Iain MacFarlane - celebrating nature in music

Iain MacFarlane laughs when he explains that this year’s commissioned work for the Blas Festival of Highland traditions is such an undertaking that it’s required the input of not one Iain MacFarlane but two (unrelated) men of that name.

The first Mr MacFarlane is the former Blazin’ Fiddle and sometime Boys of the Lough fiddler who has been commissioned by Blas to compose for and oversee a bilingual performance using music, images and words to explore the past and present relationship between people, land and culture through the work of Duncan Bàn MacIntyre, one of the great Scottish Gaelic bards whose song Moladh Beinn Dobhrain (In praise of Ben Doran) is a benchmark for descriptive Gaelic poetry about nature.

It’s a complex poem that required a native speaker of Argyll Gaelic to give the reading that will be woven into the live performance and appears in its entirety on the companion recording, and as coincidence would have it, one of the few people able to convey the bard’s words as they would have been heard during his lifetime in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was Brigadier Iain MacFarlane of Taynuilt, a third generation native Argyll Gaelic speaker and Gaelic Society of Inverness Chieftain.

“I knew about Duncan Bàn’s work through my father,” says MacFarlane the musician and composer. “But I wasn’t familiar with the poem as a whole and when Blas approached me I was immediately attracted to the idea because I’ve been involved in working on estates around Glenfinnan since I was a teenager and knowing that Duncan Bàn was an estate worker I felt I could relate to his way of life.”

The poem, he says, has been a dream to work with due to MacIntyre’s skills as a poet and songwriter.

“Not a lot is known about him and there are no paintings or photos of him – he died in 1812 – so we don’t know what he looked like,” says MacFarlane. “But I’d put money on him being a musician because of the level of musicality he showed in writing tunes to go with his words. So many other songs in the Gaelic tradition have borrowed his melodies and that’s the ultimate compliment to a composer working in this music.”

MacFarlane has used seven of MacIntyre’s lyrics in creating his piece, Mìorbhail nam Beann (The Wonder of the Mountains), and has included one each by Robert Burns and contemporary songwriter Jim Malcolm to add a Scots perspective. He has also brought both Gaelic and Scots voices into the band that will perform the music he has composed and he intentionally looked for multi-instrumentalists when choosing his musicians.

Ewen Henderson, of Mànran and Battlefield Band, is a Gaelic singer from Fort William who also plays fiddle, bagpipes, whistle, and piano. Ewan Robertson, singer-guitarist with Breabach, brings, for MacFarlane, ideal accompaniment skills as well as his Scots singing, and Hamish Napier, formerly with Back of the Moon, is a pianist and flautist who will join MacFarlane, who plays button accordion and whistles in addition to fiddle, on backing vocals.

“All the new tunes are named after places mentioned in Duncan Bàn’s poems and it’s been quite a challenge to come up with music in his style,” says MacFarlane. “When I retired from Blazin’ Fiddles earlier this year and took a job in forestry I wondered what I was going to do with myself. But it’s been great to get my teeth into something like this. It’s meant a lot of research and that’s been really interesting but we’ve also had a few wee adventures along the way.”

One of these involved the Miobhaill nam Beann band hiking out to the ruins of MacIntyre’s home in Inveroran, in the footsteps of Dorothy Wordsworth it turns out, and playing the opening tune from the commission within the walls of the ruin for the camera as part of the piece’s moving images. Another found them re-enacting a hunting song in a scene that harked back to MacFarlane’s involvement in last year’s Blas commission with singer Margaret Stewart, which involved some capers as well as a ceilidh.

“I really enjoyed working on Margaret’s piece but I had a back seat on that and played what I was told to play,” says MacFarlane. “So that doesn’t really prepare you for when you have to put the whole thing together and have responsibility for every detail. But with Scottish National Heritage involved in collaboration with Blas, we’ve had a great team working on this – including Terry Abrahams who has been filming time lapses out in Glendoran since last summer – and it all gives you a taste for more. It’s been fun aside from a lot of work and I’m really looking forward now to putting it on before an audience.”


From The Herald, September 3, 2014.

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