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Eilean a Cheo

It means “Island of Mist” and is the name given to the Isle of Skye in Gaelic.

I wrote recently about meeting up with Donald Black the harmonica player. I mentioned to Donald that my favourite track of the many he has recorded with Malcolm Jones of Runrig, is one entitled “Eilean a Cheo” with Donald evoking a haunting harmonica sound and Malcolm providing a superb slide guitar accompaniment.

Donald said “Oh that’s interesting – hardly anyone remarks on that but it is one of my favourites”. He then went on to explain how Eilean a Cheo was written by an activist, Mary McPherson, at the time of the ‘Crofters War’

Thank you to this site for the following information.

After the Highland Clearances life became almost totally impossible for those who remained. The collection of seaweed from the shore was forbidden and crofters were not permitted to keep dogs. Other impositions included the right of the landlord to demand free labour and crofters were not allowed to remove marauding deer from their land.

By the mid 1870′s crofters were harbouring thoughts of revolt and a new newspaper called The Highlander focused attention on their plight. Public opinion had galvanised against landlordism and crofters began to resist eviction orders. Soon there was chaos and near riot. On Lord MacDonald’s estate at Braes, an old grievance was revived when crofters demanded grazings taken over by the landlord’s sheep be handed back. They refused to pay rent until their demands were met and a Sheriff’s Officer was sent out with summonses of ejection on 7th April 1882. A band of crofters forced him to bum his papers so fifty policemen were sent from Glasgow to Skye to help settle the uprising. One hundred men, women and children with sticks or stones met the policemen and charged at them and, in the scuffle that followed, a number of crofters were taken prisoner. Small fines were imposed but it was clear that law and order had broken down.

An outburst of crofter rebellion then took place at Glendale when crofters who allowed their stock to wander over a neighbouring farm were arrested and imprisoned for two months. Scottish MPs promoted a petition to set up a Royal Commission on Highland distress and the result was a formidable indictment of the Highland land-owning class. However, the Commission did not recommend any official revision of rents and islanders were not content with proposals that did not include security of tenure and fair rents. In 1884 there was again unrest in Glendale and the Government sent in marines with gunboats to intimidate the crofters. This brought the crofters’ cause again to the forefront of public attention.

The Highland Land League nominated crofter candidates to stand as independent members of parliament and this Crofters’ Party became the first Labour Party in Britain. The four new crofter MPs succeeded in introducing the Crofters’ Holdings (Scotland) Act in 1886 which gave security of tenure to the crofter and compensation for improvement. However, landlords continued to ignore the new legislation or made attempts to evict crofters before cases could be heard. Encounters took place later in 1886 when writs were served at bayonet point and it was not until the 1920s that land tribunals were introduced.

You can read about the formation of the Highland Land LeagueHERE

Although Donald and Malcolm’s performance is an instrumental, it is very powerful. The original lyrics of the song with the translation is HERE

And without further ado, this is the magnificent rendition of Eilean a Cheo by Donald Black and Malcolm Jones:

You can buy the album Close to Home, from which that track comes, HERE. There is more info about Donald Black HERE


Flecks of Genius

The other night I took a call from respected, nay revered Scottish harmonica virtuoso Donald Black. I have spoken with Donald on the phone before and we had planned to meet up but it had never come to anything. This time because of my own connection with the National Harmonica League, Donald was phoning to offer a complimentary ticket to the opening night of the annual Glasgow music festival, Celtic Connections

Anyone unfamiliar with Donald’s music, it is mainly traditional Gaelic/Celtic folk, much of it based on the pipe tradition. Indeed Donald was largely responsible for Hohner producing the ‘Highlander’ and altered tuning instrument particularly suited to the playing of pipe tunes.

Here he is in action:

However it wasn’t Donald who was performing last night, it was the inestimable Béla Fleck and the Flecktones including not only a superb pianist but also possibly the best harmonica player who has ever lived, Howard Levy One of the finest bass players in the world today Victor Wooten and Wooten’s brother, Roy Wooten or “Futureman” on drums and percussion. When I say drums, he has a kit on stage but most of his drum and percussion sounds come via an instrument he developed himself the “drumatar” which looks a bit like a mandolin with a neck at the wrong angle. Futureman is obviously one of music’s characters, choosing to dress in a buccaneer’s outfit. He wouldn’t have looked out of place with Adam and the Ants.

Fleck himself is a banjo player. Fleck has received Grammy nominations for performances in the jazz, bluegrass, pop, spoken word, contemporary Christian, gospel, classical, and country categories—more categories than any other musician.

The gig last night was split into two halves. The first consisted of the band going through some of their own material. Here is a flavour of that:

This was a collection of virtuoso musicians delivering a bewildering selection of……….I’m trying to describe it……..jazz sums it up best I suppose. Levy, his first time playing in Glasgow and looking half his age, pulled out every musical trick in the book. Whilst some of it descended into almost musical self abuse, it was incredible. I think I can safely say I have never witnessed a more skilled collection of musicians sharing a stage.

Just before the interval, fiddler Casey Driessen was introduced. His playing and the call and response stuff between him, Fleck and Levy was just the most amazing and intricate artistry.

It hardly seemed possible that the second half would surpass the first but surpass it did. Irish vocalist Karan Casey, and Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes were joined by Abigail Washburn (Fleck’s partner), the aforementioned Driessen and flautist/piper Michael McGoldrick whom I had seen play with Mark Knopfler last year.

It was spellbinding.

It was sublime.

It was just the most incredible fusion of folk, jazz, blues and celtic music that you could imagine – all played by musicians at the very top of their profession.

After the gig, Donald and a couple of friends he had brought along suggested we go to a bar in the west end where there was a folk/jam night going on. It was the perfect end to the night as fiddlers, accordionists and penny whistle players went through a selection of Irish and Scottish jigs, reels and airs. Donald and I both got a chance to play a few numbers and the assembled musicians were very gracious in their praise.

I’m off to a rather different night at Celtic Connections on Sunday for the Gerry Rafferty memorial concert which will feature Roddy Hart, Rab Noakes, The Proclaimers, Ron Sexmith, Maria Muldaur and Barbara Dickson amongst others.

Looking forward to that and if it is a mere patch on last night’s entertainment, that’ll do me!

Footnote: Thanks too to Roger Trobridge for organising the tickets and introducing Donald and I. Roger is chairman of the NHL.