A trip to Edinburgh to see the Celts exhibition (magnificent - the Gundestrup bowl is much larger than I had imagined and the carnyx gets a good showing), and to consult an ogam manuscript in the National Library of Scotland. Ogam is an early Gaelic form of the alphabet, well over 1000 years old, but this manuscript is from the 19th century. This is what the ogam alphabet looks like:
Then on to Stirling for the Musica Scotica conference to give a paper on the Scottishness of A.C.Mackenzie. It was a good conference with some excellent papers, and particularly heartening in that several came from younger scholars.
Back home on Sunday to snow. The peats are drying, but Alan Morgan's Highland cows had knocked quite a few of them about with their horns, just for fun, so Bar spent all Monday morning repairing the damage. This is the kind of thing they like to do and on the right, the bog after Bar had repaired it all with sleet coming in from the north. Today it's snow.
The skinning of the third and last bog was accomplished with the help of Alastair Watt who took to the ceapair lar (tool for skinning off the heathery top of the bog) as to the manner born - this notwithstanding the fact that the tool/instrument is Iron Age in design and requires an Iron Age constitution. The only other one I have ever seen was in the museum in Stranraer. Mine was given to me by Ian Grant who took pity upon my efforts with a spade, but I had to replace the old shaft with an ash-wood one I selected from a tree and shaped to the precision (and it is precision) required and then commissioned a beautiful new cutting iron from Rob Miller made of the bluest of lovely steel, so all that is left of the original is the handle at the top which I will never abandon. As I have been using this tool for over a decade, I might offer myself up as an exhibit and save the cost of a funeral: but old age and heart disease have obliged me to share the honours with others - hence Alastair, who proved himself worthy while I, a vile apostate, used the chain saw to mark out the bog for the ceapair lar to do its beautiful work.
The chain saw ploy I have only heard of, never seen. Apparently the lads up in Staffin (north Skye) thought it was a good idea and I am an old dog but can still learn a new trick and this would be a brilliant one, were it not a bit rough on the chain saw which kept losing the chain or otherwise protesting at the conditions of employment. My chainsaw is a Husqvarna and I have to credit it with the utmost willingness and high standards of performance under the most abusive of employers. Anyway "at the heel of the hunt" as they say in Ireland, the job got done, the third bog is skinned and this morning the ground was covered in snow so any hope of starting cutting was abandoned and I laboured on dear old Sir. A.C.Mackenzie instead for the Musica Scotica conference .
Here are a couple images taken by Bar of the Iron Age and post-modernist proceedings on the bog. On the left Alastair proves his Iron Age credentials while I conduct a religious service with the chain saw. On the right, I and the chain saw find mutual joy in disturbing the song of the lark with the fine ripping noises of an internal combustion engine under strain being revved. You really have to be a musician to appreciate these things.
Geoff Allan having performed miracles at CaVa with the recordings from Lewis and Iona; my son Sean having discovered how to save complex Powerpoint images with their various elements at 300dpi so they can be published without having to be re-assembled; and the weather having settled into a dry spell, the PEATS have taken over our lives. This is the first of the three bogs we cut and which we finished today. That's Ben Meabost in the background and one of my favourite birds, the golden plover has returned there this spring. I composed a song called "Golden Plover" for Ralph Shaw, king of the ukelele, and he recorded it quite wonderfully on his CD "Love". Check him out on www.ralphshaw.ca.
And this is the second bog on which Bar and I have made a good start, helped by the cold northerly wind which is drying the peats we cut last week really well.
Meanwhile I have picked up the wooden part of the reconstructed Bekan horn yew-wood instrument the original of which dates from the 9thc AD. Magnus Gunnarsson has carved it out superbly and I am still figuring out how best to thank him not only for his skill and labour, but for the risks anyone takes in working with yew which is potentially highly poisonous. I have a plan, however. I still have to glue the two halves together - the instrument is six feet long and made by splitting the yew longitudinally and carving out its gently conical bore before re-assembling and binding with spiral bronze ribbon. Then a reed will be stuck in the end and we shall see, or rather hear, what happens.
