By Jonathan Jobson

MAKING their latest album was a homecoming of sorts. Growing out of the session scene based around the tiny township of Glenuig on the west coast of Lochaber in the mid 1990s, Dàimh (pronounced dive and meaning kinship) have become one of the country’s foremost traditional bands, recognised as Folk Band of the Year at the MG Alba Trad Awards in 2015.
Comprising founder members Ross Martin (guitar), Gabe McVarish (fiddle), Angus MacKenzie (pipes and whistle) alongside recent new recruits Murdo “Yogi” Cameron (mandola and accordion) and Ellen MacDonald (Gaelic vocals), the band head for Celtic Connections with a special show at the Royal Concert Hall where they will be joined by seven of the country’s finest Gaelic singers, including Anne Martin, Kathleen McInnes and Griogair Labhruidh – the country’s first Gaelic rapper and ex-Dàimh member.

As Arisaig native Ross Martin explains, the band’s sixth album, The Hebridean Sessions, recorded at small gigs on Mull, South Uist and Skye, is an attempt to return to their roots when musicians would meet up and play in an intimate setting – a bar usually – with few rules and where the love of the music was always the motivator.
“If there was live music, it was folk music, that’s what it was,” says Martin. “I grew up with all sorts of music, swapping tapes with my pals, learning Led Zeppelin tunes on my guitar, but I would never have thought of going out and starting a rock band. It was always going to be a folk band.
“On the west coast, if there’s a wedding or there’s music in the pub 90 per cent of the time it’s going to be pipes and accordions and all that. And it’s a great thing to then be taking that music 
out to other places.
“So with this album we wanted to  recreate that acoustic idea, you know, sitting in a circle and playing tunes. And the islands thing was like, why not? It was really just for the craic.”
The album was also mastered on Skye, while the design work for the sleeve was produced by Ben Cormack on the Isle of Eigg, making it a truly Hebridean production. However, while Martin was brought up with sessions as a youngster, McVarish had a very different entry into the world of traditional Celtic music.
Growing up in northern California, not far from Sacramento, McVarish was always made aware of his Scottish roots by his father – McVarish is a name which is almost solely found in the area of west Lochaber around Mallaig, Morar and Moidart. However, he became interested in music through school orchestras and competitions across the state and only drifted into Celtic music after his father noticed there were arts council grants available to help encourage students to explore their ethnicity. McVarish applied and was soon on his way to Lochaber to learn from the legendary fiddler and teacher, Angus Grant Senior.
“I grew up in more of a competition-based environment musically,” says McVarish. “I hadn’t really seen a session until I arrived in Scotland, for example. A lot of that is to do with the fact that in California you’re not allowed into a bar at all until you’re 21. So the whole thing of growing up and playing in sessions wasn’t an option. Sitting and playing with tunes with people just for the craic was a whole new experience.”
McVarish, whose distinctive fiddle style is a feature on all the band’s work, then met up with MacKenzie, himself a Cape Breton native who had attended the Gaelic college on Skye, Sabhal Mor Ostaig, and Ross Martin in the 1990s.
“I started playing when I was quite wee – my dad’s from South Uist,” says MacKenzie. “There was a guy going round the schools teaching piano and my parents found out he also taught the pipes and, unbeknownst to me, they thought the pipes might help with my asthma. I didn’t even know I had asthma.
“I then moved on to go to a place called the Gaelic College in Cape Breton which had a pipe band and things but, like Gabe, I didn’t see a proper session until I moved to Skye to study at Sabhal Mor.”
Things also changed for MacKenzie when he received his first set of border pipes. Pipers had often been left out of sessions as the noise would overpower the other instruments but the growing popularity of border pipes meant they too could join in. It was a revelation for MacKenzie.
“The border pipes changed things totally,” he says. “There was a session scene on Skye at that time and that’s where I met the other guys who were going around playing at dances and stuff. They made a big impression on me and so I decided to go down to Glenuig and make a big impression on them.” 
The three now live around the same area – McVarish on the Isle of Eigg, Martin on the mainland in Morar and MacKenzie on Skye – and the sense of place is always apparent in their music. “All the tunes on this album are tunes we’ve always played, for dances or sessions or wherever, but we never recorded them because we thought everyone knew them,” says Martin. “A lot of the time, though, they were just familiar to us because we’d been playing them for 20 years, or they were common to this area.
“Or they were popular because they were just good tunes. So we thought we’d go for it and record them.”
While the band’s core has remained the same, there have been several line-up changes along the way. Most recently, the band welcomed Cameron and young singer MacDonald into their ranks.
What they bring to the band in terms of instrument or sound is never, though, as important as what they bring as people.
“It’s about bringing people in and trying to get out of them what they’ve got,” explains Martin. “Especially with singers, who are strong characters, strong voices. We worked out quickly it’s best to just let them do what they want to do and we’ll try and work around it.
“For instance, Yogi was someone we knew and liked but, while he’s also a great accordionist, he’s primarily a guitarist and we’ve got one of them. But we wanted him in the band so he learned the mandola. And now it gives a whole different colour to the music.”
For MacDonald, joining a band which first started before she’d even began primary school, has been an experience.
She was spotted by Martin and MacKenzie while she was studying at Sabhal Mor and joined the band soon after. “It’s really fun,” she says. “Most people start bands when they’re at uni or something so to join a band who’d been going for 20 years was a very different experience. I feel like I’m learning a lot from the old, wise members of Dàimh ...”
Which brings us back to that name. “To be honest it’s not a name we would have chosen,” says Martin. “People don’t know how to pronounce it. They are scared of it. It’s really the name of a project for a festival we got involved with which then went on to become a band.”
That’s as may be, but the name, and its meaning of kinship, seem to fit the band almost perfectly. Dàimh are about the music but they are also about people and place. They’re about bringing the diaspora home to settle in lands once inhabited by their forebears. About bringing in new people to influence and subtly reinterpret the music. And they’re about bringing back together seven singers who have all toured with the band for a one-off Celtic Connections gig. 

Dàimh host a grand Gaelic ceilidh at  the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall this Friday at 8pm. The Hebridean Sessions is available as a CD or download.