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7 Aug 2019

Top Scots musician releases ‘Centre of My World’ music video

Written by Fiona Mackenzie, Canna Archivist
Two men sit in a recording studio in Canna House. One plays a flute while the other sits at a computer, editing video content.
James Duncan Mackenzie and Ross Wilson at work on the video
In her follow-up interview with Scotland’s star of the traditional music world, Fiona Mackenzie asks James Duncan Mackenzie more about his experiences in composing the soundtrack for the ‘Solas’ film and his plans for the future.

Fiona: So James, you’ve just released the second of two videos, entitled Centre of My World, incorporating your new compositions. These were commissioned by the National Trust for Scotland for the Solas film, which profiles the film and image work of folklorist Margaret Fay Shaw. How did your first video go down with your music audiences?

James: The first video seems to be going down pretty well, with lots of views on YouTube and other social media platforms. There has been lots of positive feedback, which is great! The video has been shared around not only in music circles but also in historical and island appreciation groups, and several people have had a keen eye in identifying some of the people and places featured in the clips. Due to the importance of Margaret’s archive film footage I knew the videos would be well received but perhaps not to the extent which they have.

A large screen displays the title screen for the film ‘Solas’, which features a photograph of a smiling Margaret Fay Shaw. The screening is in a room lit with purple and red lights.
The launch of ‘Solas’

Fiona: You must have spent a fair time watching and absorbing Margaret Fay Shaw’s films during the composition process. If you could encapsulate in 3 words what the films made you feel, or ask questions about, what would you say

James: 

  • Wonder (the fact the films were captured with no sound adds an element of wonder and evokes many questions)
  • Character (the portrait shots capture the character and personality of the people in a unique way)
  • Nostalgia (I think a lot of people feel nostalgic when watching old footage like this that’s so relatable to island life even today)

Fiona: Have you had any specific comments from online audiences about the video content that have surprised you in any way? Or made you feel satisfied that you achieved your objectives?

James: It was great to see that many of the people featured in the videos are still remembered and have been identified by name on social media. There have even been descendants or relations who’ve commented, and that has been a really special thing.

Two men sit in a recording studio in Canna House. One plays the flute while reading music from a laptop in front of him. The other sits in the background with headphones on, working on the video content.
James and Ross working in Canna House

Fiona: Do you have a better image now of what kind of woman Margaret Fay Shaw was than before the start of the project?

James: Yes, I think so. She seemed to have had an incredible sense of adventure in the first place coming from the USA to small and remote island communities in Scotland. As an ‘incomer’ she also integrated herself in these communities in a way that was perhaps never done before. She had the foresight to collect songs and folklore that might otherwise have been lost. Documenting the way of life at that time through her films is also something that showed great foresight. It’s clear that she loved life and the people around her, and this is what makes her films so special and unique.

‘Centre of my World’ by James Duncan Mackenzie

Fiona: Do you feel inspired to find out more about her and John Lorne Campbell? And if so, how would you like to use that inspiration?

James: Yes, I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface. I’ve been given The Man Who Gave Away His Island, which is the life story of John Lorne Campbell. I’ve only just started reading it. I would certainly like to use their lives and the isle of Canna as inspiration for writing more music. To get away to such a unique island location offers undistracted inspiration in itself.

Fiona: Have you played any of your new compositions live on stage? Can you give us any future dates when we might be able to hear the music live?

James: I haven’t played any of the pieces live on stage yet. We’re hoping that there’ll be some more live elements of the Solas film project next year (2020) when we hope to combine the visuals and music for a live show. There are no firm dates in place at the moment but we hope to be able to perform at Celtic Connections in Glasgow.

The band Breaback stand on a concrete bridge, holding their instruments. From left to right, these are: flute, double bass, violin, guitar and bagpipes.
Breabach, the band that James plays with

Fiona: If Margaret Fay Shaw could watch your videos now, what would you hope she’d say in response?!

James: I would hope that she wouldn’t have minded how we’ve used and edited clips of her footage! I hope she would enjoy the fact that we incorporated some of the instruments in Canna House in the recordings, including her Steinway piano.

A black and white photograph of Margaret Fay Shaw, sitting on a hillside. A bag and coat lie on the ground beside her.
Margaret Fay Shaw in Uist, 1931

Fiona: If you had to pick one clip from all you watched over the course of the project, which would be your favourite and why?

James: To be honest, there’s barely a clip that I didn’t like or find fascinating. It was a real challenge editing short films of under 5 minutes as there truly was so much great footage. One of my favourite clips doesn’t actually feature in either of my videos. We tried to include it but we just couldn’t find a good way of making it fit within the flow of the videos. It’s of a man shearing sheep on Mingulay. He’s wearing a big straw hat and smoking a pipe, and his expressions are very charismatic. Margaret clearly had a special talent for capturing people’s personalities vividly through film, and I think this shot in particular conveys that perfectly.

A black and white photograph of a man sitting, shearing a large sheep. A sheepdog sits beside him, watching carefully.
Mingulay shepherd, 1933

Fiona: It has been a pleasure to work with you over the last few months and I hope we’ll be able to work together again, using all the inspiration that Canna House can provide. I particularly enjoy hearing the old ‘servants’ bells’ of Canna House being given a new lease of life towards the end of the video!

One last thing, where can we buy your new music? Mòran taing!

James: Thanks, Fiona. It has been a real pleasure to be involved with this project and I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to contribute towards the Solas project.

I have two solo albums available through my website or my music can also be downloaded via iTunes or Bandcamp. People can keep up to date with gigs and new releases via my Facebook page as well.

A man stands in front of a stone wall, playing the bagpipes.
James Duncan Mackenzie

The Solas film will be screened on BBC Alba over the winter 2019/20. Please keep an eye on the Canna House Facebook page for further details.

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