Muscial Spirits

Muscial Spirits

Martine Nouet profiles two talented singer/songwriters in the world of whisky: Robin Laing and Norma Munro

Whisky & Culture | 07 Apr 2003 | Issue 30 | By Martine Nouet

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Robin Laing’s first encounter with whisky came well before his idea of capturing its poetic essence on a CD. As a student, he spent a summer in the ‘70s as a barman in the Arisaig Hotel on Scotland’s west coast. The conscientious young Robin carried out research by sampling the whole stock of single malts.The Edinburgh-born singer did not become a full-time musician until 1996, when he gave up a well-paid position to fully enjoy his art. Funnily enough, this is also when he came closer to whisky, becoming a member of the tasting panel at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh. I was invited last summer to a tasting session chaired by Robin. He regaled us with witty, lyrical and yet pertinent descriptions.Robin Laing has created a one-man show on the subject of Scotch whisky, entitled The Angel’s Share. It is also the title of his CD dedicated to uisge beatha. Robert Burns features of course, but Robin has also set modern poems to music, as well as writing songs himself. More than just a dram, written on the Isle of Eigg, is a vibrant tribute to the mountain dew. In the introduction to The Whisky Muse, a collection of whisky poetry and song (see over page), he says:OK, I might be a whisky geek, but the truth is, what fascinates me most is not the smell, or the taste, or even the feeling of floating euphoria that follows a couple of drams. It is the culture – the songs, the poems and stories that surround our national drink – a world of imagination and creativity that testifies to the fact that whisky, for the Scots, is more than just a dram.The Whisky Bard does not limit his audience to Great Britain. He tours the world like a brand ambassador, keeping spirits high at whisky events all over the globe. He recently spent three weeks in New Zealand. He often goes to Switzerland and sings for the SMWS branch in Zurich. He was invited to Sweden and Germany as well. Along with Norma Munro, he supplied the musical element at the Whisky and Song Festival in Paris, while Jim McEwan supplied the whisky element. For Valentine’s Day, Robin has brought in an additional ingredient: love. He has composed superb love songs which appear particularly on Walking in Time and his last CD, Imaginary Lines (both on Greentrax records), mainly dedicated to his partner Ursula.Last year was a busy one for Robin, with the launch of The Whisky Muse, the birth of son Hamish and a musical trip to Islay with the Lanarkshire Songwriters in July. Not only did they offer entertainment every night, but they were also inspired by the whisky muse after visiting distilleries and sampling a few drams. The result will appear in the form of a CD, to be released this year. The group has been invited to do some song writing on Skye next summer.And there is more to come. Robin is currently working on volume two of The Angel’s Share, which should be out soon. So, many more promises of enjoyment whilst sipping our favourite drams and listening to the Whisky Bard’s flowing voice and melodious guitar.For current information on Robin’s tour dates, visit www.folkmusic.net/robinlaingThe Whisky Muse
All whisky-lovers should own this whisky poetry and song anthology, patiently built up by Robin Laing over the years. Each text is highlighted by a witty comment from the Whisky Bard, which amply demonstrates his extensive knowledge of Scottish culture and his keen involvement in the cratur. Illustrations are by Bob Dewar, also a whisky enthusiast and a cartoonist for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society newsletter.The Whisky Muse, published in 2002 by Luath Press, Edinburgh, is available at £12.99 – visit www.luath.co.uk, tel. +44 (0)131 225 4326.More than just a dramTake clear water from the hill and barley from the Lowlands, take a master crafstman’s skill and something harder to define, like secrets in the shape of coppered still or the slow, silent, magic work of time.[Chorus] Whisky, you’re the Devil in disguise, at least to some that’s the way it seems, but you’re more like an angel in my eyes, catch the heady vapours as they rise and turn them into dreams. Bring home sherry casks from Spain; Sanlucar de Barrameda, and fill them up again with the spirit of the land. Then let them work to the spirit’s gain in a process no-one fully understands.