Interview with Christine Primrose & Alison Kinnaird

By Liam Ó Caiside, Gaelcast

Alison Kinnaird and Christine Primrose are leading exponents of two important Scottish traditions: the music of the harp and Gaelic song. They have made their mark as performers, instructors and cultural ambassadors, touring together to promote what they call “The Quiet Tradition” and emphasizing the many close ties bonding the Gaelic poetry and song of the Scottish Highlands with harp music.

Since the release of her first recording, Àite mo Ghaoil (Place of my Heart) in 1981, Christine Primrose has played a pivotal role in a revival of interest in Gaelic song that has swept far beyond Scotland. Born and raised in Carloway, a village on the west side of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, she grew up steeped in Gaelic tradition and competed in local song competitions as well as the Royal National Mòd.

It wasn’t until she had left home and the Highlands behind, however, that she began to sing for a non-Gaelic audience and began her career as a recording artist.

In similar fashion, Alison Kinnaird has played a leading role in the revival of the Scottish harp. An Ciste Mór interviewed Primrose and Kinnaird last summer as they toured the eastern United States, performing and teaching as exponents of their “quiet tradition.”

Ó Caiside: Christine, how did you get your start as a singer, and what attracted you to Gaelic song?Primrose: Well, I can’t remember being consciously attracted to it. It was just something that was always with me. It was part of my growing up. It was always just there.

Ó Caiside: In your family or in the community?

Primrose: Everywhere. I mean, I didn’t think I was doing anything special, to be honest. Singing was an ordinary thing to do. If you could sing at all, you would be called upon to give a song – seinn òran, siuthad. I remember singing from a very, very early age. Being asked to sing, to give a song in the house.

Ó Caiside: Who would ask you?

Primrose: Relatives, especially relatives who would be home for holiday. My father’s uncle was always making me sing because he was a singer himself. He’d call me into his shed … saying ‘Dè na h-òrain a-nis a tha thu ’g ionnsachadh?’ Which songs are you learning now then?

I remember my own uncle, my father’s brother, coming home from Canada. He’d come home every summer. And my granny’s sister had moved to Aberdeen when she was very young and she had seven children, and they all married Aberdonians, and they had loads and loads of kids. Everyone had at least four children. So they’d come home … there would always be somebody from Aberdeen over during the summer, relatives, you know, and I’d be asked to sing for them.

Ó Caiside: What kind of role did song play in the community when you were growing up in Carloway?

Primrose: Well, to be honest, I never thought of it as anything but a natural role. It was just part of growing up in the culture.

Ó Caiside: Do you see that changing at all today?

Primrose: Oh I think everything’s changing, definitely. I certainly see it when I’m at home, the whole structure of things has changed, but then again where hasn’t it? I think every place has been affected. It’s easy to blame television, but certainly the advent of television has killed off an awful lot of minority – if you want to use that term – cultures.

Ó Caiside: Were there any singers in particular in your neighborhood or your family when you were growing up who impressed you? You mentioned your uncle …

Primrose: Oh, my father’s uncle. My auntie, my father’s sister, she would always be singing at these parties as well. She died when she was very young. I remember how she would always give a song. My father’s side of the family weren’t great singers, but my mother’s side apparently were, they would always say to me ‘Fhuair thu do ghuth bho thaobh do mhàthair’ – ‘It’s your mother’s side you got your voice from.’

But I can’t see it as anything special. It wasn’t an obvious thing – ‘Oh there’s a singer, she sings’ – you just knew that’s what was going to happen, people would sing. It was a big part of their social life, singing, because there were no instruments. That was the instrument, the voice.

Ó Caiside: What kinds of songs or types of songs are you most attracted to?

Primrose: Very melodic ones. I’m afraid that the melody comes before the words for me. You can have the best poetry in the world, but if it hasn’t got a good tune, I’m not attracted to it. But most of the time, if it’s a really lovely melody, if it’s a well-written piece of poetry, it’s a good song. It has to be melodic for me.

The fast ones are OK, but it’s a different sort of discipline singing them. I like the slow ones, slow gorgeous tunes where you go all over the place. I have to be satisfied that it’s worth singing. That would apply with every other kind of music.

Ó Caiside: Do you pick songs, or do the songs pick you, in that sense?

Primrose: I don’t know. I think I pick them. Maybe they pick me. Who knows?

