By 1995, we had been living in a foreign country for five years.
I’m aware that’s a contentious statement, and I’m not sure even I fully believe it, but I’ve been thinking about it as I try to contextualise this album (and a couple of others I bought around this time), and it’s what I feel now.
We moved to England in 1990. At first, there were some differences which we noticed, but the majority of things we encountered in daily life didn’t change. Sure, the water out of the taps tasted funny, and trying to buy a ‘fish supper’ in the local ‘chippy’ would get you funny looks, but we’d been living in the UK our entire lives, and it wasn’t especially clear to me that someone moving from Yorkshire or Cornwall to the Home Counties wouldn’t feel the same sense of dislocation.
But over time, the differences accumulated. Not in obvious ways, but definitely subconsciously. I would regularly meet people who not only had never been to Scotland, but had only a vague idea of where it was and whether life there was in any way comparable to life in the south. The regular jokes about whether we had electricity up there were – of course – jokes, but there’s a reason these jokes appear in the first place. I missed certain things – sport was probably the most obvious – and as I became more and more immersed in a world where Scottish accents were rare, and references to Scotland on news and current affairs programmes were pretty much non-existent, I began, I think, to feel increasingly Scottish.
When I was an awkward idealist as a teenager, I would cheerfully declare myself a ‘citizen of the world’. I don’t know where I first heard that, but I latched on to it as a way of distancing myself from narrow jingoism and nationalist sentiment. The devolution referendum in 1979 was my first opportunity to inspect my own feelings about Scotland, and I remember being quite firmly in the ‘no’ camp, although I didn’t have a vote, being only 16.
But ask me in 1995, and I’m not sure my answer would have been the same. Living in England was great – I love England, my children were born there, and I have many English friends and memories of the place. But I gradually realised that it actually was a different country to the one I was brought up in, and that it was OK to miss things about Scotland which I hadn’t really thought about before.
We would, of course, regularly go back to visit family, and I would have the occasional work trip (I’m coming to another one of those), and each time we went, I’d notice something else I’m not entirely sure was there before.
There seemed to be more Scottish flags flying, more national team shirts around, even more tartan in places. I don’t think we were going to tourist areas; it just seemed that things had changed. Things I used to take for granted, like the Scottish country dance music on the radio on Saturday teatime, stood out to me now – I wouldn’t say I’d missed Robbie Shepherd on the radio, but on hearing him again, I found myself reflecting that there was a whole part of my childhood missing from my English life.
I don’t know if being away from Scotland encouraged me to think more about Scottish music and culture, but I started to actively investigate music from my homeland, and to identify some distinct differences – Deacon Blue might just have been another 1990s pop band, but they sang about things I recognised; things which didn’t feature in my new life. I was, somewhat belatedly, introduced to Runrig and heard things I didn’t know I’d been missing – people singing with a distinct Scottish accent, for example.
And this album came in to my life because of an old friendship and a trip to Scotland at a time when I was thinking more and more about my Scottishness, and what it meant to me now.
Spoiler alert – I am a citizen of an entirely different country now, and I still haven’t figured any of that out yet, so there’s not going to be an answer.
At some point in late 1995, I was on a work trip to Scotland, which I extended into a weekend, so I could go up to Aberdeen and see my family. There was – I think – a sales meeting on the Thursday in Edinburgh, and I needed something to do on the Friday before driving north. I had one of my colleagues with me (or I met her at Edinburgh airport on the Friday morning, which seems more likely) and we spent the day surveying the distribution of Nutella tubs in the corner shops of Edinburgh and beyond.
I now have to explain the Nutella tub. At the time, Nutella was sold in glass jars – the smaller one could be reused as a drinking glass once empty – and in multipacks of what we generally referred to as ‘tubs’; little portion-pack sized plastic containers with a peelable lid which you could buy for pennies at the counter of your local corner shop. I genuinely hadn’t thought about them for years before sitting down to write this, and have no idea if they still exist in their original form. I do know that the tub was reshaped to mimic the shape of the jar a few years after this. I also know that if you refrigerated them, you could have a bite-sized Nutella flavoured chocolate snack, which I recommend.
Scotland was, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment, a hotbed of Nutella tub sales, and our Nutella brand manager, Anna, who was English, but of Italian descent, wanted to see for herself. I jumped at the chance to show off my favourite city, and we spent a fantastic day driving around Edinburgh interrogating owners of small neighbourhood shops about why the little tubs sold so well.
I knew why, of course, and it’s to do with ice cream.
