September 30, 2009 § 9 Comments
In Presbyterian Free Church‘s across Lewis you can hear some of the finest examples of spiritual Free Heterophony in the world, where worship and praise is sung in Gaelic a cappella (without musical accompaniment), and led by a precentor (literally ‘one who sings beforehand’).
In Gaelic psalm singing, the precentor leads the praise by commencing the tune, which he sings along with the congregation for two lines of a four-line stanza. On the third line, the precentor sings the line solo, which is then repeated by the congregation; this occurs for each line until the end of the item of praise. The result is a unique musical event, full of the traditions of the island’s religious culture, and deeply moving in its praise of God.
On the 20th and 21st October 2003 recordings were made in Back Free Church which became an album by the name of Salm (pronounced salam), the Gaelic translation of the word Psalm. On it we find a collection of Gaelic Psalms, sung in the traditional style by some of the best precentors singing with a 350 strong church congregation. The recordings took place over the two evenings and the singing was spontaneous and completely unrehearsed.
The style defies description with so much of the sound texture relying on the congregation’s individual response to the melody and the individual precentor’s lead. In the hands of the Gael this has become quite different to the English, European and Scottish tunes on which it was originally based. There are some black congregations in Alabama and North Carolina who sing hymns in a similar style, and there are striking similarities with the singing style of the Coptic Church of Ethiopia.
Afro-American professor of music at Yale University, Willie Ruff, 71, also a renowned jazz musician, who played with Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, is convinced that the way he worshipped as a young black Baptist in the United States, originated from a common style in the Western Isles.
Prof Ruff explained that he was visiting a Black Presbyterian church in Northern Alabama and was surprised to hear them singing in the old Black Baptist way, lining out the hymns. He decided to discover if there were any white Presbyterians who sang accapella but found his search was fairly fruitless until someone suggested to him that he visit the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. His friend Dizzy Gillespie, had told him that there was something special about the place and even informed hime that his great grandparents had spoken a strange language called Gaelic.
The professor went first of all to Benbecula and then to Back on the Island of Lewis. When he heard the Gaelic psalm singing he was very moved. To him it was very similar to the music of his Black churches back home. He later played it to an old Black precentor who wept when he first heard it.
Even to an agnostic like me it is the most beautiful sound. I’ve heard it in island churches and it evokes the spirit of the place like no other sound (save for howling wind and rain against windows). When I listen I always imagine the huge flocks of starlings you see in the evening before roosting, rising soaring and all cohesively following some mysterious lead. God only knows how it makes a believer feel.
If you like the samples below please go forth and purchase the albums.
Stornoway Psalm 133 MP3
Kilmarnock Psalm 16 MP3
Dundee Psalm 103 MP3
Walsall Psalm 13 MP3
September 29, 2009 § Leave a comment
Meanwhile we await their new album Tales From The Minch with bated breath. It’s probably out already but we’re a little behind here on the mainland…
September 29, 2009 § Leave a comment
The Boy Who Trapped the Sun is a wry, alt-folkish singer-songwriter from the Isle of Lewis.
The pseudo-offspring of Cash and Drake, if he could, he’d groom himself a Dylan ‘fro, transcribing a perfect three-quarters of a circle. He is currently on Geffen, right on it, all over it. Straddling it in fact, and riding it like a whooping cowboy atop a nookular bomb waving a ten gallon hat. He has just completed his debut album on which he played everything himself, hoarding all of the credits. Except for the strings and female vocals, that is, but not for want of trying.
Meantime, his new EP Watermark is out now on iTunes.
September 29, 2009 § 3 Comments
Image via John Maclean Photography
It’s that time of year again.
The season in which (some of) those wee lambs seen gamboling on crofts across the island back in April, now fat on heather and grass, are whisked away after a happy summer to meet their maker.
Look out for Scottish lamb in your supermarket, none of the New Zealand stuff compares, and if you can get your mitts on some sweet, heather-fed Lewis lamb, there is none finer in my (biased) book.
