Gary West: Voicing Scotland

Gary West: Voicing Scotland


Gary West: Voicing Scotland

"Dr Gary West has kindly allowed us to post an excerpt about Martyn from his superb book 'Voicing Scotland'. We think this is one of the finest accounts of Martyn and his music, written by a fellow musician; someone 'within the tradition', and someone with a deep scholarly knowledge of the cultural context that Martyn lived and breathed, whilst also of course embracing aspects of rapid globalisation and new technologies in his unique and inspired way. So, enjoy this subtle appreciation, and please also look up Gary's book 'Voicing Scotland' which can be purchased online from the following websites:, &"
Chris MacLullich, The Martyn Bennett Trust

Tradition is a story, learned from the past, told in the present, looking to the future. What do today’s traditional singers and musicians have to contribute to 21st century Scotland? How are they engaging with the big themes of our contemporary world? In what ways are they Voicing Scotland? Musician, lecturer and broadcaster Gary West takes us on a personal journey in celebration of the riches of the traditional arts in Scotland. From Robert Burns to Dick Gaughan, Grassic Gibbon to Davy Steele, West unravels the threads which bind the creative voices of the nation through the centuries, exploring the relationships between contemporary folk singers and the makars, bards and writers of centuries gone. Drawing on song, instrumental music and literature, and his own experiences as a musician and teacher, he argues that tradition is an essential element in the forging of a positive form of globalisation in the modern world. He presents a perceptive and engaging exploration of the people, places and processes which make up Scotland’s folk culture, past and present.

I first met Martyn Bennett when I was studying at the School of Scottish Studies where his mother, Margaret, was one of several equally inspirational lecturers. Martyn must have been around his mid-teens at that time, I was five years older, and we shared some tunes on the pipes together at the department’s regular ceilidhs. He was a confident young lad, eager to learn, full of energy and questions and music. He was already a highly accomplished piper, pretty useful on the whistle too, and by all accounts already able to handle a violin, piano and guitar each to a very high standard. I can’t claim to have known Martyn well, but we bumped into each other from time to time as the years wore on, enjoying a good blether and the odd tune or two, especially once we both discovered the newly revived Scottish smallpipes which made life easier when it came to having a casual jam. But I did watch this young lad from the sidelines, fascinated by the journey he was taking, from the Edinburgh City Music School at Broughton High, to a classical training at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, to the mysteries of the hi-tech recording studio, and from there, on out to the world. It was a world which embraced him, lauded him, challenged him and which deeply mourned him when it lost him to cancer at the age of 33 in 2005.

At the outset I wasn’t sure to which chapter of this book Martyn belonged, but having re-visited a lot of his work, and my own memories of him, it became obvious to me that the one word which sums it up for me is ‘place’. Martyn planted his two feet in a place, felt the grit, looked outwards from there and listened. He was the most spiritual musician I ever knew I think, not in that trite, new-age manner but in a genuinely rooted and thinking and feeling way which grounds him in many soils and makes his music genuine and deep. His places were many: Newfoundland, where life began, including time spent in the Cordroy valley where highland settlers had left their linguistic legacy through the continuation of spoken Gaelic and where his father, Ian, played fiddle to him constantly; Kingussie, where he learned his first instrument, the great highland bagpipe, from a fine player and teacher, David Taylor; cities - both Edinburgh and Glasgow - his main introduction to classical violin and piano, but also his discovery of urban beats which for him was not a great leap at all:

I think for a classically trained composer, the dance world is such an attractive place as it encapsulates the same musical ethos. It is principally about sound and scale, tension and release, power and detail - much like the orchestral canvas perhaps. It is no wonder that many of us end up composing using technology.1

The islands of Scotland also had a strong pull for him: Skye, especially the Cuillins which featured so strongly in his music and its naming; and Mull, where he settled with his wife, Kirsten, herself a very fine musician and fellow RSAMD graduate, and from where he fought his later battles with cancer but also produced some of his finest work. Glen Lyon, in highland Perthshire, inspired a song-cyle and entire album. He worshipped hills and mountains, which he urged us all to discover:

I hope when you listen or dance to these tunes you get a sense of your own roots. If you push back the pressure of Urban development for a second you might remember where you came from. Go climb a mountain and see.2

And yet other places captured his imagination too, far off places, sometimes going there physically, other times, like Neil Gunn, allowing them to come to him. One of his great musical heroes was Omar Faruk Tekbilek, a Turkish woodwind and lute virtuoso, and like Martyn, a child prodigy and a deeply spiritual man:

Omar Faruk’s music is rooted in tradition, but has been influenced by contemporary sounds. He views his approach as cosmic and his commitment to music runs deep. The four corners of his creativity emanates mysticism, folklore, romance, and imagination. Like Omar Faruk himself, his music symbolises diversity-in-unity.3

In fact, that is not a bad summing up of Martyn’s music too -  rooted, yet global.