Ice cream in Scotland was, and is, heavily influenced by the Italian diaspora. There are many variations on the stories of Italians settling in Scotland from the late 19th century on, and no space here to tell all those tales, but the important point is that not only did every Scottish town have its Luigis, Macari’s, Vicca’s, or Nardini’s, but it also had fleets of ice cream vans, selling all manner of confections alongside the gelati.
This is also not the place to get into the so-called ice cream wars; suffice it to say that ice cream is an important subject in Scotland, and if you’re of Italian descent and you sell ice cream, you also sell that staple of the Italian breakfast table, Nutella.
The little tubs were sold in highest volume from the ice cream vans – the wholesalers who supplied the vans bought the tubs by the pallet load – but by a process of the way markets function, there was a demand for tubs which expanded into every newsagent and corner grocer in the land.
So there was no shortage of surveying to be done, and any number of shopkeepers happy to tell us that they just kept a box of them on the counter, and sold them mainly to those who were spending pocket money on them after school, but that a surprising number of people would opt for one of the little tubs instead of a more traditional chocolate bar.
I’m not sure what we learned, but we had fun.
As I was driving to Aberdeen at the end of the day, we had arranged for Anna’s flight south to depart from Aberdeen, and I’m sure we intended to spend more time in my home city than we did, but there’s so much of Edinburgh to show off, and I’m not sure we had time for more than one or two fleeting visits in Aberdeen.
On the drive north, we entertained ourselves by firstly, me making Anna try to pronounce all the Scottish names we saw on roadsigns (the one just outside Forfar which points to Bogindollo, Oathlaw and Jusinhaugh was a particular favourite), and listening to my new Capercaillie CD.
The first thing we did that morning was to go to the Gyle Centre (again; that’s twice it’s shown up in here, and they are quite possibly the only two times I ever went in there) so we could pick up coffee and a CD for the car.
The previous night, rather than staying in the hotel we’d been meeting in, I drove across the Forth Road Bridge and spent the evening with the same friend who had started me off on the Ferrero journey back in the Tears For Fears post. During dinner, we listened to his new copy of To The Moon and all those strange feelings of Scottishness flowed through me. Living in England, I doubt I’d even have heard it, but hearing it there, in good company, and thinking about how different my English life was turning out to be, compelled me to take home a slice of Scotland.
And before taking it home, to subject my Italian / English colleague to it.
To The Moon is sung in a mix of Scottish-accented English (not Scots; let’s not go down that road just yet) and Scottish Gaelic. The English part is, of course, comprehensible to an Aberdonian (I’m not sure there are many, or indeed any, pop songs sung in Doric); the Gaelic much less so. Had I stayed in Scotland, might I have followed my friend Andrew’s example, and learned Gaelic? I’d like to think so, but my experience of trying to learn Italian, which was of daily use to me for 16 years, suggests I might not have got very far.
All of which is to say that for a number of the songs on here, I’ve literally no idea what’s being sung, but I can react to the sounds.
The opening title track, for example, sets the mood perfectly – it’s all smooth bass and sparse instrumentation, supporting a breathy voice singing about who knows what before it eventually explodes into live about halfway through, opening the door to the rest of the album.
Capercaillie are not a traditional drum-bass-guitar kind of band. Instrumentation tends to revolve around violins (strictly, fiddles), flutes and other traditional woodwind instruments, with piano or accordion supplementing the more rock-oriented rhythm section. It gives the music a highly distinctive, and to these ears, particularly Scottish, sound. Of course, people have asked me about the ‘Irish music’ I’m listening to, but the distinction is clear to me.
For instance, the fiddle line in the strangely upbeat ‘Claire in Heaven’ is unmistakeably descended from the same ancestry as the ones I used to hear on Robbie Shepherd’s Take The Floor programme on a Saturday night. The song itself is one of those contradictory ones; ostensibly sung from the perspective of an infant who died at only three days old, it’s curiously joyful and easy to sing along with. I always like that in a band; the ability to mask the message of a song and make you work for it.
Nil Si nGra, on the other hand, is clearly mournful. I put the lyrics through Google Translate, which tells me that it is a song of regret and sorrow. It also tells me that the text was detected as “Irish”, which is annoying. I am also reminded by looking at the original lyrics that Gaelic is perhaps only rivalled by Danish as languages which seem to have little or no relationship between the written and spoken form.
