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Tom Muir - Interview

  by Owen Peters

published: 22 / 7 / 2015

Tom Muir - Interview


A long way from home in Orkney Owen Peters matches a voice he seems to recognize to that of a man, acclaimed local musician and historian Tom Muir, that he has never met

I’ve left behind the road rage frustrations of London’s M25. I am a long way from Tube announcements such as “We are sorry to inform passengers of disruptions on the District line,” and people running around on perceived Mad Hatter type “very important dates.” I’m taking a four hour rail journey from Inverness to Thurso. The driver has just informed passengers, “There is a five minute stop at the next station. If you need to stretch your legs, or grab a cigarette, please step out onto the platform.” Now this is what I call stress free travel. From Thurso rail station it’s a pleasant walk to the ferry terminal of Scrabster. In just over ninety sunny, scenic minutes we dock at Orkney’s picturesque port of Stromness. The stress free travel continues. During my second night on Orkney I inadvertently come across a group of Orcadian, local artists/musicians, sharing local beers and whiskies, playing songs, telling tales of the island’s heritage, history and culture. Amongst the storytellers is a voice I seem to know. As he continues his tale, I become more convinced I know who this is. Then again what would be the chances? I have never met or seen him, only heard his voice on a CD I reviewed some months age (Must buy a lottery ticket). At an appropriate moment, I saddle up to him and, showing him a section of my review text from my phone, I ask, “Did you work on this album by Katrina and Dejan?” He answers with a simple, “Yes I did” (Must buy two lottery tickets). This is how came to meet Tom Muir. Muir is renowned in these parts for his traditional stories of Orkney and the North. He has trawled older collections, recovering stories which have been lost and now found. We have time to share a drink, laugh at the chances of our uncanny meeting, and agree to set up an interview. In the following Q and A, Tom Muir spoke with pride, passion and historical knowledge on a host of subjects, relating to his beloved home of Orkney. PB: For those readers who haven’t visited Orkney, can you describe what the island has to offer? TM: Orkney has a beauty all of its own, a very open landscape dominated by an ever changing sky, very green and gently rolling, but with soaring cliffs (including the magnificent red sandstone cliffs of Hoy) right through to beaches of white, yellow and pink sands. There is more archaeology than you can shake a stick at, including very early and huge Neolithic stone circles, villages and a temple complex at the Ness of Brodgar. Viking sites and the islands' place names are reminders of our Nordic heritage, while the remains of wartime defences are a reminder of the importance of Scapa Flow as a naval anchorage in two world wars. There is fine food, beer and the most northern malt whisky distillery in the world at Highland Park. It also has a more laid-back approach to life where you can chill out, watch the seals and listen to the song of the ocean as it laps against the shores and rocks of these magical islands. PB: On a personal note, what type of projects/assignments are you working on at present? TM: I am working on this year's Orkney Storytelling Festival, an annual event held during the last weekend in October, when the long nights are conducive to storytelling. This year we are joined by two great Scottish storytellers and singers, Jess Smith and Grace Banks, who will include ballads in their storytelling sessions. I have just published a book of Nordic folk tales called 'Tales from Viking Lands', which includes two CDs of me telling (not reading) stories from the collection. All funds go to Storholmen Viking Village in Sweden, where I've been storyteller in residence on a number of occasions. I am also about to write the text for a book of photographs of abandoned buildings in Orkney by the photographer Keith Allardyce. The book will be published next year and is called 'Silent'. It is expected to run to two volumes, over a couple of years. Giving these derelict houses their names back is a strangely uplifting experience. In ancient Egypt it was believed that to have your name forgotten in this life meant that you ceased to exist in the afterlife as well. It's a bit like I'm bringing the memories of these former homes back from the brink of extinction. It is a daunting task, but well worth it. PB: Although I only had four days on Orkney there was a full programme of arts and culture available from coast to coast. Has this always been the case? TM: There has always been a thriving art and music scene in Orkney, although maybe not in a formal sense. Music was played in many households, from singing to fiddle and