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28 Jun 2019

Top Scots musician releases music videos to celebrate Solas film

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie, Canna Archivist
A black and white photo of a man sitting on a window seat, looking down at the guitar he is playing.
Composer James Duncan Mackenzie composes the Solas soundtrack in Canna House.
Fiona Mackenzie interviews one of Scotland’s top young composers and traditional musicians, James Duncan Mackenzie, about his experience in composing the soundtrack for the new Solas film about Margaret Fay Shaw.

Fiona: James, tell us a little about where you were brought up and how you got into traditional music and composing.

James: I was brought up in the village of Back, on the Isle of Lewis. I started taking chanter lessons at age 8 with Nick Gordon who lived in Barvas, and then a few years after that with Iain Morrison who lives just up the road in Back. My mother is a music teacher and plays piano, and both my parents were very encouraging when it came to music – they would drive me about the island for lessons, and also around the country to the various piping competitions I would take part in.

I think I wrote my first tune when I was around 15 years old and have had a real interest in composing ever since. Some of my tunes have been picked up by other people – it’s always a pleasure to see that other people want to play them!

After leaving school in Stornoway, I went to Benbecula to study for an HNC in traditional music. It was there my interest for the wooden flute grew and I was lucky enough to have a great tutor in Iain Macdonald. I learnt a lot about how to play with other musicians and then moved to Glasgow to study at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Whilst at uni, I joined the folk band Breabach, who I still play with, and I’m lucky to have toured with them over the last 10 years or so. I was immersed in the session scene in Glasgow as well, so I was introduced to a lot of different musicians who I’ve also played with in various settings since.

Five band members stand on a bridge holding their instruments: a flute, double bass, violin, guitar and bagpipes.

Fiona: Being from Lewis, do you think this meant you had an inherent ear and intuition for what makes a memorable Highland tune? Do you think it’s possible for someone from the Lowlands or even further afield (!) to compose a tune that sounds as if it has its roots in the Highlands & Islands?

James: I think that being brought up surrounded by the music and the way of life in the Highlands & Islands definitely has a large part to play. I try to write music keeping that in mind but I’m also open to other influences too. I think that with the availability of music from all around the world being greater now than ever before, regional styles aren’t perhaps as defined as they once were. Newly composed music is perhaps influenced by the wider sound of other world music, whether it’s a conscious decision or not.

A man wearing a tweed jacket plays the bagpipes, standing in front of a stone wall.
James playing the pipes

Fiona: Before you came to work on Canna on the Solas project, how much did you know about Margaret Fay Shaw and John Lorne Campbell?

James: I didn’t really know much about Canna itself before, to be honest. I had obviously heard of Margaret Fay Shaw as a folklorist and song collector and also of John Lorne Campbell, but not much about Canna as an island. My dad had visited the island a few years ago and I remember him talking about it. I first visited Canna at the start of last year and returned last summer, which gave me a feel for the place and meant I wasn’t starting the project with no knowledge or sense of the island.

A black and white photo of Canna Bay, showing sailing boats on the water. It is framed by tall trees. Haystacks stand in the foreground, and mountains can be seen in the distance.
Canna Bay, taken by Margaret Fay Shaw in 1938

Fiona: What did it mean to you to be involved with the project, both as a musician and as an islander yourself?

James: Being involved with this project was an incredible experience and it meant a lot to be asked to be part of it. To be given access to Canna House itself was a great privilege. When I first saw some of the archive film footage I was instantly fascinated and it provoked a lot of musical ideas straight away. I think having grown up on an island meant that a lot of the footage made sense and was quite relatable. Even though it was filmed all those years ago, there are definitely parallels today with sheep/livestock and boats still playing an important part of island life.

A black and white photo of a large flock of sheep being herded on the beach. A man walks behind them in the background.
Sheep on Canna, taken by Margaret Fay Shaw

Fiona: Could you describe how you composed these new pieces, when working with the Margaret Fay Shaw photographic and film collections?

James: In December 2018, some musical friends and I spent a few days on Canna to work on the music for the project. I had a couple of melodic ideas before travelling to Canna but I didn’t want to set anything in stone until we had actually got there so I could gain some inspiration from the setting itself I suppose.

Ross Wilson from Mull was involved, not only to play piano but also to record it. His expertise in this area is huge. We had a car full of recording equipment going over on the ferry! We set up our recording ‘studio’ in the grand Sitting Room in Canna House with its impressive Steinway grand piano as the focal point. We had screens constantly playing the archive footage on loop and took great inspiration from that as well as our magnificent setting.

The recording studio in Canna House
The recording studio in Canna House

James: We recorded a few chordal ideas and I built melodies on top of these ideas. I wanted them to be rooted in the traditional idiom but also have a modern edge, and hopefully that’s what we created. Neil Ewart played fiddle on the tracks and Allan Nairn played melodion and guitar. I played flutes, whistles, pipes and a little bit of guitar. I developed the initial ideas by thinking of further melodies and counter melodies that worked over the top of each other – that’s how ‘The Island Where I Live’ track was created.

We used the grand piano on the tracks and also looked about the house for any other effects that might enhance the tracks. We found that the large front door made a great recorded slam noise, we sampled the servant bells in the hallway and we also sampled John’s bugle!

We were staying in Canna’s bothy and went away each night, got the fire on and played music until all hours of the morning!

Afterwards I worked closely with Cristin Mackenzie on the edits of the videos. We spent a lot of time going through the footage, picking out the clips we thought would not only work well with the music but also give a snapshot into Hebridean life at that time.

Fiona: Was there anything about the process, about being in Canna House itself, that you found surprising or were not expecting?!

James: It was quite a surprise that the grand piano was reasonably in tune, having last been tuned about 15 years before! This is obviously testament to the constant monitoring of conditions within Canna House.

The Island Where I Live, by James D Mackenzie

Fiona: This is the first of at least two music videos which you’re producing to promote the tracks and the film. What are you hoping for?

James: These videos were produced to highlight the incredible archive film footage of Margaret Fay Shaw and also to promote both the Solas documentary and the tracks themselves. The film footage documents a snapshot of social history in the Hebrides between 1930–60 and a lot of the footage speaks for itself. I hope that it will help to bring more awareness of the riches and importance of the work Margaret and John did. A lot of the footage has never been seen before and it was a pleasure to help bring it to life again.

The film poster for Solas, featuring a photograph of a smiling Margaret Fay Shaw. The subtitle reads The life and work of Margaret Fay Shaw.
The Solas film was produced by Canna archivist Fiona J Mackenzie and will be screened widely in 2019–20.

Fiona: Thank you for chatting with me and telling us about your Canna experience! We look forward to Part 2 of this interview and the next video. One last thing, where can folk purchase your tracks?

James: Thank you! I currently have two solo albums available for purchase or download. You can find more information on my website or my bandcamp page.