It’s no small challenge to summarise a country and its history in a single hour, which is perhaps why Carolyn Anona Scott and Jack Foster instead choose to pay ‘homage’ to Scotland’s story through the traditional music, stories, ballads and songs that have been handed down from generation to generation. However, truth be told, that’s no unbiased history.
Both singers accept that the likes of William Wallace and Robert were no angels, and that Bonnie Prince Charlie was, in the words of contemporary folk musician Dick Gaughan, the ‘Italian-born feckless piss-artist son of a London-born aristocrat of part-Scots ancestry who claimed the Divine Right to be the King of England’. However, the Scotland presented in this hour is still the romanticised Highlands of ancient myths, fairy folk and noble warriors (thanks to Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott). It is still the tale of a people never utterly defeated in battle but ‘bought and sold for English gold’ by a ‘parcel of rogues’ in 1707, with no mention of how an earlier, aborted attempt at empire-building in Panama had almost bankrupted the country.
Whole centuries are swept by in seconds, while the serious social and cultural changes of the Scottish Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution are overlooked all too predictably in favour of the Highland Clearances, although this is arguably because traditional folk music lost its grip in the growing industrial and commercial cities of the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s significant that the only recent music we hear comes from musicians like Brian McNeill and Hamish Henderson, who are very recognisably working in the tradition of Burns. However, Scott and Foster’s assertion that this music is ‘authentic’ comes across as a tad off-key. Compared with what? Is the music of internationally-acclaimed Scots like Sharleen Spiteri, Charlie and Craig Reid or the late Martyn Bennett any less genuine?
In terms of their craft, however, there’s no doubting that both Scott and Foster are accomplished performers, even if you sense they’re speaking a memorised script in between the songs or selected verses. Particular moments to enjoy were Foster’s seemingly subdued, but innately muscular version of Burns’ ‘Scots Wha Hae’, and Scott’s mix of various versions of Robert Tannahill’s famous song, ‘The Braes of Balquihidder’ (the basis for ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’). Individually, and together, they presented songs - some older than the city itself - which had even some of the audience singing along. Some great songs, certainly; just take the history with a grain of salt.