accordion playing, to mouth organs, jews (or jaw) harps (which we called 'trumps', much to the amusement of people these days), and later guitars, mandolins, etc. Concerts were regularly held where local talent would entertain, from music to humorous verse by people like Geordie Costie. This may have been in response to the huge amount of entertainment that was available to all during the war, when brand new movies were screened here at the same time as they were premiered in London, due to the huge numbers of service men and women stationed in Orkney with the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force, protecting the naval base at Scapa Flow. The cream of popular entertainment also performed on small islands that otherwise had seen nothing of the like. In the last forty years things have really taken off to the extent that there are so many festivals for all types of music, poetry, writing, storytelling, that it's difficult to find the time to see most of it. In February there is one of the strangest and most unlikely of all our festivals, Papay Gyro Nights, a collection of avant garde art, films, music, philosophy, (with storytelling from me) that was started on the small island of Papa Westray by the artists Ivanov and Chan, who escaped London to retreat to one of our smaller islands. They are lovely people, wonderful contributors from all over the world – It is just an incredible experience, home made, but international to the max and just utterly amazing! In the winter there is a constant programme of music, art exhibitions, lectures, poetry readings, independent films at the West Side Cinema in Stromness - it's impossible to get to it all, so we have become selective. And very spoiled! PB: Who are the up and coming artists we are likely to hear, see or read during the coming years? TM: A few nights ago I was lucky enough to catch a four hour concert (with free malt whisky - all for a fiver!) by Neu Reekie, a collective of poets, film makers and musicians. It was headed by Scotland's national poet, Liz Lochhead - who was fabulous! But the two that stood out for me was a slightly awkward young man with a 1980s haircut (reminiscent of a young Jim Reid of the Jesus and Mary Chain) called Michael Pedersen. He's a poet who writes with humour and passion about adolescent crushes and hangovers, and an encounter with a Highland coo, who was so ginger that he thought it was the most Scottish thing he'd ever seen. The band who stopped me in my tracks was a young woman who goes by the fabulous name of Panda Su. She played keyboards accompanied by a guy on percussion, but she usually plays guitar, only she has a broken elbow. She did this gig tanked up on painkillers - what a trooper! The music was reminiscent to me of Portishead, but with a style very much of its own. From Orkney, there are so many talented players, many taught by the Wrigley Sisters and Douglas Montgomery (Saltfish Forty/The Chair). On the Neu Reekie bill was James Wilson, who also plays fiddle with Duncan McLean’s Driftwood Cowboys. He uses loops to layer guitar, fiddle and percussion (usually him tapping his instruments). It is very interesting, and reminded me of my friend Mikey Kirkpatrick, who performs as Bird Radio with flute and suitcase drum and who was the first person I saw using loops. Eric Linklater is a young guy making waves as a fiddle player and is worth keeping an eye on too. PB: Tell us some of the islands famous, authors, playwrights and artists? Orkney has produced so many writers, artists, it would seem like bragging, but what the fuck. Edwin Muir (1887-1959) was an exceptionally fine poet, as well as a novelist, essayist and along with his wife Willa, a translator of European writers, such as Franz Kafka. His work fell out of fashion, but he is enjoying a bit of a revival at the moment - I just recorded one of his poems, 'The Horses', for a Radio 4 poetry programme. J Storer Cloustan (1870-1944) wrote a string of novels. They are mostly all out of print now, but he enjoyed enormous success in the early 20th century. Eric Linklater (1899-1974) started studying medicine before his education was interrupted by World War I. After the war he decided to change his career plans and started to study English instead, becoming a hugely successful novelist and playwright. Again, he suffered from the fickleness of fashion, but remains a well respected writer. Robert Rendall (1898-1967) was a local poet who wrote some of his verse in Orkney dialect, along with Chrissie Costie (1902-67), who wrote short stories and poetry. They gave the Orkney people their own voice in poetry. F. Marian McNeill (1885-1973) was born and raised in Orkney, going on to become a folklorist, a Suffragette, founder member of the SNP, journalist and writer, contributing to the Scottish National Dictionary and writing the four volume book on folklore, 'The Silver Bough'. Ann