Second Life, Kathy Muir’s Message from America

The video for Troubled Town, a track from Kathy Muir’s third album was released at the tail end of last month. A song about her current home town in the United States and the City she was brought up in, Edinburgh, it serves as a pleasantly soulful introduction to the artist for those who may not be familiar with her work. The piano only accompaniment complements her voice perfectly as she delivers an ultimately optimistic outlook on life.

It’s a theme that runs throughout the album the track was lifted from, Second Life. Released in September of last year it’s well worth catching up with now. Trying to slot this collection of songs in to any particular genre is difficult. What’s served up is an interesting cocktail of pop, folk, jazz and more.  Placing the title track at the end is a real sign of Muir’s confidence in the album as a whole as she invites the listener to go on a complete musical journey with her.

There are highs here, lyrically and musically. Opener, Lucky One, drips with sarcasm,  sugar coated with a soaring melody. What follows is a mature collection of songs offering more than enough variation to keep the listener interested.  One of the folksier tracks here, Like Warriors, has Muir recalling her upbringing in Edinburgh. The images conjured up of childhood seen from an adult perspective are a delight. Anybody who was brought up in Oxgangs during the sixties or seventies will surely have the accompanying video playing on repeat for hours.

Final track, Second Life, brings things neatly to a satisfying conclusion. There are constant references throughout the album to childhood, instilled values of decency and compassion and faith in the future. Aye, life may be tough at times but the human spirit will prevail. In these increasingly uncertain times it’s a comforting vision to share.

For more information on Kathy Muir visit her website.

The Brandsbutt Stone, a Pictish Puzzle.

The Brandsbutt Stone

One of the joys of living in Scotland is that there is a story to be found at every turn.  As you travel the country the landscape and buildings make it hard to resist stopping to take in what they are trying to tell you.  Sometimes it’s the sight of a magnificent building such as Dunottar Castle which practically shouts at you to come and bear witness to the history surrounding it. Other times it’s a gentle whisper from a plaque on the side of a nondescript city centre building.  With such a wealth of antiquities it can be easy to take it all for granted yet some of the voices calling us from the distant past can still surprise us by appearing in the most unexpected  places.

In the middle of a modern housing development in the ever expanding North East town of Inverurie lies an example of one of the most baffling messages left behind by our ancestors, the Brandsbutt Stone.  It does seem a bit peculiar to find such a wonderful piece of Pictish art surrounded by 21st century dwellings but that’s what makes it so much more enjoyable. The stone itself is only about a meter tall, the material being the locally abundant whinstone.  At some point it was broken up and used to repair a dyke at the edge of the now long gone Brandsbutt farm.  Luckily it was rediscovered around 1900, pieced together again and erected near where it would have originally stood,  possibly as part of an even older stone circle.

With so little evidence as to what these Pictish stones were for it is left to the visitor to gaze at the carvings and imagine for themselves just why so much care was taken to create them. This stone contains two of the most frequently recurring Pictish symbols, a crescent and V rod sits above a scaly serpent and Z rod.  On the right hand side of the stone is an ogham inscription, an alphabet which originated in Ireland consisting of a series of lines. It has been deciphered as a reference to the name Eddarrnonn who may have been a local saint or a person of high rank.  Possibly it’s a territorial marker, a declaration of status.  It may simply be a memorial, the symbols depicting death and the entrance to the after world.  The V rod and crescent could just as easily be a primitive sundial, marking the passing of the seasons.  Trying to weigh up the various theories all adds to the fascination that an encounter with one of these ancient objects can generate.

The symbols could even be references to the ancient Roman religion of Mithraism, also rather wonderfully known as the Mithral Mysteries.  Brought to the Picts by Romans who remained behind after their armies withdrew there are claims that the rituals of modern day freemasonry have their origins in this ancient religion.  Looking at the V rod and crescent depicted on the Brandsbutt stone the similarity to modern day masonic emblems is striking.

