Late morning, New Year’s Day 2016, and the Edinburgh weather is fine. Not sunny, but the sky is bright and, south of the Forth, Storm Frank has blown and rained himself out. For all the late-night revelry of Hogmanay, the streets are animated again, with plenty of folk up and about and looking for things to do.
I arrive at the university’s Playfair Library 10 minutes before the doors open at 12.30. There is already a long queue right the way down the stairs and out into the quad. The way SCOT:LANDS works is that you’re given a small leaflet with a list of the ten LANDS; then you spin a dial to see which one will be your first destination, and you’re given directions. You’re not told the location of any of the other LANDS, so you can’t plan an itinerary; without word-of-mouth intelligence, you’re at the mercy of that dial. But, forewarned, I make my way straight to St Giles Cathedral for the ATLAS programme.
St Giles is open to the public, so there are ‘casual’ visitors along with those who’ve followed their map to BLUE:SKYE LAND. It’s a while since I was last here, for a well-attended concert, when the interior was full of chairs. Today I’m struck by the open space, especially at the far end beyond the central pulpit.
BLUE:SKYE LAND is a musical afternoon, and begins on a small stage at that far end. ‘Quirang’, composed for solo clarinet by John Wallace, is played by Ewan Zuckert. To be heard ideally in the Quirang, it’s along way from home, but its angular runs evoke something of that landscape’s rocky magnificence here beneath sculpted arches and Victorian stained glass. Then we’re straight into “electronics, Gaelic song and Indian vibes”, as Gaelic singer Anne Martin puts it, introducing her set with Jason Singh. “The connection of all these songs is separation,” says Anne; the separation of people from one another, so think a dairymaid in love with the clan chief, and of people from their land, as the Highlands are cleared for sheep. It’s a theme Martin and Singh also found in India, in the form of the caste system, and the 1947 Partition.
Jason sits calmly at a laptop, his head bobbing in time with the music, his mouth making a whole drum kit, as well as birdsong and waves on the shore. While the one hand holds the mic, the other seems to sculpt these sounds from the air. Anne wears a collarless, rather 18th century coat, orange or gold or orangey-gold, depending how the light falls. Joe Harrison joins them, alternating between an amplified accoustic guitar (which a technician anxiously recables more than once) and a black bodiless upright bass with quite a stage presence.
Then the focus shifts to the Preston Aisle behind us. Leighton Jones sits at a grand piano, with singer Marie Claire Breen to one side, and three musicians – trumpet, horn and cello – to the other. ‘Finlay Rise’ is in no rush, and I find its slow variations hypnotic, but after the sparky rhythms of the earlier set the audience seems to need more to hook them and begins to drift away. During their second set, as twilight gathers and the colours of the stained glass begin to fade, I find myself listening to these songs from the other side of the church, my daughter’s head on my shoulder (she is tired and hungover after a long Hogmanay). A larger crowd has gathered between us and the performers, but we hear their music clearly. It seems the perfect accompaniment to this Ne’er Day afternoon; mellow, melodic, melancholic, cocooning us out of time.
The audience ebbs and flows; if it thins it’s not for long. Dials in the other LANDS must have stopped at BLUE:SKYE, and the individuals thus directed converge and gather here, before consulting another dial on the way out and being dispersed again.
Hector MacInnes also plays the grand piano. But instead of a singer and other instrumentalists, he’s accompanied by a recorded soundtrack and projected images, all part of his Arburo project. Made with Philippa Thomas, and blending the Highland clearances with contemporary Cambodian land evictions and the closure of the virtual domain EALand, Arburo builds a fictional world in music, animations, film and field recordings. To plaintive piano accompaniment, a man says, “I only got a rice bowl and a rice cooker,” describing what he saved when the bulldozers arrived. On the screen we see building blocks appear and morph from 2D to 3D; Skye grasses blow lazily in the wind, and then there are long black and white travelling shots of buildings and fields that look like they’re taken from a train carriage, the sometimes abrupt changes of scene softened by the steady onward motion.
Near the entrance in the Albany Aisle Hanna Tuulikki’s film Women of the Hill plays. It shows three women in plain white costunes with belts and headpieces woven from flowers and grasses, singing a ceremony at High Pastures on Skye, an ancient ritual site only recently rediscovered. Beneath the screen in semi-darkness lie some of the strange and fragile objects used in the film – a blanket woven from pussy willows, a spindle of red holly berries, a plaited grass rope. A small group of viewers sits to the left, listening through headphones. The sound is also being played through speakers, but quietly, so it’s only the louder passages of song that are audible above the steady volume of the visitors’ voices, and the music from the other end of the church. I slip on a pair of headphones that become free. The singers slowly clasp their hands, and fall silent. And begin again; two harmonise a rhythm, before the third sings what sounds to me like a flameco melody, yearning and tragic, a Hebridean duende, the soundtrack for a spaghetti western set on the moors (though perhaps for spaghetti read bannocks).
Anne, Jason and Joe close the afternoon, and during their final set a small child (there’s always one) takes the open space between audience and performers as an invitation to dance – a few more years and they’ll have perfected those breakdancing moves. The windows have long since lost their colours, and inside the cathedral the eye is drawn to pools of electric light and candlelight. After the last applause, BLUE:SKYE fades into darkness and silence; musicians stand talking to listeners and friends, or leave carrying their gear. The audience drifts out the double doors into the evening, discussing the afternoon, and their new year resolutions. Today, at least, there’s no chummily-named storm to blow us off-course.