I first met my friend Pete Clark almost 25 years ago, shortly after we had moved into our house in Strathardle, one of Perthshire’s least known and prettiest glens. The house was called Altchroskie (‘alt’ means stream or burn in Gaelic). It was a traditional stone-built, family-sized home with an acre or so of garden, a handful of Scots pines, and a boggy patch at the back, standing on a rise above the River Ardle.
It was a lovely place. There’s a softness to way the land falls in Strathardle, yet from the end of the garden we could look straight up to the ramparts of mighty Beinn a’ Ghlò and the 20 or 30 miles of uninhabited wilderness beyond. The nights were pitch dark and full of stars and we could hear the river from our bedroom window. We’d only been married two or three years, had two small children, and were intensely happy.
I can’t remember exactly how Pete and I came together except that it involved a session in a sleepy pub in Glen Isla where the musicians (three I think, and I’ve forgotten who the third was) outnumbered the customers. In any event it was the start of a long friendship and occasional musical partnership which continues to this day.
Pete, I should explain, is a fiddler, a very fine one, and the principal tradition-bearer for the music of Scotland’s greatest composer of fiddle tunes, Niel Gow (1727–1807); indeed Pete is the director of Dunkeld’s annual Niel Gow Festival, which he founded in 2004. He’s also a fanatical fisherman, an accomplished water-colourist, and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Scotland’s flora and fauna which has enlivened many long and otherwise dull car journeys to gigs over the years, as has his vast repertoire of some of the filthiest jokes I’ve ever heard.
A few weeks ago Pete handed me a copy of his recently published tune-book, The Dunkeld Bridge Collection, containing several dozen of his own compositions interspersed with traditional tunes. The music itself a feast, but there’s something about the rest of the book – the text, the photographs from Pete’s playing career and plates of his watercolours of local landmarks – that exudes a warmth and couthiness that seems to me to reflect all that’s good about the people, the landscape and culture of this particular corner of Scotland.
What I like about it best of all, though, is that it includes the tune he wrote about our house, the tune called Altchroskie. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet melody which I believe says something about a particular time in Pete’s life when he briefly stayed with us there. And there’s a sadness in it for me. We left Strathardle after seven years, mainly because it was becoming too difficult to live somewhere so far-flung. It was a sound practical decision but an emotional wrench I was quite unprepared for. I ached for our forsaken home for several years after, and although we sold it to friends and could easily have returned, I never have.
But the real power in Pete’s haunting tune is that it evokes something more universal than personal turbulence or the mourning of a particular place. It conjures that profound melancholy, that sense of loss, that exists everywhere in the Scottish landscape; and perhaps at a deep level it’s that that I feel when I listen to his melody and remember our seven years at Altchroskie.
On a rather different note, we’ve just posted our 2016 programme of personal insight workshops, including weekends here in Birnam and longer residentials in the Mediterranean. We’re encouraging everyone to think of 2016 as the year of living more fully! More details here.