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Music, Identity, and Belonging in Scotland

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Magic happens when a room of hundreds of people falls silent, in a collective motion of pulling the acoustic blanket around ourselves, tucking into a nighttime story together. Magic happens when you get goosebumps and an irresistible urge to move, to latch onto the music, from the first few notes of a fiddle, and you look over and know the person next to you feels it too. Magic is when two strangers, from across oceans, share a smile over a guitar and warm whisky. In March 2017, a friend asked me if I wanted to come with her to a concert of a band I’d never heard of, and I said yes. Later realizing I might have made a mistake, I figured what the hell, I’ll go along, this was me christening my habit to saying ‘yes’ to new experiences more often, to keeping my heart open. Excited and completely unprepared, I followed my friends into the venue, which wasn’t the concert hall with plush seats I was used to from my classical ‘upbringing,’ as it were. I remember the sensations as I listened and watched: from curiosity, to intrigued chills at the first few strums of each song, to complete enchantment. At one point, as almost all the band members filed offstage, the lead singer said he was going to try something acoustically. He unchained his guitar, made a couple of other adjustments, and suddenly but slowly too the room got quiet. There was no instruction, no murmurs of “hush,” just the shared sensation that something pure and simple and good was about to happen. I remember being struck by how powerful that was: there were hundreds of people in this room, and we all just shut up together, we leaned in close, we got wrapped up in it.
Photo: courtesy of Patrick Nelson
There is something called the duende, which a lecturer in my Traditional Scots Song class told us about. It is an elusive idea, similar to what might in Scotland be called the coynach, or conneach, which is the sound of deep connection between storyteller, story, and soul. That’s my understanding, anyway—like I said, it’s elusive, but many people will agree that you know it when it’s there. Hearing about this phenomenon, and being a person who sings myself, I dug deeper. I consulted Sheila Stewart, the late renowned Traveler singer who was brought up immersed in Scots traditional music. Her words echo in my mind: ‘we don’t perform, we produce a natural function.’ Singing, for Sheila and many others—including myself—is a vital part of sheer existence. That Scots Song lecture has stuck with me since the early spring of last year. Thoughts of the duende and coynach percolate within me, along with how every word our lecturer said resonated stronger and louder, and the flush of understanding crescendoed. I kept thinking, ‘Yes, yes! I feel this too!’ And I carry it with me every time I sing. Each of the various gigs and concerts I attended in Scotland last spring had moments like this, where a phrase of music, the cry of a fiddle, or resuscitative sound of an accordion would draw me in and stir something inside me, wake up some sleepy part of me. It still sounds crazy and I still struggle to articulate it. But these feelings pushed me past comfort and familiarity, into trying new things (like singing at an open mic night), forging new friendships, and even to an eventual research topic for my undergraduate thesis. I returned to Scotland for this research; speaking to musicians there, and hearing their stories of identity and music-making has shown me that I’m not alone in having felt those initial stirrings of belonging last year, even just after a week of living in Edinburgh. My interviewees have echoed—and, in some way, validated—my feeling like I belong there, and music played a huge role in that (for all of us). From the first concert last year, to the most recent evening I spent singing in a pub with new friends, music—particularly Scottish folk music—has turned this place into home. ‘Turned’ doesn’t seem right; it’s more as though it was always home, but the music woke me up to this, it opened the door and invited me inside. More than that, when I stepped inside I found people sitting round a table waiting, all aware that they were making something together, bigger than themselves, and waiting for me to come and join in. Now, after returning from Scotland, I play and sing this music to help me, to find some catharsis in all the missing and yearning. It’s become the soundtrack accompanying most of my life, a way to mitigate the inexorable pull I feel towards that place until I can answer the call and move back there. It nourishes me and my memory of the friends who have offered me their guitars to play and couches to crash on, when I find my way back. It is a wonderful thing to fall in love, and I am lucky to be able to say I’ve fallen in love many times with songs and tunes—and moments and people who made them—that make me at once yearn for something I didn’t know I missed, and sigh deeply in gratitude for something I didn’t know I had. Celia O’Brien is a student at Colorado College and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Edinburgh in Edinburgh, Scotland in spring 2017.