Glen Lyon is a song-cycle which takes its name from a remote area in the Central Highlands of Scotland. It is also the site of one of the most beautiful and haunting Gaelic laments, Griogal Cridhe. Both the song and the place have long been a source of fascination to many. This recording conveys an authentic reflection of those old ways without nostalgia or hint of overbearing anthropology. Many of the sounds of the songs have geological implications as well as seasonal ones, as Martyn spent several weeks making field recordings of elements such as wind and water, as well as agricultural and maritime machinery, birds, and even insects. The Gaelic song sung by Martyn's great-great-grandfather, Peter Stewart. He never saw an orchestra but was surrounded by nature's orchestra in his daily life - birds, horses, harness, ploughs and more. Today the land he planted lies fallow; not a ploughshare has turned it for years. But his music and the music of his people live on through each generation. Margaret and Martyn come from a long line of traditional singers, pipers and storytellers from the Isle of Skye and Lowland Scotland. Together, and individually, they have performed at festivals and concerts internationally. Margaret is one of the world’s foremost authorities on Scottish Folklore and Martyn’s multi-talented contribution as a musician and composer has had a major impact worldwide.
"...Glen Lyon is a bold, brilliant and often deeply moving synthesis of modern studio capabilities and the ageless potency of ancient songs, catalysed by one of the most fertile musical minds in the business." Sunday Herald.
"Both Bennetts obviously love and respect these songs, with the result Margaret’s singing is always front and centre: one wonders why this album is not credited to Margaret and Martyn Bennett. Still Martyn’s skills as arranger, recordist, producer, and instrumentalist get a thorough workout without ever seeming to overwhelm the songs. The result is one of the most significant, interesting and powerful releases that either Bennett has been involved with in their many combined years of music making. It’s a refreshing album for anyone with an interest in Gaelic song". Dirty Linen, (Aug/Sept 2002)
Notes Margaret’s Diary - the studio, written the day after a studio session with Martyn, December 1998.
…I confess I was apprehensive, not of singing, but of anything generating tension in his already tense life. And I can’t but think, ‘Record your mother, for goodness sake!’
After I made my list, I figured I’d better check the words of them with my own mother—she taught me most of them, after all. So, I do that, and she tells me, “Now Margaret, there are a couple of words in ‘Griogal Cridhe’ [the Glen Lyon Lament] that you keep changing—I’ll write them out for you, so you have no excuse! And keep that paper in front of you when you record it—you have to get it right!” So, away I go, (thinking, funny how I seem to get instructions from all generations!)
And here’s a glimpse of what it was like—just notes, scribbled down after the session before I’d forget:
Martyn was so totally professional, patient beyond all my expectations—and every bit as demanding as I expected. Maybe more so. I can now understand better what Kirsten meant, when, after her first rehearsal of the band, Cuillin, she told me, “He’s so demanding—and knows exactly what he wants and how to get it.” She’s absolutely right, and she has ’way more experience of this than I do.
In the studio he tells me he’ll choose the songs from the list—“this basically a list of my lifetime of your singing,” he says. “But where’s ‘Oran nam Mogaisean’ [the Mocassin Song]?”
And I say, “you’re joking! I hardly every have a chance to sing it—it’s not exactly what I’d choose to sing…”
“Who’s choosing? Sing it anyway.”
So, I say goodbye to the list, he keeps it, and goes down them one by one, picking out the Yes’s and the Maybe’s and the Definitely-not’s, briefly giving his thoughts on each one.
And so we begin—he fixes the microphone for me in the studio, tells me exactly where to stand, then nips back behind the glass window (or is it a glass wall?) to his mixing desk, and puts on head-phones. He’s already told me to pay attention and watch for the signals, and so we begin. I sing—he’s looking straight at me. The hand waves, the face is serious, the eyes intense and alive with changing expressions. As soon as I see the signal to STOP, I do so. But he stops me frequently—for whatever reason, including (he tells me), ‘lack of performance’ (too tame ... that’s not the way you sing it to an audience), bad timing (not again!), off pitch (will you please listen!), phrasing and interpretation. Now this really surprises me, interpretation, especially when sometimes he’d come out, and actually sing the song to demonstrate to me what he means. (Didn’t realise how well he knew them, words to boot.)
