by Margaret Chrystall
LOCHABER fiddler and composer Iain MacFarlane says it’s been a breath of fresh air to celebrate a bard who captured Highland landscape like no other.
Tonight (Friday) the Blas festival presents the premiere of Mìorbhail nam Beann (The Wonder of the Mountains) which will use music, poetry and time-lapse photography to recreate the world of 18th century Argyll poet and bard Duncan Bàn MacIntyre.
Iain has created the new work in collaboration with Scottish Natural Heritage which hosts the Blas opening night premiere at its HQ at Great Glen House in Inverness.
The piece has been inspired by Duncan Bàn’s great poem celebrating the mountain of Ben Dorain – Moladh Beinn Dobhrain (In Praise Of Ben Dorain).
And a legacy of the project will be the CD recorded by Iain and featuring his hand-picked musicians performing songs by the poet plus a recital of the poem by Brigadier Iain MacFarlane of Taynuilt, a third generation native Argyll-shire Gaelic speaker and Gaelic Society of Inverness Chieftain.
Iain said: "I had the great pleasure of choosing the musicians to take part in the project, Ewen Henderson of Mànran who has just left the Battlefield Band. And he’s done a sterling job of learning the Duncan Bàn material and that was a big undertaking. He has developed into a wonderful male Gaelic singer."
The other chosen ones for The Donnchadh Bàn Boys are Ewan Robertson of Breabach and Hamish Napier whose many line-ups include Back of the Moon.
Iain said: "There are so many songs about nature in Scotland, in Scots and in Gaelic – there are literally thousands. I suppose it is because we are all surrounded by it that people have spent centuries writing about nature – and still are!
"I decided to focus on the songs of Duncan Bàn – there are so many fantastic songs and his skills in writing are second to none. But for the live dates, I have included just a few songs from other people, from places where the Blas tour is going.
"I’ve got one song from Skye and Lochalsh, one from up in Brae Lochaber, a couple of Scots songs – and you couldn’t do it without one from Rabbie Burns – plus a modern one, Lochanside, composed by Jim Malcolm, based on a pipe tune. Ewan Robertson will be singing that and is on guitar too."
Iain and Ewen went to the School Of Scottish Studies to work out which of the many alternative versions of Duncan Bàn’s songs would be right for the recording.
Iain said: "The melodies change from area to area and it’s interesting when you hear a song to one melody and then listen to it with another. It can give it a completely different feel.
"I suppose the biggest challenge for me was to arrange the songs and put them in a modern context, but not disrespect the tradition and the time they came from."
As well as the music, Iain is excited about the visual treats tht will accompany the live music.
He said: "We’ve got some wonderful time-lapse film of Ben Dorain by nature film-maker Terry Abraham, captured last summer.
"And from SNH, alongside help from Pete Moore, wildlife manager Alastair McGugan has also looked out archive footage that is absolutely spectacular.
"So it’s an audio-visual celebration of the beautiful surroundings we have and how people like Duncan Bàn can write so beautifully about it."
Iain – who left Blazin' Fiddles and their hectic touring schedule behind in January after 15 years – combines music with working in forestry and feels close to the land himself.
"When Donna Macrae from Blas first approached me about the project, it felt very natural to me to work on it – I’ve grown up in the country and worked on the hill and from fish farming to clipping sheep.
"I do have a close connection with the land – though I wouldn’t say it was as close as Duncan Bàn’s.
"And he wasn’t just working, he was observing, taking it in and had that wonderful gift to be able to put it in words."
Mìorbhail nam Beann premieres at Great Glen House in Inverness tomorrow (Friday) and other dates include: Glengarry Community Hall on Saturday; Ullapool’s MacPhail Centre next Friday (September 12) and Taynuilt Village Hall on Saturday, September 13.