An ambitious project, this is the brainchild of double-bassist Jenny Hill who, in the period running up to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, found herself frequently on the road away from her Scottish home. As such, and being English, she was struck by the different messages being directed at and from the two nations and decided to address the notion of separation through a musical project. Recruiting Eliza Carthy, Hannah James, Hannah Read, Hazel Askew, Jenn Butterworth, Karine Polwart, Kate Young, Mary Macmaster and Rowan Rheingans, a posse of female folkies from both Scotland and England, they holed up on Isle of Eigg last June to write, rehearse and record (in just six days) what would eventually become this album, its theme of separation embracing the personal, political, social and cultural as well as touching on matters of family, gender, communication, supernatural, home, work, identity and the land.
Polwart taking the lead vocal, it opens with a reading of the traditional number, ‘Echo Mocks The Corncrake’, an appropriate choice given that Eigg is one of this migratory bird’s remaining habitats, its distinctive call introducing the track and echoed in the percussive beats, the lyrics about the separation of two lovers serving as a metaphor for the rural depopulation of the Highlands during the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s a robust treatment involving harp, scraping strings bass, double bass and a rousing wordless vocal refrain.
The album continues in traditional mode with Read’s bluegrass-tinged arrangement of Burns’ ‘It Was A’ For Our Rightfu’ King’, a gently yearning melody picked out her acoustic guitar and completed by harp and banjo, followed by the equality and love themed ‘The Poor Man’s Lamentation’ with its urgent rhythm, swirling violins and a capella ending. Further birdsong and the sound of a storm heralds the wholly massed a capella lament ‘Sad The Climbing’ (or, since it’s sung in Gaelic, ‘Trom An Direadh’), recorded live, like the album’s other a capella number, ‘Unst Boat Song’, in Eigg’s acoustically striking Cathedral Cave, itself not far from the site of a 1577 massacre of the MacDonald population by the MacLeods of Harris upon which the lyrics treat.
Driven by choppy percussive arrangement and gathering to a chanted climax, things remain in Scottish Gaelic for the near six-minute ‘Muladach Mi ‘s Mi Air M’aineoil’ (‘Sad Am I And In A Strange Place’), a call-and-response waulking song about a woman and her two daughters being separated from their people and their home.
In contrast to the bulk of the album, ‘Cleaning The Stones’ is an original number (a fish’s love song) penned by Eliza Carthy. Opening with a chamber folk arrangement, it waltzes dreamily on wings of plucked strings and harp arpeggios like something from the music halls. A little more birdsong, and it’s a journey way back in time and to the far reaches of the Shetlands for ‘Unst Boat Song’, a prayer for the safe return of fisherman sung on the original Norn with Polwart taking lead.
Sung by Hazel Askew with the others providing harmonies, the lullabying music hall tune of ‘London Lights’ may be more familiar as ‘Just Before The Battle Mother’, an American Civil War song written by George Root, the lyrics here about the destitution fate of abandoned single mothers. Heading into the final stretch, the harp shimmering ballad ‘Sea King’ is a handclap backed intricate setting by Kate Young of a poem by 19th century Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger, a variation on the selkie myth about a woman who, years after being transformed into a mermaid, returns to shore, human again, only to find she has now has no home on either land and the sea.
Lady Maisery’s Rowan Rheingans steps up for another original, the strings-swathed ‘Soil And Soul’, a song inspired by both the hills known as The Old Woman of the Moors on the Isle of Lewis and the translation of the Gaelic for Eigg, The Island of the Big Women (a reference to the 7th century female Pict warriors sent to rid the island of Christianity-peddling monks), while the title (and the theme) stems from a book by Scottish environmental campaigner Alastair McIntosh.
Concerned with separation and loss as a result of conflict, personal or otherwise, ‘Over The Border’ weaves together a number of traditional tunes and a collective original, among them ‘The Flowers of Knaresborough Forest’, ‘Blue Bonnets Over the Border’ and pipe lament ‘The Floo’ers of The Forest’, plucked harp and Indian harmonium drone giving way to shared vocals by Polwart and Carthy before the ensemble joins in and violins, guitars and percussion lift the tempo for a rousing dance reel and the optimistic refrain of ‘the gates and the borders will all fade away’.
Finally, Robert Frost’s classic poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ provides the inspiration for’ Rheingans’ ‘Road Less Travelled’, her vocals joined by Polwart and Young (who also lent a lyric hand) on an suitably banjo-dappled accompaniment behind which, recorded in the open air, birds trill and the wind blows as they exhort “lay your cares and troubles down” and “sing your own way home”.
There’s no better way to end this than by quoting Hill’s words in the booklet:
“Songs of Separation is an ‘SoS’, reminding us that this connection between people, and between people and place, is the key to overcoming the challenges we face, both in our communities and in this fragile world of which we are temporary custodians.” Come together, right now.