Garefowl is a project marking two anniversaries connected to the archipelago of St Kilda, which lies in the Atlantic Ocean 50 miles west of the Outer Hebrides: 180 years since the last great auk (or “garefowl” as they were called in St Kilda) in the UK was killed there, and 90 years since the inhabitants were evacuated in 1930. Ewan Macdonald and his father Murdo, relatives of one of the men who killed the great auk, conceived the project to reflect on and mark this family history.
Garefowl is an international collective of musicians (Chris Jones, Ewan Macdonald, Jess Whelligan, Nathan Bontrager, Richard O’Flynn, Spiff Wiegand, and Stuart Graham) combining fiddle, viola, cello, mandolin, banjo, bouzouki, viola da gamba, erhu, vocals, and electronics. The album contains five immersive instrumental interpretations of traditional St Kildan songs sourced from archive recordings and manuscript collections, alongside three modern tunes written on or about St Kilda by Ewan and Murdo. The uniquely St Kildan stories of the extinct great auk and the evacuated human population are also deeply relevant to our own uncertain age, and reflections on the fragility of nature and of human ways of life are woven into the fabric of the music.
The music of St Kilda stems from the Gaelic song tradition. There are descriptions of music on the island dating back to the late 17th century: Martin Martin, a traveller from Skye who visited in around 1697, notes that the islanders “are great admirers of music; the trump or Jewish harp is all the musical instrument they have, which disposes them to dance mightily”. In 1758, Kenneth Macauley writes that they loved music both vocal and instrumental- “the very lowest tinklings of the latter, throws them into an extasy of joy. I have seen them dancing to a bad violin much to my satisfaction”. Alongside the dancing, however, were many sad laments. One such song was described by a 19th century visitor as “one of the wildest and eeriest he had ever heard, ‘the burden or refrain being manifestly an imitation, consciously or unconsciously, of the loud discordant clamour of a flock of sea-fowl over a shoal of fish.’”
Over time, the increasing influence of the Church served to inhibit the musical tradition of the island. Secular music and dancing were banned, and when the folklorist Alexander Carmichael visited in 1865 to record poems and songs from the 84-year old poet Euphemia MacCrimmon, both he and her were given a stern talking to by the then-minister John Mackay for stirring up memories of the “foolish past”. However, despite the best efforts of the ministers, enough has survived in the oral tradition and written down in manuscripts to give a glimpse of the music of the island. The tunes reinterpreted on this album were found in published 18th/19th century music collections and archive recordings available on the Tobar an Dualchais website.