A weekend in Iona recording more bells, this time in St Oran's chapel for Mhairi Killin and Hugh Watt's Re-Soundings (www.Re-soundings.com). Driving there on Friday was horrendous - torrential rain, rivers full to bursting, ferries cancelled, but the weather was kind to us on Saturday and the island as magical as ever. I managed to persuade the participants to take off their shoes and socks so they could walk silently from the chapel outdoors while ringing their bells. A most encouraging display of healthy clean feet . . . We also recorded the rock gong at Port na Fraing.
I spent half of Sunday writing up a first draft of the score for the exhibition music. It started out as a straight line but as the piece is circular it had to be drawn as a circle. This is it.
It's not like anything I've done before and I am depending on Geoff Allan at CaVa studios in Glasgow to make sense out of it when we edit it all together on Friday.
Meanwhile the sun shines and I am stuck indoors dealing with the complexities of publishing images taken from a Powerpoint presentation, for the last Rannsachadh nan Gaidheal - an academic conference proceedings.
A visit from Alan and Rae Riach combined with mostly wet and windy weather - currently blowing draughts through the study and the fire is out - has been full of poetry and Scottish independence and New Zealand memories while dear Bar feeds the cows each morning, and then the humans.
I am working on composing a circular piece of music for the shells into bells project, and trying to tidy up Window to the West which Meg Bateman and I have been working on for eight years now and still get on well together! It is "towards a re-definition of the visual in the Gaelic-speaking world" and is crazily ambitious: it is a substantial joint-author book but we have loved doing it. It is holistic and it looks out at the world from here, rather than starting with the world looking in and telling us we are peripheral and remote and isolated and all that nonsense that comes from people living much more lonely lives in cities.
Work also on ogam - a paper to give to Rannsachadh nan Gaidheal in June about this fascinating "alphabet" - simple and phonetic in its basic form, but deliberately obscure in much of its usage. It is visually and structurally provoking and I am making an initial stab at interpreting a manuscript of spells and charms from the 19th-century written out entirely in ogam representing Irish Gaelic. It's a bit like the way doctors used to write prescriptions in illegible Latin so that only they and the pharmacist could actually read them. Trade secrets and so on. Put it this way, I am trying to hack into this manuscript and reveal to an expectant public what is the one and only cure for the evil eye or, if it comes to that, toothache. The truth is my sole qualification for pursuing this is curiosity and the fact that the manuscript has so far been ignored. I hope to annoy enough experts with my presumption into getting them to do something serious about it.
Spring would have y-sprungen, as Chaucer might have it, were it not for cold winds. The soil is not going to warm up in a hurry and if I can locate some Golden Wonder seed potatoes in time, they will still have a chance to chit before there is any point in planting them. We are in process of reforming the lazy beds into raised beds with gravel paths. Alarmingly suburban, but a lot less work for our elderly joints and muscles.
The Te Gheal - our 13 foot Orkney dinghy - needs her fiber-glass keel repaired: too many batterings getting onto the trailer at awkward tides.
As Alan likes to say, "There is still damage to be done!"
Over a year has gone by . . .memorable for the world premiere of Erik Chisholm's opera Simoon in Glasgow - a sensational event after years of struggle to get it done. Also memorable was a performance of his Violin Concerto. Both works will be available on CD in the next year or so. Check out www.erikchisholm.com
My own music got an outing in a presentation I gave at the Calary Church concerts in County Wicklow - many family in the audience - my grandparents are buried by the porch - and later in the year both my music and poetry got an airing at the Nairn Book Festival.
A string quartet commissioned long ago for Victor Rosenberg's quartet course was beautifully played by Mark Wilson's quartet at a concert in Moffat, and I am to talk about my music and landscape as part of the Jon Schueler Symposium at Sabhal Mor Ostaig in late May.
I gave lectures on music archaeology in Berlin and Vaxjo in Sweden - the latter at a conference in honour of the wonderful Cajsa Lund who was the initial inspiration for my own work in the field. A privilege to be there. Writing up the High Pasture Cave bridge with Dr. Graeme Lawson is on-going. He does his best to keep me on the straight and narrow, most memorably when collaborating over a beer in his boat on the River Nene.
Recently I have been acting as Scottish Music Advisor to the USA tv series Outlander. We had a great recording session for them at Watercolour studios in Ardgour for their composer Bear McCreary. Can't say what we did though as we all signed non-disclosure forms.
