Rory Matheson & Graham Rorie – We Have Won The Land: Album Review

Complex chamber trad fusion with enough heart and soul, find your feet from Rory Matheson & Graham Rorie.

Release date: 22nd April 2022

Label: Rumley Sounds

Format: CD, digital

I guess we have to be thankful that the PR folk didn’t slip this duo a new title here, the Two Rories or Rory Squared, for a move like that might have totally trivialised this oddly majestic album. Ladies and Gentlemen, I think we have a contender. A contender for the best Scots album based on or as a tribute to historical events, appreciating we have had one or two this year. Of course (Graham) Rorie has form here, having put out last year’s excellent The Orcadians of Hudson Bay, as well as being a member of Gnoss, that impossibly talented and improbably young quartet of trad virtuosi. (A description that hardly differentiates them, I know, from much the competition, but such is how it is, these days, in Caledonia.) A fiddle player of some subtlety and verve, he is here joined by Rory (Matheson), a member of both TRIP and Fara, where his distinctive piano style, at once pure scots ceilidh, yet with undercurrents swiped from jazz and blues, he has made himself a name to be noticed. With guests of a similar pedigree, including Anna Massie on guitar, this is a crop creamed from the best of Glasgow’s effervescent folk scene. Or some of the best graduates of Scotland’s Royal Conservatoire, true, astonishingly, on both counts. And the result is a veritable delight.

Perhaps I should set the scene, with the basis for the album, the germ of which arose in lockdown, the only reason they weren’t otherwise out on the road in any of their many varied commitments. This allowed the pair of musicians to hunker down and create this work. The inspiration came from Assynt, Matheson’s locale, where, in 1993, came the historic buy-out of the land, by the crofters who worked and lived on it, hitherto in hock to the wealthy absentee landlords, that ownership on often dubious merit. Whilst the case triggered similar successes elsewhere, such is till the case in much of the highlands and islands: see Andy Wightman’s excellent and detailed tome on the subject, The Poor Had No Lawyers: Who Owns Scotland. Or indeed John Macaskill’s book of the same name as this album, concentrating on this particular landmark event.

The set is introduced by an atmospheric piano-led piece, the repeated notes signifying intent, as a gradual introduction of fiddle adds to the atmosphere, before it becomes a march of persuasion. This is The Whitbread Case, commemorating the 1992 upholding of a crofter’s right against his landlord, Whitbread, to trouser half the sale costs of the croft to a third party. This was a well-timed snook cocked at the Landlords, occurring days before the Assynt Crofters had their case first aired. The melody is of optimism and motors on, the drums of Fraser Stone (Treacherous Orchestra), bodhràn of Craig Baxter (Gross) and flute of Tiernan Courell (TRIP) giving added impetus, and a backbone of bass courtesy Charlie Stewart (Sketch). And if it sounds as if there are two fiddles in the mix, there probably are, Kristen Harvey (Fara) providing the second. Stating Intentions is a gentler excursion, mandolin, guitar, flute and fiddles sashaying over the keyboard, realisation sinking there may be way ahead. The mandolin is Rorie, the tune then breaking into a strong dual fiddle declamation, ahead of the whole ensemble jumping on board. A special mention for the rhythm section who add nuances beyond the runaway train it might otherwise offer, Massie’s guitar integral if never other than part of the dense mix, and the piano sufficiently off-trad to be perfect.

I’m a sucker for a well sung Gaelic song, and Àirigh á Chùlchinn is just that, the yearning vocal provided by James Graham, another local boy, from Lochinver, and 2014 winner of BBC Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year, the first male recipient and the first Gaelic singer so to do. (Lest the rest of the musicians present take umbrage at that focus, each, if not all, have featured in said competition over the years!) Over the delicately chiming piano of Matheson, it makes for a delectable interlude in the otherwise largely instrumental melée. The song was a favourite of Matheson’s grandfather, Hughie, himself on the steering committee for the crofters, later a director of the established Assynt Crofter’s Trust. This is followed by the lively flute and bodhràn of The First Bid, picked up by the rest of the band. Subtitled The Liquidator, this is about the first bid put, by the crofters, to the liquidator of the estate. Midway, a piano drives in with a sense of nervous energy, that bid subject to delay ahead acceptance. The Second Bid, necessary given eventual rejection of that first, suggests a greater sense of deliberation, a sense of determination to break through any such barrier, that further made plain by a defiant fiddle led advance, in the second part of this section, the overall voice of all-out breakthrough.

The much gentler air of Who Possesses This Land is a lament, that bid too rejected. Rorie’s fiddle is stately and sad, the sound of wounds being licked and powder being stored. A second fiddle and Matheson’s piano make this a musical highpoint, however much it echoes the then desolation of hope the crofters must have felt. Clearly, though, not the end of it, as a final bid was scrabbled together: £300,000 offered on the 4th December, with an anxious four days ahead of the eventual acceptance. The Final Bid is a further song, a brooding melody that mirrors that anxious hope, James Graham again tugging on my inner Gael. Beautiful.

Success achieved, This Is Ours, is very much celebratory in mood, the drums an insistent driver, as bass and guitars thrum under the swooping fiddles and flute, the piano as much a rhythm instrument as chucking in cheeky flourishes of jubilation. A sort of jig, if more complicated, it is a real rare old hooley of a track. And, you know that morning after, where, instead of the down of the hangover, there is the uplift of remembrance, and a weary residual smile and swagger, that mood is mirrored perfectly by closing tune, We Have Won The Land. Another exquisitely put together ensemble piece. Just as it should finish, up they come again, with a reprise, a little diminished in overall energy, but showing the ongoing and insurmountable will to win.

I have waxed on again, I know I have, but this triumphant project deserves that. Almost unclassifiable, with takes from trad, takes from folk, hints of chamber jazz, and more. Rock it isn’t, however much it rolls, but I still wholeheartedly endorse it upon all of ye. High class quality music, indeed. As well as that, the presentation is a joy to witness, the photography of the sleeve and the informative and attractive booklet that comes therewith.

Here’s a video the duo of Rorie and Rory made about the project:

Graham Rorie online: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

Rory Matheson online: Twitter / Instagram

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