From the recording Our Living Rivers and Glens
There have been many things about ‘Our Rivers and Glens’ that have struck me as being really quite beautiful and special. The concept of the interactive map, allowing participants and composers to both share their love of the North East in a truly unique manner whilst firmly rooting the entire project into a deep sense of place. This spirit of place was certainly bolstered for me upon meeting Alan Carr, Averil Blackhall, Ron Brander and Janet Fitton for an extensive trip around various corners of the North East. As a resident of far away Glasgow, it felt very important for me to hear in detail about what it was that spoke to some people who actually live and breath these lands... to get my boots muddy, maybe get rained on and just.. feel the place. I was taken first of all to the ringing stones before heading over to the Last Tree in Cabrach, via a now forgotten croft in amongst a forestry commission plantation near Glen Buchat. Finally, a stop at the Queens view where I learned about Tomnaverie. Allan, Averil, Janet and Ron were extremely generous in sharing their knowledge and love of this stunning area. I think we all learned a lot from each other on what was a quite glorious day out. A day which - combined with excellent online meetings and workshops - allowed me to compose a piece of music that I feel is directly derivative of my experiences with these fascinating people and the kind of silent, ancient urgency of this landscape. ‘The Last Tree in Cabrach’ refers to the rowan tree that can be found at the point in the interactive map with the same title. Ron Brander writes:
“The Deveron, Bogie, Fiddich, Blackwater, Livet, Kindie, Buchat all rise in a wide expanse of rolling hill country comprising mainly treeless sporting estates. Right in the heart of this expanse, at Cairnbrallan miles from anywhere, are the scant remains of a former gamekeeper’s cottage on a haugh by the upper Blackwater. A handful of years ago there stood beside it a solitary dead, branchless, emaciated treetrunk just over two metres high. No doubt a rowan tree. It terminated in a fork which, when viewed in silhouette, encouraged the impression of the open jaws of a gaunt dog howling at the sky in some silent protest. Presumably at the absence of any companion tree for miles in every direction. While it stood it could therefore legitimately be regarded as the furthest or last tree in the Cabrach. Both furthest in distance from others, and last in survival. In 2021 this remnant has vanished without trace. This seems to make a statement in the year of COP26. Yet the surrounding landscape contains wide tracts of deep peat, 3 metres and more in places. Here and there substantial skeletal remains of bleached tree stumps and roots are occasionally flushed to the surface by the actions of spate or downpour. Clear evidence of former extensive native tree cover in some indeterminate past. So the role of that disappeared ‘Last Tree’ is now usurped by another which becomes the new or replacement furthest or ‘Last Tree’. And the prime candidate… which is the inspiration for this tune… is the venerable old rowan tree which clings to life several kilometres distant from Cairnbrallan, standing ward over the ghost of a kailyard and casting its protective shadow over the few hillside remnants of the croft of Largue above Aldivalloch, which is also ruinous. The rowan stands alone, surveying the thinly cultivated and sparsely populated basin of the district of Upper or Heich Cabrach. It seems to say “Let me not be the last, but the first!”… a plea for the re-instatement of extensive native woodland on the desolate hills and moorlands which lie over the hill behind it on these sporting estates. “Touch (rowan) wood!”. While we wait, a huge windfarm has been planted just over the hill.”
I composed this tune very much with Cabrach and her single Rowan in mind. And with this arrangement, I have attempted to convey a sense of the sheer vastness and breathtaking beauty of the landscape. I would ask listeners to remember just how full this open expanse was in terms of population, but I also ask that you cast an aspirational, harmonious, ecologically minded look ahead to what this place could yet become. ‘The Last Tree in Cabrach’ is not meant to be seen as some depressing end point. To me, this single Sorbus on the land is a rune marking the start of a new chapter.. My feelings are that this bane of witches, diviner of the future and producer of jam is part of a much bigger tale, very much still in the making. My thanks go to all the team at Dee and Don Ceilidh Collective for inviting me to be a part of this real one-of-kind, extraordinary experience. It’s been a tremendously nourishing experience for me as a composer and has been extremely well coordinated and organised throughout.