[Chorus]Now the spirit starts out clear but see the transformation after many patient year when at last the tale unfolds, for the colours of the season will appear, from palest yellow to the deepest gold.[Chorus]When you hold it in your hand it’s the pulse of a small nation, so much more than just a dram, you can see it if you will – the people and the weather and the land, the past into the present is distilled.[Chorus]Like an angel “She appeared like an angel, in feature and form, as she walked by my side on the road to Dundee … ” These words, from the song The road and the miles to Dundee, perfectly apply to Norma Munro. Not only because she was born close to Dundee – her sylph-like figure, bright open smile and pure, crystal voice definitely have something of the angelic about them.Norma has been living on Islay for nearly 10 years. Though she had not really intended to settle there initially, she has become an adopted Ileach and would not consider living anywhere else.I first met Norma on Islay when travelling with members of a French whisky club. We had received a warm welcome at Bowmore Distillery, and Jim McEwan had organised a dinner and a ceilidh for us at Bridgend Hotel.One of those memorable evenings that punctuate the hard life of a whisky writer! After dinner, we pushed the tables against the walls, rolled up the carpets and the ceilidh began, with alternating dances and songs. Norma came in with her guitar and started singing Wild mountain thyme.We were all immediately charmed by her soothing voice.She reminded me of Joan Baez. I have even dubbed her ‘The Joan Baez of the Hebrides’ in my articles once or twice.However, she is anything but a clone of Joan Baez. She has her own charisma and talent. Her voice possesses a purity and intensity which make it unique and has a healing effect on her audience. This is certainly not a coincidence. Apart from singing, Norma is deeply involved in Reiki healing.Unlike Robin Laing, Norma Munro does not sing whisky songs, though she brought her own contribution to Scotland’s national drink repertoire by composing the music to accompany Scotia’s Gold, a poem written by David Wishart, author of Whisky Classified. This song should feature on her second CD which she is currently working on, and hoping to release later this year.But if Norma does not usually sing about whisky, she accompanies it in the most sensitive and accomplished manner. She and Robin Laing make it clear that “whisky and song gang together”. The traditional ballads she sings expose the romanticism of Scotland and the Scots, a spiritual depth which filters through the barley bree.When Norma starts singing Westering Home, Bunnahabhain glitters in our glasses. Mhairi’s Wedding calls for another round of drinks. But when she breaks into Hush, hush, no need to look for the jug of water.Your eyes will easily add the splash of liquid needed to open up the aromas. This evocation of the Clearances – one of the darkest pages in Scotland’s history – takes on a special dimension when Norma’s “most haunting voice”, as Dave Broom describes it, breaks the silence.Often being invited to entertain distillery guests, especially at Bowmore, Norma started her international career in Paris at the first Whisky and Song Festival in 1999. Now she appears at many a whisky event, be it in Berlin, Stockholm, Zurich or even Tokyo, where she sang at Whisky Live last November, invited by Whisky Magazine.She was back in Paris in February, and sings at the Whiskies of the World Expo in San Francisco at the end of March. And, of course, the happy festival-goers will raise their glasses to Norma on her own turf, in Islay next May. Rien que du bonheur, as we say in France!Scotia’s Gold
(written by David Wishart, set to music and sung by Norma Munro)Raise a glass to the stillman’s skill,
alone in the night, he tends his still.
Charges the wash, brings to the boil,
dewy beads form in a copper coil.Starts at a trickle, then a flow,
cloudy foreshots the first to show.
Checks for strength, clear of mist,
crystal spirit o’coarse milled grist.Spirit safe cranks, sounding the hour,
seizes the essence o’barley flower.
Clear flows the run, pulses the heart,
cuts the middle wi’his stillman’s art.Draught o’ his craft, now bares its soul,
character’s formed in a tulip bowl.
Then raise your glass, my kindred host,
wi’ Scotia’s gold, our worthy toast.
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