Thursday, August 27, 2009


Thanks to my friend Maria, here's an interesting article from the BBC. The trim around a 16th century carving in Stirling Castle in Scotland is more than a few artistic dots and dashes. Some scholars have proposed that it is, in fact, a transcription of a harp tune. The article explains the whole theory pretty well (a similar article in the Telegraph adds the important detail that the carving resembles a Welsh shorthand for harp music, in case you were wondering just how such an random identification came about) and includes a nifty recording of the reconstruction attempt. Bonus: the singer is using a sort of canntaireachd.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


"Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."
--G.K. Chesterton

Friday, August 21, 2009

Life, the Still Kind

It's a bad time of year for wildflowers, so here are a couple of tame ones. First, a rose which rather stunned me. It was late on a Sunday morning, and I was caterwauling away (I mean, on my pipes) in the park, trying to improve, and not feeling too much improved, when a lady walked up, thanked me for playing and handed me this flower, artistic extra greenery and all. Nice folks around here! My grandma has been cossetting a single delphinium in a pot in her backyard. It recently bloomed for the second time this summer, but the top-heavy stem broke off at a touch. Therefore, I came over to her house yesterday morning to find this perfect still-life arrangement sitting in the dining room. The lighting wasn't so great, but it was worth a shot.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

More from Orkney

I mentioned Saltfishforty a couple of weeks back; here are a few more names to add to the list of "Crazy-Good Orkney Fiddlers, etc."

When I worked at the music store, one of the CD's we had in the shop was Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley's The Watch Stone. I don't remember there being any other instruments on the recording, other than Jennifer's fiddle and Hazel's guitar; I do remember it included one of the most intricate versions of the reel "Mason's Apron," that has ever been my pleasure to hear, but that was only one of a dozen very lively tunes. It was a very hard CD to tire of, especially with the added surprise of "Tom and Jerry," and "Wild Fiddlers Rag," tunes one would expect to find behind the mic at an American fiddle contest--played in a style that would. . .well, no, it wouldn't quite have blended in at most contests. It would have risen to the top, instead. "Mason's Apron," itself is a seamless blend of American and, I would guess, Orkney styles. Although the video below, courtesy of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, centres on a more traditional take, you get some idea of the drive that underlies all of the Wrigley sisters' duets.

The new one to me for this month is Fiona Driver. Like both Douglas Montgomery and Jennifer Wrigley, she plays from the Orkney tradition, but in a style all her own. (That "Rats and Kippers" inclines rather to bluegrass, dontcha think?) Then, she plays another style still with the Lone Star Swing Band. Yes, as in Western Swing--and they keep it alive and kicking by Orkneyfying the end of "That's What I Like About the South," just a little. That's what I like, indeed!

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Last night, various members of my family were in town, and we went out to a steakhouse for dinner. Mashed potatoes seem to be an expected side dish in such places. Well, this particular restaurant was quite original. Their "mashed potatoes" were colcannon, and advertised as such. This is definitely going on my "this week's supper" list come cool weather, when I get back to serious cooking! Here's a basic recipe for the dish. I believe the colcannon last night had green onions and parsely mixed in; some other recipes suggest kale in place of the cabbage, but any way you look at it, it is easy, and satisfying.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


By way of wrapping up the World's fever, one last, and very satisfying post. To put it in a nutshell:
Simon Fraser University Pipe Band won.
The online BBC video stream was a truly staggering treat. Not only could you hear the music as it was being played, but you got close-up views of flying fingers, and drumsticks, and the very muddy brogues of pipe majors pounding small craters in the lawn. It was. . .real, and very, very exciting. Triumph Street, sounding mighty fine, made it through to the finals. St. Laurence O'Toole broke into the top 3 in the prize list at long last. . .I would dearly love to haver on about it, but it was so much like being at Glasgow Green in person, that I plead jetlag, and leave you with the video clips here.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Yikes! Now I have to say I will be glad when the World's are over. I've certainly never been so distracted on the subject! I was just looking up Mass schedules for the Feast of the Assumption tomorrow, and instead of typing in the logical "St. Stephen's," I typed in "St. Laurence O' Toole."


Thursday, August 13, 2009

This Just In. . .

Glasgow, in the week leading up to the World's, hosts a festival called Piping Live! (The exclamation point is theirs, not mine--not that I don't find the notion pretty exciting). Among the many concerts and competitions on the schedule is a quartet competition sponsored by R.T. Shepherd, which was held on Tuesday this week. I had never heard of it until yesterday when I ran across the winners, ScottishPower. What really got me here--they use the second variation of "Lament for Mary MacLeod" as their slow air--a unique, and effective, application for a piobaireachd.

