I have for some years been boasting that I am Scotland's greatest cow poet, but I have been demoted by a better one - Jim Carruth, who was made Glasgow's poet laureate or makar in 2014. Jim comes from a Renfrewshire farm and his poems about farming life and life in general are really beautiful. However, we are both on a par in James Naughtie's selection of "The Best of The Best" poems for the Scottish Poetry Library as Jim and I are two of the twenty selected from fifteen years of "The Best" of each year. My poem is about cows and his is about a mole-catcher. You can read them on the Scottish Poetry Library website, along with various comments from the earlier editors of "The Best" and from James Naughtie and the poets themselves.
I interviewed Jim Naughtie a while back for a radio programme. Yes, I know, he is the radio interviewer, but I wanted him to talk about Ronald Center, his piano teacher in Huntly long ago for one of my Scotland's Music programmes. Center was an outstanding composer. Jim was as good an interviewee as interviewer. I look forward to meeting him again when he presents his choice of poems at the Aye Write festival in Glasgow on the 30th March, when some of us will be reading our poems and one other Scottish poem (any period) of our own choice. I think I will go for a Drummond of Hawthornden sonnet.
I am working on the third edition of Scotland's Music and have recently been doing a statistical analysis of triadic 4-note patterns in a 1766 fiddle manuscript. Esoteric or what? But it is in fact very interesting because it highlights the extraordinary inventiveness of Scots fiddle music composers working with a deliberately limited harmonic palette. They knew how to make a lot out of a very little. If only Haydn and Mozart had known what the Scots were up to they would have made their viola and cello parts much more interesting, instead of their usual do-dee-da-dee pattern going on endlessly while the violin does its prima-donna thing.
I went down to Glasgow by train from Mallaig on Thursday, beautiful, snowy, to hear Stuart MacRae's new opera Anthropocene. It was not an easy listen, but there was one truly beautiful section when the Ice-maiden first realises she is alive. The repeated descending bass line, harp, I think, and the voice beautifully hesitant, perfectly pitched, made for a little spell of wonderful music I will never forget. I had a chance while down to see my son, Sean's photographic exhibition Heids in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall - part of Celtic Connections. If you don't know about the Festival, look it up. The photos are of some of the previous year's Celtic Connections musicians and they are absolutely brilliant. Intimate, funny, revealing, touching, always totally natural. Nothing posed. Back up on the train the next day; all the snow gone, low mists obscuring everything.
So what with the poets, the new opera, and the Celtic Connections photographs, Scotland's cultural scene is vibrant. Long may it continue so.
Many moons have risen and set since my last blog, some of them beautiful, some of them sad. Three dear friends and colleagues died recently - John Geddes and Martin Dalby, and now Tom Leonard. All three outstanding voices and personalities in the Scottish arts.
John and I were students together at the RSAMD and fellow composers, never rivals - and the same holds true for Martin who was my producer for BBC Radio Scotland's first series of Scotland's Music. I wrote their obituaries for The Herald - a strange responsibility when what one remembers above all is simply the fun and the companionship. And Tom, who became my friend through our mutual love of the music of Carl Nielsen and whose deeply sensitive and incisive honesty lived alongside a wicked wit. What a writer!
It was at the end of 2017 that I lost one of my oldest and deepest friends - the American sculptor Charles Wells. We met in Pietrasanta in 1974 and he taught me a little stone carving. His work was stunningly beautiful and his etchings were searching and strange. I stayed with him and his lovely wife, Diana, in New Mexico and Pennsylvania and they came often to join Bar and myself on Nashawena Island. I will never forget his first arrival on Skye and on the summit plateau of Ben Meabost, with low grey scudding clouds and he dancing away from me, loose-limbed, and turning round to exclaim with joy "Gee, John I just wanna disperse!"
This ageing business finds me included in Autumn Voices (edited by Robin Lloyd-Jones) as an interviewee and interviewer, alongside other old friends, mercifully still alive and including Alasdair Gray, Stewart Conn, Sheena Blackhall and Carl MacDougall: so we are now approaching that stage when we become pickled specimens to be placed on shelves beside scorpions in bottles and the like. All of which obliges one to further creative output in order to upset the assessors.
On that front, I have recently been commissioned to write a new piece for a new instrument - Donald Lindsay's Lindsay System chanter which has extended the range of the small pipes chanter at both ends. We have decided that my piece is to be called An Grianan, the sunny place, because it is happy. Not a cloud in its sky. Donald is going to play it when he presents an original pipe next week to the Piping Centre.
I've also been writing essays for The National - centre-page spreads with no ads and plenty of images. You won't find anything like it in any other daily newspaper anywhere. The first eight were re-published alongside Alan Riach and Alexander Moffat's essays in Arts and the Nation, Edinburgh 2017. The image is of the cover illustration - William Crosbie's drawing of Frederick Lamond playing with the Scottish Orchestra in 1942, the year I was born and no distance from Bill's studio. He was a close family friend.
Since then I have written a good few more essays, the latest being on Scottish artists associated with the Celtic Revival. You can access them on-line on The National's website, under Culture. They have been coming out on Mondays. The 7th of January will be the last for a while.
I've been publishing an occasional poem and was honoured to be invited to give the Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun Annual Memorial Lecture in The Scottish Parliament in February of 2018. I called it From the Hebrides to Hindustan: cultural self-perception and the music of Erik Chisholm. Linda Fabiani, the MSP to whom we are indebted for the lecture series, told me afterwards that her husband had regarded the title with the greatest misgiving, but she, I am happy to say, was all enthusiasm about the outcome! I was also asked to give the Alan Bruford Annual Memorial Lecture in October at The Scottish Story Telling Centre. This one was called Scotland and the Fenian Lays - a more accessible version of a paper I gave at the Ulidia/Finn conference at Sabhal Mor Ostaig back in May.
Perhaps nicest of all compliments were the ones paid to me by Ellen Beard who asked me to write a Foreword to her splendid 100 Òran le Rob Donn MacAoidh, published on the Isle of Skye in 2018; and then, at the very end of the year, to find myself joint dedicatee of Elizabeth Ford's equally ground-breaking publication of William McGibbon Complete Sonatas, published by A-R Editions in Wisconsin. It is quite wonderful that such good work is still finding the light of day and excellent productions and from such different corners of the world, though, be it noted, both authors are citizens of the USA. But I am not going to stray into the world of visas and the xenophobic racist agenda of the Home Office and the Government in general. The year is young and who knows what spring may bring. The whirligig of time will surely bring in its revenges.
John Purser is widely known as a composer, musicologist, poet, playwright, and broadcaster.