborations to perform solo folk. Her third album Here's My Heart Come Take It was recently chosen as one of the 20 albums on the 2017 SAY Award longlist.