Over the last months I've been collaborating with Mhairi Killin and Hugh Watt on Re-Soundings (www.re-soundings.com). They have been turning WWI shell casings into bells and I am composing music for them and for an accompanying exhibition at An Lanntair on Lewis and in Iona. Below is a picture of my musical armoury at Ness Community Centre which appropriately had a WWI exhibition on. Somewhere in there is a box made from a shell casing and engraved with Arabic lettering. It was given to my grandfather who had treated many shell-shocked patients in Dublin. His RAMC buttons are inside it, so now it makes an evocative rattle. The cylindrical shell casings also make remarkably pleasant bells. Ironic or what?
The church above is St Moluag's where we recorded several members of the public who had come to the event, playing the bells as they entered the church. Now I have to make musical sense of it all. Mhairi and Hugh are opening my eyes and ears to new ways of creativity and I am discovering my inner minimalist. But the website will tell you much more.
On the poetry front I had poems published in Scotia Nova (Luath Press 2015) and also in The Hunterian Poems (Freight Books, Glasgow 2015). It's a lovely little publication with an intriguing variety of poetic responses to paintings in the Hunterian art gallery in Glasgow reproduced beside their accompanying poems. It's comfortable to be within the same covers as dear friends such as Alan Riach, Liz Lochhead, Stewart Conn, Aonghas Mac Neacail and Gerda Stevenson. My offering was for J.D.Fergusson's Spring in Glasgow painted in 1942, no distance from where I was born in February of that year. Lesley Duncan picked it for The Herald poem of the day. Is there another newspaper in this country which publishes a poem a day? It is a splendid thing to have and we should be broadcasting a poem a day as well, if only to show that life isn't wasted on us.
It has been a sad week. Down to London for my sister Geraldine's cremation. A good gathering of good people remembering a good and delightful person.
The drive down to Glasgow was through some of the most beautiful light conditions I have ever known, the Highlands truly magical. Many memories of walks and climbs with my family, Geraldine as fit and able as any.
Before that, I was near Auchtermuchty with dear friends of many years, John and Nickie Fletcher, and then on to Dunfermline to help launch Sir Patric Spens (Dunfermline) - one of two really beautifully produced books to which I have been privileged to contribute: the other was Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr's Wayfaring Strangers – the musical voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia, (University of North Carolina).
Back on Skye, it turns out our lovely Highland-Aberdeen-Angus cross, Rose, is not pregnant for the third year running, which means we will have to sell her. Meanwhile, it seems likely that Robert's slow approach to titbits is occasioned by teething - he is 3 years old and it is round about now he'd be getting his proper teeth, which would explain his drooling and generally looking rather miserable.
My son Sean is here, fixing everything from leaves and peat dross to computers. A real blessing.
Just back from a visit to the Arn Hill rock gong to record it and its "child", a smaller rock gong snuggled up against it. I had the company and musical contributions of Will and Becks Boyd-Wallis and their two kids, Hebe and Jack. Such fun! The sun set and the moon rose, and the cattle were intrigued. This in preparation for a presentation I am to give in Gdansk on rock gongs in December.
I also went to Crathes Castle to meet and discuss with representatives of the National Trust for Scotland about the reconstruction of the unique bell-ended flute depicted on the ceiling painting of the 9 Muses, dating from 1600. Rod Cameron has made an initial reconstruction and Elizabeth Ford will play it. Watch this space.
This is all after a holiday with my wife Bar in the Pyrenees with dear friends, and then the spectacular Gorges du Tarn (best pork pate in the world) and finally with my beautiful grand-daughter Eva Hind, who sings with La Grande Zsa-Zsa under the name Lark Hind, and whom I heard at a late-night concert outside Montpellier. Magic! Their CD La Grande Zsa Zsa is wonderfully French.
The cows are beginning to look to us for additional food - but there is still plenty on the croft for them. None-the-less, their enthusiasm for banana skins has upped a notch or two and, who knows, next week they might not reject the bean pods, were there any left. Poor Robert, being a connoisseur, has to sniff every bite carefully before committing himself, by which time it has been snatched from his lips by Dedee, who will eat anything and run to get it without the first clue as to what is on offer.