Martyn’s eponymous first solo album, released in 1996, forced people like me to sit up and take note of musical words and worlds I had barely ever heard of, never mind understood. I don’t know if it was those five years between us that did it, or if I was just too square and set in my ways, but I certainly missed out on the ‘summer of love’ of which he speaks in remembering 1994, and the dj sets in Edinburgh night spots with names like Squid, Sativa and Slam. Martyn heard something in that scene which spoke to him, a freshness and excitement which on the surface may have seemed at the other end of the musical spectrum from the traditional material he knew so well, but which in his ears and imagination sprang from the same source.

Of course, grafting traditional tunes onto contemporary genres of music was nothing new: crossovers with classical, rock, jazz and pop styles had been on the go for quite some time by then, with varying degrees of success, and it was inevitable that experiments involving the beats of the club scene would emerge at some point. Having worked with Martin Swan on his Mouth Music project, a major step in that electronic direction, it was perhaps inevitable that Martyn would head off down that road most enthusiastically. His first album was a notice of intent, a gentle invitation to step inside and feel the club scene from the safety of the couch. I recall accepting the invitation with a healthy scepticism, not at all convinced that the recipe would work for me, but willing to lend an ear all the same. But I loved it. There was nothing frivolous there, no trendy gimmicks, no sense of being in the presence of machines devoid of human soul. This was deep-rooted, complex art, driving yet melodic, meaningful yet peppered with humour.

It was also music firmly grounded in place. The key melodic voices were highland pipes, Scottish smallpipes, fiddle and whistles, giving the tunes an unmistakably Scottish accent with some borrowings from Ireland. Some of the tunes I knew and played myself, ‘The Swallow-Tailed Coat’ and  ‘Farewell to Erin’, but there was a heavy sprinkling of Martyn’s own compositions in there too. What impresses me most was just how much is going on in these tracks. On each listening there is more to discover in the layers of sound and intriguing sonic vignettes. It is dance music, certainly, but listening music too, the first stirrings of a ‘brave new music’ as Hamish Henderson was later to call Martyn’s work.

A sense of place also underpins his follow-up albums. Bothy Culture developed the dance beats structure a good deal further, again bringing in words and terms which were new to me at the time: drum and bass I could understand, but trippy, breakbeat and hip brought us folkies a whole new language and culture that amused and intrigued in equal measure. Yet these are just words: what I discovered when hitting the play button was more sonic adventure that teased and challenged and delighted.  Again I thought of Neil Gunn when I first heard this mix of the ‘foreign’ and the local inviting us to contemplate at once the difference and universality of creative human culture. ‘The Tongues of Kali’ might well take us some way to the east, yet what is Gaelic puirt a beul – mouth music – if not singing in tongues? Or for that matter canntaireachd, the system of vocal sounds used to teach and transmit pipe music down through the generations and centuries? And that rooting of the album in the Gaelic tradition is cemented by inviting Sorley MacLean to voice the English translation of his seminal poem, ‘Hallaig’. The poem speaks of the desolation of his native Raasay following The Clearances, and is rich in the imagery of birch wood, slender rowans, and the ghosts of the people who once walked amongst them. As the scholar John MacInnes has remarked, the poem is

"an utterly new statement which is emotionally subtle and powerful, unsentimental, and wholly Gaelic. Through his genius, both the Gaelic sense of landscape, idealised in terms of society, and the Romantic sense of communion with Nature, merge in a single vision, a unified sensibility." 4

How, then, is that mood of reflection, of sorrow, of regret, of anger, to be captured in an underpinning soundtrack? A bagpipe lament? A wretched, anguished vocal outpouring? No, the feel is actually one of gentle optimism, of an almost jaunty expectation that all is not lost. Indeed it is not, for as Sorley had declared, ‘the dead men have been seen alive’. That deep-seated Highland belief that we each leave our indelible mark on the landscape as we pass through this life is there in this music as it is in the poem itself. It is a potent pairing.

