Migration for employment is hard-wired into the working history of Scotland and her Highlands – the Skye MacAskills became part of Assynt’s story as sought-after cattlemen, for instance. And from the Borders came the shepherds, amongst them one John Boa, who settled on the Benula estate near Cannich during the 19th Century. His descendants today include his double world porridge-making champion namesake, but it was his great-granddaughter Liz McKnockiter who commissioned accordionist Garry Alexander to write an album to celebrate a family reunion and the life of John the shepherd.
How appropriate to ask Borders man Garry, brought up playing for shepherds’ dances and cèilidhs and with his heart in the Highlands, to write ‘Sgeul a’ Chìobair – The Shepherd’s Story’. Edinburgh-based Garry’s musical influences include the fleetness of Porty’s Phil Cunningham’s showmanship and the Gaelic swing and melodic inventiveness of Blair Douglas, and this blend of Highland and Lowland fits the bill for a minding of a remarkable man who celebrated his eightieth birthday with a quick sgrìob up Ben Wyvis. The evidence is to be seen on the front cover of ‘Sgeul a’ Chìobair’ with a fine portrait of John atop the Ben, crook and bouquet of heather in hand, scope over the shoulder and a final heathery buttonhole to complete the look.
Garry’s music is set in a part of the Highlands beloved of many musicians such as local fiddler Duncan Chisholm. But the Boa connection allows Gary to take a fresh look and to make connections too with the family’s Border roots and today’s descendants. The whole album was recorded at home in lockdown - no small feat - with Garry’s soulful slow airs and multi-instrumental flying fingers at the heart of the music. He’s joined on pipes by Margaret Kinniburgh from the Trad Awards-nominated band Journey North, setting the likes of the evocative opening track ‘Lament for Longard’ firmly in the Highland landscape that inspired the likes of ‘Crò Chinn t-Sàile’, whilst George Abbott’s electric guitar gives Cailleach Boa a rocking snarl which is, I’m reliably told, a fitting tribute to the redoubtable Boa women through the generations. Roddy Matthews on fiddle and a cameo Gaelic reading from Niall Gordon completes the team.
This album is a wonderful, warm blend of love, skill, joy and imagination. I recommend it to anyone who wants to find themselves transported to a special part of the world, wherever they might be in this altered world. (Mary Ann Kennedy - musician & broadcaster