Rebecca Hill & Charlie Stewart – Thawcrook: Album Review

Stirrings in the fiddle and harp camp: a rewilding revitalising of the trad.

Release Date: 28th April 2023

Label: Lomond Records

Format: CD/digital (Bandcamp)

Well, most would say a harp and fiddle duo would have to be pretty darn good to break ground, much aside enthusiasts and family members, right? Wrong across the board, or, I guess, pretty much spot on, depending on your take on the question, as this duo are pretty darn good and have the goods to please more than just their nearest and dearest, let alone many a trad-sceptic listener. I’m not a family member and, whilst scarcely a sceptic, my taste usually drifts more to where someone has said piffle to purism, and cast their own runes in the ring. In other words, have taken the effigy of the expected and given it a swift talking to, to wake up and smell the prevailing, idolatry be damned.

Hill and Stewart met at Scotland’s Royal Conservatoire, it fast becoming quite the Brit School for myriad Scottish performers, pouring out the doors and onto a stage near you, rivalling Newcastle Uni’s famed Folk degree. Since qualifying in 2013, each has forged individual names and been found noteworthy by the judges of the MG Alba Trad awards and the Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician awards, the Grammys/Oscars of Scottish music: Hill was voted up and coming artist of the year, in 2020, at the former, and Stewart held the title for the latter in 2017. Moreover, he has been an in-demand session player across dozens of recordings, including many recently reviewed right here on these pages, from Kim Carnie to Siobhan Miller, Sarah Markey to Assynt. The duo came up with the idea for this project last year, gradually piecing and putting it all together, working on their ability to improvise, from templates both contemporary and traditional. He is the fiddle, she is the harp.

Opening with a distinctly modern-sounding tone on his fiddle, On The Mountain is happy to mess with your preconceptions, with the sound both chewy and sepulchrally eerie. As the harp comes in, the chances are you will think it guitar. Or piano. Or actually both, this being Hill’s expertise, and, together, the two musicians sounding far more than the sum of their parts. With that slow build, this is based around a pair of tunes, a traditional reel and a later tune from Cape Breton, first one becoming discernible, and then the other. As it ends, the final few moments has Stewart’s fiddle veering delightfully off-piste, with repetition and then fragmentation. Angus Grant’s sounds initially more orthodox, with Hill’s harp sounding completely like the tinkling piano that so often graces this sort of music. A pair of tunes, the eponymous first part is by Allan Henderson and is a tribute to Angus Grant senior, the left-handed fiddler of Lochaber, and his teacher. The second half, a more free-form piece, with Hill syncopating like mad, is Stewart’s own composition, Gus The Fish. I have no idea whether this is, in turn, a tribute to Grant’s son, Angus R. Grant, the late Shooglenifty frontman, but I like to think so, with the contrast between their styles evident in the two halves. Mi Le M’Uillin is then an instrumental setting of Murdo McFarlane’s song of the same name, familiar most in the vocal setting by Karen Matheson. A distant relative of mine, through my mother, McFarlane was the Bard of Melbost, on the Isle of Lewis, a famed poet and writer of songs, and who lived a few doors down from her childhood home, and his work is always capable of drawing me to tears. No different here. The way the two players joust with this slow air is remarkable.

Out On The Roof is another Stewart composition, and sees double-tracked fiddle, normal and octave, start it off. Hill sparkles in, her guitar/piano sounding fusion again like two players. A lively celebration, it could cross the road back and forth between many a genre, echoes of Appalachia in Stewarts’s style. Let That Stand There is then two traditional melodies, the first again somewhat orthodox, if with glorious jazzy tinkles of harp underpinning Stewart’s meticulous play. The harp then becomes more rhythmic and cyclical, almost bluesy, the fiddle mixing and mashing bowing and pizzicato. Wonderful stuff, the two taking turns to give the forward propulsion, over which the other takes a lead, and then returning the compliment. There is what sounds like percussion, with someone striking their strings for that effect. If you are getting a flavour that these two enjoy pairing the dissimilar, sparking off the direction of one into another, quite different, you’d be right, even as they maintain the overarching congruity and sense of the pairing. Cailleach a’ Ghobhainn exemplifies this, with the modern re-arrangement of a a contra dance staple, Scotty O’Neil’s. (Contra dance was is an American variant of country dancing that, arguably, fed into line dancing). However, this version, the Owen Marshall version, involves a more complicated timing, before it merges into the traditional air that graces the whole track. Harp and pizzicato fiddle introduce it, Stewart then striking out. If you can’t hear what is happening, ask your feet to spell it out, the traditional tune taking on ever more contrast with the harp subterfuge.

Iorram Iomraimh is another from the annals of trad. arr., but never content to stick to any rulebook, as Stewart plays in the convention, or as best as he allows himself, Hill tinkles and clangs inventively about him, the depth of layering quite beguiling. I was hoping Higher Ground may have been them daring to take on the Stevie Wonder song, perhaps an ask too much. It is, however, three conjoined tunes, a trad, one of Stewart’s and the third by Scott Skinner, the Scottish Dancing Master of Victorian into early 20th century times. It is tempting to guess, without that guide, which might be which, an almost foolhardy act, but it is fair too say that Stewart’s is the least conventional, with the Skinner being a helter skelter dash for the finish. And my favourite. After all this instrumental onslaught, it is a pleasant surprise to hear a voice, with Mischa MacPherson joining them for the closing track, Aonghais Oig, a traditional Gaelic ballad, the sad tale of a drowning, whereby a man and his two dogs sank in their boat. Not entirely sad, though, as the dogs survived, swimming to safety. The setting takes full advantage of all the tricks in their compendium, leaving it to MacPherson to provide the melody, with Hill and Stewart adding all the necessary additional features. Like the soundtrack to a film, all the elements are evoked and emotions tapped, making for a splendid end to this splendid record.

A thawcrook is the tool used in crofting communities to ply grass, reeds and heather into twine or rope. It is a good analogy for how they have woven such powerful sounds from their individual strings. Mixed by Euan Burton, at Glasgow’s GloWorm, it should add to the lustre of this sound man, as well as of the two musicians. The album artwork, by Orla Stevens, is worthy also of mention, displaying an impressionistic map of Scotland, with a golden thread reaching from Argyll to Perth, the area from which they come. And presumably awaiting a thawcrook.

Here’s Aonghais Oig, with added Mischa MacPherson:

Rebecca Hill online: website / facebook / instagram

Charlie Stewart online: facebook

Rebecca Hill & Charlie Stewart online: facebook

If you would like to keep up with At The Barrier, you can like us on Facebook here, follow us on Twitter here, and follow us on Instagram here. We really appreciate all your support.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.