And I'm sure glad I wasn't judging! Here's SFU's set, the one with "Braes of Lochiel." I posted a full-band version a few months back, but that tight, 4-piper sound gives it yet another flavour.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Terribly Opinionated

Really, now, can you think of any more overused term than "Celtic"? No, no, I don't mean the fuitba' team. Okay, that use still has a certain panache. But "Celtic Twilight," "Celtic Bagpipes," "Celtic Vocalists". . .Awwww, c'mon, just say what you mean. Sure, there's an ancestral connection between the Bretons and the Scots, and a good many other people, but, as my archaeology professor so rightly said, "Use the exact word you need, not one just kind of like it." There is absolutely nothing wrong with good solid words like "Scots" or "Breton." Just stop with the whole Celtic mystique already, will you? (No, I don't mean you, dear reader. I mean the horrible fellow hidden in the mists of Celtic Marketing who has evidently built a successful career around the overuse of a single word.)

And what brought on the present rampage? I saw "Celtic Cheese" for sale at Trader Joe's yesterday. You think I'm going to buy it just because it brings to mind a very nebulous picture of some of my ancestry? It may be delicious, for all I know, but I shall stick with the clarity of Dublin Cheddar, thanks very much.

Madness. . .Madness!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

And speaking of. . .

Well, boys and girls (those of you on the West Coast), if you were hoping to have an excuse for getting up at 1 AM this coming Saturday, here it is: The World Pipe Band Championships begin at 9:00 in Scotland. As I mentioned a while back, this will be the first year that BBC is streaming the Grade 1 competition world-wide. Some folks, who know more about these things than I do, have suggested that it mightn't be the smoothest stream ever, what with it being the first essay into worldwide distribution, but the proof is in the puddin'.

Like as not, if it's the sort of thing you're at all inclined to take a look at, you already know about it, and you already have some idea of which band/s you're rooting for. . .but if not, may I suggest the cream of the crop? Yes, I'm prejudiced, and yes, they are as good as it gets! No less am I rooting for the rapidly up-and-coming Triumph Street in their first World's competition since their return to Grade 1.

Least you think all my interest is with Vancouver-based bands. . .well, it is, mostly. But my other favourites at the moment are Boghall & Bathgate Caledonia (Scotland) and St. Laurence O' Toole (Ireland), both inclined to very musical medleys.


Yes, indeedy, it is yet another video. The bacbib (so says the caption for the video) is a type of Welsh bagpipe. The tune here is called "Lloyd's Whim"; it definitely goes to show the kinship of Welsh and Breton traditional music. The link between the music and the video--the accompanying horned clarinet, which you also hear, was made from wood from one of the yew trees in St. Brynach's churchyard. The piper/pipemaker John Tose, who made the clarinet and the video, has a website that tells you quite a bit more about Welsh pipes and their relatives.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Harp Song of the Dane Women

What is a woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre.
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

She has no house to lay a guest in
But one chill bed for all to rest in,
That the pale suns and the stray bergs nest in.

She has no strong white arms to fold you,
But the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you
Out on the rocks where the tide has rolled you.

Here is a rather interesting piece I stumbled across. Evidently, somebody has written a tune for Rudyard Kipling's "Harp Song of the Dane Women." Here it is, performed by the German singer/harper Nadia Birkenstock. The tune does quite a bit towards making it. . .well, even creepier than it was originally, but by the same token, more beautiful.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


"They broke the mold after they made these two." For some reason, the cliche was the first thing that came to mind when I sat down here to describe the Orcadian duo Saltfishforty. . .but you know, I don't think there ever was a mold for this kind of music. Two guys, a fiddle, a guitar, more energy than physics had previously attributed to the universe, and some pretty original ideas. Or maybe old ideas presented in new ways. Sure, 12-bar blues have been around for a while, and reels have been around for a while longer. . .but blues and reels together? In the video below, you get some idea of the sound. Here you get the duo, plus...a trombone player (Rick Taylor). Fiddle, guitar, trombone...sure!

Douglas Montgomery's fiddling (as you have seen above) is just something else. About the time you decide there is a definite Scottish slant to his playing, he slides off into the blues, or bluegrass, or maybe a bit of jazz. Never a dull moment! And Brian Cromarty's guitar keeps on driving, and driving, and just when you think it can't get any more driven--of course it does! There's a wee bit more to savour at the obligatory MySpace page.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Black and White

Here's a short black-and-white series from Mission San Juan Bautista.
The porch next to the church:This is one of those avant-garde art photos that make you want to ask the photographer, "And why did you shoot that one?" If you could coerce the photographer into replying, there is a pretty good chance she would say, "I liked the adobe, and those extra boards that seem to be part of a patch. . .and I trimmed the shot at this angle because I didn't want to blatantly admit that it's a redo of the green door picture from Sunday."
And, of course, the bell tower, with its ubiquitous olive tree:

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Theme for Greenlands

For some reason inexplicable reason, "Theme for Greenlands" popped into my head this afternoon. It's a neat tune. . .that's pretty much all I know about it. Shotts & Dykehead has* a multi-instrumental arrangement on their album By the Water's Edge: you can listen to the whole thing there on the Lismor page, track 13.

