Why Scottish folk music is thriving

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ON A street of soot-stained sandstone, tucked behind Scotland’s National Museum, a door is thrown open and then pulled shut against the cold. A snatch of sound—chatter, strings and the strum of a guitar—hints at what cannot be seen through the fogged-up pub window. Inside, past the crowd of patrons, a group of young musicians huddles around a table and let music fly from their fingers. 

There has been great interest in Scotland’s traditional arts in the 20 years since the creation of the country’s devolved Parliament and the folk-music scene, in particular, is thriving. Across the country at least 23,000 people have taken up the craft in schools, community bands and through education organisations such as Feis Rois and Feisean nan Gaidheal; more than 17,000 of the pupils are under the age of 18. Although government funding for folk music lags behind that given to opera and classical fare, Hands up for Trad, an advocacy group, and Creative Scotland, a public-funding body, have helped nurture a wealth of talent.

Many enjoy the results at gigs and as part of the informal session culture, in which musicians play with peers in a pub for tips (and perhaps a free pint). Over the course of a generation, the appetite for such music has grown to sustain 53 separate record companies and to merit dedicated festivals such as HebCelt Fest in Stornoway. This year Celtic Connections, an annual celebration in Glasgow, will welcome more than 100,000 people.

Traditional music is often bound up with nationalist sentiment, but this new generation of musicians—unlike those involved in the folk revival of the 1960s—do not make political messages the focus of their work. Young artists were raised in a different environment, in communities that do not depend upon one (often struggling) trade or industry, and they do not yearn for a forgotten past. Politics may loom in the background in these troubled times, but artists are more intent on using traditional music to get people dancing. 

Though they still rely on the beloved bagpipes and fiddles, they add reverb, synth and crystalliser pedals to loop effects and create depth. Talisk is one band giving Scottish folk a sleek new sound and appearance. They invest in PR, slick videos and flashy lighting to transform their Scottish-Irish sound into a spectacle suitable for gig-goers in countries like Malaysia, Chile and the Philippines. Mohsen Amini plays the concertina in the band but spends his free time experimenting with technology like multi-sample pads with expression pedals. This, he reckons, will help the group add subtle new layers to its music, key to success on the international stage where “every single person is pushing the boundaries”. The most successful bands have notched up millions of streams and sold tens of thousands of tickets. Tide Lines, a folk/pop/rock quartet from the Highlands, released an EP which entered the British iTunes charts in the top ten. The tunes of Elephant Sessions, an indie-folk group also from the Highlands, have been streamed in 78 countries.

All this contributes to cultural tourism in Scotland: half of visitors from outside Britain list the local arts among their reasons for making the trip. Many outsiders come to wonder at the wild of the Highlands or to seek the clichéd Caledonia of the screen—“Braveheart”, “Outlander” and the Hogwarts Express ploughing across the Glenfinnan Viaduct—but spend time and money in pubs, restaurants and hotels, where music sets the mood. Some entrepreneurial spirits, such as those at Skippinish Ceilidh House in Oban, have already harnessed their skills to offer commercially successful ceilidh nights where visitors can learn how to dance. Tacked onto the end of a tourist trail, that offers them a sense of “authentic” culture. Some believe Scotland could take this business further and better emulate its Celtic cousins in Ireland who have, for decades, championed and capitalised on the concept of craic. “In Ireland, they have based their cultural tourism strategy on the music. We are just getting to the point in Scotland where we are confident to say ‘this is our music, and it’s quite good fun too’,” says Simon McKerrell, a Scottish lecturer in music at Newcastle University. 

Some heritage-sector workers fear that too much focus on tourism and commercial success risks sentimentalising and reducing Scotland’s rich musical soundscape to stereotypes. That seems unlikely. The current crop of players is well-schooled in the Strathspeys, jigs, reels and laments that form the nation’s musical heritage but want to bring the experience to a new, modern audience. Mr Amini argues that it is possible to be both respectful and experimental with the genre. “You absolutely don’t want to lose your integrity,” he says. “But tradition is always evolving.”

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