A bringing together of three projects (song writing, fiddle and folk) involving thirteen artists from Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides and originated by the An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway, this double CD is essentially the result of lockdown. When the live performances were cancelled, it was decided to compile material from the three projects, including former live performances along with ten entirely new works recorded remotely by artists who’d not previously worked together. Featuring some inspired pairings, Between Islands is a terrific collection.
Taking the studio disc first, this comprises the ten new recordings alongside six from Project One, kicking off with three featuring each island’s assembled musicians, the first up being the slow walk-paced ‘Out On The Islands’ by the assembled Western Isles Musicians (Willie Campbell, Julie Fowlis, Neil Johnstone, Kathleen Macinnes, Linda Macleod, Jane Hepburn Macmillan) with fiddles and whistles, a lovely reminiscence of youth that has the tang of the sea and the serenity of the hills. It’s followed by The Shetland Musicians (Arthur Nicholson, Maggie Adamson, Jenny Keldie) and the optimistic and hopeful strum of ‘Summer Sun’ the trio rounded off by The Orkney Musicians (Kris Drever, Louise Bichan, Saltfishforty) with Drever’s fingerpicked ‘I’ll Always Leave The Light On’, a song from his latest album.
Moving on to the pairings, ‘The Curly Doody/The West To North Sound/The Lost Queen of Burray’ is a lively instrumental medley of original tunes from Saltfishforty and Macmillan while guitarist Drever and singer McLeod team for ‘The Fadachd Orm Fhinm’, a waulking song of unknown origin in which, sung in a local Gaelic variant, a woman longs for the return of her love.
A further sprightly instrumental of four fiddle tunes follows bring together Bichan and Johnstone for ‘Whal’s Post/Colin Scott Mackenzie of Stornoway/PM Donald Maclean of Lewis/The Lost Summer’, while Johnston gets a solo cello and fiddle showcase on ‘Lament For Eilidh Macleod of Barra’ in memory of the young Manchester Arena bombing victim.
‘Don’t Make A Sound’ is a grass is greener-themed number with Nicolson on lead and Fowlis providing harmonies while, accompanied by pipes and sung in dialect, the yearning for home ‘An Teid Thu Leam?’ has Adamson providing fiddle backing to Macinnes’ melancholic vocals. The last of the ten comes with a gorgeous contribution by Campbell and Keldie on their original co-write ‘Leading Me Back To The Water’, a simple gradually swelling piano ballad anthem that returns to the pull of the islands on which the sessions began.
The remaining five tracks stems from a Shetland session involving Campbell, Drever and Nicholson, beginning with the sway of ‘Rolling And Tumbling’ and moving through the fingerpicked folk blues ‘Phantom Limbs’, ‘Supernatural Power’ with its opening a capella three part harmonies and rich deep acoustic guitar work, the frisky fingerpicking of the self-descriptive ‘Our Contentment’ and, finally, the bouncy strumalong ‘Spindrift’ with another snapshot of island life, from the weather to the accents “no one understands”.
CD 2 represents two projects, the first being the fiddle-based live recording from the arts centre and built around Adamson, Bichan and Macmillan with contributions from four of the lads, the set opening with a three-part instrumental, the mournful shipwreck lament of ‘Svecia’ ceding to the livelier ‘In & Oot Da Harbour’ and ‘Spootiskerry.’ A further instrumental follows combining nuptial tunes from Shetland and the Hebrides, the stately ‘Unst Wedding’, the more familiar romp of ‘Mairis Wedding’ and, keeping the fling going, ‘St Kilda Wedding’.
Wholly instrumental, the rest of the material ranges from ‘Melville’, written about Bichen’s grandmother and featuring a recording of her singing on Canadian radio, and the piano/fiddle homesickness lament ‘Clanalas’ to various reels and jigs, both celebratory and mournful.
The second half, recorded at both the arts centre and the Orkney Folk Festival returns to song and features Fowlis, Keldie, Saltfishforty, Macinnes and Macleod alongside, on the Orkney tracks, Andrew Gifford and Erik Laughton. It actually opens with a mouth music number, ‘Fishing Puirt’ that encompasses a set of fiddle tunes before moving on to brushed snare old school country coloured dance hall sounds of ‘Lonely Scapa Flow’.
There’s further instrumental showcases with Shetland traditional fiddle tunes ‘Faroe Rum/Aandowin At Da Bow/Forfeit of Da Ship’ and the closing ‘Howe Hornpipe’ by Saltfishforty’s Douglas Montgomery, but the remaining numbers all feature vocals. Indeed, the lilting ‘Mi le Moullean’, sung in Gaelic, features a whole school choir on a song by the late Murdo Macfarlane about women longing for their menfolk’s safe return from sea, while, sung unaccompanied by Fowlis and MacInnes, ‘Thulgag bhòidheach/Iorram Suirghe’ are two Hebridean rowing songs and ‘Uibhist Mo Ghràidh’ has all voices piling in on a song in praise of Uist.
The standout, however, must surely be ‘Souls Across The Sea’, a beautiful slow swaying piano ballad written by Keldie for her uncle and others suffering from Alzheimer’s and warmed by a closing cornet solo by James Keldie.
While unlikely to get the wider exposure it deserves greatly beyond the community from where it was born, Between Islands is a glorious coming together of some of the finest contemporary voices and musicians from Scotland’s farthest reaches.
Project website: www.betweenislands.com
A long compilation video of the Between Islands projects. Enjoy.