Ó Caiside: You’ve competed in several Mòds in Scotland. I wanted to ask when you began, and what honors you’ve won.

Primrose: The first time I ever sung was in primary two. I was six years old. It was in Stornoway. I remember standing on the stage and looking at this stained glass window. I still remember it, it was a huge, big thing to do. And I remember that I got third!

Then I started singing on a regular basis at the Mòd and started winning most of the competitions I went in for, and that carried on until I left school when.

I remember doing my very first radio broadcast, vaguely, when I was only four, and that was for Radio 2, the BBC, for a man named Godfrey Winn. I still remember him, because he had come doing a program on the islands and the weaving industry, and my father was regarded in the village as a very good weaver. So this man was pointed to my father’s house, and they must have said to him, ‘get his daughter to sing a song’ or something like that. And I did. He described me as ‘a little brown berry dressed in a neat red blazer.’ That was probably the only blazer I ever had.

Ó Caiside: Did you have any English at that time?

Primrose: No I wouldn’t have. I remember my first word in English. It was “teapot.” When these cousins would come home with their children, they didn’t have any Gaelic, and you know how kids are desperate to interact … I’d be talking away to them in Gaelic and I’d throw the word “teapot” in. Just to be proud of the fact that I could speak English too.

Ó Caiside: When did you enter the National Mòd?

Primrose: Oh that was a long time ago. I can’t remember that! I remember now, that when I left school, I didn’t want anything to do with Gaelic song. Music was a big part of my life, but I didn’t want to sing in Gaelic anymore. I had been singing Gaelic up until then, and I was becoming an adult. I wanted other things in my life, and I went to hear all other kinds of music and I was experiencing the mainland and what Glasgow had to offer me, as far as music went, and I loved that scene. I never wanted to hear anything Gaelic at all, for years and years. But I was still singing, to myself, you know, music was part of my life. I came back into singing after I got married. I was a few years without competing, I didn’t want to compete anymore. But I got back into it. Then I went to the Mòd in Dundee, and went in for the traditional medal. That’s when I won that competition. When it was just starting up.

Ó Caiside: What was the Mod experience like for you?

Primrose: Horrible, horrible. I hated competition. When you’re young, when you’re small, you just do it because it’s expected to do it. But I just don’t like competing. I think it’s a very unnatural thing to do. You’re talking about a culture that should never be put on a stage like that and judged. I can understand why it felt so unnatural. It should never have been like that. But anyway, that’s the way it evolved, and it’s probably a good thing, the Mòd. It’s very easy to dismiss the Mòd and put it down but I don’t do that. I think it’s a very worthwhile event to have because it brings a lot of people into the Gaelic world and encourages people to learn songs. The nature of the beast is that a lot of people like competition – they wouldn’t be singing these songs unless there were competition. I think the Mòd has got its place, definitely. What I would like to see more of is festivals without competition in them.

Ó Caiside: How did you become a recording artist?

Primrose: I got a phone call from Robin Morton (of Temple Records) asking if I was interested in recording. I said I was and he was very very nice and came to see me, and we decided that I would do it. And that was great. I’m very grateful to Robin Morton for that. And I’m glad that it was Robin who came to me, because I could in retrospect have recorded with some people that would not have been such a good idea.

That was Àite mo Ghaoil. And Robin cares about what I do, though he doesn’t have Gaelic. But I don’t think you have to have Gaelic to understand what I do. It’s not just the language we’re talking about. The music I think speaks for itself. Quite often I feel that. It’s a combination. It just happens to be in Gaelic in a way. It’s a combination of the music and the language. There’s no cutting off point. Some people don’t see it, don’t hear it, but they don’t hear it because of the type of people they are, it’s not because it’s Gaelic. There’s loads of things they won’t hear in their lives or see in their lives.

That was my Temple trip.

Ó Caiside: And then you recorded ‘S Tu ‘Nam Chuimhne?

Primrose: Yes, and I did one with Alison Kinnaird, and I did one with a group called Mac-Talla, which was quite enjoyable. We managed to get a really good CD out of that and we were very lucky to get that recording. Mac-Talla came together just because Robin wanted all of us to record an album, but somebody heard about it and started booking us. We didn’t start out to be a touring or performing band, we were just going to record. So were lucky to get quite a lot of good work out of it.

Ó Caiside: You’re teaching Gaelic song now. How has that experience been for you?

