DESPITE the seemingly disparate subjects of this year’s New Voices commissions at Celtic Connections – with Hamish Napier rejoicing in the river Spey, Ewan Robertson reimagining an extreme triathlon, and now singer/fiddler Kate Young (aka Kate in the Kettle) reappraising the medicinal traditions of plants – they unite in an underlying lament for humanity’s increasingly perilous alienation from nature, and a plea for reconciliation.
“All these centuries’ worth of knowledge and wisdom about plants seemed to be a dying tradition,” explains Young of her song-based composition, Umbelliferae. “It’s still more alive in some cultures than ours, but it used to be a totally universal thing.” Even in 21st-century Scotland, however, where it does persist is in many plants’ vernacular names and associated folklore, including a wealth of traditional songs and tales, as Young – a graduate of Newcastle University’s folk music degree course, who has also studied herbalism – discovered when delving into the Tobar an Dualchais ("Kist o’ Riches") national sound archive, comprising more than 34,000 oral recordings dating back to the 1930s.
“There’s actually tons of stuff there,” she says, “so I’m really keen to bring some of it back into the light. I’ve used various snippets and fragments in some of the new songs I’ve written, including quite a few traditional plants’ names, ones which kind of encapsulate the history behind them. I definitely don’t want any of the material to sound preachy – I’m not trying to convert anyone to herbalism or homoeopathy – but I hope that maybe these names might just catch some people’s attention, and intrigue them enough to find out more.” Also incorporated into the music are two spoken-word Tobar an Dualchais recordings, one of the celebrated Scottish Traveller and Yellow on the Broom author Betsy Whyte, the other of Shetlander Brucie Henderson, recorded in the 1950s, describing a nettle-based concoction used to staunch bleeding.
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Young’s fascination with the lore of plants derives partly from perceiving it as a “gateway” into other ideas and issues. “When you study herbal medicine, you’re taught that it’s as much about learning to trust your intuition as it is about factual information, and I saw similarities between that and how we work as folk musicians: we tend to evolve our skills and our own particular style according to what we find ourselves drawn to.
“There’s another aspect that interested me in a song called Gentian,” she continues.”Gentian is one of the bitterest plants ever recorded, but bitter plants are often good for your system, they stimulate digestion, and people used to eat a lot more of them. Now, though, we see bitterness as bad – it’s all about things being sweet; capitalism selling us all this stuff full of sugar, which makes us crave more, but makes us really unhealthy. I read recently that someone’s trying to genetically modify wormwood – the stuff they put in absinthe – to make it less bitter: I mean, why? We’re just becoming obsessed with our own power to change things, whether there’s a good reason or not.”
The centrepiece of Umbelliferae is a 13-minute song called Remember The Land (Young calls it “the heaviest of the lot”), which is interwoven with ancient incantations from the Carmina Gadelica, and also draws on Mary Beith’s book Healing Threads: Traditional Medicines Of The Highlands And Islands. “It touches on various broader senses of what I’m talking about, from a perspective of reflecting on the world as it is now,” she says. “You could maybe see it as an anti-fracking song, but it’s also more abstract than that, with each verse trying to map different points of view: hopefully it works on several levels.”
Next Sunday’s première, when Young will lead an eight-piece strings/percussion ensemble, continues the rapid career ascent that’s followed Kate in the Kettle’s 2014 debut album, Swimmings Of The Head – described by Mojo, among numerous glowing reviews, as “challengingly exotic, oddball, multicultural, wayward and enthralling”. She’s also a member of all-gal quartet Carthy, Farrell, Hardy and Young, and the Songs Of Separation line-up, who perform at Celtic Connections tonight. Her New Voices title refers to a large family of plants, including numerous edible, medicinal and poisonous varieties, from parsley to hemlock. “They’re all the ones whose seed-heads look like fireworks,” she explains. “It seemed like a good analogy with creating this piece: me sending my seeds out into the air, and letting the wind take them.”
Kate Young performs her New Voices commission, Umbelliferae, next Sunday at 1pm in the Strathclyde Suite, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall as part of Celtic Connections. The Sunday Herald is the festival's media partner. For programme and tickets visit www.celticconnections.com