Ali Beag MacLeod

2015 Profile for Am Bratach

Rhu Beag was where Ali Beag Macleod worked at the salmon fishing. On the north coast of the Còigach peninsula, the tiny rocky natural harbour is accessible only by boat from Altandhu or Achiltibuie, or on foot- a treacherous scramble through scrubby heather and down slippy hillsides. Looking out across a seven mile stretch of the North Atlantic, the lighthouse at Stoer is barely visible. Above the harbour lay a drystone salmon bothy. With simple bunk beds and an open fire, it’s from here Ali Beag and co would set off in to the glassy expanse, to haul nets teeming with glimmering Atlantic salmon. They’d then sail in with their haul to Badentarbat bay in Achiltibuie, converging with boats holding the catch from several other bothies dotted round the 20 mile coastline of the peninsula. Their gains ashore, a white flag would be raised on a flagpole, signalling Hector the mechanic’s father who would trundle round from Achnahaird on his Ferguson tractor to pull them up the beach.

Far away now from their distant ocean feeding grounds, the salmon would be packed in to wooden crates with the trademark Badentarbat Salmon Fisheries stamped on to the side. This hallmark of quality travelled all over Scotland and even further afield, the demand meaning that Còigach remained a bustling and industrious place. Ali Beag has lived his whole life in the village, and spent much of it working out of the salmon bothy at Rhu Beag. A Gàidhlig speaker, musician and font of knowledge of the area, he’s a true fixture of the place, who’s seen it change over the years.  

As a young man of 17, Ali Beag had been working at the salmon fishing for two years. Now, sitting in his living room in Achnahaird, the wooden walls lined with model boats made by his own hand, his youth is still apparent, although hidden under a full head of white hair and a forehead creased with age. It’s in the way these creases move as he laughs, recounting memories with a clarity of events that happened yesterday, not sixty years ago.

1957 was a particularly prosperous year for the salmon fishing in Achiltibuie, and with his wage packet burning a hole in his pocket, he spied an accordion in the window of the music shop in Inverness. “It was a new 3 row Honher Echo. They were good boxes. It was £96, which in 1957 was thousands and thousands of pounds... It was a lot of money”. By the end of the summer, he was able to buy the accordion and had just enough left over to buy a record player and some Jimmy Shand records. It drove his father wild, complaining to his neighbours “Oh he said, it’s Jimmy Shand for breakfast, Jimmy Shand for dinner and Jimmy Shand for tea". It wasn’t just Ali’s father who was bemused by his love of the accordion. Jim Muir, another recipient of the generous salmon wage had spent a similar amount of money buying a house. Shocked, he quizzed Ali as to why on earth he hadn’t made a similar purchase instead of an accordion. "Ah, but Jim" he responded sagely, “you can’t play a house”.

Soon, he was being asked to play for cèilidh dances in the Còigach village hall. "It used to be those damn records that they used in the hall, but myself and a fellow in the village, Roddy - a piano accordion player - started playing for dances."Roddy, he was a bit of a hasher but didn’t care. His idea was you could start off the dance with the right tune then you could play anything you wanted after that and nobody would notice!” Eventually, Ali Beag managed to get together with the recently appointed village schoolmaster and piper Al Fraser and some other local musicians, to form the Còigach cèilidh band. For me at least, their sound is almost synonymous with memories of dances, weddings and parties in Còigach.

In recent years, Ali’s musical endeavours have taken him far beyond the stage in the Còigach community hall. From festivals in Ireland, where he’s played with the likes of Nuala Kennedy and Alasdair White, to releasing a number of CDs with his mandolin and bouzouki playing cousin Kevin Macleod. I was surprised to tune in to BBC Alba the other day to see Ali Beag playing alongside Julie Fowlis, Duncan MacGillivray and a host of other familiar faces. This was by no means his only brush with the silver screen. He appears in BAFTA winning director John Maclean’s film Slow West, where with eyes shining and coarse vocals, he sings in Gàidhlig a song written in the area some two hundred years ago. His performance was so convincing that one of the actors turned around to Kevin Macleod (who also appeared in the film) and remarked: “He’s a great actor” - the only response Kevin could give was: “He’s not acting!”

