Calum Stewart – True North : Album Review

Irish pipes, Scottish music. (Live with it!)

Release Date: 1st September 2023

Label: Self-Released via Bandcamp

Format: CD/digital

A Scotsman? Uillean pipes?? There was a time when that could have sent me into apoplexy, such was my puritanical zeal to keep apart the traditions of the Celtic nations, manifesting in my disgust and dismay when the Irish instrument featured in both the films Braveheart and Rob Roy, as if the central casting weren’t enough affront.

I have mellowed, now happy even to belatedly forgive Capercaillie for inducting Mancunian Mike McGoldrick into their ranks, to play said instrument. It is now entirely normal for Scottish bands to include the instrument, if usually alongside the might of the Highland bagpipes. So here is Stewart, a native of Fochabers, Morayshire, now resident in Brittany, having developed a taste and aptitude of the Uillean pipes when a boy, raised in a musical family. Now, apart from being a go-to for when there are needed pipes within an orchestral setting, often for soundtracks, as well as performing with the likes of Julie Fowlis, he specialises in transcribing Scottish music to this perceivedly Irish instrument. This is his second such release, and includes also five of his own tunes.

When you allow for the sometimes fairly forthright differences between how tunes are tackled, from one side the Irish sea to the other, both in meter and mood, this album is all the more deft, as it manages to offer a neither one nor other stance, a foot in either land, the footprint merged so as to be defined that way. This is well exemplified with the opening track, from which the album takes its name. A solo air, it starts with the sound of the drone, before the pipes themeselves swoop in, with a wistful evocation of Stewart’s homeland, even recorded in his childhood home, in Garmouth, Speyside. It could as easily, I guess, have been Highland pipes, but the drone variations offered by his chosen instrument add a subtle extra mood variation, something I never thought I would say. I am reminded, a little, of Brìghde Chaimbeul’s debut, The Rising, where she plays Scottish smallpipes to the accompaniment of harmonium. Except this tune is but one individual’s play.

Às A Thòisich brings in the other musicians featured here, Sylvain Quéré on the bouzouki and Yann Le Bozec on the double bass. Paradoxically, if part because the ubiquitous adoption of the former into the Irish tradition, this tune does feel inescapably Irish. But then, as I shift from the information given me to Stewart’s web page, it says Quéré is on cittern, which I associate with Scots. (I won’t go into the difference here, go wiki.) But, you know, I am no longer bothered, as the distraction of difference is, actually, irrelevant. Enjoy the fecking tune, Seuras, and I am; when the playing is so good, it would be nitpicking churlishness to do otherwise. Anyhoo, the ‘whatever it is’ opens the 3rd track, Maol Dònaidh, which becomes a lively paired set of songs about sealing in the far North, his band members giving some gentle ballast to the rhythmic sway delivered by Stewart’s pipes. Schottishe Kerlou is then an older tune of Stewart’s given a polish. Originally on flute, it too has a glorious cadence, driven forward by the light propulsion of Quéré and Bozec. Quéré gets to take the central ground for the middle section, and it is entrancing.

Cille Chuimein is one of those tunes that always has me feel it should be alongside some 16th or 17th century ballroom sequence in a TV evocation of the era. (Outlander, anyone?) Starting on wooden flute, it is a graceful tune, enough to beg any a ladies pardon, the backing consummately restrained. Midway, with the switch to pipes, if your bumps don’t goose, you are missing a trick. Frost And Snow, should any of you still be fretting, is an Irish tune, coupled with another, The Cuckoo’s Nest. My point being that they just sound blimmin’ good, as good an advert for instrumental Celtic music as you could seek. Planxty standard, which is saying a fair old bit, especially as the speed of the latter accelerates, slowly, behind your back and in front of your ears.

The Snipe may be better known in a fiddle iteration, translating well, another stately dance, Quéré again excelling as he steps to the front. Craigellachie Lasses blends this aged tune with one of Stewart’s, the whole enterprise by now proving so grand a listen as to wonder why nobody did this before. (OK, apart from Stewart; his first album, 2017’s Tales From The North, is set in the same air and skin.) More flute welcomes in Looking At A Rainbow Through A Dirty Window, another refurb of old material. As I begin to again comment upon Quéré’s bouzouki/cittern, I am feeling remiss, as the bowed bass, Le Bozec, on this one, is so superbly complementary to the mood, his playing generally so integral as to only be apparent were it absent. Along with Cille Chiumein, this tune is one of my personal highlights.

Rothiemurchus Rant treads a final delicate line between the various styles of Caledonian and Hibernian styles, a march, a strathspey and a reel. But, given the now acceptance of all is fair in love and Celt, I challenge you to see the join. (A clue, if you can imagine the roll of snare drums you may be, or not, the wiser. Or not.) It is a worthy and well considered way to close this record. I can forever blether that instrumental “folk” music is as important as vocal and song, and this is the sort of set that convinces me. You?

In fact, that last song is possibly the best to give the flavour here, so here it is:

Calum Stewart online: website / facebook / instagram

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