The relationship between Scottish heritage and landscape is heavily romanticised, and it only takes a glimpse of Scotland’s beautiful locations and a history book to understand why. In this contribution to the Caledonia Collective, I have been asked to examine my connection with Scotland’s landscape.
My name is Christopher Martin Smith and I am a composer and musician. I was born in Dunfermline, (ancient Capital of Scotland mid-11th century until 1437) and grew up in a mining village in Fife, a few hundred yards from the Perth and Kinross County line. As a child of a nondigital age, my childhood pursuits in Blairadam Forest; a stone’s throw from my childhood home, were organic, and an escape from the poverty that pervaded the village. Benarty Hill rose above to the East with its summit ridge forming the boundary with Perth and Kinross. On a clear day the profile of the Isle of Arran could be seen 80 miles to the west. Locally known as “The Sleeping Giant”, Benarty’s slumbering form provoked flights of imagination in me as a young boy.
Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned five miles to the North at Lochleven Castle, from 17th June 1567 until her escape, on the 2nd May 1568. Her escape was achieved by the purposeful intoxication of her jailors with plentiful quantities of wine, whilst the young protagonist Willie Douglas pegged all the boats to the shore except one. In disguise, Mary walked out of the gates of the castle in full view, during the May Day festivities. As Sir William Douglas dozed, the young Douglas is reputed to have danced around the table in the great hall, before throwing his handkerchief over the keys to the castle gates. Mary briefly regained her freedom as a result of this daring escape and fled to the temporary safety of Niddry Castle via Benarty Hill.
It was with childhood wonder that I looked upon Lochleven and considered those events and Castle keys which lay undiscovered at the bottom of the Loch for 200 years.
I worked as a session drummer / percussionist from the late 1980’s. My first professional recording sessions were with Dunfermline rock bands Nazareth and Big Country. In 1989 I was recruited by Dougie Maclean and this was my introduction to the Scottish Folk / Celtic music scene. Gordon Duncan was the first piper I ever performed with and in my youthful naivety, I thought all pipers sounded that way. During a decade of recording, performance and touring, I encountered some geographical prejudice. In certain circles, this took the form of the idea that a trad musician was somehow less authentic, or of lesser value, if their place of birth was not in the Highlands or Islands. I remember, following an extensive recording session, being disappointed to hear that my name was “not Scottish enough” to be allowed on the album sleeve. Ironically, this was the opinion of an Australian, but music for me has always transcended borders.
I began composing neo classical pieces (mostly piano based) in my thirties. I have always been fascinated by the convergence of music and film and the emotion and nostalgia it can engender. Early in my composition, an artist friend Anne Little produced a video for one of my tunes featuring footage her Father had taken in Venice in 1964. This nostalgic video and others of urban and rural landscapes featured on Classic FM TV, O Music and C Music satellite video channels for several years. One time lapse video collaboration of Scotland was even picked up by CNN.
I have always loved to travel, and continue to be excited by the opportunities music can provide. In 2006 I was fortunate to visit Knoxville, Tennessee to record one of my compositions with the orchestra there. At the time, (to supplement my income in my real job as a musician) I was the proprietor of a Transport Training School in Fife, teaching members of the public to drive trucks and buses. My great friend and fellow instructor Alasdair Gammack accompanied me on the trip whilst moonlighting for Radio Scotland. To have a composition performed by an orchestra was a great honour. We almost made the rehearsal on time having driven 20 miles in the wrong direction. (A brilliant feat for two driving instructors).
Piano Concerto No 1 Mov No 2 (Venice 1964):
Nocturne No 4 (Scotland in Colour 1926):
Fantasy: Filmed at Kinross House / Knoxville TN:
Hommage a Shostakovich:
We live in a time in which the price of music has been driven down to zero. The value of music in our society however cannot be so quantified. As the price of the musician / composer is eroded, autonomous technologies become the proprietors of our indigenous traditions. We are subverted and surpassed as our values and music are reduced to the binary. This is the extent of the challenge we face.
I have no formal musical education and my composition is entirely cerebral. I am very lucky to have the love of my wonderful partner Lesley Thompson. Lesley is a multi-instrumentalist and can effortlessly bring my musical ramblings to life. (I could not love her more!) From my early twenties until the onset of the pandemic, music has taken me around the World. I am forever grateful for this.
I love Scotland, its culture, music and people. Like any indigenous person, I have an intrinsic affinity with the land. I find I can best express this affinity and connection musically rather than verbally. I have attempted to demonstrate this in “Lament for Home”. I enjoy walking in nature and retreat to my local Lomond Hills whenever possible. I find walking in nature the best remedy for mental wellbeing. The fitness level required to achieve my first ascent of the south face of West Lomond Hill (Fife’s highest elevation) took me quite by surprise. I remember playing Gordon Duncan’s pipe tune to “Solid Ground” (D.Maclean) over and over in my head as inspiration to get me to the top. I continue to use this tune for difficult ascents. Eternal thanks Gordy.
In Duncan Chisholm’s excellent article for the Caledonia Collective, he quotes Thomas Carlyle’s, “If you look deep enough, you will see music”. Beneath the subatomic particle level, there are fibres that vibrate at different frequencies I am told, like violin strings. Physicists say that the particles we are able to see are the notes of the strings vibrating beneath them. If string theory is correct, then music is what we are made of and what everything is made of. Perhaps this takes Carlyle’s statement from the ineffable to the quantum. Music transcends borders.
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