The Bardic Kings of Scotland
by Michael Lohr
When it comes to Celtic music and in particular, Scottish traditional music, the Tannahill Weavers are as celebrated as the Chieftains are in Irish traditional music. Founded in Paisley, Scotland in 1968, the Tannahill Weavers have been touring and recording for almost four decades now. They were one of the first bands to incorporate the predominately solo instrument, the Great Highland Bagpipe, as an integral component to their signature sound. A few years ago, I had the pleasure to see the Tannahill Weavers in concert and in doing so witnessed the power and emotion of the Great Highland Bagpipe first hand. During the performance of the instrumental “Inter-Celtic Set” from the record Epona, when the Great Highland Bagpipe kicks in, the sheer force from the wall of sound leaves you shivering and covered in ecstatic goosebumps.
Named after noteworthy Scottish poet Robert Tannahill, the Weavers were one of the first bands to take Scottish traditional music on the road, performing countless shows around the world. In addition to being a poet, Robert Tannahill also wrote many Scottish folk songs over the years and the Weavers have recorded several of his tunes. In 1979, they won Europe’s prestigious Scotstar Award for Folk Music Record of the Year, for their self-titled third record. The Weavers first toured America in 1981. In 1994, they won the Celtic Album of the Year from the National Association of Independent Record Distributors and Manufacturers for the stellar record Capernaum. Green Linnet records have supported the Weavers for many years and in return the Tannahill Weavers have amassed an excellent portfolio of recordings including Cullen Bay, Alchemy, Leaving St. Kilda and Arnish Light.
Several top-notch musicians have shared the Tannahill Weavers stage over the years including Scottish musical legends Alan MacLeod and Dougie MacLean. Another legend is founding member, guitarist and vocalist Roy Gullane. I had the pleasure to sit down with Roy and discuss all things Tannahill Weavers. Including the fact that he has been with the Tannahills every step of the way, performing for four decades and recording for three decades. Roy attempted to explain what has been the driving force behind the longevity and creativity of the band. “We started doing this because we loved the music, although it has now become our profession. It’s been a pleasure to be performing this music for so long. That must be the mainstream musician’s least spoken sentence in the English language. I’m delighted to be doing this, but we certainly don’t do it for vast financial reward.”
According to Roy, there’s one record that he believes constitutes the quintessential Tannahill Weavers sound. “I’m going to go with The Old Woman’s Dance which we recorded in 1978. That record always reminds me of the excitement we felt when we were just getting started. For all its rough edges, it really epitomizes the energy we have when performing live and wanted to put that into to everything that we do.”
The Tannahill Weavers have a specific traditional musical style focusing on Highland Celtic music. Most certainly the bagpipes are one instrument that has helped produce their signature sound, but they have utilized other instruments over the years. Roy explains. “We’ve been influenced by predominately Celtic instruments such as bagpipes, flute, tin whistle, bodrhan and fiddle. I don’t think we’ve ever used anything as ancient as a Medieval instrument, not even a lute. After a career that has spanned almost 40 years, I suppose we are now our own ancient instruments.”
Speaking of bagpipes, the Tannahill Weavers were the first band to employ bagpipes as a main stage instrument. Roy and the boys successfully adapted the Scottish national instrument but it was difficult. He explains. “There were two or three bands, ourselves included, who were experimenting in the late 60’s early 70’s with different types of Scottish pipes with a goal to have them sit nicely within a ‘folk group’ performance situation. The Tannahills, to my mind, and I apologize for any perceived trumpet blowing, ended up being the only group who ever managed to actually get them to work fluidly. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do especially when no one had ever done it before. There was nowhere to go for any advice or feedback. We had to learn how to tune to them for a start. For those of you who don’t know, the bagpipes are, at best, a semi tone higher than concert pitch. So for example, we had to tune the guitar a semi tone higher or to use a capo and play around the fret markers as opposed to on them. We also had to adjust our keyboards and a glockenspiel. We physically had to move all the keys up a semi tone to get them to work. Nowadays, of course you can make all the sounds you want on a programmable keyboard.”
Scottish bagpipes are just one form of bagpipe. There are many forms of Celtic bagpipes such as the Irish Uilleann pipes, Northumbrian smallpipes, the Welsh pipes (known in Welsh as pibe cyrn or pibgod) and the Breton Veuze pipes. The Tannahills have utilized some of these forms of Celtic pipes. Roy explains. “We have. And since our Land of Light record, released in 1986, we’ve been using the Scottish small pipes. Duncan Nicholson, who played on three albums back in the 90’s, used them on the song ‘For Aye’ which appeared on the record, Alchemy.”
Roy has been fascinated with traditional Celtic music since he was young. It was Celtic music and not rock ‘n roll or the blues, that inspired him. He explains. “My life was changed forever one night back in the mid 1960’s. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem sang “The Wild Colonial Boy” on the Eamon Andrews show, and so totally blew me away. It was so exciting. I decided in a heartbeat that that was what I wanted to do. The further I dug into the world of traditional music, the more I fell in love with it. It remains for me a music form filled with fire and rare beauty. It’s all that raw emotion that appeals to me.”
The Tannahill Weavers are peers with traditional music legends, the Chieftains, Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention. But who exactly were the Weavers musical influences. Roy responds. “We were very influenced by the energy of the JSD Band in the early days. We actually hung out with them every time they were in town. We were also very much influenced by Ireland’s Bothy Band. In many ways, they are still the yardstick.”
On the album Capernaum, there is a song titled ‘The Plooboy Laddies.’ I asked Roy just what exactly is a Plooboy? “It’s Highland vernacular,” Roy says smiling. “It’s a Scots Gaelic slang term that refers to a ploughboy. As in ‘Will ye show me the noo hoo tae pu’ a ploo?’ ” I guess we’ll just take your word for it Roy
Critics have dubbed the Tannahill Weavers as the première traditional Scottish band currently recording today. Such lofty accolades could cause undue anxiety when writing songs. Living up to one’s own legend can prove difficult, just ask Bruce Springsteen or the Rolling Stones. “We’ve been dubbed many thing over the years, including ‘The Who’ of Scottish folk, amongst other things. Which I find quite humorous.” Roy states with a rye grin. “But it’s certainly never made a jot of difference to us how we do things. Pressure is something we go to great lengths to avoid. If it ever raises its ugly head, and on the very few occasions we couldn’t get round it, it worked for us. It’s a little bit like the amplifier in Spinal Tap, we can go to 11, if we have to. I associate pressure and stress more with worrying about whether a visa or a work document is going to arrive in time and stuff like that. There is no one on planet earth who will cause you more stress that a civil servant. It’s their job, and they will try to strangle you in red tape. Stress and pressure don’t really exist in music, at least not in our genre.”
I was somewhat surprised to find out that Roy Gullane currently lives in the Netherlands instead of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s thistle-covered Highlands of Scotland. How did the leader of one of the most well known Scottish musical groups in the world find himself living in the land of windmills and wooden shoes? Roy responds. “I met a Dutch girl, fell in love and got married. When the child arrived, I thought it would be nicer for her to grow up where her relatives were. I was an only child and my parents had already died, so she would have had no immediate family in Scotland. It isn’t a problem for me to get over to Scotland, in any case. I’m in Edinburgh several times a year for rehearsals and so on. I can get there in just about the same time as it takes Colin to come down from Fort William, which is far to the north in the Highlands.”
Thank you Roy for taking the time to do this interview. To learn more about all things Tannahill Weavers, please go to http://www.tannahillweavers.com/. You can also visit their MySpace page: http://myspace.com/tannahillweavers/