What do you think Scotland sounds like?
Do you hear a team of tartan-clad pipers walking from Robert the Bruce’s Edinburgh Castle down its city’s Royal Mile? Do you feel the thump of traditional Scottish sessions shaking Scotch whiskey-lined walls of a Glasgow pub as the Rangers Football Club rules the pitch? Or do you simply envision an all-star jam of Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, Garbage’s Shirley Manson and those bespectacled twin brothers from the Proclaimers jamming out a flute-accented grunge version of “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”?
While it’s true that most visitors to the 12-centuries-old country may expect its omnipresent sound to replicate James Horner’s work on the “Braveheart” soundtrack, take a bus, train and long walk to Scotland’s corners and you’ll find its audible options are much more varied. Acoustic guitarists covering AC/DC while illuminated portraits of Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix hang nearby. A Dixieland jazz outfit entertaining a group of soft-stepping senior citizens. An art gallery organist teaming such work as Theodore Dubois’ “Toccata in G Major” with a maniacal cover of Coldplay’s “Clocks” on a massive concert organ built in 1901 – and both in the presence of Salvatore Dali’s mesmerizing “Christ of St. John on the Cross.”
Whether in its Highlands, capital city or largest city, Scotland’s live music is pervasive in nearly every pub, club or cavernous tavern filled with visitors and locals alike. Starting at 9 p.m. on most late-week and weekend nights, it not only sets the mood for those interested in a rhythmic evening of songs, stouts and single malts but also for those interested in an introduction to a vital component of the country’s character.
Alongside the heroics of William Wallace, words of Robert Burns and charity of St. Margaret is the sound of Scotland, a nationally identifying element found in many forms and, on a recent visit, enjoyed inside a trio of locations.
A cool Cat
Scottish capital Edinburgh bills itself as “The Literary City,” with homages to some of the country’s greatest writers across its urban landscape. A quote from “Treasure Island” author Robert Louis Stevenson graces the modernist architecture of the Scottish Parliament, and across town, 287 steps lead to the top of the Sir Walter Scott Monument, an intricately designed Victorian Gothic-style tower dedicated to the man behind “Rob Roy.”
And once 200 feet above the city, Scott devotees can look five blocks in the distance toward a locale inspired by another accomplished author – albeit not a Scottish one.
Tucked away inside Edinburgh’s Old Town is the Black Cat, a whiskey bar named after one of many short stories by Boston-born scribe Edgar Allan Poe. But when visitors enter the bar from Rose Street’s cobblestone, they’re not greeted with a dark atmosphere in the vein of Poe. On the night of my visit, I was greeted by the sounds of local duo Ewan Wilkinson (guitar and vocals) and Sandy Brechin (accordion), strumming and squeezing through acoustic originals at a common table as the barroom buzzed around them. Young and middle-aged patrons ordered pints of locally brewed beer or chose between the dozens of Scotch options at the bar, and others settled in with their drinks at rickety wooden tables or chairs cut out of old whiskey barrels.
As I settled into a corner table with a Williams Brothers’ March of the Penguins Stout and a Glenfarclas 10-year single-malt, I watched as Wilkinson and Brechin were joined by two fiddlers who wandered in from the cold, there to join the Black Cat’s warm, rustic environment and augment the duo’s music that had slipped into the streets. It was a fluid communion, and together, their music established the bar’s welcoming vibe.
All the King’s Jazzmen
Not to be outdone by its country’s capital, Glasgow – Scotland’s largest city – bills itself as the “City of Music,” laying claim to bassists like the late Jack Bruce of Cream, bands like Franz Ferdinand and vinyl dens like Monorail Music. According to Glasgow’s City of Music website, the Scottish expanse hosts more than 130 music events each week, making it easy to find performers of all shapes and styles inside its many bars, halls and clubs.
And if fans want to find Glasgow’s most famous venue, they look for the stairs of King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, a two-tiered, 300-capacity destination nestled inconspicuously on St. Vincent Street.
Since opening in 1990, King Tut’s has hosted up-and-coming acts like Beck, Blur and, more recently, Alabama Shakes in its bare-bones upstairs concert space. In 1993, it famously became the launching pad for then-unknown Oasis, which helped to build its lore and, in turn, lure acts from all over. But these bands are not limited to bickering brothers begging to be the next Beatles. They come from all genres and generations, including the act that greeted my afternoon visit, the retiree-aged sextet of Penman’s Jazzmen.
I couldn’t get tickets to the night’s show with rising electro-rockers Dead Man Fall, so I settled in downstairs with a pint of the house lager for the jazz ensemble’s take on well-worn standards like “My Blue Heaven.” As the band filled in around Bill Mullen’s drum beat, similarly aged fans took turns dancing with their dates, shuffling and twirling on a floor surrounded by framed concert posters for the Black Keys and Manic Street Preachers. Not exactly fare from the “Trainspotting” soundtrack, but for the Scottish patrons in attendance, every trumpet note and banjo chord elicited as much joy as any Gibson-geared band that’s graced King Tut’s 25-year-old stage.
After enjoying the serenity provided by a Taylor-strumming songwriter and unexpected twist of enjoying a jazz collective mere steps away from where ’90s behemoths made their bones, there’s something assuring about finding a traditional session in the thick of the Scottish Highlands.
Inverness’ Hootananny Pub stands a block off the River Ness and hosts live music seven days a week, with traditional sessions featuring local instrumentalists Sunday through Wednesday nights, starting at 9:30 p.m. Bathed in blue, yellow and red stage lights, musicians churn through jams via accordion, banjo, fiddle and guitar, all to the delight of those sipping brews from nearby Black Isle Brewing Co. and tapping to the rhythm in booths accented with secondhand bedposts. Windows are flanked by tartan-patterned curtains, and walls are plastered with pages from the Northern Chronicle, a Highlands newspaper established in the late 1800s.
Some of these details may make Hootananny sound like some sort of tourist trap, catering to visitors intent on snapping a selfie with the Loch Ness Monster a mere 13 miles down the river. Not the case. Throughout my night hovering over a pint of Black Isle Porter and watching a trio of millennials tour through stomping instrumentals, regulars joined college student-aged patrons at candlelit tables. Middle-aged visitors sipped drams of Old Puteney while young adults cycled in and out of the “smokers’ outlet,” the pub’s rear shedlike cabana for those eager for a drag.
But once back inside the barroom, they joined music emblematic of the host country’s sound, with joyous echoes off strings and an electric-blue accordion that can bring both visitors and natives together for a celebration of Scotland’s hospitality, history – and musical heritage.