P.S. If you must get your slow air in for the day as well, the title track (3) will do the trick.

*Sooo, if "Shotts & Dykehead" is short for "The House of Edgar Shotts and Dykehead Pipe Band," (which it is). . .do I use "has," or "have?" And, look, I followed "has," with "their." But it sounds pretty weird to refer a pipe band in the possessive as, "its," doesn't it? Life can be so hard.

Monday, August 3, 2009

A Bit of a Toe-Tapper

Okay, I'm not a dancer in the least, nor can I tell you the difference between clogging and flatfoot (a difference which, I understand, is considerable). . .but this is cool. Very cool.
I typed in the webpage he advertised, and had a big surprise--Stompin' Dave Allen is English, and performs mostly in the UK! Somehow, I way didn't see that coming!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Weekend Rambling

Yes, I was over at the coast yesterday. I had a perfectly good reason for being over there--the Monterey Scottish Games. A grand time: I tagged up with a couple of old friends from the band back home and got better acquainted with some in the band here. . .On the other hand, I had a monumentally bad run in the solos. The less said about it, the better, but it involved a chipped (and suddenly untunable) chanter reed, which led to an archaeological expedition through my Bad Old Reed Box where I discovered that all of the contents were old and bad, which led to me purchasing a reed which seemed like a usable substitution, but which proved to be made of two railroad ties bound together with several fathoms of that cable they use for docking ocean liners. Whatever the final score was, it was much in the reed's favour, and I ached all over from trying to get more than one consecutive note out of the chanter. . .All in all, it was a grand time.

The rest of the Games did look like a good time and all, and there were certainly some good musicians in evidence, but I'd had my heart set on the beach ever since I came over the hill and saw the fog, so I left the park about noon and, by dead reckoning, managed to find Carmel. A good extra reed (or better, a good extra chanter, already set up) was not the only thing I had neglected to bring. . .a change of clothes would have been an admirable bit of foresight. But I did the best I could, taking off my wool socks, and my shoes, and stashing my pipes and sporran in the trunk. No doubt I still looked quite odd, if one can judge from the looks I got from a group of German tourists, as I walked down towards the beach, but. . .aw, well, it was more than worth it. I spent about an hour up to my knees in the surf shooting the photos I put up yesterday, and watching the cormorants dive. Not quite cold, but it definitely was cloudy and grey, and I was as happy as a clam. Later I found out why clams are so happy. It is because they don't have to try to work their sandy little feet into a pair of knee-high woolen socks.

I hit the road for home with the best of intentions, but the road took me through San Juan Bautista, were a handy little sign reminds you that the mission is only a mile from the highway. It was a bit after four by then, and I figured one more stop couldn't hurt, especially if it was to have a look at a mission I had never seen.

Come to find out, the blocks around the Mission are quite sightly in their own right. I don't know if it was a reconstruction project, or whether the buildings really were built down there, and for some odd reason have survived. Here's a hotel across the street from the Mission with a painted sign boasting, "Established in 1856"--and complete with hitching posts and curbside parking.

Most of the Mission had already closed for the day, but inside the church, they were getting ready for Mass. A good time to get in. . .a bad time to be wandering around snapping pictures. Indoor lighting foiled me once more, but you can get some idea of the painting on the walls and pillars below. One thing I found very interesting about this church--unlike many of the other mission churches, although it has been rebuilt, it has never been abandoned since its building in 1803.
Oh, man, I wish the lighting here had been better! If you went out the door on the north side of the church, you would find yourself in the old graveyard. It was full of olive trees, and beyond the wall, farm fields melted into golden, cattle-dotted hills. In my mind, it is harder to find a better picture of California's soul. There was something very grand about standing in the silence with the great, sunwarmed church at your back, looking out at all the promise that was glorified in the setting sun. Does the picture show that? Well, no, that's why I had to mention it. It gave me an odd feeling, as if I were seeing something that was as old and solid as the world, but also the newest and grandest thing anyone ever saw.Olives were much in evidence all around the mission, handy for framing a distant view of the bell tower.
If I could try this one again, I'd shoot it in the morning when the sun is lighting up the garden and the church from the front, instead of falling behind the church, or tree, or whatever it was falling behind at that point. They don't stint on roses in San Juan Bautista, that's for sure!
The lighting on the other side of the bell tower was more agreeable, though it didn't favour the eaves much.
This is a green door in an adobe wall, in case you were wondering. It is in the corridor next to the church. It must be open sometimes, else, why the doormat? But where it goes, I couldn't tell you.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


No, really, I did not have "Wave Over Wave" stuck in my head when I was taking these pictures. ..Now I do.
There are no krakens lurking in the shadows here; I simply found myself in Carmel this afternoon and thought it was an excellent opportunity for catching waves in motion. Okay, that is just the distinguished way to say that I wanted an excuse to go wading.