Bothy Culture

It’s twenty-five years since Martyn Bennett’s seminal Bothy Culture album was released, nine golden tracks which broke the mould and steered the way for Celtic fusion and a new hybrid folk revival of an extraordinary kind. Preceded by the album Martyn Bennett on Eclectic (1995), a small Edinburgh-based independent label, others would follow:  he released Bothy Culture in 1998 on the Rykodisc label; Hardland on his own Cuillin label (2000); his fourth album Glen Lyon on the Foot Stomping’ label (2002); and Grit, on Real World Records (2003) two years before his untimely death from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in January 2005 aged only 33.

He performed the live musical score for David Harrower’s play Knives in Hens at the Traverse in 1995. The actress Pauline Knowles described how: “When you have Martyn playing the fiddle behind you, you can’t help but feel the poeticism.”

His live performances were transformative and his cultural legacy extraordinary.

He said of this album:

“I would say that in some ways bothies have the same, familiar atmosphere to urban nightclubs – arriving for the sound-check when they are merely cold, empty shells is always a spooky experience. Perhaps the same spirits of so many fire/spot-lit, whisky/drug charged nights have somehow imparted a memory of the ghosts of those people you have never met and can only imagine. Although the music and songs that have been played in them are totally contrasting it is this same sense of excitement that can transform four bare walls into a chamber of sheer sensual delight.” 

Genius is a term used too lightly, but he was certainly one. If Home Rule advocates of the 1980s wondered what might have been if Scotland’s team had fared better in 1978 in Cordoba, independence supporters of the 21C wonder what might have been if Bennett had not been taken so early. Aye?


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  1. SleepingDog says:

    By a slightly weird coincidence, I wondered today what chances these runaways would have had of coming across a bothy (or a welcoming inhabitation) in 1745?

    1. 221019 says:

      A couple of decades later than 1745, but you should read the story of Joseph Knight.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Lord Parakeet the Cacophonist, Joseph Knight and his Scottish court case were covered in both David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History, and Chapter 9 (by Iain Whyte) of Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past: The Caribbean Connection (editor TM Devine), both of which I have read. In both accounts there is a suggestion that reactionary judges voted in favour of Knight to assert the primacy of Scots law over English or Jamaican.

        There are mentions of earlier cases where escapees from enslavement in Scotland sought the protection of baptism and gained support from local churches. My question though was directed at whether a person fleeing slavery in Scotland was likely to have found temporary sanctuary in bothy culture and secular (Highland, Lowland, Island or whatever) hospitality.

        The University of Glasgow has a produced a database as part of their Runaways Slaves in Britain Project, but the details are often quite sketchy. There are two entries for runaways from the Highlands of Scotland (more from other regions, although geographical details are bound to be inexact):

        1. 221019 says:

          I believe mountain bothies are a 20th century phenomenon.

          I wrote a story, ‘The Black Doak’, which was broadcast on Radio Scotland a wheen o years ago, centred on the bothy in which my anarcho-syndicalist grandfather and his gang of platelayers would take their ‘piece’ while working on the railway near their village. It was just an unpointed brick structure with a corrugated iron roof and plank benches running the length of each wall, no windows, and an open door in the lea gable end. Just big enough for six or eight men to squeeze into out of the wind/rain. My faither used to take me take me down on his shoulders for my piece and some craic with the men on his ‘spiv’ days.

          I suspect the original mountain bothies were similar shelters for estate workers in teuchterland, and fugitives in the 18th century would not have found any such in which they could shelter but only, perhaps, the odd shielin. (Mind you, since ‘shielin’ is the Old Scots/Middle English word for what the Gaelic speakers called a ‘bothan’ or ‘bothag’, maybe it’s the same thing.)

          The Court of Session dismissed, by a majority of eight to four, Sir John Wedderburn of Ballendean’s appeal against the judgement of John Swinton, Sheriff Depute of Perthshire, that the state of slavery wasn’t recognised by the laws of their part of the UK and that it was inconsistent with the principles on which those laws depended and that, consequently, the regulations concerning slaves in Jamaica didn’t extend to Scotland.

          The reasoning for each judge’s vote (as recorded in the Rev. Dr. Iain Whyte’s Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery 1756 -1838) did indeed vary significantly, but, irrespective of that reasoning, the court reaffirmed verbatim Swinton’s original judgement that ‘the dominion assumed over this Negro, under the law of Jamaica, being unjust, could not be supported in this country to any extent: That, therefore, the defender had no right to the Negro’s service for any space of time, nor to send him out of the country against his consent: That the Negro was likewise protected under the act 1701, c.6. from being sent out of the country against his consent.’

          Interestingly, though, the precedent Knight himself cited in support of his original case against Wedderburn was from English law, th so-called Somerset case, in which Lord Mansfield ruled ‘That a slave or Negroe the Instant he lands in England becomes a free man that is the Law will protect him in enjoyment of his person And his property Yet with regard to any right…’

          Of course, the fly in the ointment was that not every ‘slave or Negroe’ had the knowledge and the wherewithal to go to law to have it protect him in the enjoyment of his person and his property.

          I suspect the original mountain bothies were similar shelters for estate workers in teuchterland.

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