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GAREFOWL - Cliffs 

GAREFOWL - Cliffs 
Penny Fiddle Records PFR2004CD 

This is a fascinating project, an intriguing adventure in sound directly inspired by, and marking anniversaries of two events in the history of, the exceedingly remote, now-uninhabited island of St. Kilda (50 miles west of the Outer Hebrides) – it being 180 years since four of the islanders killed the last Great Auk (“garefowl”) in the UK (believing it to be a witch), and 90 years since the evacuation of the last inhabitants in 1930.

Fiddle player Ewan Macdonald (of Band Of Burns and Idumea Quartet) and his father Murdo are relatives of Lachlan MacKinnon (one of the auk-killers), and Ewan has assembled an international collective of six fellow-musicians for the purpose of reflecting on his family history and the implications for our age of the extinction of the Great Auk.

The eight tracks of Cliffs form a kind of suite, such is the unifying sense of atmosphere, a powerful quality of almost otherworldly, exotic remoteness that is yet shot through with strong resonances of St. Kilda’s indigenous music. Five of the pieces are instrumental interpretations of traditional St. Kildan songs sourced from archive recordings and manuscript collections, while the remaining three are new compositions by Ewan and Murdo inspired by island life and its unique landscape and aviana. The telling instrumental evocation of seascapes and bird cries is counterpointed by the incorporation of authentic sound samples of bird-life, this proving especially effective on pieces like Cumha Hirteach (St. Kilda Lament) and the opening, more fiery and energetic chant, Hion Daika Horo Ri Ho Hion Daila Là.

Cliffs is a towering achievement (especially impressive for having been created during lockdown), which certainly transcends its ostensible niche market.

David Kidman


This review appeared in Issue 136 of The Living Tradition magazine