At one point (certainly before I was born), the language sung and spoken throughout the village would’ve been Gàidhlig. And in this small corner of the world, Ali tells me, the Gàidhlig was unique. “Every village had its on dialect, you could tell where people were from by how they spoke it. Gairloch and Assynt, they were completely different things. Còigach had a completely different Gàidhlig too”. At the time, English was barely heard: “My father never spoke any English to me unless there was somebody who didn’t have Gàidhlig. If you spoke English, they’d be asking:" “What the hell are you on?” The only place it was necessary to speak English, even in Ali’s younger years was in school. "We didn’t get it in the school though, they were against it in the school. Although our teacher was from Skye and had plenty of Gàidhlig, still it was English only". 

Eventually, as happened all over Scotland, Gàidhlig began to be replaced by English. With there being little need for the language, parents stopped teaching it to their children. Despondently, Ali sighed “There’s only Christine Wesley, myself and Old Simon with Gàidhlig in the village now. They’re the only ones who speak it the Còigach way”. He quizzed me: “Do you have Gàidhlig? I know there’s a lot of young folks now who do”. I don’t, but there is an ever increasing number of opportunities for young people to learn the language. Some now are two or three generations below the last to have spoken Gàidhlig before English. He pauses before continuing. “The Gàidhlig they’re taught is not the Gàidhlig I’ve spoken, there’s words I’ve never heard before”.

The bothy at Rhu Beag is roofless and windowless, the wooden boats pulled up the beach and slowly returning to the earth, the nets long gone and the fishboxes dismantled and hung as objets d’arte on the walls of Còigach’s self catering holiday homes. Indeed the village where Ali grew up and the village I grew up in are very different places. His house in Achnahaird is a three mile drive from my parents’, mostly over a flat plain, dominated by hillwalkers’ favourites: Stac Pollaidh, Suliven and Ben Mor Còigach. The road cuts arrow straight through the landscape, surrounded on each side by the ridges of long grown over peat banks. In 1960, when Ali was the age I am now, this landscape was a different sight: “Between here and Altandhu, there were stacks of peats on both sides of the road, everybody cut them. There was no coal”. As I remember it, the coal arrived every two weeks on the back of a lorry, delivered by a big (slightly scary for an eight year old) man covered in coal dust. For Ali, coal arrived on a steamship and was considered a luxury. Day to day living happened locally: "Everybody had a dog and a cow, or two dogs and two cows and sheep. You only needed that, a barrel of herring and a field of potatoes.. That was all you needed. Now", he sighs, "if you can’t get to Tesco every second day you’re dead!”

Freeland Barbour- The Music and the Land

2015 column for West Highland Free Press

Composers of Scottish music all have their own idiosyncrasies. Donald MacLeod, the late great player of and composer for the Highland bagpipes famously used to walk around with pockets stuffed with scraps of paper, ready to scribble down phrases and even whole tunes as they came to him. Many of the compositions found in his seven collections of music started life as he went about his day to day life. In one much talked about incident, while waiting for piping competition judges to come to a decision about his performance, he picked up a program and started writing on it. By the time they were announcing the results, he had made one of his most enduring compositions: The Judge’s Dilemma

Freeland Barbour who has just released The Music and The Land, a collection of his own works has a similarly idiosyncratic writing process, telling me “I heard the phone ring on the bus one day, with a ringtone I hadn’t heard before. A bit of it stuck in my head the following day, and from it I wrote a tune”. I can only imagine the number of stories like this he has, this just one of four hundred and fifty tunes contained in the mammoth collection. 

It’s a glossy coffee table style publication spread over two volumes, each chapter named for a different area in Scotland. Accompanied by stunning landscape photography from Caliean MacLean and anecdotes from friends, colleagues and musical compatriots, it celebrates musical, personal and professional links to Scotland that Barbour created over the last forty years.  

I was stunned to hear the scale of the project. Barbour has walked a wide and varied path through the Scottish music scene, as an: Accordionist, pianist, radio producer and the owner of Castlesound, one of Scotland’s top recording studios, but this is the first time he’s demonstrated the full extent of his work as a composer. Returning to our conversation about Donald MacLeod, he concludes withcharacteristic modesty “As a composer, Donald MacLeod was much more than I”. It’s not just that he’s a voluminous composer, he is also a popular one, one year his compositions played by 93 of the 131 pipe bands at the World Pipe Band Championships. I was amazed to hear that among his many other talents, Barbour is also an amateur piper!

I met up with Barbour as he was dashing about in the days leading up to the book launch at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, to talk about the project. “I’ve not actually got the book back from the printers yet” he said excitedly when we first sat down, “but I imagine that whenever I planned to do this launch, it’d be last minute”. 