Sometimes you have to work a wee bit to conjure up a complete tale from the past. There may be no obvious ending to the story the Brandsbutt stone is trying to tell us but as opening lines to a mystery go it’s up there with the best.

The Brandsbutt Stone is located near the junction of Gordon Terrace and Brankie Road in Inverurie.   Turn on to Gordon Road from Burghmuir Drive then take the second left on to Gordon Terrace.

Remembering John Martyn

At the end of this month it will be eight years since John Martyn, one of Scotland’s most prolific musicians died. Despite producing several highly acclaimed albums and gaining the respect of his peers he never came close to gaining the commercial success his talents deserved, possibly because he was one of the great musical non-conformists.  As a guitarist his innovative and unique style was peerless.  His voice was a thing of beauty,  his slightly slurred delivery adding yet another layer of magic . As a songwriter his craftsmanship was impeccable.  When these three elements combined during a performance the synergy was astonishing. Songs such as Sweet Little Mystery,  Solid Air, Small Hours  and so many more are all capable of  taking the listener on an emotional journey that they will never want to end.

John Martyn was born in Surrey in 1948 as Iain McGeachy.  His childhood was spent in Glasgow where he had moved to as a young child with his father after his parents divorced. He cut his teeth as a guitarist and singer playing in various folk clubs around Glasgow before following the well-worn path from Scotland to London. After changing his name to John Martyn, he began to attract attention playing at venues such as the Les Cousins basement folk club. In October 1967 Island records released his debut album, London Conversations. It was a solid start to a recording career that would produce over 20 studio and live albums. December 1968 saw the release of The Tumbler, a second album of folk songs but this time with a slightly heavier jazz element.

In 1969 he headed for Woodstock having been hired to act as a backing guitarist on his new wife Beverley Kutner’s album. He wasn’t to remain in the background long and after pushing himself forward on the back of several songs he had written the married couple became a musical duo. The result was the 1970 LP, Stormbringer. They would make two records together before he resumed his solo career and the rest of the 1970’s was to see Martyn produce some of his most consistent work. The highlight of the decade, and possibly his whole career,  was  1973’s Solid Air. Ostensibly a folk record it was a genre defying masterpiece, one of those albums that will constantly be rediscovered by following generations.

He ended the decade with perhaps his most emotional album of all, Grace and Danger. A response to the break-up of his marriage to Beverley its release was delayed for a year by Island supremo Chris Blackwell.  A friend to both husband and wife, he initially declared it far too disturbing. He had a point, it made Dylan’s reaction to his divorce, Blood on the Tracks, seem almost joyful by comparison. The album took its title from a manager’s description of Martyn’s character, a comment that Martyn himself conceded was fair.  When thinking back on John Martyn’s career his dark side really can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.  Drug abuse and long term alcoholism cast a shadow over his life and the problems that inevitably causes, both physically and mentally were not to pass Martyn by.  Allegations of domestic abuse certainly sit at odds with the hauntingly beautiful love songs he produced. . As outsiders most of us really only have the music to base our judgement on and as with many great artists we must accept that he was no saint.  Just how big a sinner he was is still open to conjecture though.

The eighties and nineties were to see Martyn continuing to push the boundaries.  Whether it was on genre crossing albums, soundtracks or live performances he continued to do the unexpected.  It’s a track that those who have already achieved considerable commercial success can follow virtually risk free, the financial cushion that huge sales bring acting as a safety net.  For an artist like John Martyn, who had never really hit the big time, it was a path fraught with danger but nonetheless a path he continued to tread.

The new millennium saw Martyn continuing to record and perform whilst continuing to surprise.  In 2001 he teamed up with dance artist Sister Bliss to record a cover of The Beloved’s Deliver Me, a venture that saw him hit the singles charts.

In 2003, whilst living in Kilkenny, Ireland, John Martyn had his right leg amputated following major problems caused by a baker’s cyst yet he still continued to perform whilst sat in a wheelchair.  Weight issues caused by his immobility dogged his final years yet his black humour still shone through, frequently referring to himself as a one legged sumo wrestler to his audience.