If your freezer can take the strain then save yourself a fortune by ordering a whole one from Heather Isles Meats.
September 25, 2009 § 5 Comments
Located in the village of Garynahine, Isle of Lewis, local weaver/designer John R MacLean produces double width Harris Tweed of the highest quality.
A native of the island, and in addition to being a producer of tweed, John is also an active crofter. He has expertise and knowledge in all areas of the production of Harris Tweed, going back over 30 years. Design and production is something of a family tradition for John as his late father, Kenneth “Garry” MacLean, was himself a well known and award winning Harris Tweed producer and designer.
John undertakes the production of the tweed by hand from the warping stage right through to the actual weaving. Beginning with the design of a particular pattern, warping the yarn as the pattern requires, beaming the yarn onto the loom and carrying out the mechanical modifications required to the loom (draught changes, tappits etc) John undertakes all aspects with the confidence and flair that comes from his years of experience.
You can see his new website and in particular an excellent overview of the weaving process with some great photos via THIS link.
September 22, 2009 § 17 Comments
BBC 4′s three part documentary on Harris Tweed ended tonight.
It was easily the worst beeb four doc I’ve seen from the channel, usually head and shoulders above the rest. It looked and sounded like a Channel 5 production.
I’m all ranted out for the evening have spent the last hour shouting at the TV. Deryck Walker’s Paris show was portrayed as for the sole benefit of two sniggering attendees and was a total cringe. The Harris Tweed Authority’s CEO, though probably a very nice and astute woman, appeared to be a clueless dumpling who’s sole qualification appears to be some HNC in Fashion Merchandising from some Glasgow college. Her party/fashion show/media event held in An Lanntair was made to look empty save for a few journos and a bunch of miserable weavers. Is this the same show that was described as “a stunning success — in the view of many of the packed audience, one of the best local events ever”? Hopefully that wasn’t the real event and the editors were playing silly beggars. Donald MacKay, once heralded as the independent saviour of Harris Tweed after his Nike deal still plugs away on a single width loom turning his nose up at the internet and leaving his wife to do the marketing. Alan Bain at Harris Tweed Textiles espouses the future of Harris Tweed as a ripping up the of the rule book on what Harris Tweed actually is, placing his faith in lambswool and cashmere…what’s next, lycra, spandex and nylon?
And Haggas. Just when I thought he could not fall any further in my estimations. His hastily arranged, on-the-cheap, self directed photoshoot epitomised the absolute self-delusion of this clueless old dodderer. His million pound Golden Road documentary I simply refuse to believe happened. Please, for all that is good and pure, no it didn’t. Did it?? Finally the revelation that he has only sold 5000 of his 75 000 jackets. Just 6% of his stock. Doing a bit of rough maths that’s an average sale of a pathetic 6 jackets a week for each member of his 8 strong international crack sales team / group of yes women. Unbelievable. His gameplan? Give away jackets to newspapers for competitions…
“So a Harris Tweed jacket for first prize” the interviewer asked his middle-England, middle-of-the-road, middle managers “What’s second prize?”
“Three Harris Tweed jackets” they guffawed.
Hilarious. People’s, jobs, lives and an island’s heritage made the butt of a joke by the very people who are screwing it up. Not so much funny as fucking tragic. Well, at least they have Harrod’s onboard now. With an order of thirty jackets. Whoo-pee.
My faith still very much lies in Brian Wilson and his crew and I’m confident HTH, despite all odds will be big and bold enough to carry it off.
September 20, 2009 § 6 Comments
Yorkshire businessman Brian Haggas, 75, owns textile firm the John Haggas Group and in December 2006 bought the Stornoway-based KM Group, which produced about 95% of Harris Tweed.
At the time, industry representatives hailed the move as a new era of stability for the business which had been for sale for four years. Mr Haggas also bought Parkend, a small tweed mill on the outskirts of Stornoway and closed it down
Mr Haggas described the mill in Stornoway as a “shambles, which needed surgery. There were more leaks in the roof than solid bits.”
