On the night of May 5th into May 6th 2016, when I might ordinarily have stayed up stupid late drinking red wine, watching the incoming Scottish Parliamentary election results and ranting to the world on twitter, I was, instead, happed up in an Arctic sleeping bag in a tent pitched beside my local peatbog lochan, Fala Flow.
Even in darkness on a southern upland moor, human industry is omnipresent. The traffic never truly stops on the A720 Edinburgh City Bypass some eight miles to the north and cars continue to travel the A68 north-south trunk road which passes through my home village of Pathhead. Still, as creatures we are diminished in the scheme of things in these hours and it’s possible to imagine a world that’s that’s not wholly in thrall to what Robert Burns called “tyrannic man’s dominion”.
The sound that wakes me and my tent-mate, sound designer and composer Pippa Murphy is the plaintive bell of the Golden Plover (and BTW BBC Radio 4’s 5:58am Tweet of the Day is one of my first great love affairs on this making-trip – thanks Pippa!) Isn’t that just a beautiful call? And all the more so in anticipation of a sunrise. Hot on the heels of the plover come oystercatchers, skylarks, meadow pipits and the “go back, go back” rhythmic clamour of the Red Grouse (known in Scots as moorcocks).
The whole chorus is a wonder, which Pippa captures (as we continue to lie cooried in our bags) on her SONY PCM-D50 courtesy of some lovely microphones borrowed (thank you) from Edinburgh University. I’m not quite sure exactly how as yet, but that sound will play a role in the show.
One of the key threads to WIND RESISTANCE is my personal enchantment with birds and the landscapes they inhabit, as well as the sounds they make, the complex lives they live and the stories and myths they’ve inspired in us. To me, they have a lot to say about the aformentioned dominion of human beings and how our lives entwine (and sometimes mess) with the lives of other creatures.
The musical and sung content of WIND RESISTANCE is still very much in the air. Indeed, I think there are new songs still to write. One which feels essential to the piece however is Robert Burns’ lyrical Now Westlin Winds (Composed in August).
The partridge loves the fruitful fell
The plover loves the mountains
The woodcock haunts the lonely dell
The soaring hern the fountain
It’s a song which arrived in my life through the letter box of a grotty Dundee bedsit in October 1992, the night before the funeral of my beloved Grampa, Peter Quinn. My soon-to-be boyfriend at the time, Dougie, delivered to my door a cassette version of Dick Gaughan’s all-time classic folk album Handful of Earth. It was a big deal because we were both totally skint at the time and it was an actual bought tape, from Grouchos record store in the town centre, unlike the thoughtful mix tapes Dougie had been cooking up for me all autumn (and through which I discovered the mighty Mr Gaughan, as well as James Taylor, Michael Marra and John Martyn).
I’ve loved the album ever since. I associate it with that time and place, with the memory of my Grampa and with Dougie himself. If you’ve never heard it, Gaughan’s version of Now Westlin Winds is as good as the song is ever going to be sung. EVER. It’s perfect. Indeed it’s so perfect that it should Never Be Attempted (I mean, listen to it).
Still I’m going for it. Indeed, I’ve gone for it more than once before, not least in the rather surreal surroundings of the Scottish Parliament’s main chamber, in the company of The Queen and her coronets, and her moorcock-shooting Prince, at the opening of the last session of Parliament, following Holyrood elections in 2011.
But it’s my first public outing of the song which holds a key as to why it’s pivotal to WIND RESISTANCE. In 2003, I led a community education folk song class for the Adult Learning Project in Edinburgh, now the Scots Music Group. One of the participants was a man called Robbie, who worked for Scottish Natural Heritage. At class one day he asked, “How do you fancy a gig in Kingussie singing to a visiting party of Swedish ecologists?” “Why on earth not?” I replied. And he added, “You have to sing Now Westlin Winds though”.
I knew and loved the song already anyway. No sweat.
When it came time to sing to the fair Swedes in the back room of a Highland hotel, Robbie stepped up to explain why the song was so important to him.
“It’s one of the earliest understandings in poetry or literature of deep ecology“, he said. “Burns understood that the world is not ours, as humans, that we are only one of many creatures who inhabit the earth”, he went on, “and that even as human beings, we have so many different ways of living in the environment that sustains us”.
And he proceded to interrogate the entire lyric with this idea in mind. It was fascinating, moving, stirring. And it gave a song that was already deeply meaningful to me a whole new resonance. A resonance that has stuck and that is at the heart of this show.
Now I just need to figure out how to do it justice.
Now westlin winds and slaughtering guns
Bring Autumn’s pleasant weather
The moorcock springs on whirring wings
Amang the blooming heather