Link to Living Tradition Homepage






Feis Rois FEISROIS007  

The brother who didn't go to California, Iain Fraser has been playing and teaching in Scotland for as long as I can remember, and has been involved with the Fèisean movement since its early days, so it's no surprise that Fèis Rois commissioned him to create (not curate) this album to celebrate 30 years of classes, community and craic at the Adult Fèis. Straddling Scotland about three quarters of the way up the country, Fèis Rois has bases in Dingwall, Gairloch and Ullapool: Gneiss is structured around this tripartite geography, and specifically around the rocks in each location - although it's definitely not a rock album. Dingwall's sandstone foundations are celebrated in four sets of tunes here, Gairloch's strippit boulders get two tracks including the monster title medley of four tunes, and Fraser leaves us in the schist at Ullapool for the final three numbers.

Iain is joined on fiddle by Gordon Gunn, down from the far north of Wick, and by the excellent Wendys (Weatherby and Stewart) on cello and harp for a powerful string section. Calum-Alex MacMillan provides the wind to drive whistles, pipes and vocals, while the back line combines the stellar talents of Jakobsdottir, Ross and Armstrong. Rather more than two thirds of the material here is written by Fraser himself, with this new spirit leavened by two Gaelic songs (one by 18th century bard Uilleam Ros, the other more recent by Hector Mackenzie) and two modern slow airs, as well as the traditional pipe tune The High Road To Gairloch which may go back as far as the 16th century or even further. New pieces fit well with the old, and there are some which may well last 500 years.

I was surprised at the simplicity of the opening track - Gneiss has not been over-polished, making it easier to grasp and leaving an uneven sheen. Alpha Munro's air Kiltearn Beach certainly sparkles when harp and cello are given such freedom, and the multifarious percussion on Dipterus evokes the age of our traditions in a way which reminds me of wire-strung harps, psalteries and even the fearsome carnax. Tulloch Castle introduces a jauntier set, with a modern reel The Craic At Crakaig followed by the cheeky march Warmer Winds. There's almost as much wordplay as fiddleplay in some of these Fraser compositions.

We head west for Rita Hunter Of Aultbea, a beautiful Gaelic air in the gneiss setting beside Loch Ewe. Staying in Gairloch for Motel Madness, a funky little fiddle tune which travels well, we come to the title piece, an earthy pipe-led reel which could form the ground of a modern piobaireachd. Flitting up to Ullapool, the dainty Out On The Grass is perhaps an idealised view of a fiddle class in the highland summer, not a midge to be heard, followed by the gentle song Mo Chailin Dìleas Donn, a very popular Gaelic waltz from a time when blondes didn't have all the fun. The stately minuet Loch Broom, fine fiddle and harp on the striding air Davie Douglas, and the swaggering 6/8 Sàthadh Mòine bring us to the big brown finish: Allt an Schist, or Schist Creek in English, where Iain has surfaced all the rock elements of his full band for a final splash. I hope there are pedals involved. Solid performances all round here, and some great tunes - what could be nicer than Gneiss?

Alex Monaghan


This review appeared in Issue 145 of The Living Tradition magazine