Titled “Songs from the World’s Rim”, this was the first night in a three-date season of gigs showcasing contemporary British folk and folk-based pop music. Scottish singer, songwriter and acoustic guitarist Alasdair Roberts is a leading light of the booming Scottish folk scene. His signature sound comes from his use of scordatura or cross-tuning, and the evening brought the first public airing of his most recent album, Hirta Songs, which evokes the lost world of Scotland’s isolated St Kilda archipelago – its wild seascapes, teeming seabird colonies and the lives of the inhabitants, who left their homes in 1930 when the islands were abandoned.
After three albums with his trio Appendix Out, Roberts’s solo debut came in 2001 with The Crook of My Arm, in a less experimental vein than formerly. Since then he has released eight albums, which range from novel reworkings of traditional folk songs to original creations convincing enough to be considered far older than they are. He sings in a very listenable, endearingly wobbly, occasionally yelping tenor brogue, and has a strong feel for the natural world, as well as a love of droll, poetic word play. His many collaborations with other artists include Urstan, his 2012 album with singer Mairi Morrison, which used traditional repertoire from the Isle of Lewis and for which he learnt to sing in Gaelic.
Hirta Songs was inspired by the poet Robin Robertson’s visit to St Kilda in 2007, and is based on two epic poems Robertson wrote afterwards. This was a two-part show, beginning with a sombrely intoned reading by Robertson, who explained such cultural contexts as that of the song “The White-handled Knife”, about one of the items (along with sealskin, women, salt and coal) that the superstitious fishermen of Robertson’s hometown of Aberdeen would not allow on their boats.
The second half was largely Robertson’s poems sung by Roberts, backed by most of the band that recorded Hirta Songs, with fiddler Rafe Fitzpatrick ably replaced by Neil McDermott, and harpist Corrina Hewat.
Delving into Scottish tradition to conclude, Roberts and McDermott performed the sweet march/reel tune “Dornoch Links”, a tightly played fiddle/guitar duet, which lightened the atmosphere after an evening dominated by darker material.