Home again from a trip to Cambridgeshire to consult with Dr. Graeme Lawson on his boat on the River Nene, moored up against the reeds in fenland and with the aid of a couple of beers. Immersed in the intricacies and depths of High Pasture Cave when not being frowned upon by swans, buzzed by a kingfisher, or gathering the hugest ripest brambles overhanging the river. At my daughter and son-in-law's we finished off the revisions to a film script. Happy family days.
Soon off to see Return to the Voice at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe - the outcome of the Polish Song of the Goat Theatre group's visits to Scotland and study of Scottish traditional music. They came to Skye to consult and we all had a wonderful time sharing cultures. www.returntothevoice.com
It's about a fortnight since Rod Cameron, baroque flute-maker extraordinaire, came to visit. Always a pleasure, and this time hopefully leading on to a fascinating reconstruction (see below).
I joined the YEStival ceilidh in Ullapool last Saturday to read some poems from Scotia Nova, due out from LUATH press any day now. A heartening event with audience discussion, and musicians, poets, film-makers all giving their services for nothing. I had the temerity to read George Gunn to George Gunn, and read a couple of my own poems which you will also find in Scotia Nova.
The long drive there and back (I took a very scenic route with Applecross thrown in) was enlivened by a young Danish couple to whom I gave a lift. They didn't know where they were going, so they came along with me to join the fun. They had got engaged in the heart of the Cuillin mountains two days before and we listened to Bonnie Rideout playing MacDougall's Gathering as the mountains and sea-lochs pushed the road in every direction. Perfect.
Then back home with the Danes (light rain and midges so camping for them was out of the question) who accompanied me up to Dunvegan on the Sunday where I addressed assembled MacLeods on the prehistory of the music of the clans. A lovely audience from a' the airts: many knowledgeable, all enthusiastic and all ready to purchase CDs. Hurrah!
Monday to prepare to travel early on Tuesday to Pitlochry to meet up with Graeme Lawson and head to the Crannog Centre on Loch Tay and meet with Barrie Andrian and discuss a fascinating object from c.400BC closely related to the High Pasture Cave find of a bridge for a plucked stringed instrument.
The Crannog Centre is a fascinating site, well worth a serious visit. Nick Dixon and Barrie Andrian are the leading underwater archaeologists who set it up and run it.
On to Lenzie, over the Campsie Fells, to bring two of my favourite people together for the first time - Graeme Lawson and John Creed, scholars and craftsmen reconstructing ancient instruments. A chance to admire some of John's recent and exquisite work.
Wednesday to Glasgow to meet Stuart Johnston whose publishing company, Kennedy and Boyd, are to bring out my new and collected poems There Is No Night this autumn. That was followed by a lunch with the baroque flautist and PhD student, Elizabeth Ford. She and Rod Cameron are working on the idea of reconstructing the Crathes Castle ceiling flute, for which notion they can blame me, and probably will! Again, such fun!
The rest of the day with family and then to Edinburgh on Thursday to go through all the metal and bone artefacts from High Pasture Cave at the National Museums of Scotland. Graeme Lawson and Fraser Hunter are the experts, but for reasons best known to them, they allow me to don the sticky sweaty rubber gloves and feed fragile objects to the microscope. Some really exquisite workmanship there too. If John Creed had been with us, I can just hear his "Ooooh" and "Aaaah" as a wee beauty of La Tene style repoussee bronze contended for first place with minute sharpest of needles and fine, fine crochet hooks, presupposing the very finest of threads. Then a drive back to Skye that evening, giving my Ford Focus a pat on the facia panel for excellent service after hundreds of miles of sometimes tortuous driving!
Now dealing with the usual requests for information, often really interesting and teaching me things I did not know, but also time consuming. But not consuming so much o0f it that I have not had time to enjoy parts of the Commonwealth Games, and see gallus Glasgow doing its splendid best, and our young Scottish athletes take their places with determination and pride amongst the elite of their kind from all over the world.
And - a parting shot - if anyone thinks the Tunnocks Tea-cakes were naff, I remember fondly a nurse coming to me in hospital at 3.00am when painkillers had failed and sleep eluded me, and offering me a cup of tea. That brightened me up, but the Tunnocks Tea-cake that came with it made me so happy that I do believe I slept until breakfast.
John Purser is widely known as a composer, musicologist, poet, playwright, and broadcaster.