Last week, I discussed the history of Scottish nationalism and the rise of Scots-Gaelic culture as an alternative national symbol in the 20th century. Into this scene in the mid-1980s stepped Capercaillie, a traditional band born of the folk revival and composed at its inception mostly of musicians from the Gaelic-speaking west coast and islands, including organizer Donald Shaw and frontwoman Karen Matheson. They drew their name from their own land, after a type of pheasant that lives only in Scotland. Similar to Altan in Ireland, their native Gaelic-speaking birthplace was their inspiration. Though drawing from specifically local sources, Capercaillie’s sound was a musical hybrid, using contemporary Irish models as much as Scottish ones for their instrumentation and musical arrangement. Their inclusion of bouzouki, an instrument of Greek origin introduced into Irish music in the 1970s, is indicative of their connection to the folk revival as opposed to older traditions. Noticeably lacking were the tartans and Highland bagpipes.
Taking traditional to a new place, in a new way
Capercaillie’s early albums, Cascades and Crosswinds, consisted entirely of traditional dance music and locally specific Scots-Gaelic language songs. To get an idea of where Capercaillie started musically, here’s a “Puirt a Beul” (Scot-Gaelic for mouth music) from Crosswinds, a traditionally unaccompanied vocal genre to which Capercaillie has added instrumentation, included limited synthesizers (mostly as drones).
A stylistic turning point for Capercaillie came when the group was asked to write music for The Blood is Strong in 1988, a television series about the worldwide legacy of the Scottish Gaels. For this production, Capercaillie added electric bass, drumset, and heavy use of synthesizers to their usual repertoire of Scots-Gaelic songs and dance. They were probably following the example of the Irish family group Clannad and Clannad’s wayward sister Enya, who had just produced her own very popular television soundtrack The Celts. Clannad at the time had mostly abandoned traditional melodies and production, and was on their way to helping create the New Age music scene and culture.
Why did both Capercaillie and Clannad adopt popular styles and the English language? Most likely, it was the lack of sufficient support base for them at home. Gaelic speakers were few, but produced a disproportionate number of musicians (1). As a result, artists and their labels sought to reach out first across the Scottish and Irish diaspora, especially in North America, and then onward. This complex negotiation of style resulted in local artists catering to international tastes. According to Martin Stokes and Philip Bohlman, white America has played the most significant role in the shaping of musical output of these small music-rich fringes of the Gaelic-speaking world (2). Instead of a pub, the community is now a virtual one, into which the listener projects themselves onto the Celtic musical imagery. This new musical product, developed on the world stage, is then marketed locally and globally as a symbol of the nation, perhaps as much an invented tradition as kilts. Meanwhile, the non-diaspora-specific “New Age” culture, describing an imaginary ancient past connected with an alternative spirituality, fed on the Celtic folk movement and claimed anyone who wished to participate.
Capercaillie, however, did not go in Clannad and Enya’s New Age direction, at least musically. Instead of abandoning Scot-Gaelic songs and traditional dance music entirely, they connected to the middle-class Celtic world by updating their sound with modern production and instruments. Additionally, in 1991 for their fourth studio album Delirium, they added a third type of song to their repertoire—original songs in English written in rock-popular style. Perhaps their use of English was inspired by the success of the Scots-Gaelic rock band Runrig, which achieved international success only when they switched to mostly English for the album The Cutter and Clan in 1987. Scotland’s taste in music was actually not that different than the UK’s, and the Scottish spoke mostly English. This strategy seems to have worked— four of Delirium‘s thirteen tracks have English lyrics, and the album was their first major financial success. Capercaillie’s choice of audience is made clearer by the content of the original songs on Delirium—they were all overtly political, timed just before the 1992 elections when Scottish autonomy was making a renewed effort. For Capercaillie, the United Kingdom shaped their aesthetic more than the global Celtic sound.
“Waiting for the Wheel to Turn” from Delirium ties the oppressions of the political moment in the 1990s with oppressions in Scottish history. It makes reference to the Highland clearances of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, suggesting that once again the rich men from the south are taking away Scottish (and specifically Scots-Gaelic) land and culture. Scottish rural town culture has special emphasis, referred to as the “soul” of the land, and the lyrics suggest that the rich landlords are “taking it all away”, “pulling the roots from a dying age.” The song is a call to action, as the lyrics suggest that the Gaelic people “feel the breeze of the storm to come,” and that these dispossessed people living on the rocks of the coast may finally get the better of their oppressors, when the “wheel” comes around.