I’m curious to hear about some of the different links he shares with the different areas that divide up the chapters. He recounts a tale from his days with the Wallochmor Ceilidh Band, playing for a dance in Dumfries and Galloway, where in the half-time raffle, the drummer- Gus Miller- won the top prize: A live lamb. Much to the hilarity of his fellow band members, the owner then proceeded to take the lamb from the trailer in the car park and lead it round the room. “And the best bit”, he resumes with eyes shining, “is that at the end of the night he sold it for twenty quid!”.  These memories frequently appear in the book, as does their power as an inspirational force- with tunes written to remember them. 

As important to the book as these memories, is the landscape. Something that Freeland and almost every performing musician working in Scotland (myself included), knows only too well are the hours spent in the car travelling to gigs in every corner of the country. The benefit of this, and indeed one of the real perks of the job is that you end up seeing more of Scotland’s landscape than most if not all others (perhaps barring HGV drivers!). Its variety and beauty becomes a large part of one’s day to day life, and subsequently a massive source of musical inspiration. Barbour’s haunting composition Harden Glen, which is included on the collection’s accompanying CD, just one of a number of examples reflecting this.  

After a year and a half spent touring in Silly Wizard Despite Barbour found that the life of a full time musician was not for him. Silly Wizard were, of course were the one of the first pioneers of the modern Scottish folk group format, performing with energy and spirit previously unheard, and bringing a whole new level of awareness of Scottish Traditional Music. Indeed it’s often the case that when you mention the words “Scottish Folk Music” to somebody, the response is “Silly Wizard?

For Barbour, the father of two daughters, less time away and a more settled home life beckoned. Bowing out of Silly Wizard, fiddler Johnny Cunningham’s brother Phil joined the band, then proceeding to go on to bring Scottish folk music to the global stage. Barbour continued to perform regularly, first with the Wallachmor Ceilidh Band, and currently The Occasionals who are nowsomething of a Scottish institution, both of these also providing an outlet for his compositions. 

Barbour explains that in fact he is of a generation where music was only a full time occupation for a select few. For many, himself included, it was something of a spare time activity, gigging four, five times a week while maintaining nine to five jobs. He explains to me that one of this select few was Aly Bain, Phil Cunningham’s indissoluble duo partner and former joiner. “Aly Bain, he’s just amazing, he couldn’t have been as good a joiner as he is a fiddle player!” Barbour’s modesty again telling, his abilities most definitely not the reason for his not pursuing music full time. 

Besides performing, Barbour has, over the years worn most of the hats that there are in Scottish music and its associated industries, as a: Radio Producer, Record Producer, Publisher and Recording Studio manager. This has allowed him to draw upon a huge range of friends, colleagues and musical compatriots to add their own contributions of anecdotes and stories to The Music and The Land. Magnus Linklater, Dougie MacLean, and Rab Noakes and Robbie Shephard, (who’s iconic radio show Take The Floor Barbour used to produce) are but a small few of these, their contributions filling the book with warmth and life. 

With such a range of people involved, the launch gig was something of a party, Barbour telling me excitedly: “The guest list is as long as my arm!”. Some of these who have contributed anecdotes and stories to the book joined him on the stage, including Barbour’s successor in Silly Wizard, Phil Cunningham, who in typical sweeping fashion writes: “I blame Freeland for everything”. He was also joined by a range of musical compatriots from over the years, as well as his current band The Occasionals, the lineup included Simon Thoumire, Gary West, Jane Gardener and Billy Kay.  

Even more so than the launch, the book itself is a celebration, of Barbour’s life and work, in a far beyond his music. Part music collection, part biography and part guidebook for Scotland, it’s a beautiful object to sit and leaf through. In a musical sense though, it is an important contribution to Scottish music, many of the compositions contained within up until now unheard. Ever self-depreciating of his own work, Barbour told me “Even if this is can be just a tiny introduction to the people and vibrancy of Scotland, I’ll be happy”. Really, there’s little finer example of this vibrancy than the man himself.

