2007 - 2020

Peat & Diesel a’ toirt buaidh mhòr air saoghal ceòl Gàidhealach

As BBC ALBA screen Peat & Diesel, That’s the Way We Do It, Emma Felber reports for Bella.

It’s Friday night in Clerkenwell, central London, back in a time when we could go to gigs. To the south, the towers of the Barbican frown toothily down at the Guildhall; to the west, red 63 buses sail to and from Kings Cross. In the basement of a small bar, ten minutes’ walk from the Bank of England and a short Tube ride from Oxford Circus, eighty people are punching the air and bellowing in unison over the top of a buzzsaw guitar,

‘I AM A COUNTRY BOY
I DON’T LIKE THE CITY
I’D RATHER BE AT HOME, WATCHING THE TELLY
THE COWS AND SHEEP ARE ON THE CROFT
AND I’M HIRING OUT MY GRANNY’S LOFT
TRYING TO FIND A WAY TO MAKE A LIVING’

Despite the shadow of the skyscrapers over our heads, it’s not a lie. No-one who lives in this city likes it all the time. Here, tonight, we have come into town to be reminded of what it feels like to not be in the city at all; to be at home under an empty sky, after a day gathering sheep, gritting roads or changing B’n’B bedlinen, taking drugs with our friends out in the shed and then stumbling over the field back towards the lights of the house trying not to fall in the ditch.

Uilly, Innes and Boydie are the boys in the corner. Uilly with a peaceful smile no matter how hard he’s drumming, Innes smoothly compering the show and playing accordion, and Boydie, who opens his unassuming mouth and belts out his songs with a gravelly yell. Small, quiet and watchful, he reminds me of my friend Hector, who is capable of one-handedly rolling, lighting and smoking a cigarette while steering an open boat through a Force 8 south-westerly, one hand on the outboard and a can of lager between his knees. They are Peat and Diesel, and this pub basement feels insultingly small compared to the Barrowlands, where they played a sold-out show earlier in the week.

The density of Highlanders in London is roughly the same as it is in some parts of the Highlands i.e. about four of us per square kilometre. To go to a Peat and Diesel gig is to feel surrounded by cousins. Three pints in half the place is shouting along to ‘Lovely Stornoway’ while the man beside me announces to no one in particular, ‘Anyone who says this is folk music can fuck off. They can FUCK OFF!’

Emigrant Gaels are not strangers to loss and longing. Entire albums have been recorded of songs telling our story: Oh, How I Wish I Still Lived in that Place I Left. There are a lot of deaths in our canon, a lot of farewells and broken hearts and white sails setting off for America. Peat and Diesel cheerfully drive a tractor through that by singing about living and doing, with all the sweat, mud, dodgy characters and judgmental ministers left in. Likewise, by singing in a mix of Gaelic, Scots and English that most people can understand, they bring the canon – or the cànan – back down to earth and make it available to everyone. Never mind your hunters lost on the hill, or your love back in port while you are out on the high sea: if you grew up in the Highlands there can be no more relatable phrase in the world than ‘there’s bodachs and cailleachs all over the place and they’re looking at me like I’m a disgrace’. I left twenty years ago, but that toe-curling feeling is as familiar as the shape of the islands on the horizon when I look out west from my mother’s living room.

For those of us who have left, and those of us who have stayed and those of us who only just arrived; It turns out that what we collectively needed, as well as a tune that moved you, was a snapshot of lives we recognise, and value, sung about with affection but without sentimentality. These are not songs about missing an idealised homeland, or about the collective soul of the Gael (with a pride and revindication that can tiptoe queasily close to ethnonationalism.) Peat and Diesel put together a great riff with an accordion part and Boydie’s Golden Virginia growl over the top, and tell stories of work, family, love and drinking that bring out the vitality, chaos and connection with a sparkling energy that comes from a steady warm heart, like a firework lit off a smouldering peat. Instead of the emptiness popularly thought to characterise the Highlands and Islands they tell of interconnectedness. The rolling wheel of favours, jobs, drunken sessions and tea at your Granny’s, as well as the stifling surveillance of neighbours and church, goes by, driven by a bouncing 8-bar tune you could probably dance the Gay Gordons to if you wanted. In every original song, there is someone or something you recognise; an old crofter whose house is in an alarming state, a daft overexcited dog, a rusted Transit van held together with baler twine that still manages to bomb through the village fast enough to make your mum tut and shake her head.