Primrose: I’m really enjoying it. It’s a thing that I never meant to go into. I came upon it by accident, serendipity. I just never saw myself as doing that. To start, not many people were doing that kind of thing, holding Gaelic song workshops. Once I started doing it, from the very first time, I thought it was amazing when I realized people enjoyed this. I learned through the whole thing and I’m still learning.

Ó Caiside: Are most of the students coming from outside Gaelic speaking culture?

Primrose: Well, not at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. There’s a consistency with those students, as they are at the college full-time and I work with them on a term-to-term basis, each day. That is easier for me than an afternoon workshop, where people are at different levels of learning the language. I’m always concerned that the students might not get as much out of it as they should. A week’s course is better for me. And I find it’s more beneficial for them.

Ó Caiside: How often do you do this?

Primrose: Not very often. I have the one full week’s course at the college at home.

Kinnaird: But you teach at fèisean as well …

Primrose: Oh, I do, that’s right. And there’s a Gaelic song weekend through Temple Records. I like to teach adults, to be honest. If kids want to learn Gaelic songs, I love that. But I can’t stand it when they’re put there because their parents want them to learn Gaelic songs. I don’t like that. With adults, you know they’re there because they want to be. I much prefer that.

And teaching works for me too, because I have to learn new songs, and I have to keep on top of these songs.

Ó Caiside: So that gives you inspiration.

Primrose: It does. It has to be a two-way thing for yourself to be kept fresh and feel enthusiastic about what you do. It’s a challenge sometimes. But I’m still very enthusiastic about it.

Ó Caiside: How did you two (Primrose and Kinnaird) first begin to collaborate as artists?

Kinnaird: Well, as far as I remember it, I was asked to organize a few concerts for the Edinburgh Festival by the Saltire Society, and I just happened to hear Christine singing on the radio, and I thought ‘what a great voice.’ I just phoned her up. And then we performed in concerts together for the Saltire Society. And I told Robin Morton, you have to record this …

Primrose: … This young girl.

Kinnaird: … This very young girl. And he did. It must have been in ’78.

Primrose: I had just started singing then. From a totally different viewpoint. Before that I’d never sung to anybody except Gaels. That was a huge change for me.

Ó Caiside: They were people who you knew probably.

Primrose: Not necessarily. I had sung at Gaelic concerts. But this was certainly the start of a huge new area for me.

Kinnaird: There was nobody else singing Gaelic songs to other people at that time. It was actually very unusual to hear a traditional Gaelic song.

Primrose: I remember going to Glasgow folk nights and singing Gaelic songs at the sessions and stuff like that. That’s when I began to sing to the non-Gaels. I couldn’t believe how much they loved it. And I loved them loving it! I remember being so delighted at them liking me because they showed it differently than the Gaels. The Gaels would like it, but it was “Oh well, chan eil fhios agam, you know.” But these people just said “oh that’s fantastic.” And I loved that. Who wouldn’t!

But I still get asked at home, “You’re going to America, but you wouldn’t be singing Gaelic songs?” They would never see the value of these songs, that generation. Even my generation have a hard time accepting that it’s good enough for the non-Gael.

Ó Caiside: Why do you think that is?

Primrose: I don’t know. You can have theories about it. When were the Gaels putting their culture across outwith their own area? They never did that. To the non-Gael. When they went to Glasgow, they would never be going around except with each other, with the Gaels. They had houses they would go to, and they’d all congegrate there. But outside that, they’d never put their culture on to anybody. They wouldn’t dream of it. So it was unusual for them.

Kinnaird: Even when it’s picked up on by outsiders, such as Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser’s songs. It was a new thing for somebody to actually sing traditional songs.

Ó Caiside: Why do you think non-Gaels reacted so strongly to hearing Gaelic song, at the time?

Primrose: I think they reacted to the beauty in the music. They must have, and they still do. It has such a depth to it. Any traditional music if it’s sung well, played well, put across, anyone who has an ear for music picks up on that.

Kinnaird: Also, most people know the real thing when they hear it. They feel there’s real emotion, real depth to the music.

Primrose: I remember singing traditional music for this Indian group who were visiting the Highlands. They were being given hospitality by the Highland Council, and they asked me to do a short program for them. And they absolutely loved it. The man was crying. His wife said it was just like the music you heard in their hill country. I get this a lot. It doesn’t surprise me when I get that reaction. It’s great to get it, but it happens often.

