FolkWorld Ausgabe 40 11/2009; Live Report by Walkin' T:-)M


Tønder Festival
27–30 August 2009

Tønder 2009
Tønder 2008

I bought and sold wi' Swedes and Poles
Frae Rostock tae the Rhine
It was hides for corn and cups o' horn
Salt for Spanish wine
In Rome they stole my horses
In Prague they stole my cairt
And on the bonny banks o' Istria
Well, a lassie stole my hairt
And when her faither tried tae reason her
A richer man tae find
I said the Baltic tae Byzantium were mine

The Baltic tae Byzantium
Brian McNeill @ Tønder Festival, 29th August 2009

The man is everywhere, at the Tønder festival anyway. Not only is he hosting the Sunday afternoon ceilidh, Brian McNeill is back on the concert stage presenting his new and long-anticipated programme about Scots migration across Europe.

Brian McNeill himself has been on the road for nearly 40 years. He started on the fiddle in his early teens in his native Falkirk, Stirlingshire. In 1969 he co-founded the Battlefield Band, which became one of Scotland's most popular traditional music outfits (FW#40,). In 1990 he left the group to concentrate on his own music and wrote a couple of mystery novels (the hero being a Scottish busker). After an elongated break from recording while being the Head of Scottish Music at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, his long-awaited album "The Baltic tae Byzantium" is the follow-up to his concept album "The Back o' the Northwind" from 1991.

"The Back o' the Northwind," which dealt with the Scots emigration to North America, had a couple of memorable songs and instrumental tunes, some of which entered the traditional canon.

Brian McNeill

Brian McNeill @ FolkWorld:
FW#4, #10, #10, #12, #19, #22, #40, #40

Icon Sound @

Icon Movie @

"The Baltic tae Byzantium" goes east instead of west and explores the links between the European continent and Scotland, mainly through the lives of Scots who criss-crossed Europe from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean. These Scots were mainly small traders driven by poverty, and they had the same low status as Gypsies and Jews had in these days. Brian already named a mazurka "Danzig Willie," recorded on his "Horses for Courses" album (1993). Danzig Willie was the nickname of William Forbes of Craigievar Castle, a merchant who traded with the Baltic ports in the early 17th century.

Saturday afternoon is the continental CD launch at Tønder festival's Jamtelt, and we get a glimpse of the new album. Supported by the Danish band Drones & Bellows (FW#22) he delivers the title track "The Baltic tae Byzantium". Brian is half Austrian, half Scottish, a confederation of losers, that is, says he. His Scottish father once grabbed an Austrian mädel and took her home to Scotland. Otherwise, Brian jokes, he would wear lederhosen and a little Tyrolean hat. So he plays a fiddle tune for his late mother Waltraud, and it is named for her, which in English means "True to the Forest". When Brian described his native Falkirk in his novel "The Busker" (1989) as a child drunkenly conceived in the back seat of a rusty car - unwanted, unloved and left behind, this was probably not autobiographically meant. Afterwards Scottish singer-songwriter Dick Gaughan joins Brian on the song "Bring the Lassie Hame". Brian finishes off with a set of pipe tunes on the fiddle, and he makes the audience humming the drone of the pipes.

A couple of hours later, Brian and Dick take the stage at Tønder's Kulturhuset for a full concert. They kick off with a set of strathspeys and reels.

Brian McNeill & Dick Gaughan

Dick Gaughan @ FolkWorld:
FW#9, #23, #25, #32, #36, #36

Icon Sound @

Icon Movie @

The first song is the "War of the Crofters," one of these untold stories because for once the crofters (farmers who worked leased land) won the fight and not the landlords. Brian once said: sometimes the only way to express what you're feeling is to stand up, throw your head back and rant. We shall get more of this later on.

Dick sings Brian's "Muir and the Master Builder" from "The Back o' the Northwind" album, which he recorded himself on his "Redwood Cathedral" (1998). Dunbar's John Muir (1838–1914) emigrated to the US and became the godfather of all environmentalists (before this word had any currency). It is followed by "Strong Women Rule Us All", Brian's song for Flora MacDonald and in disdain of Bonnie Prince Charlie (Dick recorded his version on his "Outlaws & Dreamers" album in 2001). When Charles Stuart fled from Culloden Field after the unfortunate Jacobite Rebellion of 1745/46 (FW Fiction), it was Flora (1722–1790) who saved him from the redcoat soldiers and made sure he could live the unworthy rest of his life in French exile.

Both get their solo spot, respectively, but it is strongest when they join the union, which incidentally is also the title of the next song. The title says it all, it is a union song, written two decades ago, but Brian is still waving the working class flag: sell your labour not your soul and join the union! Next is Brian's and Dick's only collaboration ever, "John Harrison's Hands". John Harrison (1693–1776) was a clockmaker from Yorkshire who invented the marine chronometer, such solving the problem of establishing the longitude of a ship at sea. Afterwards they pay homage to Ewan MacColl with a medley of songs taken from Ewan's radio ballad about the travelling people: "Terror Time/Go Move Shift/Goodbye 40 Foot Trailer" (FW#37).

Another instrumental set of tunes and Brian's song "Any Mick'll Do" against racism, bigotry and hatred ends the set. The encore is "Bring the Lassie Hame" again, a fitting finale. Tonight we only got to hear a small amount of the new album. I have to listen to it completely, and maybe I can tell you if "The Baltic tae Byzantium" might become a classic as "The Back o' the Northwind" did 15 years ago.

Photo Credits: (1) Tønder Logo (by Tønder Festival); (2) Brian McNeill, (3) Brian McNeill & Dick Gaughan (by Walkin' Tom).

Back to FolkWorld Content
To the German FolkWorld

© The Mollis - Editors of FolkWorld; Published 11/2009

All material published in FolkWorld is © The Author via FolkWorld. Storage for private use is allowed and welcome. Reviews and extracts of up to 200 words may be freely quoted and reproduced, if source and author are acknowledged. For any other reproduction please ask the Editors for permission. Although any external links from FolkWorld are chosen with greatest care, FolkWorld and its editors do not take any responsibility for the content of the linked external websites.

FolkWorld - Home of European Music
FolkWorld Home
Layout & Idea of FolkWorld © The Mollis - Editors of FolkWorld