John Martyn passed away on the 29th of January 2009 due to respiratory failure. His legacy and influence on those who have followed him simply cannot be overestimated.  Those who worked with him described him as being both a brilliant musical comrade and a difficult one.  We can all only be thankful that his apparent unwillingness to compromise has left us with such a rich and diverse library of music to enjoy, full of mernts of genuine beauty.

John Martyn September 1948 – January 2009.


Finlaggan. Where the Lords ruled the Isles.

Finlaggan 02-01-2016

On the Hebridean Island of Islay, not far from the small village of Ballygrant and at the end of a short single track road, lies Loch Finlaggan. Cradled within the lower slopes of the gentle surrounding hills you cannot fail to be struck by the almost other worldly atmosphere that pervades the area. On an Island where clean air is in no short supply things still seem even fresher here. The abundant sheep, slowly wandering from one fine grazing place to another, seem whiter than elsewhere, like wee fluffy clouds on legs. As you look across the Loch the sky, even on a rain swept day, seems bigger and higher. There is also something else here that is hard to escape, a sense of solemnity, the feeling that there is some sort of direct connection with people and events faraway in the past.
At the Northern end of the loch sits two small islands. The larger island, Eilean Mor, is connected to the shore by a wooden walkway. The smaller island is known as Eilean Na Comhairle and for over 150 years these two islets hosted the administrative centre of one of the most powerful seagoing powers of its time, the Lordship of the Isles. Nominally under the overall rule of the Scottish Kings, the Lords of the Isles were effectively autonomous rulers of the Hebrides. They also controlled large parts of mainland Scotland including Kintyre and Knoydart, the actual areas governed changing as power ebbed and flowed between the Lords and the Kings of Scotland.
Initially it is difficult to see quite why this place was chosen as the headquarters for a great seafaring power. As you wander around the skeletal remains of ancient buildings on Eilean Mor an understanding starts to develop. That same sense of connection with the past felt on arrival at the shores of Loch Finlaggan seems amplified, as if the remaining stonework is somehow resonating with scenes from the past. This would have been a vibrant place, a centre not only of power but of culture, for the Lordship of the Isles was distinctly different from the rest of Scotland where the Anglo Saxon influence was already firmly evident. This was an emphatically Gaelic kingdom. Archaeologists have found solid evidence that music was played here, mainly on harps. Songs would have been sung and poetry, composed by the favoured poets of the Lords, the MacMhuirich family, would have been recited in the great hall, praising their Lordships as benevolent rulers and great warriors. Under the patronage of the Lords sculptures were commissioned. Stone slabs carried images of the great and good. Magnificent stone crosses were created, many of which still remain on Islay.
The discovery of a 14th century pilgrims badge, which was only obtainable in Rome showed that these were well travelled people, knowledgeable about the world around them. The medical needs of the Finlaggan people were met by the Macbeatha family, incomers from Ireland who practiced a fairly advanced form of medicine for the time.
The actual business of the Lords of the Isles was conducted on Eilean Na Comhairle where the fourteen man council met, away from the hustle and bustle on the main island. Treaties would be discussed, documents signed, laws passed. The only surviving Gaelic charter in existence, dating from 1408, may well have been signed here given that the witnesses were all Islay men.
Remains of human habitation from Stone Age times show that this was a special place from the earliest of times. And maybe that’s where the biggest clue to  why the Lords of the Isle chose this place to take their most serious decisions. Perhaps it was already known as a place of ritual, a serious place that added extra gravitas to proceedings. We will probably never know. What remains on these two small islands throws up as many questions as answers and that for me is one of the main attractions of Finlaggan. In order to truly savour this distinctive location requires you to engage your imagination and maybe just let yourself remain still for a while as you try to hear the echoes of some long gone ballad seep out of the now humble ruins.

There is a small but informative visitor centre at Finlaggan,  operated by the Finlaggan Trust.  Entry to the islands is by way of donation which can either be given at the visitor centre of placed in the honesty box as you approach Eilean Mor.

The Finlaggan Trust website is here.