Little did I know what a treasure chest of music I would discover when Mark van der Stelt suggested I should write an introduction to
Back of the Moon‘s
album Luminosity. Not only was the music by the band itself mesmerizing, but so were the projects that the band were involved with afterward. There is the singer/songwriter extraordinaire
(go check out his three solo albums and discover the magic of ‘just’ a voice and a guitar), there is the lovely Celtic folk on Pendulum,
2016 solo album I reviewed a couple of months ago (link), and I haven’t even started exploring the trazillion records
has been involved with. But today I want to focus on the lovely concept folk albums of composer and multi-instrumentalist
something I have wanted to do from the moment I first listened to them on
Earlier I combined his two nature-inspired albums: The River (2016) and The Woods (2020) in one review
now I will focus on the third solo album Hamish has recorded up till now: The Railway.
Hamish Napier, to quote the bio on his webpage:
-“ is originally from Strathspey in the Scottish Highlands. For over a decade he has been an integral part of Glasgow’s vibrant folk music scene, whilst also touring in Europe and North America with Scottish folk quartet Back of the Moon (‘Folk Band of the Year 2005’ MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards). Gaining degrees in Astronomy and Music when he first moved from his native Highlands to the city of Glasgow, Hamish was then awarded a year’s scholarship to study jazz piano and composition at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA. Hamish now teaches composition and music theory at Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and at music schools and festivals worldwide. He has recently returned to his native Strathspey, composing three solo albums The River (2016), The Railway (2018), and The Woods (2020) in celebration of his homeland.‘
When Hamish performed The River live in Grantown in summer ’16, Karen Blessington approached him enthusiastically after the show, inviting him to compose a soundtrack to her exciting new venture,
the Grantown East: Highland Heritage & Cultural Centre.
And the rest, as they say, is history. During the making of this album, Hamish talked a lot with former railwaymen Jimmy Gray (then 93), Jacky Hay (then 94), and James Telfer (then 94). The Railway is as much their story as it is Hamish’s.
The record kicks off with The Speyside Line. As on the whole record, Hamish combines his love for piano and whistles with his talent to compose really catchy instrumental Celtic folk songs that are rich in tradition but with a modern, slightly jazzy sound. Those jazzy laid back drums and double bass lines are what make his folk music so accessible. The song is about the Spey line itself, its route never far from the river, sometimes almost hanging over it, and – listening to the music – traveling it must have been beautiful. Hamish – the composer – has this special ability to take a picture in notes, to create a drawing in his melody lines, and on The Speyside Line he makes us re-live every bend of this historic line.
‘A pair of tunes for a pair of steam locomotives’ That’s how Hamish introduces Double Header, the second song on The Railway. And yes Hamish did indeed write a song to immortalize two famous old steam locomotives. Even more actually. For the steam geeks here is the rest of Hamish’s introduction:
–‘The first tune is for
of the Highland Railway, the popular ‘Black 5’ (LMS Class 5) which driver Jocky Hay praised as a “damn good engine!” The second is for
the Gordon Highlander, the Speyside Line’s most beloved LNER D40. The Strathspey Railway’s beautifully restored
Ivatt Class 2 locomotive
also gets a wee mention, its
British Rail train number ‘46512’
is also the chord sequence in the bridge between the two tunes!’
I love reading those introductions. It really brings the music and story together in a funny and witty way. The song itself starts with some lovely upbeat variations on flute and violin representing ‘the Hikers’ of the Highland railway before the highland pipes slowly ‘merge’ in to represent ‘the Sojer’ of the Speyside line.
Next up is Jocky the Mole and it brings back the glory days of Back of the Moon, with the brothers Napier joining forces one more time. Findlay takes the vocals twice on The Railway: in this song, and in The World Came In By Rail. Both are, as we Dutch say, pearls of Celtic singer-songwriter folk music that would not have sounded out of place on that classic album Luminosity. My first highlight of the CD.
It is followed straight by my second highlight: The Firebox. Don’t ask me HOW Hamish did it, but I can just see the flames licking through the coals as the fire is lit in the firebox. You can feel the engine heating up, you can feel the immense power, that was able to pull all those carriages up the Hills awakening. The steal muscles of the mighty machine gearing up for action. The deep double bass rhythm in the song represents that mighty power, the flute and fiddle variations represent the fire jumping and licking over the coals as the fireman shoved shovel after shovel of fuel into the firebox.
The Old Ways is:
[quote] ‘a slow 6/8 march written in honour of the traditional skills, trades, and ways of life lovingly preserved by historians and enthousiasts[…][..]celebrating what is unique and special about our culture.’Up The Hill starts as a lovely song with a mesmerizing flute solo that gently eases your mind into a state of calm. If you would tell me that it is about hanging in a grass field with a strand of grass in my mouth, chilling while I am looking at the clouds passing by overhead I would have believed you. But… …the second part of the song O’er Drumochter would not fit at all, so it can’t be. And indeed it isn’t. It is about the climb to Drumochter summit, the highest part of the Scottish railway, and the struggle the old steam engines had getting up there. The story is captured wonderfully in the booklet, told by the old railwayman Jimmy Gray. As I said, this is as much the old railwaymen’s story as anything else. And Hamish is a master in capturing that.
This is proven best in Helen’s Song. A heartfelt ballad that Hamish composed in memory of Jimmy Gray’s wife Helen, who was with him for 63 years. Starting as a beautiful piano piece, it is Patsy Reid and her string skills that make Helen’s Song an exquisite homage to a lifetime of love.
But this album is not only the story of the railwaymen, in Dr. McGugan’s and Cheery Groove the story gets a true personal touch. The first song is an air written as a gift to a close friend, the second song a slip jig composed for his parents, in memory of all the great house ceilidhs -social gatherings- with friends and family over the years. In an interview, Hamish said that he finds it extremely important not to separate the ‘folk’ from the music and that is the power of this beautiful CD. The magic of it lies in the combination of music and the story told in the booklet, which was sometimes witty as the old railwaymen told their anecdotes, sometimes interesting as Hamish went into the history of the line itself, sometimes touching and beautiful as proven in Helen’s Song. I loved reading it.
This is one of those albums that got me writing as soon as I heard the first notes. Not to outdo The River,which I love, and The Woods, also a strong and unique Celtic folk album, I arguably consider The Railway to be Hamish’s best record yet. (This is a purely personal opinion though, so feel free to disagree.) Gems like Diesel, Jocky The Mole, and Helen’s Song have helped this album find its way into my CD player time and time again.
Together the trilogy of The River, The Railway, and The Woods is a true homage to the Cairngorms, the place where Hamish Napier grew up, the place he now calls home again. On the postcard that goes with the CDs it says:’ Hamish Napier; Scottish Highlander – Folk Musician – Composer – Tutor. To put it in THAT order is a clear statement! Through ALL of Hamish’s his solo work you can hear the love and pride he has for his home country, for the people that live in it, for the history of the land, for his beloved Highlands! And the best thing about it? He is not done yet! The fourth album is already on its way. I can’t wait to hear it!
-editor: Iris de Wolf
-pictures: Hamish Napier
If you would like to support Hamish Napier you can find him on:
– Facebook or