Back in Clerkenwell, the band finish with ‘Island’, a song of commonality in difference. (By this time I have made twelve new friends from seven different islands). ‘We’ll feed the sheep and cut the peats until the day we die!’, we roar up the ceiling of that little dark basement bar, all us civil servants, charity administrators, systems engineers and management consultants. We swell with the memory of oars and fleece and peats in our hands and salt water and whisky in our throats. We feel the weight of having chosen otherwise, of choosing streetlights and offices and trains, and we raise up our arms and throw it in the air together. It feels a lot lighter when it comes back down. We carry on dancing.

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  1. An Duine Gruamach says:

    “Likewise, by singing in a mix of Gaelic, Scots and English that most people can understand, they bring the canon – or the cànan – back down to earth and make it available to everyone.”

    I’m not quite sure what this means. Is a band that sings solely in, say, Gaelic somehow not down to earth? Is making something available to English speakers the same thing as making it down to earth?

    1. Emma Felber says:

      Hmm. I see what you mean. There are two reasons I describe that as ‘down- to earth’, and it’s not at all that Gaelic songs and phrases can’t be down to earth.

      One is I that it’s more normal to code-switch in conversation than it usually is in songs, and so when code-switching happens in a song it makes it seem more like conversation, and gives it a fun, relatable tone, like you’re hanging out with the singer in your living room. The second is that it broadens things out by increasing the number of people who will understand the whole phrase, while retaining the context and the meaning of the Gaelic word which will usually convey more than the English one does. There are lots of people who don’t think of themselves as having any Gaelic but who will understand a phrase like ‘there’s bodachs and cailleachs all over the place’ with no trouble at all.

      1. seonaidh says:

        On the other hand, it’s language death in action. The bàird bhaile were down to earth. Runrig nigh revolutionary. Bàrd Mhealaboist. Na Lochies.

        I’m in two minds on PandD but I feel it’s a reflection on the passing of a language.

        1. How is it a reflection on the passing of a language Seonaidh?

          1. Màrtainn Mac a' Bhàillidh says:

            Because people who speak the language are failing to use it! A band that sings predominantly in English represents an idea we can some how keep a language alive by commodifying aspects of it while speaking English. If people speak English but say Sgadan and a marag-dhubh or call their Grampa Seanair, that is language death.

  2. Topher Dawson says:

    Hi Emma, I can see you have not forgotten Scoraig and Wester Ross! Lots of love from Ullapool. Topher.

    1. Robbie says:

      God bless you Emma , can feel what your saying.

    2. Emma Felber says:

      Thanks for the nice comment, Topher! Lots of love back to you and the family, look forward to seeing you next time that’s possible.

  3. Iain MacKinnon says:

    I enjoyed parts of this article a lot, but it is a shame to disparage loss and longing songs of emigrant Gaels by comparing them unfavourably to the songs of a young Gael who has had a different life experience. There’s room both for songs of exile and for songs of place, and the boundaries between those categories are fuzzy.

    It’s also worth pointing out that there are also angry emigrant songs and that many songs of longing and loss have been composed by non-emigrant Gaels or those who had returned home – that is, the nature of the Gaelic muse is more complex than the article suggests.

    And although P&D are innovative, they can also be situated in a longstanding ethnonational traditional consciousness and creativity. For instance, in the BBC documentary Boydie gave some lines from John ‘Hoddan’ Macdonald who kept many village bard songs in Lewis. That village tradition, in Lewis and elsewhere, is full of lively and funny Gaelic songs that give ‘a snapshot of lives we recognise, and value, sung about with affection but without sentimentality’. (Many of us thought the village bard tradition was finished. But maybe it just changed language and bought an electric guitar.)

