Steve McDonald,
Highland Farewell
(Etherean, 2000)

There's no sense beating about the bush: this is simply the best recording of Scottish music I have ever heard. Even though I am somewhat of a newcomer to the joys of Celtic music (years as opposed to decades; it's a relative thing), I have listened to enough of this genre to form a few opinions.

Steve McDonald's Highland Farewell evokes a sense of the heritage of Scotland that few recordings could ever hope to do. The liner notes say this "is the history in music of the demise of the Highland Clans as a direct result of 'The Clearances' in which the tenants of the land ... were evicted from their homes in a most unforgiving and often brutal fashion."

Most of the songs were written by McDonald and, although the Clearances took place more than 200 years ago, the listener gets a sense that McDonald experienced firsthand the pain and frustration of this forced exile. Born in New Zealand as a result of those dramatic times, McDonald calls himself a grandchild of Scotland.

The title song, "The Highland Farewell," is the Scots' poignant goodbye to their native soil as the ships take them to the ends of the earth where an unknown future awaits them.

The most gut-wrenching track is "By Law." This mournful and powerful song tells all too clearly how the landlords could legally do whatever they wished to evict the crofters. The haunting violin, percussion and tight harmony in the background add to the powerful effect.

For me, the highlight of the album is the stirring and touching "Scottish Soldier." A traditional folksong, it depicts an old highland warrior who is dying in a new land. Knowing that he will never see his beloved green hills of home again, he bids his trusty piper to "sound a lay, a pibroch sad to play" to send his soul back to the Highland hills.

The titles of the other songs provide the listener with a sense of the total experience: "Pain," "To the Ends of the Earth," "End of the Highland Way" and "My Heart Belongs to Scotland." The album closes with Scotland's unofficial national anthem "Flower of Scotland." Written by Roy Williamson in the 1960s, it captures the glory of the past and the hope for a national rising again.

Highland Farewell is not a traditional album by any stretch, filling in much of the instrumentation through clean keyboard sampling and providing a full, lush sound which blends traditional elements with modern orchestrations. Besides lead vocals, McDonald plays fife, drums and keyboards, and is joined by several backing musicians including McDonald's erstwhile vocal partner, fellow New Zealander Hollie Smith.

This recording is a must for every person of Scottish descent, every lover of Celtic music and every student of history. The combination of words and music make Highland Farewell an enjoyable and necessary addition to any collection.

[ by Bill Knapp ]

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