Tarskavaig is in sunlight this morning. Out across the water the Isle of Rhum looms from a misty sea. Tarskavaig, or the Bay of Cod, is a crofting township on a hillside in the southwestern corner of Skye. A scattering of twenty or thirty houses, it has a village hall with a spectacular view north to the Cuillins, where we played last night.
This is day five of the Troot Tour, so-called because my two fellow musicians, fiddler Pete Clark and accordionist Gregor Lowrey, are fanatical fishermen. By day they fish (a non-fisherman, I walk, swim or write), and by night we play for our board and lodging.
So far we’ve been to Kilchrennan, Inchnadamph, Tongue, Ullapool, Plockton and Tarskavaig. Tonight we head for Inverie on the Knoydart peninsular, accessible only by boat from Mallaig, or via an eighteen-mile hike from the nearest road. These place names, anglicisations of Gaelic or Norse or, in some cases, combinations of both, lend extra movement to our itinerary; a sense of the continual swirl of people and language throughout the north of Scotland, the invasion, displacement, resettlement, emigration and immigration that has been going on here since neolithic times.
Running through much of that, a constant, if constantly changing, thread is the music we play. Many of the tunes are several hundred years old, and most are named for people or places – for example, Niel Gow’s Lamentation for James Moray Esquire of Abercairney, or the Sound of Sleat (the body of water that separates southern Skye from the mainland). Almost anything we play has a direct, identifiable connection with place, which is where the soul of the music comes from. This deep rooting in the landscape is why it touches the people who have grown up with it so profoundly.
In Fort William, on the way north, we gave an impromptu half-hour concert in the dining room at the old folks’ home where Pete’s partner’s father is now resident. As we started to play, one old dear got up and began to waltz, solo, round the dining room, blowing kisses to the other residents. The staff all came out of the kitchen. The manageress and a young carer danced a Gay Gordons, weaving between the tables. An old chap sang a song about Stornoway. Sitting at the piano, facing the wall where no one could see my watery eyes, I thought of my own stroke-ridden father, hating the short spells he spent in a similar establishment so that my stepmother could have respite.
Yesterday afternoon we gave another short concert, this time for the pupils at Plockton School, which is also the national traditional music academy. Fifth and sixth formers, they tapped their feet and nodded and smiled in recognition at the tunes we played. This is their music, these teenagers, just as much as the octagenarians in Fort William. Like the place names, it means something to them that goes way beyond mere melody or tempo. That’s where its strength lies and that’s why it will survive.