Hirta Songs is a welcome reminder of the power of characteristically Scottish art. A couple of years ago, it seemed that Scottish folk was making an enduring and emotional mark on commercial music. Rather, I should say, that bands that sung with a noticeably strong Scottish accent (and sometimes used instruments or tropes found in traditional Scottish music) seemed particularly popular a year or so ago.
There was Django Django’s critically acclaimed self-titled debut, Scatterbrain by The Xcerts, Tree Bursts in Snow by Admiral Fallow, No One Can Ever Know by The Twilight Sad, Something For the Weakened by Meursault, Euphoric /// Heartbreak \\\ by Glasvegas, Diamond Mine by King Creosote and Jon Hopkins… The list goes on.
In 2013 though, proceedings petered out a little. There was Frightened Rabbit’s Pedestrian Verse right at the start of the year, but since then (lest we mention Biffy Clyro’s unpalatable Opposites from January), there’s been a feeling of abandonment. All these warm voices came and burrowed into heads, told tales late at night, and then this year, they left. We were deserted in the mountains, the wind cold but no longer whispering stories. That was until Alasdair Roberts and Robin Robertson rowed their wee boat to shore to collect the marooned and take them on an adventure through the history of St Kilda’s islands.
Hirta is the largest island of the St Kilda archipelago. It was deemed uninhabitable by human civilization eighty years ago, but was visited by Robin Robertson and his wife in 2007. But, he says ‘the islands weren’t finished with me… This record is the result’. Robertson collaborated with Alasdair Roberts, who recites much of the poetry and plays much of the music. The album certainly reverberates much like the islands must have done with Robertson. Sparse arrangement allows his words to infiltrate quite delicately but persistently.
Hirta Songs is tenacious and transportive. In one sense, it’s because the stories are detailed and personal: in ‘Plain of Spells’ he recites the wild plants that women of the island collected for herbal remedies. ‘Farewell to the Fowler’ recounts how Neil MacLeod fell to the sea from a high rock, but the agony of drowning was prolonged by the air in the stomachs of the birds tied at his waist, ‘buoyed up by the ghosts of birds’. The song-stanza ‘Leaving St Kilda’ is simply a thorough description of the island’s rocks.
Yet in another sense, it’s not the particularities of the album that makes it transportive, rather the amassed sound of words like Mullach Mòr, Hardship Cave, scurvygrass, muckle breakers, said gently over hardanger fiddle and harp. These allow the record to wash over you, become enveloping.
Perhaps Hirta Songs marks the end of the hiatus for break-out Scottish music, uncommercial though it may be. Mogwai have an album out next month, and there was that overlooked Glasvegas album from this year. For now though, with this mesmeric record, ‘all eyes hold the gaze of the rocks’.By Alice Lawrence