Investment in machinery and infrastructure soon followed and one of Mr Haggas’s key executives moved to the island to oversee the factory. Then came his master plan to rescue the ailing Harris Tweed industry.
Without consultation with industry experts or weavers, Haggas reduced the stock of 8000 Harris Tweed designs down to just four, refused to sell to any one else but his own clients and started producing exclusively for his own garment production. His product was to be a single, solitary men’s jacket.
It took Mr Haggas from December 2006 to September 2007 to get Harris Tweed Scotland, as the company was to be called, into a position where it was ready for business. Eight marketing agents were employed in Yorkshire to sell the finished products to high-class, independent retailers and his confidence was high. Weavers went into overdrive for the next year to produce the required lengths of tweed to allow the Chinese to create 75, 000 new jackets and ship them back to Haggas ready for sale to a hungry market he had fastidiously researched.
“I went to Tokyo, Beijing, New York, Toronto, London and the colder places in the world because this is an autumn/winter garment,” he said.
Once the material was made and with all and any new work, international orders and requests for tweed that was not for Mr Haggas’ jacket being refused, the weavers were told to stop until the stock was sold and new orders roll in…
The plan proved, as widely predicted, a disastrous strategy with 75,000 of Haggas jackets now stockpiled and no need for him to produce more tweed.
He stated: “The weather was bad over the summer so many retailers had fire sales to get rid of stock, which means they have no profits left for new products.”
With no new work forthcoming, weavers and factory staff were laid off and the Stornoway mill now lies empty.
Haggas promises to be back next year once he’s sold his remaining stock over the winter, this time with a lighter style jacket and more variations in pattern.
He continues to refuse to take custom orders or produce tweed for anyone but his own business.
(BTW they’re actually lovely jackets. Buy one and save a weaver now! http://www.harristweedscotland.com/ )
September 17, 2009 § 16 Comments
Jonathan Meades, ex-restaurant reviewer, writer and broadcaster has finally turned his gaze to the Isle of Lewis.
Following on from his 2008 Magnetic North series where he dissects and celebrates the culture of Northern Europe, Meades perambulates around Scotland for Off Kilter and skewers the usual sacred cows as he does so.
Part Alan Wicker, part Andy Warhol, part Gilbert and/or George, Meades approaches his geographical subject as a gentleman and then proceeds to quite ungentlemanly profer his unsheathed opinions. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, he often knows far more about his destination than even the residents and armed with this knowledge and a Will Self-esque talent for verbosity allows his viewers to revel in his particular slant on their world. And so it was for the Isle of Lewis as he landed, perched atop the prow of a Seatrek RIB and set foot upon the shores of Traigh Na Beirigh to declare the place paradise, albeit one in decay.
Decades of documentaries on the island have trod the same, well-worn paths, either wrapping themselves in tartan and tweeds or pitying the pious, bible-beaten inhabitants. Not so for Mr Meades. For the first time I can remember, here we had a truly authentic outside view of the long island, warts and all.
As is always his way, simple aesthetics provided the cue to draw in sociology and politics. Aspects of island culture and history were tied to places jaw-droppingly captured by the men behind the cameras. We had Guga, served at a middle-of-nowhere picnic table on a damp day and politely refused by the presenter as he told of the ten men of Ness who sail each year to make their catch. He then seamlessly segues into a childhood memory of his disdain at eating whale as a child before cutting to the ruined station at Bunavoneader and carrying on about fish farming.
We had the architectural effects of Calvanism not just on houses of residence but that of worship contrasting their grey, banality with Rodel and the, seemingly pretentious in comparison, Dualchas designed Old Mission house at Brenish.
He stands at Callanish and questions whether stones such as these should really be imbibed with the importance often ascribed to them. Isn’t it possible they could simply be a case of Stone Age OCD?
