A Spirited Elegance

Catriona  McKay –  Untitled (Glimster Records. GLIMCD 01)

Fiddlers’ Bid –  Da Farder Ben Da Welcomer ( Greentrax. CDTRAX218)

When I first heard a fragment of Catriona McKay’s playing I thought it was Derek Bell, the great, and now sadly late, Belfast harpist. There was just something about the lightness of touch and the tune briefly reminded me of something by Turlough Carolan.  Well, I was wrong on both counts. It wasn’t Bell and the tune was, ‘The Swan LK243’, composed by McKay herself. It’s here on this, her first, CD along with various Shetland and other traditional tunes plus a couple more originals.  And it is one of those totally refreshing albums that combines harp, fiddle, double bass and percussion with such elegant simplicity that the tunes cannot help but speak and stay with you.

Take the aforementioned piece, ’The Swan’. This was written about a trip from Lerwick Harbour on the sail boat from which the tune takes its name. There is an open air, cool breezes in your face feel as the harp and fiddle glide through and embellish the melody as the bass firmly anchors it all. You can almost feel the decks rolling under your feet!!

But before I get carried away with that one there are many memorable tunes here. ‘The Forlorn Queen’, is taken from the Bunting Collection, published in 1797, and if the word ‘haunting’ wasn’t so over-used I’d be tempted. It is a melody for which no words have been traced and to be honest it is so eloquently written that I doubt if words could ever do it any justice. McKay allows the tune to unfold in a stately, unhurried manner and it is one of those that I keep replaying. Another one is ‘Maurice O’Connor’ and this time it is one of Carolan’s. McKay takes it solo and the grace and elegance that characterise some of the best of the blind harper’s tunes are evident here. Her own, ‘The Loon Mountain Moose’, is equally sprightly and buoyant, abetted by some restrained bass and percussion.

Of the traditional tunes, ‘The Bonfire’, which is three pieces in one, shows off both the fleet-fingered harping and the subtlety of the accompanists whilst ‘More Grog Comin’ brings together another three tunes, all from the Shetland repertoire. Chris Stout’s fiddle gets a chance to solo too as the harp adds its own understated textures.

The album ends with a love song ‘Castle O’Neill’, again without words and from the Bunting Collection. It is a delicate affair with just solo harp to deliver the lovely tune. It is a fitting end to a set that offers spirited revivals from the tradition alongside newer tunes which promise more to come.

If you like the sound of that then you’ll probably also enjoy the collective exuberance of Fiddlers’ Bid, a seven piece specialising in tunes from the Shetland Islands as well as their own compositions. Catriona McKay is a member along side several storming fiddles, guitar and bass guitar. They race through breakneck tunes, like ‘Zander The Sander’, another piece from that boat trip out of Lerwick, a place which also inspired one of their slow airs ‘Leaving Lerwick Harbour’. The latter exudes a melancholy grace as massed fiddles soar over the rippling harp. It is both poignant and effective.

The band’s Shetland roots are explored in traditional pieces such as, ‘Du’s Bun Lang Awa An A’m Tocht Ta See Dee’ or ‘You Have Been Long Away And I’ve Thought Long About Seeing You Again’, a tune that was played as part of a Shetland wedding. Music for wedding nights features again on ‘Da Farder Ben Da Welcomer’, a tune to do with ‘bedding the bride’, apparently. It’s all played with gusto and obvious pleasure. I bet they are a joy to witness on stage.

So to bring me back to where I started there is another harp tune, ‘Christine’ which is a simple and expressive showcase before McKay’s ‘The Swan’ closes the album, this time as a bigger band version which retains every bit of the tune’s delicacy. Currently favourite contender for my ‘tune of the year’ it wraps up a breath-taking set of vital playing that warms the spirit in these dark days of the new year.

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