The phrase multi-talented is sometimes over-used, but I’ve no doubt that it applies to Joy Dunlop. An award winning Gaelic singer and step dancer, Joy is also a Gaelic language advocate, educator, broadcaster and regular weather presenter on BBC Scotland. Her musical career itself has consisted of such a wide range of projects and collaborations, that Caoir is her first solo release in a decade.
All this, along with the wealth of talent in the Scottish contemporary folk scene, might help to explain why Joy is not more widely known. This album clearly demonstrates that she is a fine interpreter of traditional song, with an assured, expressive voice, and a deep connection with the material. Joy has personally chosen all of the material featured on Caoir. The ten resulting tracks are mostly traditional, and all sung in Gaelic. As a Southerner, I’m grateful that the informative sleeve notes include full English translations.
To complement her own talent, Joy has assembled a group of accomplished musicians for the album. Ron Jappy plays guitar, Mhairi Marwich is on fiddle, Gus Stirrat on bass, Ifedade Thomas on drums, with Euan Malloch on electric guitar.
Caoir opens with ‘Jigs’, of which there are two, ‘Nighean Ruadh Bhan’ and ‘Chuirinn Mi Ghiollan A Dh’Iomain Nan Caorach’. Both are examples of Puirt a Beul – Gaelic Mouth Music. Long before we could ask a smart speaker to play what we want to hear, people too poor to own instruments danced to these tunes, performed by the human voice. Having listened to mouth music in its original form, its inclusion here didn’t fill me with any eager anticipation, but this actually works well. This is partly because they’re sung well, but also because of the instrumental accompaniment. You could say that is defeating the object, but I think it allows a rarely heard genre of folk music to connect with modern audiences. ‘Jigs’ opens with a drum sequence, before the fiddle arrives and a rocky feel develops. .
Puirt a Beul is a recurring theme on Caoir, as are waulking songs, of which ‘Ged Is Grianach An Latha’ (‘Although the Day is Sunny’) is an example. For anyone unfamiliar with them, waulking songs were work songs, sung by women working on tweeds and tartans. They are particularly associated with The Hebrides. This track has a gentle guitar opening, before the fiddle joins in and a lilting tune, used to set the rhythm for repetitive tasks, develops. What often makes waulking songs particularly interesting, is that they come from a private feminine World, and were often used for social comment and criticism. The lyrics here appear to tell of an illicit liaison, and mention the Repentance Stool, used in the Scottish Kirk until the 19th century to humiliate parishioners who had contravened the Church’s moral code.
‘Am Braighe’ (The Braes’), was written at the start of the 20th century by Malcolm Gillis. It celebrates the beauty of his native Cape Breton, an island with a strong Scottish musical heritage, where Joy has researched the local step dance traditions. The tune is gentle but pleasantly rhythmic, with a good instrumental sequence in which guitar and fiddle combine well.
Another waulking song follows. ‘Mo Nighean Donn Ho Gu’ (‘My Brown Haired Girl Ho Gu’) tells of a young man leaving his love. The local militia has been raised and he goes, believing he’ll return in a month, only to find himself sailing south and around the Cape. This is another rhythmic work song, but sharper than ‘Ged Is Grianach An Latha’. The arrangement reflects the lyrics, with some military style drumming sequences.
A new Gaelic song follows – ‘Cadal Cuain’ (‘Sleep of the Ocean’). The words of North Uist poet Ceitidh Morrison tell of a young woman mourning for her love, who is lost at sea. The music from Skye singer Kenna Campbell, is suitably melancholy but beautiful. A cymbal gently mimics that sound of rolling waves.
The mood lifts with ‘Puirt a Beul’, another outing for Gaelic mouth music. The first tune ‘Ho Gun D’ Mharbh Mi’ has a largely acoustic guitar accompaniment, which gives an authentic, paired down feel. The pace then quickens and at the end of the second tune, ‘Dhannsamaid Le Ailean’, a fiery fiddle solo leads us into two very fast tunes, ‘Air An Fheill’ and ‘Ged Thigeadh Le Buale Chruid’. Mouth music often has a high word count with a fast pace, putting a high demand on the singer’s ability. It probably helps that these are mouth tunes rather than songs, and the words are often repetitive and non-sensical.
A mournful fiddle opens the next track, ‘Bas Na Cailliche Beire’ (‘The Death of the Cailleach Bheur’). The story is of a one eyed giantess, who lived on an island near Mull. Every 100 years, she needed to go to bathe in Loch Ba, and to reach the loch without hearing a dog bark. As often in folk tales, why something as insignificant as a dog barking, should be so serious isn’t made clear. Then again, a dog will always bark sometime, so perhaps there is a message about the inevitability of fate. This is an interesting track, with a tune that clearly points to it being a call and reply type song, common in many traditions. Here, in each verse the first and third lines are the same, with a repetition of the last phrase from the opening line in line 2, and a fourth line that takes the narrative forward. Thus verse 1 runs as, “Early today barked the hound / Barked the hound, barked the hound / Early today barked the hound / On a still morning above Loch Ba”. Those lines, taken from the singing of Captain Dugald McCormick from Mull, form the only surviving original verse. Additional verses, and a new melody, have been provided by another Mull musician, Alasdair Mac IlleBhain.
Up next is the last waulking song on Caoir. ‘Port Na Cailliche’ (‘The Old Crone’s Tune’) is an example of an oran basaidh (clapping song), a variety of waulking songs, sung while patting down the shrunken tweed. The tune is upbeat and jolly, a work song that could be a dance tune. In contrast to the earlier waulking songs, the lyrics are humorous. The titular character is married to the narrator, and is making his life a misery.
‘Duthaith Mjcaoidh’ (‘MacKay Country’) is the most bitter and emotional song on the album. The opening lines, “My curse upon the great sheep! / where now are the children of the kindly folk?”, make it clear that this is a clearance song. In particular, it tells of the Sutherland Clearance of 1819 – 20. Believed to have been written shortly after the events by Euan Robertson, the lyrics are fiercely critical of those involved – notably the Duke of Sutherland’s agent, Patrick Sellar. I’m sorry to say that Sellar grew rich from the suffering inflicted on whole communities. The Sutherlands fared less well and their money problems continued, which might be a little bit of justice, but only a little. A haunting, atmospheric fiddle begins this track, and continues throughout. Most of the backing is minimal and unobtrusive, adding to the song’s potency.
The final track is the third helping of mouth music. ‘Reels’, consists of two tunes ‘Gun An Gobha A Charachadh’ and ‘Siud An Rud A Thogadh Fonn’. It’s a fast paced track, with a choppy, percussive rhythm, providing a fun and upbeat finale to the album.
This is the first project on which Joy has added drums and bass to her music, and it works well. Joy aims to present traditional material in a modern setting, and to make Gaelic song more widely accessible by capturing the sentiment of the songs. I’d say she’s done well on both of those points with this album.
Caoir (pronounced Koor) means a blaze of fire, fiercely burning. That suggested to me fiery emotion and passion, perhaps with a bit of wildness. My one disappointment with the album is that this didn’t quite come through to me. Caoir has bags of warmth but I felt it lacks just a bit of fire and edge that could have taken it to a higher level.
Of course, that is just my opinion, and what this album does have is ten beautifully performed and sensitively arranged tracks. An aspect of it that I really enjoyed is the choice of material, and range of the Scottish tradition it covers. For anyone with a fascination for traditional song and social history, there’s much to appreciate here.
Artist website: www.joydunlop.com
‘Jigs’ (Puirt-a-Beul set) – live: