The annals of history are brimful of artists, writers and musicians turning their backs on the neon and noise of city life to unspool among the bracken and briar of the countryside. Few have gone to such extremes as Johnny Lynch, however, who upped sticks from the relative bustle of Fife to the Inner Hebridean island of Eigg – population 105, give or take – 10 years ago.

But to say Lynch lives on Eigg fails to convey the strength of his love for the island. It floors him, he tells me over low-alcohol beers and pretzels in a Glasgow pub. It is home, a place where he and his partner Sarah Boden have chosen to raise their children Arlo (“as in Guthrie”), who is four, and 11-month-old daughter Ness (“as in happiness”).

A boyish 38, in person Lynch is less ursine than his promotional photos and videos might suggest. The straggly hair and beard are present and correct but his jaw is less pronounced, his frame smaller. He wears thick spectacles, a trucker’s cap and a long-sleeved T-shirt of the kind that became popular during rave culture’s heyday. He is affable, sharp-witted and enviably energetic.

Besides home, Eigg is the epicentre of Lynch’s eclectic record label Lost Map, which he runs alongside Kate Canaveral, whose Twitter profile – “head of mainland operations” – gives a flavour of the wit and DIY spirit that are intrinsic to the imprint. The current roster features superlative saxophonist Alabaster dePlume, French singer-songwriter Clementine March and Scottish indie-rock quartet Savage Mansion.  

Eigg is also where the songs that make up Thumb World, his sparkling new album under the monicker Pictish Trail, percolated in his mind while he went about his business as a father, label director and bringer of good times to his fellow islanders (the biennial Howlin’ Fling festival is his brainchild). Lynch has had his share of strife, he will tell me, but right now he is having a ball.

His first impression of Eigg was far from auspicious. I tell him we have a mutual friend there whose first home on the island was an exceedingly basic bothy overlooking Laig Bay. It turns out said accommodation was also Lynch and Boden’s introduction to living together on Eigg.

“We spent the whole winter in that bothy,” he says. “F****** hell, man. Damp and freezing.” He laughs, as he does a lot. “I look back on those days fondly. That feeling of having to get up and start a fire because you needed heat, and it would take a good 30 to 40 minutes to get going. I liked that.”

When Lynch met Boden she was an assistant editor in London and he was living in Anstruther and running Fence – the label founded by Kenny Anderson, aka King Creosote, which sired the careers of Anderson, KT Tunstall, James Yorkston and others – besides performing as Pictish Trail.

“She was still a journalist for the Observer when we started going out, and she was like, ‘I'm going to take over the tenancy of my uncle's farm on Eigg.’ And I'm like: ‘Eh, all right. If it's not going well you can be honest – you don't have to make up this ridiculous lie.’ And then it turned out it was real.” He smiles broadly. “I went up to visit her within a month of her being there and I haven't left.”

Lynch and his family now dwell in a house on the south-west coast of Eigg, where Boden runs the farm with her father. “It's really exposed,” Lynch explains. “We built our house and can feel it shoogling in the wind when it kicks up above 50mph.”

Perhaps the wind is the reason so many islanders in north-west Scotland maintain an unnaturally youthful complexion, I say. “It’s a combination of the wind and the booze,” Lynch smiles. I tell him that, in my albeit limited experience, Eigg is indeed a good place to indulge. He agrees. “At the ceilidhs they certainly know how to party. On the island there are some people who get a bit miffed about Eigg's reputation as a boozy island. And I’m like … Well, it is – certainly for the ceilidhs and parties.”

Since the birth of Ness last March, the family dynamic has tilted away from agricultural matters to domestic affairs. “Sarah’s dad has been running most of the farm stuff but she still does a lot – she takes the dogs out and gathers the sheep in,” says Lynch. What do you do, I ask, perhaps a little bluntly. “I don't do any farm work whatsoever,” he replies cheerfully, holding up his hands. “Come on – these are not farmer's hands. I do the childcare, I cook the dinners.”

He also writes the songs that, if they don’t quite make the whole world sing, have found an adoring and loyal audience, judging by the crowd that pack out his headline show during Celtic Connections a few days after we meet.

Both wistful and ecstatic, clunky yet sleek, Thumb World is Lynch’s fourth album and first for reborn London independent label Fire Records. The record hops through multiple genres, among them the hazy rock of Grandaddy, the crooked epicness of Sparklehorse, arcade game music and the euphoria of techno, the unifying factor Lynch’s voice – sonorous, plaintive, playful. Verging on uncategorisable, one thing Thumb World is not is folk.

“It's weird,” he says. “Throughout the Fence thing we were always tagged with the folk thing and I still get ‘new folk-pop record from Pictish Trail’, and I don't understand where that comes from.”

The album title derives from “a mad wee song about two astronauts f****** in space – I had this image of one of them covering the Earth with their thumb”, but the concept mushroomed during the making of the album in Staffordshire with Lynch’s friend Rob Jones.

“I was very conscious of my phone use and thinking a lot about thumbs and how opposable thumbs are what separates us from animals,” says Lynch. “But then I was thinking about how much we are controlled by the device, our thumb is a slave to this.” He lifts his iPhone off the table. “So a lot of the songs formed around our relationship with technology and the feeling of being trapped in the same timeline of news about Brexit or world disasters.”

Apart from anything else, he concedes, “the name Thumb World was so stupid I thought: it's got to be the title of the album”.

The process behind Thumb World was strikingly simple. Lynch would decamp to Jones’s studio every couple of months with a clutch of rough ideas. “I’d play some stuff and he’d play over the top,” recalls Lynch. “I could sing a part and he’d be able to play it in a way that was how it was in my head. I’m a very limited musician.” He laughs. “Which is fine. I’ve got to a point where I’m not interested in doing my own production.”

