When I got home at lunchtime today there was a large and magnificent-looking book sitting on my kitchen table. It was warmly inscribed to me by its author, my close neighbour, Fiona Ritchie.
Fiona is the presenter of The Thistle & Shamrock, the most widely-listened-to Celtic music radio programme in the world. The miracles of technology permit her to broadcast her award-winning weekly show from a small studio, just over the river in Dunkeld, to an audience of millions of Americans across nearly 400 National Public Radio stations.
Fiona is an authority on Celtic music – contemporary and traditional. Indeed, she was recently awarded an MBE for her services to broadcasting and traditional Scottish music. Now, together with American academic, musician and native of North Carolina, Doug Orr, she has written Wayfaring Strangers, subtitled The musical voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.
Everything about the 360-page book, from its beautiful production and lavish illustration, to the 20-track CD that comes with it, to the foreword by none other than Dolly Parton and the testimonials by such luminaries as Cerys Matthews and Roseanne Cash, say that this is a work to be taken seriously, at once scholarly and richly entertaining (I can’t imagine Fiona is capable of writing anything dull). I also happen to know that it has been an immense and protracted labour of love for its authors.
Wayfaring Strangers tells the story of how Scots-Irish emigrants of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – the Scots who moved first to Ulster and thence across the Atlantic – took their music with them to the mountains of southern Appalachia, from where it became fused with the music of other traditions, European and African, and in time made its way back across the Atlantic to Ulster and Scotland and beyond.
Through photographs and illustrations, tales, poems, anecdotes, interviews and song lyrics, the book says as much about the movement of people and cultures, of belonging and displacement, of struggle and memory and longed-for homelands, as it does about music; though of course they are all inextricably interwoven.
Having the book here on my desk feels timely for two reasons. This is the week of the Perthshire Amber festival, founded by folksinger Dougie Maclean, who lives nearby. Folk and traditional musicians from all over the world descend on our area for concerts, workshops, impromptu performances and innumerable pub sessions (from which I have the greatest difficulty abstaining during the working day). The place is awash with music, and Fiona has sensibly chosen this weekend to launch the book at the Concert Hall in Perth.
But Wayfaring Strangers also offers a link of sorts with what I wrote about last week – for what, after all, are wild geese if not wayfaring strangers? Just as my childhood wildfowling exploits with my father served to connect me deeply with the natural world and landscape in which I grew up, so the traditional music I listened to as a child connected me profoundly to my native culture.
The Scottish music of the day, as played by the dance band maestros such as Jimmy Shand, offered me a sense of belonging which was my salvation when, as a homesick eight-year-old at boarding school, I listened to the twice-weekly country dance music programme on the BBC Scottish Service. To this day its signature tune, the jaunty Kate Dalrymple, summons a certain bittersweet feeling.
And when, much later, I rediscovered the music through the new wave of Scottish traditional musicians who had emerged during my 20-year absence in London – many of whom I have since had the good fortune to play with – I came to understand how strongly it has contributed to my sense of identity as a Scot.
Asking myself, over recent months, what made me feel as I do about the country in which I was born, I constantly returned to these two essentials: the land and the music. One is fixed, the other, as Fiona’s and Doug’s book so richly illustrates, is a ‘carrying stream’, to use folklorist’s Hamish Henderson’s beautiful phrase. But the land is in the music, and the music is in the land; and that is what allowed those wayfaring strangers to retain a sense of where they’d come from while also adapting to where they were going.
Today we’re lucky to be able to enjoy, and be shaped by, their legacy. Wayfaring Strangers will make sure we never forget the remarkable story of how we’ve come by it.