The Hat

The Hat is our diary column with a guest writer

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1 April 2020

Jim Gilchrist is an Edinburgh-based freelance writer, for many years a staff features writer and columnist with the Scotsman, to which he still contributes a regular (folk/jazz) music column. Other writings include the Scottish section of Celtic Music (ed. Kenny Mathieson, Backbeat, 2001) and an essay in the 2019 book Conversations in Stone: A Celebration of Hugh Miller’s Legacy. He co-edited, with Stuart Eydmann, Dolina: An Island Girl’s Journey, the memoir of Gaelic singer, actress and broadcaster Dolina MacLennan.

The diary column is entitled

The Hat in memory of its first contributor, the inimitable Edinburgher Martin Currie.

Marking the past

Jim Gilchrist reflects on anniversaries –

those that are celebrated and others that are, surprisingly, ignored

ANNIVERSARIES: don’t we just love ’em? As we breenge into a new year and (arguably) a fresh decade, we’re positively bombarded with them, not least with the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath.

BBC Radio 4, moreover, has been fairly humming with documentaries and dramas about George Orwell, who died 70 years ago this January. Meanwhile the disenfranchised remnants of Australia’s native peoples, if they can see for smoke, are hardly likely to be celebrating wildly the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s Endeavour making first landfall at Botany Bay on 29 April 1770.

And, as a child of the Sixties, I do find it hard to believe that Ravi Shankar was born a century ago, with London’s Southbank Centre effervescing, in a microtonal sort of way, with commemorative events – cue beneficent sitar twang – for a man who not only did much to educate the West in his native music but as a virtuoso performer, educator and inspirer helped to demolish musical barriers.

Also demolishing genre fences with a vengeance, while simultaneously marking that Declaration of Arbroath septcentenary, was the GRIT Orchestra as it opened this January’s Celtic Connections in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. The GRIT Orchestra, you have to understand, is an 80-piece, vibrantly cross-genre ensemble drawn from Scotland’s folk, jazz and classical players, formed originally to play Greg Lawson’s audacious arrangements of the late Martyn Bennett’s final album GRIT, an inspired studio creation hitherto deemed beyond live performance.

For the Declaration programme, however, Lawson commissioned new works from within the orchestra, enlisting such established Scottish folk and jazz names as Chris Stout, Catriona McKay and Paul Towndrow. The historic Arbroath document’s famous line is, of course: “It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours, that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself". The often muscular music it inspired at one point included former national Makar Liz Lochhead declaiming doughtily, between torrents of strings, that “A declaration is a clear and open statement about who we are, and what we stand for. And what we do not stand for”.

For his part, Lawson, introducing the programme, pointed to the diverse nature of the orchestra to argue that real freedom meant “inclusivity and the importance of exploring difference”. In doing so, he continued, a declaration became liberating, “something more provocative, more human, by being inclusive.”

They were heartening words amid these troubled and increasingly xenophobic times.

Surprisingly, though, Celtic Connections, now one of the world’s largest winter music festivals, did not mark yet another anniversary – that of James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, born 250 years ago. The festival hosted the expected Burns Night celebrations, roping in the BBC SSO, Karen Matheson, Eddi Reader and other usual suspects, and even marked yet another commemoration – the 70th of Harry Lauder’s death, but nothing about Hogg.

It seemed surprising that amid all the Burnsiana, there was nothing celebrating the Ettrick Shepherd’s own adept collecting, adapting and writing of songs such as Lock the Door Larriston and Donald MacGillivray, which he published in his collections and which would embed themselves in the folk canon.

There are conferences and other events planned for later this year, not least in America, where the American Folklife Centre at the Library of Congress was due to host an international conference, James Hogg: Scotland's Shepherd Poet, in February. Nearer home, Dr Adrian Hunter of Stirling University has been reported as saying: “Hogg was an equal to poets in his day and by celebrating this anniversary we hope to raise him to the same level of recognition as Burns and Scott.”

But back to that opening concert and Greg Lawson’s words about freedom. As I listened to him, it was, perversely perhaps, Hogg’s astonishing masterpiece, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, that came to mind – a book which on one level at least is about what can happen if you are crazed enough not to countenance anyone whose beliefs deviate from your own, the very converse of what Lawson was appealing for.

The Confessions can be freely interpreted on a supernatural or a psychological basis, as Gothic novel (the genre was becoming widely fashionable in the 1820s when it was published) or as a satire on the madness and arrogance of Calvinist predestinarianism. This was written, remember, by a man who didn’t learn to properly read or write until he was in his teens – unlike Burns, the much vaunted “heaven-taught ploughman”, who in fact enjoyed a relatively thorough education.

Yet Hogg became an author who could evoke the supernatural lore of his Ettrick and Yarrow home turf (his maternal grandfather, Will o’ Phaup, was reputedly the last person in his area to have truck with the fairies) and at the same time, in The Confessions, recount a Brocken Spectre-ish encounter on Arthur’s Seat then provide a rational explanation that prefigures the pioneer scientific fiction of Jules Verne.

The eponymous Sinner, the wretched Robert Wringhim, finally meets his just deserts – and a suicide’s grave – when Hell comes calling in the form of his Mephistophelean doppelganger, Gil-Martin. Sadly, those various megalomaniacs and other deniers of freedom, social justice, even simple human decency, who bedevil us, so to speak, the world over, may not be so easy to exorcise.

As protesters, activists, journalists are slammed up or worse across the world, for defending human rights, striving for free expression or, sometimes, simply for being different, it takes us back to that concept of freedom, which is the kernel of the Declaration, Lawson’s comments and, for that matter, Orwell, who observed sagely that freedom “is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.