Meanwhile, Why Won’t You Touch Me? starts off in Spanish to completely throw the translate program. It features some splendid Spanish-style nylon-stringed guitar alongside the fiddle. It’s not clear to me why it keeps breaking into Spanish, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t; just because Capercaillie are rooted in the Scottish islands, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t also reach out to the rest of the world. There’s also a very 1990s bass break in the middle, which I’d forgotten about, and which caused me to grin widely.
I don’t think I’m bringing those prejudices to this album; I’m not expecting a dozen songs about the Highland Clearances or anything, which is just as well – the lyrics of You, bar the Gaelic backing vocals, cover the same subject matter as a million other love songs. It’s just that this one sounds Scottish in its execution and delivery.
La Paella Grande has me researching just what, exactly, is the Spanish connection. It’s largely instrumental, and full of life and joy, but I’m not sure I understand the name. Not that names have to carry deep meaning; as Robert Plant said about Big Log, “you have to call it something”, and there’s a definite Spanish feel to the beginning of this – the handclaps mixed with the fiddle actually give it a sound all its own.
I think The Crooked Mountain exemplifies the sound of this album. It contains all the warm production and smooth sounds of its time; the bass and drums are solid and funky; the mood is that of a 1990s pop anthem, but the unusual instrumentation breathes a different kind of life into it. It’s one of the least played songs on the album according to Spotify, but I can hear all the elements of a proper chart song – I suspect that says something about how things had moved on from the 1980s; the offbeat and quirky found it much harder to reach a wide audience than they had ten years before.
However, Ailein Duinn took the path of being a key song in an Oscar-nominated film, and very nearly propelled Scottish Gaelic into the UK charts, so what do I know. Some of the music on To The Moon came out of the costume drama Rob Roy, starring that well-known Scotsman Liam Neeson, and this interpretation of a traditional lament was used as the theme tune, although it perhaps reflected the mournful tone of the story too well to reach a wider audience.
God’s Alibi is a political anti-war song which isn’t all that sure about religion, now you come to mention it. The overall tone of the album might suggest that the subject matter is unexpected, but there was a war going on in Europe at the time, and bands which play traditional instruments and sing in Gaelic aren’t immune from the effects of that. It’s a terrifically powerful statement which deserved a wider audience.
Fear-Allabain positively rocks along, although it’s only with the help of the translator that I understand that rocking along is the whole point – it being a ‘get up and get going’ kind of song, albeit one with a flute solo where others might have had a wailing guitar.
The Rob Roy Reels are instrumentals from the movie soundtrack, and are comfortably the most Scottish thing on here, hewing not only to the traditional sounds, but to the structure of Scottish music, with the shift from the gentle reel at the beginning to the wild abandon of the second part accompanied by much whooping from the dancers. Well, I can hear it.
The Price of Fire feels like it could be from another film soundtrack, but I think I’m imagining that. It’s a cool piano ballad, and allows me to rhapsodise about Karen Matheson’s extraordinary pure, clear voice. I’m used to it singing these songs in this way, so it’s easy for me to overlook the fact that one of the most important things about the sound of this album is that the voice is peerless and is doing so much of the work so apparently effortlessly.
Amusingly, Spotify thinks that it’s called The Prince of Fire, which would be a completely different song, I think.
Another reel, billed as Eastern Reel, to ease us out of this most enjoyable album, wraps things up calmly and to send me on my way wanting more. I don’t listen to it often, but when I do, I always find myself immersed in its soundscapes. If you’ve never heard it, give your ears a treat.
The further I have moved away form Scotland, the more Scottish I have felt, I think. The music of Capercaillie is a direct link to my roots in two ways; the sound and feel of it echoes music I often heard growing up, but perhaps more importantly, it reminds me of a specific time and place, and of starting to think more seriously about who I am and where I come from. My children (who we’ll be meeting soon) are a mix of English, Irish, Scottish and Canadian, and I’m sure that while they have a link to Scotland, it’s nothing like as strong as mine. Albums like this, however, might give them a clue.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
I’d like to give you a full rundown, but the truth is that the longer I was away from Scotland, the less likely I was to buy another Capercaillie album. I know lots of bits and pieces of their music, but no other whole album. I should rectify that.
Compilations to consider?
There’s a Best Of from 2012. I’d start there; it’s what I’ll be doing.
Yes. The other Capercaillie CD I owned was the Live In Concert one from 2002, and it’s terrific. Highly recommended.
Well, this is – I think – now the fourth album in this list to feature Davy Spillane, so we should go and check him out, don’t you think? Atlantic Bridge seems to be the place to go….