That sense of just passing through must have been a constant companion to Martyn as he worked on his later projects, the sharp awareness of his own mortality no doubt finely tuned as he came to terms with his cancer. Following the release of Hardland, the live gigs took off even more forcefully, although he recognised that this was perhaps a step too far towards modernity for some of his followers. Glen Lyon, a collaboration featuring the vocals of his mother, Margaret, brought him back to a gentler, more contemplative mood, closer once more to the thin soils and bare rock of this most emotive of Perthshire glens, where the songs and tales of generations seem to reverberate all around. It’s a place I know well, just a couple of glens away from my own, where my mate Andy Shearer lived, where I recorded the voices of some of the locals, and the only place I’ve ever hunted. When the hinds were shot, we dragged them down to the back of the big house at Chesthill, in my case with a strange mixture of guilt and pride.

The album speaks to me for that, and many other reasons, but I know it speaks to others equally powerfully. The songs here are all in Gaelic: no native speakers of Perthshire Gaelic exist now, but their songs still do, and between them Martyn and Margaret spin them into a song cycle which is blended with the soundscape of the glen itself:

It is my hope that this recording conveys an authentic look into those old ways without the use of nostalgia or overbearing anthropology. Many of the sounds that are specific to these songs may have geological implications as well as seasonal ones and I spent several weeks making field recordings of elements such as wind, water, agricultural and maritime machinery, birds, and even insects (listen for the bee!). These are the sounds that pertain to a song’s ambience or inner meaning. In many ways my interpretation of these songs returns to the very first track - Gaelic song sung by my great-great-grandfather, Peter Stewart, who never saw an orchestra, but, as far as I'm concerned was surrounded by one in his daily life - birds, horses, harness, ploughs, and the grind of everyday work.

‘Authentic’ and ‘nostalgia’: two keywords there for any of us who deal in tradition. The first is seen as a positive, the second is usually shunned. We have to be careful with both, though, for their meanings can be slippery. Authentic to what? And what is wrong with a wee touch of longing for the past? Actually, nothing at all if it doesn’t take over, but often it does, and that becomes a problem, blinding us to reality. The one thing to avoid with a search for authenticity is to conceive of it as an odyssey back in time until we somehow arrive at a golden age of tradition, a time when that tradition was true or whole, perfectly formed, before time itself had eroded it down to a mere stump. That can happen, but it rarely does, and the idea fails to give any credit at all to the concept of change. I do think we fall into that trap a lot when talking of the past, but it is not what Martyn means here. For authenticity is really about understanding, about empathy, about getting it. It is about seeing and hearing from the inside, taking the time and trouble to get in there, either directly if it is still there and breathing, or through the memories and experiences and voices of those who lived it if it is not.

For me, Martyn’s creative journey reached its greatest heights of art and authenticity with his final album, Grit. By this time he was too ill to play any of his instruments himself, and it is a masterpiece of creativity, bringing archived voices and technological manipulation together into an outstanding tribute to the marriage of tradition and modernity. To take an iconic voice like that of Sheila Stewart and elongate it electronically with a driving techno soundscape underneath seems about as far away from the ‘authenticity’ of the berry fields of Blair as we could possibly imagine. Yet in fact it is a highly moving tribute to the voices, personalities, cultures and lifestyles of all those who have felt tradition most keenly, most tangibly, most wholly. In Grit, Martyn has voiced his understanding of their place and his, and that is a very fine thing indeed.

Extract from Gary West’s book, Voicing Scotland: Folk, Culture, Nation, Luath Press, Edinburgh, 2012.

3 Quoted on Omar Faruk’s website, at

4 John MacInnes, ‘Sorley Maclean’s Hallaig: a note’, in Dùthchas nan Gàidheal: Selected Essays of John MacInnes, ed. Michael Newton. Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited, 2006, p. 420.

About Gary West

Gary WestGARY WEST is a senior lecturer in Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He is also an active traditional musician and teacher, and presents a weekly programme, Pipeline, on BBC Radio Scotland. Originally from Pitlochry in Perthshire, he played for many years with the innovative Vale of Atholl Pipe Band, winning the Scottish and European Championships. In his late teens, he moved sideways into the folk scene, playing, recording and touring with the bands Ceolbeg and Clan Alba, and becoming a founder member of the ceilidh band, Hugh MacDiarmid s Haircut. He has performed on around 20 albums, including his debut solo release, The Islay Ball, and his most recent collaboration, Hinterlands, with harpist Wendy Stewart.