Abandoned village inspires a gem of an album

Renowned piper, James Duncan Mackenzie has released his second solo album in which he remembers the people and land surrounding an abandoned township on the Isle of Lewis, Sròmos.

Nestling on the south eastern shores of Loch Sròmois, a stones throw from Loch Shiphoirt, life would have been hard and isolated for the townsfolk and in the opening title track James paints an atmospheric scene of a simple life eked from the land exemplified by the subsequent track Lazy Beds in reference to the still visible traces of cultivation before the settlement was cleared to make way for sheep, deemed to be more profitable than crofters.

Each of James’s self penned tunes takes us along a trail that maps out a sorry period in Scottish history and quite how he manages to take a desperate subject as Highland Clearances and create such an upbeat and uplifting album is remarkable. Make no mistake though, there is pathos aplenty!

The Garron, a name for a powerful highland pony that once worked the land, leads us into a tune inspired by the words of The Lochcarron Bard, The Plough On The Cross-beam, lamenting the increasingly redundant plough.

The Bard, James’s great, great grandfather John Macrae, a man prominent in crofter’s rights, is paid tribute to in a tune towards the end of the album. Each track tells a tale of a cruel age yet laced with wry humour as in No English My Lady.

However, there is no happy ending as the brutality of eviction in Every Little Detail reminds us of the stark reality that ruined a township and a way of life.

James’s skill on the pipes is already well known from his playing with Breabach and Tryst, tunes Balallan Raiders and Tribute to Norman giving glimpses into his talent but his delicate touch on the flute, evident throughout the whole album, is a sheer joy to listen to particularly in Alick Campbell’s Walk a poignant celebration of survival against a backdrop of the tragedy following the grounding of HMY Iolaire in 1919.

James’s music ranges from sumptuous to sublime and with a supporting cast of exemplary musicians drawn from traditional and jazz worlds he has blended contemporary rhythms and beats with a sound that is both fresh yet familiar in its origin.

This is a real gem of an album. There are many memorable tracks and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Deaf Mackenzie being a session favorite in due course.

A fine, fine album that cements James’s growing reputation at the forefront of Scottish traditional music.