And on it goes, till we come to ‘Glen Lyon’.
“Music stand? What for?”
“Granny said…” and I tell him. So he goes along with this, not a word, gets the stand, I put the paper on it, and soon the signal to start. And the eyes are intense.
I’m not finished a verse when the hand waves ‘Stop!’
I do, we start again—and again. This goes on several times, till, out he comes from the glass place, and, without as much as a glance at me, marches straight over to the music stand, snatches the paper, tears it up, smiles, and chucks the paper in the bin.
“Now SING!” says he, standing about a foot in front of my face, eyes wide, arms sweeping the air front of me.
“I can hear that blessed paper through the microphone!”
“But I never laid a finger on it,” says she who knows perfectly well the sound of rustling paper through microphone. “Granny said—”
“Granny nothing! She’s got nothing to do with this! It’s not the paper I hear—it’s your eyes on it! When do you ever sing with a paper in front of you? I can hear you looking at it! Do you get that? Now, sing—like you always sing it—WITHOUT that paper!”
I burst out laughing—I can’t help it—not so much that it’s funny, but it’s like someone shone a bright light into a dark place in my mind.
“You know, that’s absolutely true! I just never thought of it that way—you can hear my eyes!” He grinned, almost modestly and darted back into his glass-house (as I was calling it by then).
‘Glen Lyon’ again, this time with my thoughts on the meaning, on Gregor MacGregor, on his wife, her feelings, sorrow, heartbreak…
Song finished, Martyn said, “OK, next song.”
Every song got a different reaction—and from his responses to them he clearly understood songs from the inside out. I had never given this a thought till we were in the studio—this must be my first real insight into Martyn’s commitment to song, for I had never really seen this close up.
Visually, ever-changing, sometimes sitting with eyes closed, conducting the song, at times very delicately, other times wildly— passionate, fists clenched, but always in touch with the song in a way I had not really appreciated. Total focus—that’s the way he is. And the amazing thing is that he never once ‘tutted’ (though he could have had plenty of reason). And he never once lost patience with me, or any enthusiasm, start to finish.
My comment to my own mother—after she had a laugh about the paper— was that I learned more about singing from Martyn in two days than from anyone else in the previous two decades. It was exhilarating. I’m writing this down now because it’s an experience I must never forget.
Best of all, we laughed a lot. At one point I was sitting on the floor, helpless, and now (darn it!) I can’t remember what he said or did that had me in stitches, and him with the wry grin, laughing at me laughing. He tells me, “Mum, did you know your face looks like a hamster when you laugh?” which makes me laugh all the more, and he says, “See what I mean!” Two days in the studio and didn’t fall out once. Whatever he does with this, he’ll do. Meanwhile my ‘homework’, he tells me—write the words, notes. Think about an album title. We’ll talk in a few weeks… Don’t call me, I’ll call you…
Postscripts (there seem to be several)
Title? I suggested ‘Buan’ [Harvest]—“No, it doesn’t look good and people will mispronounce it. And no, you can’t write ‘boo-an’, that’s naff. Have to think about this some more… not sure about this; still working on it—not sure it’s your album yet…”
In the meantime, a year later, and still can’t decide, he tells me “let’s record some of the other stuff, like all those songs we all used to sing at home…” And so, I asked Findlay [Napier]—and thus we made ‘In the Sunny Long Ago’, which came out two years before ‘Glen Lyon’.
Reflections on the song, ‘Griogal Cridhe’, The Glen Lyon Lament:
This Perthshire song dates to the mid-1500. A family favourite taught to me by my mother, it was also a favourite of Hamish Henderson’s (my former colleague and very dear friend). Hamish’s roots are in Perthshire, and over the years I sang it for him many times, almost always at his request—at festivals, ceilidhs, and celebrations such as his 70th, 75th and 80th birthdays, and Martyn was at a good few. When Hamish died on March 8, 2002, his family asked me to sing at his funeral in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, on March 15. There was really only one song I could sing for Hamish—his beloved ‘Glen Lyon Lament’.
EXTRACT FROM ‘IT’S IS NOT THE TIME YOU HAVE…’ BY MARGARET BENNETT
GRACE NOTE PUBLICATIONS ISBN 978-0-9552326-1-9