by Jane Roser
In 1992 I was attending Glasgow School of Art on a study abroad program. I spent most evenings either listening to traditional Scottish music in pubs or going ceilidh dancing where a nice older Scottish gentleman wearing traditional Highland regalia would often ask the dance announcer to call out the Virginia Reel for me. Thankfully I knew it since, at the time, it was a requisite for Virginia schools to teach square dancing in gym class.
One day I happened to be browsing through a music shop downtown when “The Howl”, a electrifying feat of bagpipes, fiddle, percussion and guitars, blasted over the speakers. I immediately purchased Unleashed and The Chase, Wolfstone’s first mainstream released albums, and shared my discovery with my fellow American dorm mates who were also awestruck by this bands musical wizardry.
Wolfstone was founded by fiddler Duncan Chisholm and vocalist/guitarist Stuart Eaglesham in 1989 (the current line-up also includes Stevie Saint on bagpipes, Alyn Cosker on drums, Colin Cunningham on bass and Davie Dunsmuir on guitar). The band quickly went from performing in village dance halls to headlining illustrious festivals and large music venues as their unique, fiery live concerts garnered tens of thousands of fans all across Europe and America.
Wolfstone takes traditional Celtic tunes and adds a dram of rock and roll, fueling their brand of music to cross genre lines and appeal to a wide range of audiences. Their live shows showcase beautiful airs, powerful original songs about social injustice and dramatic instrumentals, which, combined with a dynamic stage presence and an enthusiastic audience, make for one of the best live concerts one could ever have the pleasure to attend.
Unleashed was recorded at Palladium Studios in Edinburgh and released to critical acclaim in 1991. Phil Cunningham (Silly Wizard) produced the album and brought in Neil Hay (bass) and Jon Henderson (drums). With the addition of Ivan Drever on vocals, Struan Eaglesham on keys, Andrew Murray on electric guitar and Allan Wilson on pipes and whistles, Unleashed shot up the charts to claim Silver status within six weeks.
“Sleepy Toon” is a traditional Bothy ballad that tells the story of a farm hand who soon discovers that the conditions of his work contract basically suck. Set to a riveting fiddle reel and charmingly funny lyrics, this is perhaps my favorite song on the record.
“Hector the Hero” is a pipe tune honoring Sir Hector MacDonald, a real-life hero who became popular in Scotland and England for his heroic efforts during the Boer Wars, yet whose life ended tragically in 1903.
The lyrics for “Here is Where the Heart Is” were written by Drever whilst on a train through the Scottish highlands and the tune was later composed in his kitchen. It is a lovely song illustrating the storyteller’s love for his native land, which concludes with a lament about the devastating consequences the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries had on families which “cleared them from the land/Families of young and old with one wave of the hand.” It’s a sad reminder of the days when sheep were considered more valuable than people.
Sir Winston Churchill once said “of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.” Wolfstone’s music has certainly been, and continues to be, a national treasure which transcends language and cultural barriers. Their music personifies freedom, poetry and artistry. It achieves this feat with both a fiery passion and a humble nod. Now that’s magic.