Thursday 10 Nov, 2011

Learning of Scottish History and Culture Through Music

Ruth Ingram Eliza Lynn Dougie MacLean

When it comes to my own children’s traveling adventures and experiences, I enjoy  living vicariously through them.  Last weekend, however, I wished I could have traded places with my daughter just like what happened to the mother and daughter in the film, Freaky Friday. My daughter, who is a graduate student in Edinburgh, went to the Perthshire Amber Festival, a 10-day music festival held in the heart of Scotland. Now in its 7th year, the festival is based around the music and performance of Dougie MacLean and musicians from all over the world. Sing Out! Magazine describes it as “the most original acoustic music festival in Scotland today” and calls MacLean “a national musical treasure.” The Wall Street Journal hails him as “a musical hero.”

Eliza Lynn

Eliza Lynn

Scotland is one of my favorite countries and I love the music as much as the scenery and history.  Music has a way of conveying a sense of time and place and I often listen to a particular country’s “soundtrack” before going there.  Since Scotland is one of the countries my students and I will be visiting on our upcoming spring break tour, I have been listening to Dougie MacLean’s music practically nonstop.  I have to thank my daughter for introducing his music to me.  When she worked at the Diana Wortham Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina, she had the opportunity to meet him when he performed there twice. At the Perthshire Amber Festival, she was not only able to see him in concert, but she also had the chance to hang out with Dougie MacLean, his family, and his band. One of my daughter’s friends, Eliza Lynn, was one of the headlining performers at the festival.

Inducted in the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame and invested as a member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), Dougie MacLean is one of Scotland’s leading singer-songwriters who is acclaimed for the anthem, “Calendonia,” and “The Gael,” used in the soundtrack for the film Last of The Mohicans. The Roman name for Scotland, “Caledonia” has become an unofficial anthem for Scottish nationalism. What a beautiful song to sing about your homeland: “Oh, but let me tell you that I love you/ That I think about you all the time/ Caledonia you’re calling me/And now I’m going home.”

Dougie MacLean performing live

Dougie MacLean

When you listen to his music, you learn about the culture and the history of Scotland. One of my favorite historical songs is “Big River,” which is about the Scottish emigration to Australia in the mid-19th century. When he sings, “And when sugar cane grows to the wind/We’ll think on that journey of tears/And the murdering hold of the hellish/George Fyfe will fade with the years,” you take comfort in the hopes of a new life for the Scottish Highlanders who had to leave at great emotional and physical cost due to the dire economic conditions at home. Leaving their homeland in Scotland must have been heart-wrenching and facing an uncertain future in a new land must have terrifying for these Highlanders, and “Big River” conveys this sadness and fear.

Dougie MacLean’s Tribute CD is a collection of songs written not only by Robert Burns (1759-1796), considered to be the national poet of Scotland, but also by Niel Gow (1727-1807) and Robert Tannahill (1774-1810).  Your students should be familiar with Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne,” which is sung beautifully by Dougie MacLean. My first introduction to this song was the version made highly popular by Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians. The history of this song is quite poignant. I read that when a Japanese ship, the Montevideo Maru, carrying 1,053 Australian POWs on board, sank after being hit by a US submarine in 1942 during WWII, the Australians in the water sang “Auld Lang Syne” to their trapped comrades.  I often bring a small collection of CDs to play on the tour bus and “Tribute” will definitely make the cut. My own students may be surprised to learn that these songs are over 200 years old.

With another birthday coming up next month, I guess I should start making a “bucket list.” Going to the Perthshire Amber Festival in Scotland one year will be on my list. Just seeing Dougie MacLean performing live in concert anywhere will make me happy. I told my daughter he is bigger than Elvis Presley for me.  He is Scotland’s ambassador of music and a modern troubadour. I hope my students will enjoy his music as much as I do.

Readers, do you have a favorite singer whose music defines a particular country for you?

(Editor’s note: Add Gail on Google+ If you have a question about for EF Group Leader Gail Ingram, or an idea for a blog post topic, you can email Gail here, and she will answer readers’ questions in future blog posts.)