He props up the corner of Cromwell St on a dreich and dismal Sunday morning bemused by the silence and absence of life commenting that here on the Sabbath one is faced by a series of Don’ts, in particular Don’t Excercise. Just then a man in fluorescent yellow zips past, cutting through the grey, on a Brompton folding bike. The scene cuts to the same place on the previous night where townies are drinking and staggering from pub to pub. As Meades stares at binfuls of empty bottles we see a barman the night before having to cross the road to find a bin that wasn’t full to add his collection to. Meades goes on to suggest it may be the hangovers that keep everyone in on the seventh day but notes that the silence and Sabbath keeping is enviable even for purely anti-capitalism, burger-stench free secular reasons.
He covered machair and marram, runs and rigs, peats and moors, obelisks and menhirs (having a dig at nu-celts and wicca worshipers at the same time). He pulled no punches on the opium-soaked Matheson. At Abhain Dearg distillery he compares the loss of whisky to that of Gaelic, its threatened status he is quick to highlight and defend. He declares Marag Dubh the King of boudin noirs
Finally he focusses on the profusion of decay. In a place where it’s easier (and cheaper) to let mother nature take care of the demolition, tools of industry, outhouses, cars and other detritus are simply abandoned and allowed to fall apart. He likens the Isle of Rust’s beauty to decaying meat, mould on fruit, a Francis Bacon painting. He ponders, as many of us have, the appearance of a motorcar in the middle of the moor, miles from the nearest road. But even here, at its ugliest and made analagous to a scrap cult, things just came alive. Staggeringly beautiful, deeply saturated, shots of tractors and old shielings bathed in that rare Lewis light you only get at a certain time at the end of a really good day. Indeed, this period of shooting sees the skies clear and landscape transform into something quite magical.
The whole 50 minute section of episode two was accurate, arch, wry and dry but most of all fun. Essential viewing for anyone who sees the island through rose-tinted specs, something Jonathan obviously refuses to wear. Wrapping up his visit up he observes the island’s isolation as un-Scottish, blisfully free of tartan and home to a people very much out there, on their own, walking the line between the old world of modernity and the new of a less salubrious future.
WATCH ON BBC iPLAYER (skip the first 10 mins if you want to cut to the chase)
UPDATE!: Now on youTube.
September 15, 2009 § 5 Comments
Blythswood Square Hotel in Glasgow city centre is one of the newest, most magnificent luxury boutique hotels in Scotland.
A splendid, landmark property, which commands one side of Blythswood Square, a lovely, green space in the centre of the city of Glasgow. The building dates from 1823, and was previously the home of the Royal Scottish Automobile Club.
Lovingly transformed, this historic building is now a luxury hotel and spa, retaining some original architectural features, such as marble fireplaces, wood paneling and lofty, ornate ceilings, and against this aristocratic backdrop have applied sympathetic, rich, textural design.
The interior design work has been carried out by Glasgow’s leading interior design company Graven Images who have employed custom woven tweeds from Harris Tweed Hebrides. Designer Jim Hamilton, who previously created prototype lighting, seating and bedroom textiles for HTH, has specified 4-5000 meters of tweed from the Shawbost Mill to be used in areas as diverse as curtains and bespoke furniture completely upholstered in the island fabric.
I’ve worked with Jim in the past and he has been kind enough to offer to give me a tour prior to opening. Hopefully I’ll be able to get a few sneaky pictures of the Harris Tweed stuff. At a starting room price of £120 a night rising to £1500 for the penthouse suite this may be the only chance we get to see them ;)
September 15, 2009 § 3 Comments
Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy broke the news this afternoon to workers at the Ministry of Defence range on Benbecula that plans to cut jobs at a missile range and its associated sites on the Western Isles have been abandoned.
Fantastic news and all down to the professionalism, resolve and drive of with the Range Task Force led by Comhairle and Vice-Convener Angus Campbell.
More work is now needed to diversify the island’s economy and seek to expand the ranges role in future technologies such as UAVs.