Duncan Chisholm is perhaps the best known Scottish fiddler of his generation. With an intense personal connection to the Highland landscape that so deeply inspires him, Duncan instils pride and passion into recording music influenced by Scotland’s wild places – most recently on his latest album, Black Cuillin. We were lucky enough to catch one of Duncan’s recent concerts with Hamish Napier earlier this month, and asked Duncan about how the landscape and such a strong sense of place feeds into his work.
Three of your albums – Farrar, Canaich and Affric – form the Strathglass trilogy, all being close to your home. This beautiful part of the Highlands is indelibly linked with the name Chisholm, as the ancestral lands of the clan. Can you tell us about these links and what they mean to you?
The three glens you have mentioned have been home to the paternal line of my family for over 600 years. They are not only inspirational to me, they are a part of me.
The making of the Strathglass Trilogy was a defining moment in my creative life. Over six years I created three soundtracks to these glens that I knew and loved so much. The message I wanted to convey was ‘this is who I am and this is where I am from.’
You followed these albums up with Sandwood in 2018, which is about as far away as you could get whilst still being in the mainland Highlands. Why does Sandwood Bay in particular inspire you?
I am inspired by many things, … landscape, weather, light, colour, beauty. Sandwood has all of these in great abundance. It also has an incredible history and this certainly helps also to paint an initial picture in my mind.
I spent 18 month’s going back and forth to Sandwood taking photographs and film. It is the retrospective memories of being there that formulate the musical ideas inside me. I have to look inside first and ask myself how I felt while I was there. This could be on a glorious summers day, a dark December day or a stormy day in Autumn. The album was a musical journey through a year at Sandwood and my hope is that I captured something of the place in the music.
Your new album Black Cuillin is focussed on Scotland’s most dramatic mountain range. Are you a climber or hillwalker yourself?
Whenever I have free time I love to be alone in the hills. I am a hillwalker rather than a climber as I prefer solitude to altitude. Although I have walked there many times throughout my life the first time I climbed the Black Cuillin was in 2019 and it made a great impression on me. It wasn’t like any other landscape I had experienced in Scotland and I started to wonder if I could possibly capture this in music. The challenge was to create music that could match the epic landscape that makes up the Black Cuillin on Skye.
One of the tracks – “the blue cuillin of the island” – draws its title from Sorley Maclean’s epic poem
The Cuillin, written in Gaelic. In it he sees the mountains not only as a specific physical place, but as a symbol of salvation and hope for humanity, linking the troubled history of Skye with the wider struggle for justice across the world. Can you tell us about Maclean, his poem and its link to your album?
Although I never met Sorley Maclean I have always admired his writing and thinking. Shortly before he died he sent me a lovely letter relating to my first album Redpoint in which I used an Iain Crichton Smith translation of his poem ‘Shores’
‘The Cuillin’ is an incredible piece of writing. I read it around the same time that I climbed on Skye in 2019 and somehow everything linked together, the words, the landscape and my own thoughts. Ultimately anything beautiful is inspirational and words are no different.
Landscape and a sense of place are obviously such a key part of your music. How do you translate this into sound?
At the heart of creating these albums is being true to yourself, about how you feel individually when looking at a landscape. This could be a joyous feeling, it could be trepidation or perhaps it can be complete peace. I think the music connects with people because if you are true to your own feelings in the creative process other people understand because they have felt them too.
Once I have decided upon what I want to convey then begins the long process of creating multi- layered pieces of music with tunes at the heart of them. With Black Cuillin there are many layers of different instrumentation. The challenge was to create a coherent piece of work that was complex but also very accessible to the listener, I think we succeeded with this. I am proud of the fact that the more you listen to the album the more you discover, just like being in the Black Cuillin itself.
Can you tell us about your favourite walk or mountain?
I climbed Stac Pollaidh in 2021 during my ‘Tune With A View’ series in which I played tunes on social media in beautiful places around the Highlands. That particular morning was incredible and the view over to the mountains of Assynt was something I will never forget.
You’ve just been on a tour, playing small halls across the Highlands with Hamish Napier. Can you tell us about your collaborations with Hamish – and what it means to play these smaller venues?
I have a great working relationship with Hamish. We write music together, he was my co-writer on both Sandwood and Black Cuillin We also very much enjoy performing together. In June we’ll be relishing the adventure of heading out into the rural Highlands to perform in beautiful small halls. For us these intimate concerts are about connection. They allow us to connect directly with communites that we love whilst enjoying and connecting with some of the incredible landscapes that surround us here in the Highlands.
Following his tour of the halls, Duncan will be performing the Black Cuillin album with eight of Scotland’s finest traditional and classical musicians at larger scale concerts in Inverness and Edinburgh in November. Full details – and downloads of all his albums – are available on his website at www.duncanchisholm.com