Freeland Barbour

The Music and the Land - Queen's Hall, Edinburgh October 10, 2015


As Freeland Barbour looked out over the hills from Glen Fincastle near Pitlochry where his family has made its home for centuries, a thought came to him.


It was more than a thought, in fact. A melody came into his head and having captured in tune form a sense of this beautiful corner of Perthshire and what it means to him, he started to consider how he knew the scene so well and could picture it in his mind any time he liked. Other people, however, weren’t so lucky. Wouldn’t it be nice, he prompted himself, to have a photographic representation of this spot to go with the music …


Some thirty-five years later he prompted himself again, only this time he decided to finally do something about it and that’s what brings him with his long-running ceilidh band, the Occasionals, to the Queen’s Hall stage tonight.


Capturing places, and the people who live in them, in tunes has been almost an occupational hazard for Freeland over the past forty years or so. Back in the 1970s, with the Occasionals’ predecessors, the Wallachmor Ceilidh Band and with folk band Silly Wizard, Freeland began the travels that took him all over Scotland, over the border into Northumberland, where there was a thriving village hall dance calendar, and to Scandinavia.


Much of the music he played, although not all of it, was for dancing and on Friday and Saturday nights the Wallachs would be not just the star turn at the local hall, but drawn into the community. Many friendships were made and sealed with a dram and a tune in honour of a nearby spot or a local worthy in the manner of musicians from the great Perthshire fiddler and tunesmith Niel Gow’s time and before.


In the West Highlands and Islands, the Wallachmor gang would often form a double bill with a group destined for hero status, Runrig, but everywhere they went they met fellow musicians and other creative people such as Bobby Tulloch, the Shetland naturalist and photographer, to whom Freeland also dedicated a tune.


The tunes kept coming. Many have been picked up by other players and taken into the tradition, others are waiting for discovery in the two volumes that constitute The Music and the Land – The Music of Freeland Barbour, which also includes a CD and a book of sixty-five tunes for the pipes.


For years Freeland was too busy doing other things to put his idea of pairing music with photography into motion. There were radio programmes to be produced, TV appearances to make, gigs to play, records to record and produce and more recently, his position as the first accordion tutor on the BA Scottish music course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (or RSAMD as it was at the time) and his proprietorship of one of Scotland’s top recording facilities, Castlesound Studios in Pencaitland have placed demands on his time.


The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland actually cranked the project into gear, if it was to still be some years in reaching fruition, by offering small grants to tutors who had ideas they might want to develop. Fast forward towards a significant birthday and the realisation that the huge number of tunes – he estimates around four hundred and fifty – Freeland would be looking to include in the collection represented an era that might disappear as society moves on in the face of cultural changes and technological advances. Freeland decided to act.


He contacted Birlinn Books, whose creative director, James Hutcheson immediately recognised the value of the project and enthusiastically spurred Freeland into commissioning photos and words. Cailean Maclean, from Skye, and Edinburgh-based Robin Gillanders were obvious choices for Freeland as photographers with their talents in landscapes and portraits respectively, although the demarcation lines would be become less clear as work progressed, and a small army of friends, associates and writers was called upon to provide introductory notes to the various chapters.


Leading Gaelic singer and Gaelic language champion Arthur Cormack has set the scene for Freeland’s tunes inspired by the Western Isles. Singer, songwriter and guitarist Rab Noakes has shared his memories of growing up and discovering traditional Scots song in Fife to complement Freeland’s tunes dedicated to the kingdom.


Kristian Blak, pianist and harmonium player with Faroese band Spaelimenninir, with whom Freeland has worked often over the years, has written the introduction to the Scandinavian section. Martin Carthy has given his observations on the sea shanty song form, an idiom Freeland has frequently drawn on in his compositions, and as the author of a splendid biography of John Graham of Claverhouse, journalist and author Magnus Linklater has contributed an essay to accompany the suite Freeland composed in 1989 to mark the tercentenary of the Battle of Killiecrankie, where Graham died leading the Jacobite army to victory.


There are also a – let’s say – carefully chosen selection of humorous tales from the road and some poetry, and in a rare case of him being stuck for something to say, Simon Thoumire has given the briefest of introductions to the Central Scotland section. The twenty-six chapters also cover Orkney, Shetland, the Highlands, Edinburgh, the Borders, the west coast, the north of England and Freeland’s native Perthshire.


The hope is that the book will appeal to the Scots diaspora across the world as well as at home and that people who have visited Scotland but only seen certain parts will gain an appreciation of the country’s width and breadth.


And of course, while it is an art book that will look very well on a coffee table, Freeland would like the music, which has been digitally typeset by pianist and composer Jane Gardner, one of the project’s four “main ingredients” with James Hutcheson, Cailean Maclean and Freeland, to be played.


“I’m not expecting the collection to have an influence generally – this is simply my take,” he says. “It is nice, though, to see all this music as one body of work and I’m immensely proud that we’ve been able to harness all the talents that have come together to produce a music book in this form. Because with only a few exceptions, you have to go back to James Scott Skinner’s time to find a Scottish music collected in a hardback book.”


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