A career spanning more than forty years has established Brian McNeill as one of the most acclaimed forces in Scottish music. Brian has been described as “Scotland’s most meaningful contemporary songwriter” (The Scotsman
); add to that his work and influence as performer, composer, producer, teacher, musical director, band leader, novelist, and interpreter of Scotland’s past, present, and future and you have a man who has never stood still. He has performed around the globe, both as a soloist and with some of the era’s most influential bands, including Battlefield Band, which he founded in 1969, and Clan Alba.
Brian has three published novels, the first of which, The Busker,
came out in 1989. A year later he left Battlefield Band to concentrate more on writing and solo projects. Since then he has also toured with Dick Gaughan, Clan Alba, Kavana, McNeill, Lynch and Lupari, Martin Hayes, Natalie MacMaster, Drones and Bellows, and Feast of Fiddles. McNeill was the Head of Scottish Music at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow for six years.
Brian plays fiddle, octave fiddle, guitar, mandocello, bouzouki, viola, mandolin, cittern, concertina, bass, and hurdy gurdy. The importance of his songwriting, mostly about Scotland’s past and future, has long been recognized. Songs including “The Yew Tree,” “The Snows of France and Holland,” “Strong Women Rule Us All With Their Tears,” “Any Mick’ll Do,” and “No Gods and Precious Few Heroes” have established him as one of Scotland’s leading songwriters.
Conversation with McNeill is delightful, full of warmth and humor. His realm of experience is tremendous, his phrasing descriptive, and his perceptions truthful. His spoken word is much like his music and written word. If you have never listened to his music, or read his prose, I hope the interview that follows encourages you to hear Brian McNeill’s voice in all its forms.
Could you talk a bit about your early introduction to music?
I had, for a Scottish folkie, a weird upbringing. My mother was a middle-class Austrian and my father was a decidedly working class Scotsman. My mum wanted me to acquire a little more of what she thought of as culture, so she sent me off on Saturday afternoons, while the rest of the kids were playing football, to dancing classes. Given that there were four boys and sixty girls, I reckoned the odds were pretty good. The other part of those lessons was that I was exposed for the first time to a traditional Scottish country band. At eleven, I was given the chance to have violin lessons at primary (what you would call grade) school. I was taught by a bitter old gentleman who hit my fingers with a pointer whenever I made a mistake, so I went away from those lessons and proceeded to misspend my youth in high school rock bands, having a great time. Early in my time at university I went into a local pub and there was an old blind guy playing the harmonica. There was a fiddle hanging on the wall behind him, so with a few drinks in me, I took it off the wall and played with him. I was hooked. The next ten years disappeared in a blur, and I emerged in the Battlefield Band.
The Battlefield Band has grown to almost iconic status, but that’s how it began. Please tell me about the initial experiences and philosophy of the band.
The Battlefield Band really appeared by accident. Our first jobs were in pubs, pretty rough ones in Glasgow, simply to get us enough money to survive as students. At first we had two guitars, a fiddle, and a mandolin, and we played all sorts of music. No rules at all. I was given Dave Swarbrick’s old Rags, Reels, & Airs
album and it inspired me, so I learned some of the tunes and brought them to bandmate Alan Reid, and the idea grew. So in 1975 we went across the English border with the equivalent of about $15 US dollars in our collective pocket. We went “on the tramp” which means we would play a show and then someone would put us up for the night and point us in the direction of the next pub or folk club we might play at, and off we would go. We went to a place called the Marsden Inn first, near Newcastle, and that set the pattern for the next few months. By the end of summer we were still penniless. We all had jobs at that time that we weren’t exactly crazy about; I was teaching high school English. In fact, two of us were teachers and one was a town planner. In late 1975 we all took a year off of our jobs and decided to have a go at it. The Battlefield Band is still going today.
In one sense, we were determined to do something different from the folkies who’d gone before us. We wanted bagpipes, but at that time, no one had pipes because they were so loud that they drowned out everything else, so we added first a pedal organ, then when that fell to bits, a synth. We had all the best sources, very pure, but no rules whatsoever. At first the folkies were up in arms, but we were making good sounds and we were more interested in the intricacies of the traditional music than in any categories. The volatile reaction we got eventually changed and we started to become known as emissaries of Scottish music. It could be said that we were a part of a golden age; inside ten years, Scotland produced five great bands: the Battlefield Band, the Tannahill Weavers, Silly Wizard, Ossian, and Five Hand Reel.
Our philosophy at the time was one that I still subscribe to today. If you want to make changes, know what you are departing from. Hark back to the original; make deliberate choices about the alterations you are making. Decoration of melodies in particular is a big part of this. The end result of all of this was that we began to write our own tunes in the old modes. I began to make tunes in the Scottish tradition, but was also influenced by the other traditions we encountered (French, Italian, Galician, Norwegian, Swedish) that had links to the British Isles. We exploited all of it. We used the breadth of our experience.
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[Desiah Melby fiddles, teaches, and writes in rural Wisconsin. She has written or photographic work appearing or forthcoming in The Maine Antique Digest, The Community Spirit, and EduBlogs. She currently plays jazz, bluegrass, and Irish music and performs in the Waupaca Area Orchestra.]
Photo: Jacqueline France