Sounds of Scotland for the Traveler

Destination: Scotland

Music: Eddi Reader Sings Robert Burns (Eddi Reader) and Cuilidh, (Julie Fowlis)

When I travel to a place, I frequently buy music along the way, and when I get home, the music takes me back. I like to put New Orleans jazz on while I’m writing, or listen to bouzoukis when I’m writing about Greece. So I sought the advice of musicologist and traveler Kerry Dexter when I was planning a trip to Ireland last year.  Who should I listen to? Where were the best places to hear traditional music?  What should I buy?

It suddenly occurred to me, that if I am interested in music of a destination, perhaps the travelers who visit A Traveler’s Library would also like some musical advice. So I turned to Kerry Dexter again. She writes here about music for the traveler to Scotland, and tomorrow she will write about music for a traveler to Ireland. You can read more of her recommendations at Music Road, her blog about music and travel.

Kerry says, “As a musician and a writer, I’m most often following the music when I travel. Sound really brings you into a place, I find, whether that be  a place you’ve visited often or one where you’ve yet to travel.”

Sounds of Scotland

Eddi Reader singing at Celtic Connections in Glasgow
Eddi Reader singing at Celtic Connections in Glasgow

When Eddi Reader was growing up in Glasgow, she thought the poetry of Robert Burns she had to read at school — he is Scotland’s national bard — was not for the likes of her, that it was set apart and too fancy. But as a Scot, and as a musician, she began to be drawn to his writing of daily life, of laughter, of love, of the Scottish landscape. Asked to do a couple of Burns songs with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Reader agreed. It wouldn’t be your usual orchestral concert, though.

“I wanted it to be a bit of a rough diamond,” she says, “so it’d sort of have that band in bar sound, circa 1787.”

Working with classical arranger Kevin McCrae and folk fiddler and producer John McCusker, she came up with a set of songs which bridged the two ideas. This music became the core of the album Eddi Reader Sings Robert Burns. [Note you can buy, or sample her songs at this Amazon link.] From the inviting Jamie Come Try Me through a quiet take on the familiar Auld Lang Syne, and as well with six bonus tracks added to the original release for the year of Homecoming Scotland, Reader invites the listener in to a musical experience at once conversational and reflective.

There’s  a rollicking Charlie Is My Darlin’, a passionate plea for social justice in Ye Jacobites,  affirmation of friendship in Willie Stewart, and a celebration landscape and reflection on change in Leezie Lindsay, a song which Reader developed from a fragment of  a chorus left by Burns. There’s also Wild Mountainside, by John Douglas, which sets love and trust in Scotland’s highland landscape, and several new jigs and reels interweaving the songs. It’s a set you have to think Robert Burns himself would enjoy.

Julie Fowlis at Celtic Connection, Glasgow
Julie Fowlis at Celtic Connection, Glasgow

Julie Fowlis knows a bit about history in song too. She sings in Scottish Gaelic,  which she grew up speaking in North Uist in the Western Isles off the north coast of Scotland. No museum pieces on her album Cuilidh,[Note: sample or buy at Amazon at this link] though — even though some of the songs go back centuries, they tell of life and love and work, laughter and humor and what’s for dinner? Whether you understand Scottish Gaelic or not, you’ll hear all those things, along with rhythms of the sea, stories of history, ideas of change, and a taste of how people lightened their lives with song in earlier days, just as we do today.

“The weather was extreme, and the conditions were hard,” Fowlis says. “But they were very expressive people. They were always singing and writing poetry. It could be something light-hearted, like the food on the table or what washed up on the beach, or it could be something completely beautiful.

Hug Air a’Bhonaid Mhor, in English called Celebrate the Great Bonnet, makes a fine and lively opener, and ‘Ille Dunn,’S Toigh Leam Thu, My Brown Haired Boy, is a thoughtful ballad. There are English translations of the twelve songs in the liner notes for Cuilidh (that word means treasure or hidden, and is pronounced cooley), but really, just listen.


Kerry Dexter is an independent writer, editor, and photographer. She’s the former folk music editor at and at Barnes and Noble Music, and a long time contributing writer to world music magazine Dirty Linen. Her work has  appeared in Strings, Ireland and the Americas, CMT, CBC, Symphony, The Music Hound Guides, and The Encyclopedia of the World History, among other publications. She writes about Irish, Scottish, and other sorts of music, and the creative practice of being a musician, at  Music Road.

Photographs by Kerry Dexter.

If you want to see more about Scotland: Books Suggested by a Reader and Mysteries  Set in Scotland and Kerry Dexter on more Scottish music at Music Roads. And don’t miss Kerry’s  recommendation on Irish Music.

Thanks, Kerry. Kerry will be checking in to reply to any questions or comments you have about her recommendations for Scottish music.

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About Kerry Dexter

Kerry Dexter is a regular contributor to A Traveler’s Library, bringing her knowledge of music and musicians who share a sense of place and travel. Her work also appears in Journey to Scotland and the Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas, among other places. Check out her bio on the contributor’s page to learn more and see her site at Music Road.

2 thoughts on “Sounds of Scotland for the Traveler

  1. i REALLY like eddi reader, and thank kerry for introducing her to me! great post. i am glad to see music here on traveler’s library – because music DOES get to the heart and soul of a place.

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