Fiona Hunter - tying Scots and Gaelic together

Fiona Hunter finds herself in an odd position as the Scots-singing element of a new Scots-Gaelic duo that’s coming together to represent both of these rich traditions at Edinburgh’s Tradfest celebration of the folk arts.

For Hunter, who is working, possibly as you read this, with the Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes on a mutually suitable repertoire, the challenge isn’t that she’ll be able to join MacInnes comfortably on Gaelic choruses as it was actually through Glasgow’s Gaelic choir network that Hunter came to singing. Scots songs came later and while over the past decade she has established herself, as MacInnes has done in Gaelic, as arguably the leading singer of her generation in the Scots language, Hunter is determined to find material from the Scots side that will fit into this marriage of convenience.

“It’s not as simple as taking some Gaelic mouth music, or puirt a beul, and translating the words into Scots because that’s just not going to work,” says Hunter during a break from her searches into the song resources at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh and on-line through the Kist of Riches website. “And it’s not just old songs that we want to focus on, although you can go on forever once you start looking for them. We want to find newer songs with common themes in both languages and look at the Scots equivalent of mouth music – diddling – and try to come up with something that feels natural.”

Whatever they settle on, it looks like just being the start because the collaboration with MacInnes has given Hunter yet another ball to keep in the air now that they’ve dipped their collective toe in the water and liked the results. Having recently released her first solo album, the excellent, simply named Fiona Hunter, she has a schedule to maintain in promoting this with, depending on budgets available, both a small and larger band. She also teaches on the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Scottish music course, where as a former student she says she finds herself learning, or re-learning, almost as much as she imparts, and the band that she joined straight out of college in 2004, Malinky has recently emerged from a sabbatical and is working on a new album and playing concerts again.

Hunter arrived for an audition at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, as it was then, with an idea of studying Scots song but, she soon realised, no real appreciation of just how vast the traditional song repertoire is. She also, for reasons she can’t now remember, had her cello with her. Classically trained on the instrument and having spent her teens in school orchestras, she was nonplussed when Andy Hunter, who would become one of her song tutors, asked her to play a tune without “the dots” in front of her.

“I didn’t know anything about the cello’s history in Scottish music, how it had been an integral part of the old dance bands and people like Niel [correct spelling] Gow’s music,” she says. “I must have played okay because they took me in to study Scots singing with cello as a second study and it was like two worlds opening up.”

From her song tutors, Hunter was given the key to a wealth of songs, especially through being introduced to travellers including Elizabeth Stewart of the Fetterangus family of oral tradition bearers, and on cello she learned not only how to accompany herself but how to incorporate the Gaelic and piping traditions into her playing.

“The biggest lesson was probably the need to totally know a song, the background and historical relevance as much as the dynamics of when to be quiet or how to build it up dramatically,” she says. “You have to set the scene and without wanting to overstate the case, when you take on one of the big ballads, it’s quite a project because you have to engage people with it through the different stages, make it live for them, and that’s what I love about traditional songs because they’re essentially stories.”

Replacing Karine Polwart in Malinky was a major undertaking for Hunter, who was stepping into very big shoes on the traditional singing scene at the time and had never been in a band before. She took it all in her stride, however, quickly learned the ropes of international touring and recording, and helped the band to win the Folk Band of the Year title at the Scots Trad Music Awards in 2010 before the “craziness” of their tour schedule and the need to recharge their batteries saw them take a break.

“It’s now six years since the last Malinky album and we’ve all developed our own projects in that time so we can look at going back on the road but without the craziness of flying all over the place like we did before,” she says. “I think you learn to pace yourself after a while and I’m really enjoying teaching and solo work and looking forward to working with Kathleen as well as singing with Malinky again. There’s a lot going on but it keeps me on my toes.”

From The Herald, April 23, 2014.

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