– Robert Burns, ‘The Birks o’ Aberfeldy’ (tune: The Birks of Abergeldie)
Our Ashino is Aberfeldy: for Saigyo’s willow read Burns’ birks.
As we drove into the car park I played Jean Redpath singing ‘The Birks’. Abby Newton’s cello rills and Alasdair Fraser’s fiddle, are the Moness tippling down the glen.
Reading up on the song I found we’d circled around the same glens as Burns. His narrow road was a collecting tour, commissioned by James Johnson, on which the bard took in Falls of Bruar, Ossian’s grave – one of them anyway – at Blair Castle; Dunkeld, where he paid his respects to ‘kind open-hearted’ Niel Gow; and Glen Lyon, where he was fascinated by a ‘druid's’ temple’ – as we would be in turn. Basho by foot, boat and horse; Burns by horse and foot; we by hire-car and foot.
Jean Redpath’s singing of ‘The Birks o’ Aberfeldy’ reminded me of her wonderful collaboration with Serge Hovey, whose interpretations first drew me to Burns’ songs, especially the less known, ‘Wantonness’, ‘Lady Mary Ann’, ‘The Posie’, 'The Mauchline Lady’. You can hear the rills of the Moness in Hovey’s version of ‘Cauld is the E’enin Blast’, which weaves a lyrical passage from Serge’s improvisations into the introduction.
In the early 1990s I visited Esther, Serge’s plucky widow – my pal Tom Keith, who helps run the annual Clann an Uabhair Gay & Lesbian Burns Supper in Manhattan, wrote recently with the news that Esther passed away in April. He also sent us this from his collection of Mauchlineware:
The night I called on their home in Pacific Palisades, there was rare LA rain and the roads were blocked by mud-slides. Esther allowed me to see Serge’s archive – shelf upon shelf of masters, for Serge had set down his musical vision for every one of the songs in layers of piano. Heroic, tragic too, for Serge made the tapes following his diagnosis with Lou Gehrig’s disease, knowing that his time at the piano would be limited.
In a letter to Hamish Henderson, sent in 1972, when Serge was seeking guidance for the project, he suggested an imaginal shift in terms of landscape and time:
When I hear a fine, slow lyric American melody by Charles Ives, or ... Aaron Copland, I think they are echoing old Gaelic airs. Many hymns and Negro spirituals have this haunting association, to my ear. There's no question of the strong Scottish musical heritage in the Appalachians (misnamed "English" by the otherwise capable Cecil Sharp). Whatever the exact musicology of it, I am sure of one thing, the Scottish melodies are organically, deeply related to the American musical scenery.
I remember Appalachian versions of the auld ballads, in a selection of Americana Jean Redpath made for Radio Scotland – Barbary Allen and Sweet William, married in Knott County, Kentucky.
from birk to willow
Ken and I searched for another kind of memorial – arboreal – walking up from the car park, hunting around for ‘Saigyo’s willow’. In the end, the specimen we were most sure of was back where we had started.
does it matter
if the willow I found
grows by the car?
from willow to beech
The birks here are nadokoro, but the beeches are also for lovers: they bulge with names. We were amused how often Ken seemed to have been here before himself.
cut hearts & crosses
it’s a thin line
if you make it
Reminding me of a work by the Glasgow-based artist Stephen Skrynka, which memorialised the graffitied names and phrases (1962–2000) from a tunnel under the Clyde.
Tunnel (where is your promised land)
The graffiti was converted into sung,
whispered and spoken sound loops.
These were broadcast down the tunnel
as travelling ghost sounds
through 160 concealed speakers.
The sound library was accessed the website
users could choose which sounds to use
and at what speed they wanted them to travel.
It was a 3 week long sound composition.
I worked with a composer and a soprano
and we did workshops with primary schools
on either side of the tunnel.
They wrote and sung their own pieces of graffiti
and these were added to the library.
A Ukrainian choir sang a concert of traditional songs
40 of them in one long line
with the public traversing through.
The acoustics were incredible.
I kissed carol White and turned into a frog
Burns passed by in 1787, describing it thus in his journal: Druids’ Temple, three circles of stones, the outermost sunk, the second has thirteen stones remaining: the innermost eight, two large detached ones like a gate to the south-east – say prayers to it.
this is a guide to 12, The Birks o’ Aberfeldy (56°37'8.07"N) (3°51'56.02"W). Park in the car park. The footpaths running either side of the burn meet at the bridge over the falls; that on the east is the more dramatic, and harder work. Past the falls, on the west, where the path meets Urlar Road, turn right, then left through a gate, and follow the track downhill past a pylon to Dunskaig. There, turn right; at the end of this track a path ahead leads to the burn, or you can turn left down Urlar Road, which ends just below the turn into the car-park.
the completed journey will be realised as an audio-visual word-map, published online and in print, May 16, 2011. If you would like more information about the project email email@example.com
The Watermill is the largest bookshop in the rural Highlands and has been voted the best independent bookshop in the UK.