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Strathspey Records SRCD04 

Following on from The River in 2016 and The Railway in 2018, The Woods is the third album in a series of five inspired by Hamish’s Highland homeland. Hamish is a whistle, flute and piano player, and an accomplished composer, and this Strathspey Pentalogy represents a serious body of new work with its roots in the tradition.

On The Woods, Hamish has surrounded himself with the best of the best, and although his faultless playing is very much to the fore over these 21 tracks, there’s a full band sound on most – it’s really well put together, and has a gorgeous, clean recorded quality. Of particular note throughout are James Lindsay’s double bass and Jarlath Henderson’s uilleann pipes – they are both outstanding.

The material here consists of 28 new tunes by Hamish, all celebrating the ancient forests of the Highlands and the natural life found therein – there are tunes for the hazel, oak, holly and elder, the fungi and moss, the heather and wild roses, the capercaillie, and even the “wee beasties”. Each track corresponds with a letter of the Scottish Gaelic tree alphabet (whoever knew there was such a thing?), and the sleevenotes give not only details of the inspiration behind the tunes, but also some information on the species in question and its place in Scottish folklore – it’s a rounded experience that Hamish has obviously worked really hard to research and bring together.

The tunes themselves vary in style. The album begins with a beautiful stately air on the bamboo flute (for the birch). That’s followed by a duo of tunes for the capercaillie and the pine marten that have a heavy, almost rocky beat, that really suits the addition of Ross Ainslie’s Highland pipes. Some of the tracks, particularly those that are piano and string based, have a different, almost cinematic feel. Wildfire is particularly descriptive in its insistent warning nature, as is The Tree Of The Underworld (elm), with its eerie harmonium, cello and musical saw. The album closes (apart from a final flourish of capercaillie calls) on a particularly high note with the only track including vocals, Calum MacCrimmon’s canntaireachd, the tune written to lament the loss of many trees, plants and creatures due to human mismanagement.

This is modern music, grounded in folk forms, played by impeccable musicians – well worth a listen.

Fiona Heywood


This review appeared in Issue 135 of The Living Tradition magazine