Music is an integral part of Scottish culture; from ceilidh dances to bagpiping at special occasions, to fiddle music by the fire, to closing the night or even the year with a thunderous rendition of Auld Lang Syne. Nothing evokes as strong a feeling of Scottish identity and kinship as hearing the first strangled notes of a bagpipe tune make its way into the world.
Scottish folk & traditional music can be energetic and rhythmic, and completely undeniable. You’ll soon find yourself toe-tapping, head-bopping, and maybe even jumping in and joining the dancing. It can also be deeply emotional and slow, harking back to times and love lost.
The origin of Scottish folk music is undefinable. It has roots in Gaelic, Pictish, Old Scots, and old Norse culture and tradition. It has evolved even further with the Scottish diaspora across the globe.
Scottish folk and traditional music is now more popular than ever. There are over different 20 Celtic music festivals taking place across Scotland, with Celtic Connections in Glasgow to HebCelt in Stornoway. The melodies of Scottish trad have also successfully woven their way in contemporary music.
Ewan MacPherson, notable for being the mandolin player in the acclaimed acid-croft band Shooglenifty, talks about his experiences with Scottish traditional music below…
We also put together a playlist of some of the best traditional and folk music that Scotland has to offer. Enjoy!
Ewan: I’m originally from Liverpool and moved to Wales in my childhood. My first experience with folk and traditional music was when my parents would take me to concerts in North Wales. This was back in the early 90s. My interest in Scottish folk & trad came from seeing some of the great Scottish trad bands passing through at the time.
I also remember seeing a black and white video of Shooglenifty on welsh TV and was struck by their approach to the music. I’d not heard anything like it, and it was very different at the time to other folk music. Another influence was my childhood holidays. Instead of going abroad like my friends, we’d go to North Uist, camping in the boggy hills. That is how I got exposed to the Scottish outdoors and went to my first ceilidhs.
Ewan: I decided to move to Edinburgh after graduating from Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts in 1998. Because I really liked a lot of the music which was happening there at the time. I spent the next 12 years living and working as a musician in the city and getting to know everyone on the vibrant Scottish music scene.
In 2011 the late Angus Grant Jr phoned me up and asked me to join Shooglenify for a couple of gigs because their current mandolin player, Luke Plumb, was away in Australia. At the end of a year, it became obvious that Luke wasn’t in a position to keep playing regularly with the band. And so I ended up doing every gig that they had after that which still appears to be the case!
Ewan: Generally really great. When people go see traditional Scottish music, they are there for the experience. And they’re generally really open-minded. Recently, for example, I was playing some background music in the Fife Arms for a group of Americans celebrating a birthday. There was a mother with a small child and she walked up and started dancing to our music. It’s a rich and old tradition, very powerful with the ability to bring joyful moments and thoughtful ones. So it depends, it’s a mixture of emotional reactions really, depending on the music.
Ewan: The scales are not balanced between the cities and the countryside. Most of the cities have more music options, but some of the best music I’ve come across recently has been in highland pubs. The nearest pub to me now is Macgregors in Inverness. They have a traditional music session every Sunday, hosted by the bar’s owner Bruce, a great fiddler himself, performs with the well-known band Blazin Fiddles.
The Ceilidh Place in Ullapool is also great, although they do more concerts than sessions these days.
For actual sessions, there is a few around the highlands if you know where to look, for example, the Arisaig Hotel. Eilidh Shaw, Shooglenifty’s fiddler lives near there. In fact, a lot of folk and trad musicians live in Lochaber which makes it a hotspot for good music. The Glenfinnan hotel is also one to mention. There are some great musicians around there including Iain and Ingrid Henderson.
Mhor 84 in Balquhidder is one of my favourites – managed by the lovely Tom and Lisa Lewis. They also run the Monachyle Mhor hotel. When I lived there we started a music night, it’s still going strong today with “Thank Folk it’s Thursday’ taking place weekly on a Thursday. I still play there often, also at Monachyle Mhor hotel. I’m biased but I think the Monachyle Mhor is amazing. Really high quality of food and service, whilst at the same time being very relaxed and low key – which is a special thing. There’s also the Mhor festival, with amazing food, music and theatre events, it’s really great.
