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The Scottish Classics

September 27, 2012

It’s only my own ignorance that I expose in saying that offhand I can’t think of a single Scottish classical composer.

Sitting on my own in a pleasant Edinburgh bar, tapping away on a mobile device (hoping that people will assume I’m in the virtual company of loved ones, not Billy NoMates, down at the end of Lonely Street – you know where), it struck me that I couldn’t tell you what Scotland’s contribution to the classical genre is. I get no further than Fingal’s Cave and the Scottish Symphony, both by Mendelssohn who (convention has it) was German; or Macbeth – the Verdi interpretation.

No doubt I’ve missed something obvious (please do point it out) – but it was curious, though. Scotland, like Ireland, has a pride in its musical tradition that is hard to miss. You can go into a Scottish or Irish bar and experience it, wherever in the world you might be. A band or singer, offering a selection from a wide range of familiar contemporary and folk songs, will put a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye at 50 paces.

I’m not ashamed to admit that when my friend Willie gives us The Fields of Athenry it gets me right .

As do the Proclaimers singing about Sunshine on Leith, and the Dubliners singing about almost anything. Luke Kelly’s voice, described once as being like coke being scraped under a barn door (referring I think to the coal derivative, not the popular variety of fizzy pop or a hopefully less popular form of illicit stimulant) is an improbable triumph. Perhaps this is because folk songs are the most obvious musical expressions of national or regional identity, and their subjects and form are so often naturally emotional. Whatever the reason, a dose of Mary Hamilton by Joan Baez will melt the iciest heart. Doesn’t always work though – does anyone remember Fiddler’s Dram – The Day we went to Bangor? I shan’t trouble you with a link to that one.

Folk songs never die – they live on in festivals (sung by people “in funny voices, with their hands behind their ears”); they get woven into orchestral suites and operas; or they get completely rocked-up: there is no car journey, anywhere, anytime, that can’t be improved by Thin Lizzy’s Whiskey in the Jar.


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