We would be hard-pressed to find any musical connection to Scots-Gaelic tradition in “Waiting.” That is, at least until a brief whistle and fiddle duet at the end (about the 4-minute mark). This was new. The inclusion of traditional-dance inspired instrumentals is the most interesting and novel element of these English-language songs, and the importance and complexity of these interludes grew as Capercaillie continued to produce recordings through the 1990s. These high-energy solos replace what would normally be a pop-style electric guitar or saxophone solo. They serve as a powerful reminder of locality and roots that differentiate Capercaillie from Clannad, who preferred pop-style solos. Capercaillie’s folk-style instrumentals, in turn, may have influenced the Irish popular group the Corrs, as this type of instrumental became a major characteristic of the Corrs’ style.
The Scottish autonomy movement had a major setback in the 1992 elections, but the political fire was still charged, and Capercaillie continued to produce English-language political music in their next albums, the bluntly-titled Get Out and Secret People, alongside the dance medleys and Scots-Gaelic songs. Examples include and “Four Stone Walls” and “Outlaws” which treat the common situation of poor Gaelic speakers who are deprived of their traditional jobs and forced out of their ancestral houses when they can no longer pay the rent, and “Black Fields” which deals specifically with environmental and economic destruction resulting from the exploitation of Scottish oil, a major cause of the political rift between England and Scotland. The common underlying theme is anti-modernization, a theme that plays both to the middle-class New Age Celticism and the lower-class Scots-Gaelic political movement.
Capercaillie’s album To the Moon brought the influence of New Age spirituality to their Scottish nationalist music. “Claire in Heaven” from To the Moon exemplifies all of the features of Capercaillie’s topics in this period: a mix of neo-pagan and Christian religion, anti-modern economics, and environmentalism. “Claire” is told from the point of view of a girl who has died and gone to heaven after living for only a few days; from her perch, she surveys the world, lamenting its dismal state but hoping for improvement when she is reincarnated. The lyrics criticize the modern lifestyle, epitomized by economic competition: “you tear, you part, you claw.” There is also a stab at the oil industry and Europe’s nuclear waste dumps in Scotland: “I gaze from poison sea to poison land.” The idea of reincarnation is harder to place, and is probably drawn in from the Eastern religious current in New Age spiritualism. Ultimately, this is not a pessimistic song; Claire still smiles because she sees that things can be brighter in the future, another call to political action. As you can hear, the popular and traditional musical elements are increasingly seamlessly intertwined.
“Claire” also demonstrates Capercaillie’s musical hybridity, despite their Scottish nationalistic image—the songwriter is bouzouki player Manus Lunny, who joined the band at time of the production of Delirium and who is actually Irish. Lunny brought to the band (and this song) the rhythm-heavy percussive style of string playing from the Irish folk revival. The Irish bagpipes are also prominent in “Claire.”
To conclude: paving the road for the resurgence of Gaelic culture
The 1990s, during Scotland’s political turmoil, was the height of Capercaillie’s creativity and popularity. Their most recent albums Roses and Tears in 2008 and At the Heart of it All in 2012 seem to be step back to the days before Delirium with an emphasis on acoustic instruments and traditional tunes. Even the few original songs are in a more traditional style than the 1990s songs, though still very political.
Still, Capercaillie’s music and image, though devoid of kilts and Highland pipes, articulates Scottish nationalism in a new way. Their overall style is one of global Celtic culture, which has been reflected back to Scotland and embraced as authentic. Their juxtaposition of different genres of music—English rock songs, traditional Scots-Gaelic songs, and traditional dance tunes—enables them to communicate their nationalistic views while tying them to the oppressed Scot-Gaelic, their symbol for Scotland as a whole. With the English-language songs, they make political, modern connections; with the Scots-Gaelic language songs, they make connections with a past culture; and with the dance songs they connect the past with the transnational present. They’ve taken their esoteric “mouth music” and made it accessible to the rest of the UK and the world. Perhaps the recent official revival of Scots-Gaelic language as a cultural symbol with bilingual road signs and language education initiatives would have never happened without the popularity of musical groups such as Capercaillie, who managed to lift a dying language and music out of obscurity and into the national and international consciousness. Maybe the wheel is turning.
Vocab: bouzouki, track, drone
(1) Simon Frith, “Popular music policy and the articulation of regional identities: The case of Scotland and Ireland,” Soundscapes: Journal on Media Culture 2 (July 1999).
(2) Martin Stokes and Philip Bohlman, ed., Celtic Modern: Music at the Global Fringe (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2003).