A young Scotsman with long hair and an impressive, grizzly beard scooted an empty chair beside me and looked at me quizzically. “Would you mind sitting with a ghost?” he asked.
“I don’t mind,” I replied. But the lead singer of The Gorms, a Scottish/Irish folk music band, reconsidered and decided that there was no room for ghosts and empty chairs in his audience. He swiftly moved the chair outside. Rejoining his two band mates, he took a swig of his beer and announced, “We’ll keep playing until we run out of drink.” And with that, the show began.
An hour earlier, my companion and I had wandered into Whiski, an Edinburgh pub in old town, on the Royal Mile, after spotting a notice for live folk music at 10pm. As frugal travelers on a budget, we savored a pint, resisting the temptation for whisky which tempted us from all sides. But then the music started with it all caution was thrown to the wind.
Musician Martin Carthy once said of folk music, “I’m not interested in heritage – this stuff is alive.” And it is. British folk songs may not be topping the charts, but these tunes have a staying power that have seen them through centuries. It’s a tribute to this music’s endurance that a group of young musicians play the music of their forefathers with such passion and verve, drawing in a full house and diverse audience.
A solitary man sits on his own, nursing a dram of whisky, a contented look on his face as he listens to the band play. A rowdy group of woman sit in front, giggling to each other and boisterously singing along. The pub is full, men smiling and women shimmying their shoulders, The Gorms’ rhythmic, invigorating melodies filling out the space.
On this night, three musicians take the stage, Stewart Cook as lead vocals and percussionist, Rachel Walker playing fiddle and recorder, and Jack Weir on the guitar. Cook is gregarious and charismatic, working the crowd, and kicking back the beers audience members buy him to keep the music going. Walker and Weir, both soft-spoken, offset Cook’s flamboyance, creating an easy-going dynamic that is curiously electrifying and calming at the same time.
Playing through a set of folk tune classics, including ‘Finnegan’s Wake,’ ‘The Gallowa Hills,’ and ‘The Road to Dundee,’ humour and storytelling run through the show. Cook tells us about ‘the Bonnie Ship the Diamond,’ and later explains how he married ‘Mary Mack,’ who left him for Weir and who now has taken up with Walker.
By the end of the evening, we had enjoyed a selection of whisky and left with buzzing heads and hearts, humming as we danced down the street with a late night snack from a chippie.
I only pity the ghost who sat outside and could only hear from remove this first-rate band and their rendition of timeless tunes immortal.
by Andrea Sandor
They play weekly in Edinburgh: Whiski, Royal Mile – Fridays, 10pm
The Ensign Ewart, Royal Mile – Saturdays, 9pm
Andrea Sandor is a Hungarian-American who grew up between continents and has now moved permanently to the UK. She holds an MA in anthropology and writes about her cross-cultural adventures and observations.