You mean you know what you’re good at, I say. “Well, it’s what I’ve got time for now. I don’t have time to fiddle about with software.”

What was it like going home to Eigg after each session, being a father and a partner, and running Lost Map? “It’s always there,” replies Lynch. “Songwriting as a process is quite a cumulative thing. Until they’re finished, the songs will always be in my head, and sometimes that’s when the best stuff happens.”

So you don’t go home and lock yourself away to write? “I used to do that and I found it so unpleasurable. I hated making music like that. Now I can let ideas happen and record them on my phone when I’m out for a walk.”

The injection of funds from Fire came at a welcome juncture. “It allowed me to relax a little,” he says. “It’s the same with anyone who’s self-employed – you go from job to job and are constantly pushing what you do to make ends meet. So the money allowed me to take a year off. For most of 2018 I was able to think about writing, to think about songs.”

The way Lynch tells it, it’s no surprise he needed a breather. Since moving to Eigg there have been huge positives in his life – chief among them love and fatherhood – but there have been negatives too. Principally, the breakdown of Lynch’s relationship with Anderson and consequently Fence, which he ran for a decade after graduating from St Andrews University. The way their friendship and working alliance dissolved clearly remains a source of frustration, even seven years on.

“It came to a fairly abrupt end,” says Lynch, his positivity dipping for the first time. “I still think on it and ask myself: what the hell happened there? 

“Me moving to Eigg was a big thing. I was running the label remotely so I wasn't based in Fife as much. I found it easier – there are fewer distractions on Eigg and I could focus and organise things easily from there.

“But I don't know what happened. It's a tricky one to talk about. Basically my friendship with Kenny ended so Fence ended with it, but it was the sort of thing where he'd fallen out with me but didn't tell me, so I was having to deal with him through his management, through accountants … The whole thing was kind of crumbling.”

Ironically, it was when Fence became a limited company that the wheels came off. “It almost seemed that as soon as we started a formal business partnership he wanted to separate off and do his own thing.

“Fence was VAT registered and everything. I had to do all the books, make sure everything was above board.”

That's a lot of work, I say. “Man, it's absolutely tonnes of work. I was doing all the events, managing the label and doing all that sort of stuff.”

As the curtain came down on Fence, Lynch found himself dealing not with Anderson but with Anderson’s manager, Derek MacKillop, who counts Elton John among his former clients. “He's a great dude but I'll never forget the day Derek phoned me up,” says Lynch, brightening and affecting an upper-class Scottish accent. “‘I've just been off the phone with Kenny. I think you two are going to have to have a fist fight.’ 

“I was like: ‘You what? Are you having a laugh? He's my pal.’

“‘Well, he's been saying …’ And this is the thing, Kenny was saying a lot of things to other people, but not saying anything directly to me. It was really s***. A few dark nights of the soul happened after that.”

Tellingly, many of the artists Lynch had worked with on Fence – including eagleowl, Randolph’s Leap and Seamus Fogarty – followed him to his new imprint. “I wouldn't have been able to do it without Kate Canaveral. It’s my business but it wouldn't exist without her and her going: ‘Everybody's behind you – just do this thing.’

“Actually, it's all worked out for the best. I live in this amazing place, I'm doing music on my own terms, I've got a really supportive network of bands.

“So much of that scene was about where Fence was. A lot of Lost Map's identity is tied to Eigg but there's only me who lives there.”

I put it to Johnny Lynch – father, partner, musician and spreader of rainbow vibes – that Eigg is the Stonehenge of Lost Map. His effusive response provides a fitting conclusion to our conversation. “Yeah, it kind of is. It floors me, the place. I've been there 10 years now and it still surprises me.”

Thumb World is out now on Fire. Pictish Trail plays the Tolbooth, Stirling on April 9, Beat Generator, Dundee on April 10, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on April 11 and Lemon Tree, Aberdeen on April 12


Fence Reunited – various (2004)

Compilation CD in which King Creosote, HMS Ginafore, UNPOC, James Yorkston, Pictish Trail, Lone Pigeon (Kenny Anderson’s brother Gordon, formerly of the Beta Band), Pip Dylan (Anderson’s elder brother Ian) and others present a comprehensive snapshot of the Fence Collective at its peak.

Lang Cat, Crooked Cat, Spider Cat – James Yorkston and the Athletes (2004)

Released on CD-R, Lang Cat comprises seven tracks recorded during what Yorkston describes as his band’s “Can meets Planxty” phase. Bass player Doogie Paul’s death from cancer in 2012 aged 40 fuelled Yorkston’s poignant Broken Wave (A Blues for Doogie): “I promise you/I will remember you/As a man full of life/And not this broken wave.”

Rocket DIY – King Creosote (2005)

Arguably Anderson’s first essential album, Rocket DIY was co-released with London indie label Domino and showcased his irresistibly melancholic side through Spooned Out on Tick and Circle My Demise besides the rollicking banjo-dusted Saffy Nool (“You’re growing old/You’re growing tits/I was past 35 before my face made much sense”).

King Creosote and the Pictish Trail – King Creosote and the Pictish Trail Present (2007)

A split album on CD-R that also features Lancastrian/Texan collective the Earlies, this document of what’s possible when great musical minds meet is rarer than hen’s teeth. The packaging – a handmade card sleeve with wallpaper stuck on each side – was the essence of the Fence aesthetic.

HMS Ginafore – An Old Wreck If Ever I Saw One (2008)

Contrary to what it says on the cover – “back by negligible demand” – this double-CD-R compilation by HMS Ginafore, aka Jenny Gordon, fetches up to £120 on the secondhand record market. Nailing the Fife-centric philosophy that was central to Fence, first disc L’Argent de la Mer opens with B9131, named after the backroad linking St Andrews with Anstruther.