SKIPINNISH – Steer By The Stars (Skipinnish Records SKIPCD28)

Steer By The StarsSkipinnish have had a spectacular couple of years since the release of The Seventh Wave and now, as they celebrate their twentieth anniversary, they find themselves at the top of the tree in contemporary/ traditional Scottish music. Now an octet with Angus Tikka being replaced by Charlotte Printer on bass and fiddler Archie McAllister they press on with a new album, Steer By The Stars, to mark their birthday. Angus MacPhail is still at the helm as principal songwriter with Norrie MacIver on lead vocals and the twin highland bagpipes of Andrew Stevenson and Alasdair Murray. They point out that the band’s youngest member, drummer Rory Grindlay, wasn’t born when the band first got together.

The sea is never far from Skipnnish’s thoughts, either literally or metaphorically and Steer By The Stars is no exception. The anchors of the opening track, ‘Anchors Of The Soul’ are of the latter variety as the song looks to a bright future for the Gaels. The title track combines both – the singer is clearly at sea but is also thinking about the person waiting at the end of his journey. From now on we’re definitely in maritime mood. The first song in Gaelic, ‘Coire Bhreacain’, is written in shanty form and although my Gaelic doesn’t amount to much, I do know that Coire Bhreacain is the Gulf of Corryvreckan, a narrow stretch of water off the northern tip of Jura.

Next is ‘Last Of The Hunters’, one of the big anthemic songs that Skipinnish do so well. It’s a hymn of praise for deep-sea fishermen but Angus isn’t parochial and the name-checks circle the entire British coast. This is a song they’ll be playing until the seas run try. In ‘Land Below The Waves’, Angus writes of the Western Isles and his desire to be out at sea again. It’s back to Gaelic for ‘Thar Sàil (Over The Sea)’, another big song but unless I missed the point, it’s about the ferries that ply the Minch. Although they aren’t named it has to be a nod to CalMac!

‘The Atholl Set’ is the second instrumental track – one for the festival dancers – and we’re just about back on land for ‘Wishing Well’, arranged and produced by Malcolm Jones. It’s what a colleague of ours would call a “swayalong” but I’m greedy enough to want to hear more of Malcolm’s guitar. Phil Cunningham composed ‘The Youngest Ancient Mariner’, a gentle interlude for about a third of its length until the pipes take hold of it. There is a traditional ‘Puirt Set’ next and then ‘Still We Run’ harks back to the thoughts of the opening track. ‘Goodbye’ isn’t completely self-explanatory from the title and finally the band return for a set of jigs.

It only struck me at the end that, in Steer By The Stars, Skipinnish have programmed a live set and then recorded it – with all the ebb and flow you want from a concert. There are several guests, including pupils from two schools on the first track but I should mention Jarlath Henderson, Gordon Gunn and former Runrig keyboard player, Brian Hurren. The guests blend seamlessly and like all good visitors, don’t outstay their welcome. You’ll hear a few bars of whistle or mandolin but only if you don’t let the music sweep you away.

Dai Jeffries

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‘Wishing Well’ – official video: