CRAIG Armstrong first heard Gaelic psalm singing in church when he was just nine or 10. Although he grew up in the east end of Glasgow, his mum was originally from Balintore in Ross-shire, and on family visits they’d all go to church. “It just so happened that in the church in Hilton they were doing Gaelic psalm singing,” Armstrong recalls as he sits in his studio in Glasgow.

“So, sitting in the congregation, I remember looking at my dad, thinking, ‘What is this?’ It stuck with me.”

Armstrong grew up to be a composer and arranger, one of Scotland’s most famous, called on by pop stars such as Madonna and film directors like Baz Luhrmann to sprinkle his magic over their records and films. But he never forgot that childhood experience in church. Gaelic psalm singing remained a fascination. “I would say the psalm singing was the first indigenous Scottish music that really grabbed me,” he says.

And then in 2014 he was introduced to fellow composer Calum Martin. Martin is also a precentor – the person leading the singing – in the Back Free Church in Stornoway. He is one of the people who performs Gaelic psalm singing. Out of that meeting came a chance to do something new with this traditional form.

The result is The Edge of the Sea, a new album that features two pieces which combine the keening notes of Gaelic singers from Lewis and Harris, who would normally sing unaccompanied, with a soundbed composed by Armstrong as played by the Scottish Ensemble. The pieces were initially performed live, but this 2018 recording is now being released on Christian Kellersmann’s new German label Modern Recordings.

It’s a thing of startling beauty. Equal parts mournful and soaring, it is an album that sounds ancient and modern at the same time. Both Armstrong and Martin are understandably thrilled with the result.

What it is not, they are both keen to stress, is a stunt. When they were first introduced to each other by Donald Shaw, the director of Celtic Connections, Martin admits he was rather wary of the whole idea.

“At that particular time, I’d been getting loads of people from New York, hip hop artists, wanting to do this, that and the other and I’d said no. I’m not interested in doing anything with anyone if it’s just a gimmick and that’s what they were.

“So, my first thing to Craig was, ‘I’m not interested if you want to do a gimmick.’

“I had never heard of Craig,” Martin admits. “And, of course, when I came home and I put ‘Craig Armstrong’ into Google I thought, ‘Oh goodness me, this guy is quite well known. He’s probably the top film composer in the UK.’”

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Today, Martin is at home in Stornoway when I call. It’s difficult to believe Gaelic psalm singing could have a more enthusiastic and engaging advocate. “I’m steeped in tradition. It’s always been with me. It’s like a language. My grandfather took me to church when I was four years of age and you just absorb it. You absorb the style because it’s part of your tradition.”

What is that tradition, you might ask? “This is nothing to do with choirs,” Martin points out. “In Gaelic psalm singing you don’t have a choir. You have a congregation. A choir is something that is conducted. Gaelic psalm singing is completely different. Every single time you sing it’s going to sound different.

“All of Gaelic psalm singing is taken from existing melodies going way back to the 1500s and 1600s. They are old tunes which are actually set in the Scottish Psalter.

“You’re also singing just one meter. Common meter is eight-six, eight-six. All Gaelic psalms are in just that one meter. So, every tune will fit every psalm.

“It’s a very simple system, but in application it becomes complicated because when you start singing it you slow it completely down. Now, the more you slow it down the more the natural inclination of the individual is to add their unique grace notes.”

Those grace notes are what makes Gaelic psalm singing unique. And that uniqueness means you mess with it at your peril.

“It’s music from the islands and it’s essentially their music they create when they’re at church,” Armstrong points out. “So, it isn’t a terribly obvious thing to do a collaboration with. And also, they’ve never ever put music to the psalms before. They’ve never had any accompaniment before. So, it was a bit of a responsibility.”

Then again, he says, why shouldn’t he be allowed to try? “I felt, ‘Well, I am Scottish. It’s part of my culture and I did hear it early on.’” Plus, he had an elderly relative who, like Martin, was a precentor.

That said, it was a challenge, he admits. “I really wanted to study it first. I didn’t want to just jump in and do something on the surface. I wanted to get into the bones of it and study it and analyse it.”

To do so he went up to Lewis, recorded the congregation in Back Free Church, and immersed himself in the music. “You can’t help thinking that the sound of psalm singing is very linked to nature,” Armstrong suggests. “The way they’re all singing the same thing but in different tempo and they’re all doing their own grace notes. It’s almost like a murmuration of starlings. Slightly going out of focus and then into focus.”

The first fruit of the collaboration between Armstrong and Martin was The Martyrdom Variations, which was commissioned by Diageo to be performed at Edinburgh Castle in 2014. Another piece, Ballantyne, was originally commissioned for the Lewis arts centre, An Lanntair, as part of a Creative Places Awards concert in August 2016. Ballantyne was dedicated to Armstrong’s father John who had died the previous year.

“When Craig’s father died,” Martin explains, “I said, ‘Do you know what would be nice Craig? I would like to write a psalm tune in memory of your father.’”

“At first I wasn’t sure,” Armstrong admits. “My dad was a very private guy. But he was also a very religious guy. I think Calum connected with that, so we went ahead and did the second piece called Ballantyne which was my dad’s mother’s maiden name.”

Armstrong’s father, John, was a steelworker. “My dad worked at Ravenscraig all his life,” his son points out. “But later on – I think he was 65 - he went to study to be a lay preacher in the church of Scotland. I thought that was quite brave of him.”

The album itself was recorded in the Caird Hall in Dundee in 2018. As well as the Scottish Ensemble, fiddler Duncan Chisholm played on Ballantyne. “The singers are from different churches,” Martin adds. “They’re from Lewis and Harris basically. Most of them would be Church of Scotland and Free Church of Scotland. They are all island people steeped in the tradition.”

As for the soloists, Calum Iain Macleod was the former minister in Back Church that Martin belongs to. “Calum Iain, I felt, was the best guy to do it. He had that strong, almost operatic voice. But it’s also steeped in tradition.”

The other soloist is Isobel Ann Martin, who just happens to be Martin’s daughter. “She’s such a fantastic singer,” Armstrong enthuses.

“At the end of the day it is breaking a bit of new ground,” Armstrong says. “For me, the record it stands or falls on, does it work as a piece of music? It’s not an exercise. We were trying to create something beautiful.”

Back at the start of 1998, Armstrong was telling The Herald about hanging out with Madonna and getting hugs from Bjork and raving about drum & bass producer Photek. It’s fair to say his situation has changed in the two decades since.

“When I had three young kids, I had to find a way to make money and to do that I became an arranger for a lot of people and I’m quite happy to have done that. My arrangements became quite well known, so that famous people like Tina Turner, Madonna and Massive Attack all wanted me which was great at the time.

“It got my hands on big orchestras. I remember doing the Goldeneye theme for James Bond. Things like that are quite funny when you are sitting beside Tina Turner.

“I think what happened 20 years ago was I didn’t have to take work all the time. I was able to finally choose what I wanted to do. I am not saying I’m not proud of some of the work I did before, but it was a period as a working musician.”

He is happier being his own master, he says. It also allows him to work with people like Martin on projects like The Edge of the Sea, which feel important.

“Calum is incredibly enthusiastic which is exactly what psalm singing needs at the moment. It needs someone to say, ‘Look, this is a hugely important tradition and we are in danger of losing it.’ He’s got that about him.”

And that fear of a tradition disappearing is why Martin was keen to see if it would be possible to take psalm singing out of the church in the first place.

“The bottom line at the end of the day is our tradition as we knew it and as we were brought up is on the way out,” he says. “There are very, very few Gaelic services now. I think the way things are looking I can see it dying out in the churches.

“This is going to disappear, and I was wanting to do whatever I could to try and have people showing an interest in it.”

“We are acting to try to keep it alive.”


The Edge of the Sea is out now