“It’s a poor excuse for entertainment“.
So spake a quiet yet occasionally acerbic Scottish native during a particularly trying attempt at a Scottish ballad from our hero onstage in some weather-beaten outpost of the pretty much uniformly grim-looking Caledonia on show during this exploration of folk music and it’s malleability…or not. That most certainly cannot be said about this highly entertaining film, premiering tonight. Comedy it ain’t, but there’s bawdy laughs a plenty as the avuncular Aidan Moffat attempts to update ancient classics and put them in a more metropolitan setting.
Whether such pieces of music should be altered or updated is perhaps the crux here. Taking the narrative form of a long letter addressed to the now late doyenne of the scene – if it is not disrespectful to refer to a centuries old culture as such – Sheila Stewart, Moffat sets off on a road trip around the country performing his scurrilous new takes on the classics to entirely mixed results. Ms Stewart takes the role of a figure of stasis, insisting that some things are set in stone and should not be mucked about with. In a neat piece of film-making, despite her intransigence and the stoic digging in of heels, she is filmed almost entirely in a state of movement. Either in the back of car, whistling along to the location at the end of the film – the Barrowlands cleverly enough, as that is where we’re treated to this first showing – or indeed hastening the rather more corporal journey of a now severely dead rabbit, removed from pasture to pot.
What emerges is equal parts pathos and bathos. Throughout the travelogue there are moments of profound emotion and romance, both in humane terms and in love of the land. One such is the elderly owner of the quote headlining this piece, recounting his now deceased wife – “The wind under my wings for all that time“. With a loss endured from a love measured in decades, it takes a stern heart not to be moved by the deep sense of abandonment – as long as one keeps the image of a warbling Celine Dion at bay of course…which is exactly the sort of thing the writer and star of the show might say himself. Miss Dion may not have been around in the 1880’s when the, already spectacularly rude, ‘Ball O’ Kerrimuir‘ was written, but the almost inconceivably even more explicit rewrite presented tonight would certainly benefit from a scatter-gun expletive lobbed in her general direction. Why not? – fighting, fucking, feuding and profanity is what these songs always were about; though some are wistful, the culture was never precious about decorum.
Which is a good job really when, Loch Ness itself looking splendid and romantically foreboding in the background, we bump into a junior Nessie, presumably some generations down the line. Scenic it may be but it’s pretty safe to say Mrs and Mrs Nessie Sr. probably never imagined their offspring being abused in quite such an onanistic manner. And so it is, a thread through a heck of a long time that links lyrics about fights for taxis in modern Glasgow to rowdy goings on in the Glens.
Above and beyond the immediate concerns of the film, this is a story of a nation. Any nation in fact. What we choose to preserve and what we choose to adulterate or perhaps even drop through the collective fingers and lose forever. And if we do choose the ever-renewing state, with what amount of respect should we view the past and what it can give us now? There’s no doubt some here tonight view Aidan Moffat’s take on things as excessively rude, crude and dangerous to know. Indeed completely lacking in empathy and due reverence. Aspic however has long dropped from our taste and the lives in the songs deserve to be more that mere museum-piece curios or, worse, tired tourist-trap monstrosities. If it takes contemporary metropolitan artists to drag them kicking and screaming but alive into the inner-cities, so be it. If they’d had the wherewithal to sing about kebabs and ecstasy 150 years ago it seems fairly clear they would have.
After this delightful film there is a short gig by Moffat and his band, ably supported by a couple of characters we’ve seen seen but minutes before on screen. Superannuated they may be but their twisting of lyrics to encompass, “Mr Cameron…you’re aff your fucking heid” gets the biggest cheer of the night. Telling perhaps; both of the political allegiances of the majority in this part of deepest darkest Scotland and the fact that one is never too old for a bit of pointed and sweary abuse whilst letting the good times roll. An unexpected and marvellous evening.