    For some emigrants, it was the everyday richness of those home lives – lives that the emigrant now felt cut off from – that generated and can make sensible to us the sometimes idealised nostalgia [a word that comes from a Greek word meaning ‘the pain of a lost home’] that can be found in some emigrant songs.

    So some emigrant songs can be considered as responses to the experiences described in the village songs (many of which were also kept and sung by the emigrants). Rather than presenting the two types as being in opposition, they can be seen as complementary aspects of a larger Gael experience. In that sense Peat and Diesel are certainly saying something about the unfolding condition of our ‘collective soul’.

    I like the way this article captures the energy, movement and excitement of P&D. I look forward to more.

    1. Emma Felber says:

      Iain, thank you for this generous and thoughtful comment which as a contribution in its own right stands as a great complement to the article.

      I love your phrase, ‘Many of us thought the village bard tradition was finished. But maybe it just changed language and bought an electric guitar.’ In a 3000 word long version of this article, I would have had the luxury of putting some of P&D’s signature songwriting traits in the context of tradition rather than coming across as holding the two in opposition. For example, the singling out of individuals by name and making funny rhymes and wordplay with them is very, very traditional and they bring that out in recorded format really well – something which is hard to do! Likewise, the small borrowings and quotations from traditional tunes in the middle of their songs. I hope that I have not given the impression that I thought this never happened in Gaelic music. I do think that P&D do this unusually well.

      For some emigrants, it was the everyday richness of those home lives – lives that the emigrant now felt cut off from – that generated and can make sensible to us the sometimes idealised nostalgia [a word that comes from a Greek word meaning ‘the pain of a lost home’] that can be found in some emigrant songs.

      The history of nostalgia as a phenomenon is fascinating. If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend Svetlana Boym’s ‘The Future of Nostalgia’ in which she discusses the embodied feeling and ‘illness’ of nostalgia and the way it is used to build identity and support political projects of nation-building. Ultimately, all re-tellings of the past do something to situate the teller in the present, and emphasise some connections at the expense of others.

      Speaking as someone who left my community young, and who stays in touch via cultural expression as well as going up and visiting, I have found great value in the songs you describe and it’s not my intention to disparage the creative skill of those who sing them, or the consolation and emotional effect they can provide. There are many mornings I walk down to the Tube station singing along to ‘Tir a’ Mhurain’ or ‘Tillidh Mi Dhachaidh’, or other songs which give you a big swell of the chest and make you miss where you’re from. But I’ve found very few which make me _laugh_ as much as these guys, and it’s a much better feeling to laugh about a shared joke than to cry over a shared pain.

      1. Iain MacKinnon says:

        Hello Emma, thanks for the clarifications, and for the image of you swinging along the road to Runrig – I recognise that feeling! I’m wondering now if I misunderstood you in the original piece and that you weren’t so much writing about composers or categories of traditional song, but about P&D’s relationship to the traditional music industry today. I do think there is an interesting tension there.

        Thanks again for your thought provoking writing, and I hope we will read more of you on Bella and elsewhere.

  4. Deirdre Forsyth says:

    Just watched the bbc Alba films. Outstanding. I wish I had been at the barrow land ballroom for that concert. I saw Runrig there many years ago.

  5. Fay Kennedy says:

    Way out of my range. But the power of music cannot be underestimated and the nostalgia they can invoke. The Scottish cultural psyche is complex whether one of the millions who had to leave or those who stayed not far from it. I am one of the former and interested in all kinds of music and other arts particularly Scottish . I weep when I hear Gaelic and have only visited Islay once but the memory remains. So thanks Emma will take a listen to the well named Peat and Diesel..

  6. Colin Morrison says:

    Wow! The Islands are in my soul but it is my mam and dad that we’re from there. In the early nineties I visited my uncle Murdo his friend Roddy Dan was there, just arrived with a carry out. I stayed for a few drinks and songs when I returned 24 hrs later… Nothing had changed!

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