Scott-Moncrieff (1914-43) was a poet and writer, including books for children. Her promising career was cut short by her early death. Margaret Tait (1918-99) was a poet and film maker (she also made experimental film art early in her career) whose movie, 'Blue Black Permanent', opened the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1993. George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) is our best known writer and poet. His works have been translated into a great number of languages and he enjoyed a hugely successful career, yet he preferred to remain here in his native town of Stromness, politely declining going to London when his novel, 'Beside the Ocean of Time', was a finalist for the Booker Prize. Stanley Cursiter (1887-1976) was a highly fashionable painter of portraits in Edinburgh and of landscapes in Orkney. He was the Director of the National Galleries in Edinburgh as well as the King's (and later Queen's) Painter and Limner in Scotland. It is said that his refusal to paint the Queen wearing royal robes instead of the two-piece tweed suit that she wore to receive the 'Favours of Scotland' after her coronation cost Cursiter a Knighthood. Sylvia Wishart (1936-2007) was a highly respected artist who taught at Gray's School of Art in Aberdeen. She started to paint the view from the window of her home at Heatherybraes in Outertown, Stromness, overlooking the Hoy Sound. She included the reflections in her window as well as the ever-changing views outside. A huge retrospective was shown in Orkney and then toured to various Scottish venues, including the RSA in Edinburgh. PB: The St. Magnus International Festival was in full flow whilst I was there. Can you explain the festival’s heritage? TM: I recently had the sad duty of attending the funeral of my old friend Archie Bevan, where people who knew him talked fondly and humorously about his life. Sir Peter Maxwell Davis recalled how the St Magnus Festival came into being around Archie’s kitchen table in Stromness. Max, as he is known in Orkney, where he has lived for the last 40 years, said how, on a visit to Orkney he had bought a copy of George Mackay Brown’s book of essays, ‘An Orkney Tapestry’ and after reading the chapter on the beautiful bay of Rackwick in Hoy he decided that he had to see it for himself. On the ferry across Scapa Flow he got talking to a charming stranger, who turned out to be Archie. On telling him of his discovery of Rackwick from George’s book, Archie laughed and said that George was in their party and they were going to Rackwick – would he like to come too? The two men met, resulting in a great friendship and collaboration that resulted in the St Magnus Festival, which opened in 1977 with an operatic interpretation by Max of George’s novel, ‘Magnus’, which is about our martyred saint. It has grown over the years to the extent that Orkney now plays host to the finest orchestras and soloists that the world has to offer. PB: Although jazz and folk festivals are well established on Orkney, rock bands seldom make the journey. Are there any particular reasons for this? TM: It is true that rock bands don’t always make the journey across the Pentland Firth, but that isn’t because they are not wanted. Nothing could be further from the truth. But that stretch of rough water that separates Orkney from Scotland makes in an expensive proposition for a band to bring all their equipment on the ferry. Without a permanent promoter here we have to make do with travelling to see bands or listening to our own home-grown talent. A previous promoter had Mumford and Sons and Laura Marling performing in St Magnus Cathedral. There are both a Rock and a Blues Festival in Orkney, so don’t get the impression that we are stuck in the 19th century. Far from it! (I myself am an old punk and if you look in the glove compartment of my car you’ll be more likely to find CDs by the Sex Pistols and Joy Division than folk music – and certainly no jazz). PB: In general do Orcadians want independence for Scotland? TM: I am not a member of a political party, so have no axe to grind, but I will give you my own personal opinion. Orkney returned the largest vote against independence (I think I’m right in saying) than anywhere else in Scotland. I think there are two reasons why that was the case. Firstly, Orkney has been a strong LibDem seat since 1950; we returned the only LibDem MP in Scotland during the last General Election (albeit with a greatly reduced majority). The LibDems were, of course, in coalition with the Tories and it was not in their interests for Scotland to go independent. It did, as we saw later, pretty much kill off the party throughout the country. Secondly, Orkney has a separate history from Scotland, belonging to Norway until 1468 (1469 for Shetland). A lot of people, including myself, don’t consider themselves to be Scottish, but Orcadian. It is a