Review: A Northerly Land at Celtic Connections

First published in The Herald on 27 January, 2014

When drummer/composer Iain Copeland spent a year-long residency in the north-west of Sutherland, his interest was piqued by the residential boarding hostels that host remote students through the school week. “Some kids loved it, some hated it,” he says, and launches into an accordingly misty, ambivalent opener called Halcyon Daze. Later in the set he returns to the hostel theme. “I imagine most of the kids shared a certain jubilation on the bus going home for the weekend” – cue a thumpingly bright-spirited tune, Homeward Bound, bolstered by cheerful guitar licks and big-band brass.

This concert was a live run of the album that emerged from that residency. As well as drum tracking and a sizeable band (brass section, multiple guitars, saxophone, pipes and some very fine fiddling from Niel Ewart) it included turns from the two other artists whom Copeland worked with in Sutherland, poet George Gunn and Gaelic singer Fiona J Mackenzie. Together they make unlikely trio but it worked: Gunn’s vivid, gravelly-voiced poetics, Mackenzie’s sweet and uncluttered vocals (as it was Burns Night she sang a beautiful solo Ca’ the Ewes), Copeland’s cheesy, fist-pumping dance beats.

The highlight was the album’s title track, A Northerly Land, in which Gunn recites his poem A Walk in Strathnaver. It’s an epic ode to the Sutherland landscape, expansive and romantic and stirring. In Ailidh Dall of Lairg we heard a 1957 recording of a slow, thoughtful storyteller in conversation with Hamish Henderson; in In The Cave of the Yellow Dog we heard the voice of Dall’s granddaughter Essie Stewart. There’s a warm sense of heritage to Copeland’s material but he weaves it in with a light touch and always keeps the dance floor moving.