Mike Vass- In The Wake of Neil Gunn

2015 column for West Highland Free Press

It was in a hospital bed, recovering from a serious case of Lyme disease that Scottish multi-instrumentalist and composer, Mike Vass found inspiration for what has been his ambitious project to dateVass, bored and bed-bound, was lent his father’s copy of Neil M. Gunn’s book Off in a Boat; a vivid, poetic account of the momentous author’s journey around the Inner Hebrides, a prelude to his pursuit of a career as a full time author. Inspired by Gunn’s account of the places and people he encountered, Vass resolved to undertake a parallel voyage, over which he looked to Gunn’s book and the people and places which he encountered for new creative inspiration after his Lyme-enforced sabbatical. The resulting piece of music, the remarkable In the Wake of Neil Gunn, is a triumph: Vass demonstrating his previously evident talents as a composer on a larger scale then ever before. 

1937 was an eventful time for Neil Gunn. As well as undertaking his three month Inner-Hebridean odyssey in a questionably seaworthy converted lifeboat, the year also saw the release of his seminal novel Highland River, the success of which saw him take his place as one of the key figures in the Scottish literary renaissance, alongside others such as Hugh MacDirmaid and Eric Linklater. Highland people and communities feature heavily in his work; through both his fiction and non-fiction writing he was a passionate defender of Highland life and tradition, at a time where the Highland way of life was undergoing vast moral and social upheaval. Although he wasn’t a Gaelic speaker, his novels are filled with rhythms and syntax of Gaelic speech. Recent years have seen Vass take a similar leading-light role within the world of contemporary Scottish folk music with his albums: String Theory (2010) and Decemberwell (2012). 

With his first two solo projects, Vass showed himself as an incredibly thoughtful and creative musician and composer, linking his musical output to a wide range of other ideas and works. His first album String Theory, written for fiddle, bagpipes, accordion, guitar, banjo, piano and drums as part of the 2010 Celtic Connections New Voices series saw Vass attempt to unify the disparate elements of his creative universe by adopting the name and philosophy of the scientific hypothesis “super string theory”, tying traditional sounding tunes and songs with more avant-garde compositions. At points, the varied content of the album seems somewhat incoherent but Vass’s prowess as a composer was clear to see. 

His second album Decemberwell saw him take a more focused musical approach, attempting, as he put it, through music to “capture the widely differing, magical, aspects of December”. Truly a solo project, he recorded all of the instrumental parts himself, written with a simplicity and beauty which has since become characteristic of Vass as a composer. 

Just as Gunn’s voyage inspired some of his most magnificent work, Vass’s voyage has had a similar effect. With In the Wake of Neil Gunn, his development as a composer is evident, the unique creative voice of which there were signs in String Theory, and very much present in Decemberwell, is the same that wrote this music, but on a much larger scale. Vass writes with a beautiful simplicity and humility, his cyclical tenor guitar riff which opens the title track “Settled in Clay” is a texture which is never far over the rest of the music, but neither particularly at the forefront.

These simple ideas find themselves at the core of a bigger musical landscape created with the help of the Cairn String Quartet, Iain Hutchison (piano), Jennifer Port (Oboe &Harp), Hamish Napier (Flute/Whistle) and Euan Burton (Bass). Vass remarked: “Making music on board and watching the stunning coastline of Scotland slip by from one of the most privileged viewpoints on earth is something I will never forget”. The inspiring effect of his surroundings, both as described in Gunn’s book and encountered on Vass’s own voyage is clear to see. The plunging cliffs of Duntulm, capricious seas and the overwhelming beauty of Scotland’s west coast reflected in the carefully layered instrumental parts, making for listening which varies from the dramatic and tumultuous to peaceful and soothing, changing as quickly as the sea conditions in the Sound of Mull. 

The music also retains a sense of connection to the human element of Gunn’s account of his voyage. Track names, such as The Very Thing and The Blue Fields of Paradise, are lifted straight from Gunn’s richly descriptive prose, “the blue fields of paradise” a reference to the sea by which he was surrounded, and “the very thing” to the typically expedient Highlander Eoin who found Gunn the boat in which he completed his journey. The literary connection is re-enforced by the presence of spoken word samples in the track Sphere Music. The incorporation of these pre-recorded spoken word samples is part of a wider philosophy of sonic experimentation, which sees Vass use recorded sounds of flapping flags and his boat’s inboard diesel engine to subtly enhance the overall sonic landscape. 

At the heart of Gunn’s literary and Vass’s musical narratives are two individuals striving to fulfil a keen desire for self-expression. With In the Wake of Neil Gunn, Vass displays himself as a to be a thoughtful, imaginative and creative musician. Experimental in many ways, and keen to link his musical output to happenings in his own life and the works of others, he has created a piece of unique, beautiful music which is a joy to listen to.