difference that people notice – the attitude, the way of life. When Orkney became part of Scotland our new lords and masters did not treat us very well. We are not harbouring a centuries old grudge, but I think that mistrust is still there. As a rural community, it was evident that the majority of farmers were against it, as the large ‘No’ signs that sprung up in fields a few days before the election showed (while ‘Yes’ signs mysteriously vanished). Personally, I was deeply disappointed. I am not a nationalist in the negative sense of the word, but while I feel that Edinburgh is not always concerned about rural communities, Westminster is a sickbed of corruption, vice, greed and arrogance that should not exist in the 21st century. It exists for the benefit of the politicians, not for the people. The war being waged by the rich against the poor, the sick and the vulnerable disgusts me. Scotland got the party that the south east of England voted for and now we can brace ourselves for the repeated punishments that a victorious Westminster will dish out to Scotland. The vow? The greatest lie ever told, in my opinion, but people fell for it. PB: My special finds on the island: The Coastline walk from Stromness to Kitchener’s Memorial in Birsay, and Stromness Museum. What are your favourite places? TM: There are two places that I love to spend time. The Brough of Deerness is an island accessible by a path up its side – it isn’t tidal. Here is a small 12th century chapel and Viking longhouses, a former place of pilgrimage long after the Reformation. The cliffs of the Mainland embrace it, forming a sun-trap linked to the sea. A sea cave in that cliff is home, at certain times, for selkies (seals), who I have heard singing in the cave – amused, it seems, by the echo of their own voices. My most favourite place ever is Rackwick in Hoy. Surrounded by hills and with high red sandstone cliffs on either side, the bay has a micro-climate that means that it is sunny there when it is foggy or driech on the rest of the island. The beach has huge, striped boulders, worn smooth and round by the sea. It is like a giant dropped a bag of boiled sweeties here in the time of legends and never bothered to pick them up. On the east side of the bay is a beach made of pink and golden sand, which for some reason is left by the sea in stripes. The pink sand comes from the red sandstone. It was here that I proposed to my girlfriend, Rhonda, just the other week. I made an excuse for us to stop and sit barefoot on a pink sand-dune so that I could go down on one knee. Mills and Boon readers had voted Orkney as the most romantic place in Britain this year, so I didn’t want to disappoint them. PB: What type of plans are in place to develop the islands arts and music culture? TM: The schools all have music programmes for teaching instruments, while the Wrigley Sisters offer lessons at their café bar, The Reel. There is also an Arts Forum that meets regularly, where representatives of the various art forms in Orkney have a chance to chat, make plans and generally encourage each other. A crafts hub has just opened and art exhibitions are staged at various venues, including the Pier Arts Centre, which is currently showing the work of an up-and-coming English artist called Damien Hirst. Something to do with sheep dipping, I believe. PB: Finally, in support of your own career, who have been the artistic influences? TM: The person who has had the greatest influence on my life is my former museum boss, Bryce Wilson. He encouraged me to write, which for a dyslexic who made a point of avoiding writing, was a big step. He illustrated my first book of Orkney folk tales, ‘The Mermaid Bride’, which has been translated into Japanese and Icelandic. Lawrence Tulloch, Shetland’s greatest storyteller, is a close friend and we have had many adventures abroad and at home. He was the first professional storyteller that I ever saw (I thought that I was the only person doing this – very naive!) and his invitation for me to go to the Shetland Storytelling Festival in 2001 kick-started my time as a storyteller. My dear friend Sheila Faichney was the one who started the Orkney Storytelling Festival and brought Laurence and me together – she also illustrated my recent book ‘Orkney Folk Tales’ for the History Press. On the written front, the 19th century Sanday folklorist, Walter Traill Dennison, brought the Orkney folk tales from the fireside of the crofters and cottars into the homes of the world. I republished his folklore work back in 1995. Ernest Marwick was the first person who brought Orkney’s rich folklore and tales to my attention in his 1975 book, ‘The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland’. Also I have to tip my cat to the children’s TV programme ‘Jackanory’, which sometimes featured folk tales, which I loved the best.

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