Ó Caiside: Does the reaction you get here in the States differ at all, from the reaction elsewhere?

Primrose: Well, they’re very enthusiastic over here. It gives me a huge boost. People here will tell you that they love it, which is nice.

There more recognized you are, the more vulnerable you become. I sometimes wish nobody knew me. Because of the pressure that goes on you.

Ó Caiside: Alison, I wanted to talk about your career. I found a number of reviews for The Harp Key, and most of them claimed that you relaunched the Scottish harp, the wire-strung harp.

Kinnaird: I only played gut strung harp at that point. Actually, what I probably took an interest in first, probably before anyone else, was in looking for Scottish harp music, the tunes that were composed for the harp and played on the harp, again, from a traditional player’s point of view. I was told when I started playing that the tradition had been broken, that you could not play traditional music on the harp and that only two tunes had survived for the harp. And I thought that seemed a bit unlikely.

And so I started looking for them. And at the same time I was involved with Robin who at that point was playing with Boys of the Lough. Being involved with them and playing with them was an absolute watershed. It was a mind-blowing experience. You learned this tune … you heard them doing something different with a tune than what other people were doing in a sort of drawing room style. And I took a very critical look at what I was doing. Can the harp work with other instruments? I listened very carefully to traditional style and transferred that to the harp.

Obviously, instruments don’t stay the same anyway. Harps aren’t the same as they were in the 16th century and pipes aren’t the same as they were in the 18th century. They change. There are quite a lot of instruments that you can play good traditional music on if you do it in a style that relates to what other musicians are doing. So it didn’t matter if the tradition had been broken – which it was completely, in Scotland and in Ireland. And no harpers ever wrote anything down at all, which seems extraordinary. But a lot of actual harper’s tunes have survived, a lot of melodies have survived. And since I didn’t want to be an historical musician, if you have the tunes you do what people nowadays do with them. And it seems to work. People like it. It seems to suit the harp. And it seems to relate to what Chrissie is doing as well.

So I started looking for harp tunes, and I was the first person to produce a record of tunes that had been composed for the harp. But that was on gut strung harp. Since then I have taken up the wire strung clarsach. And I play that with about half of my records now. They are two different things. The gut strung was mostly east coast and lowland, though they are both equally old in Scotland.

The wirestrung harp has its roots in the Highlands, and it does relate to Christine’s voice …

Primrose: I think the wirestrung harp definitely relates more to the Gaelic.

Kinnaird: Once you get into Highland music, that’s definitely the instrument for that.

Primrose: Alison’s book is used as a reference book in university now [“Tree of Strings: Crann nan Teud, A History of the Scottish Harp,” Keith Sanger & Alison Kinnaird, Kinmor Music, Temple, Midlothian, Scotland, 1992].

Kinnaird: Since the book was released we have learned a few things.

Ó Caiside: Has anyone reconstructed the large triangular frame horsehair strung harp with the leather casing?

Kinnaird: Yes, yes. Robert Evans made one for a Welsh museum. The sad thing about his instruments, which are wonderful replicas and great playing instruments, they are all in museums, in glass cases. No one’s playing them.

I love the gut strung harp as well, but it has a different character and it suits different music. As long as you separate the repetoires. I find the wirestrung harp very exciting because it’s a new area to explore. With the background in playing the harp I’ve got and knowledge and contacts … I’ve got a different approach then other people have. The music is there, and you have to go along with it. Let it dictate how you’re going to treat it.

Primrose: Yes, I’d say that with a song too. It takes quite a long time to come to the point where I say of a song, that’s how I want to sing it.

Kinnaird: I’ll play a song for a couple of years before I find the way I want to play it.

Good traditional music, you have to let it dictate how you treat it and play it.

Primrose: That’s right, you have to respect it. Because there’s far more there than you actually hear. Than you initially hear, there’s far more too it than that. You’ve got to take it in and absorb it all.

Sometimes when I judge competitions people are taken aback, when I tell them that they have to respect the tunes and the music. You can’t just come in and learn it. If the tune has words, you have to learn the words, and if the words are in Gaelic, then you have to learn Gaelic. It’s not a short-term project.

This interview originally appeared in Naidheachd, the quarterly publication of An Comunn Gaidhealach Aimearagaidh, in 2001.

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