Ewan: For pure traditional music, it’s the Orkney folk festival. The Orkney islands are so amazing. The size of the festival is good. With live music in Stromness hotel and gigs throughout the town. There’s also easy camping.
HebCelt festival draws a lot of tourists for its location. And Lewis is a great place for a visit too.
Celtic Connections is the classic of course. It’s massive. Almost too big for itself. But there is amazing content. People really pull something extra out of the bag for it. They will do collaborations with other musicians or unveil new albums.
Going back to the hotbed of Lochaber and Eilidh Shaw is the musical director for Feis na Mara festival there which takes place in Mallaig hall. Eilidh knows how to throw a party and cherry-picks the best bands to play there. It’s a bit of a secret festival, it’s not very big but always high quality.
Lastly, there is the SEALL Festival of small halls on the Isle of Skye. It’s great for people on holiday in the area as there is entertainment in halls across Skye and Lochaber every night for 8 days straight.
Ewan: I like the balance. I like both. It’s great fun to play high energy upbeat festivals with Shooglenifty, they are great fun but I like playing the more intimate gigs too. I also play in a band called Salthouse together with my partner Lauren MacColl on fiddle and the amazing singer Jenny Sturgeon. We generally play low key chilled out music which is a really nice contrast.
I’m also a member of the Cairngorm Ceilidh Band and I really look forward to playing some low key gigs for private clients in a highland castle after bigger tours.
Ewan: As far as I’m aware, yes. This is probably due to a large number of people emigrating there. Many people have Scottish connections. A lot of places in New Zealand have Scottish names. There are various big festivals in Australia and New Zealand. There is an amazing one in Australia called Woodford Folk Festival, it’s absolutely massive, and attended by over 40,000 people.
Ewan: A mixture really. A lot of people used to come up to us and say they have Scottish heritage, and they know all about Scottish music. They deliberately come seeking that experience, listening to live Scottish traditional music. It’s in their bones, so they connect with it.
But on the other hand, the music is so strong in itself. Folk music in particular as it has strong melodies that get passed down and stay alive. They get played again and again. It appeals to a wider audience because the music is strong.
Ewan: Scottish traditional music is constantly moving and changing, it’s always progressing. But there are the purists who play the old melodies. At the same time, a lot of people are experimenting with the tradition, with varying degrees of success. Scottish trad needs to breathe, it can’t get squashed. Martyn Bennet, for example, he had a sensitive way of mixing up classical/traditional influences and electronic. There are a lot of “Celtic” bands doing it now. A recent example of the music crossing over into the mainstream is Ed Sheeran with Galway Girl and Irish band Beoga. It occasionally does pop up in contemporary mainstream music.
Shooglenifty continues mixing in contemporary sounds and punk influences. It’s very healthy that people enjoy experimenting with it. It’s also important to note there is so much new music being written, the richness of old music can sometimes get overlooked. The traditional will always run in parallel with the modern side of things – and people will dip in and out of it, taking and adding.
Ewan: Well, actually it’s the likeness which is really fascinating. When we went to India we found all these similarities with Scottish music like their dance melodies and big ballad tales of love and loss, heroic battles and journeys.
I have theories (which may or may not be founded in reality!), that if you draw a line west from India via the Middle East and Eastern Europe, then up to Scotland and Scandinavia, the music changes in speed. The way traditional music changes to suit its environment is very interesting. For example in the heat of India music is very long-lasting and starts slow and relaxing, gradually building over a long time into a crescendo. Then you notice that the further north and west the music somehow gets tighter and more squared off, perhaps it could be shorter and more lively throughout. I theorise that this is a reflection of the environment and climate in which the music is made, which influences the lifestyle of the people there.
One thing that would be worth mentioning is the “Scotch snap”. It originated from and is particular to Scottish traditional music. It’s a unique thing and people who are interested in the musical side of things might like to know that Louis Armstrong once said Scottish music is unique for its Scotch snap, a musical element that can particularly be heard in Strathspeys.
Ewan: It’s when you really touch someone with your music. That’s a special thing. People have said that when they’ve lost a loved one, the music has really helped them get through it. Other times people are just blown away with the joy of a night dancing. People can have a great time partying. As soon as people start dancing – that’s a great compliment already. On the slower side of things – people have said that the music has made their holiday. That it was a bit of magic that they weren’t expecting. People can get struck by a particularly poignant piece and it really affects them.