Various artists’ The Kilmartin Sessions: The Sounds of Ancient Scotland

cover art for The Kilmartin SessionsI understand that a review copy of Kathryn Tickell’s new album which features a Pict instrument called the carnyx, is on its way to GMR from Park Records, but I have an album that our Music Editor will find even stranger: The Kilmartin Sessions: The Sounds of Ancient Scotland. And yes, there’s a carnyx on this album too! (The Carnyx was a long Celtic drone instrument made of beaten bronze and held vertically so that the sound travels from more than four metres above the ground. It was known through much of Europe from about 200 BC to 200 AD and was widely depicted, notably on the Gundestrup bowl, which shows three carnyxes being played simultaneously. The end of the instrument is in the form of a wild boar’s head, and it has a movable tongue and lower jaw!) Just think the spookiest howl you’ve ever heard and you might — just might — come close to grasping what it sounds like!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Way ahead of myself! The Kilmartin Sessions: The Sounds of Ancient Scotland is a project of the Kilmartin Museum, a Scottish organization devoted to the history of the Kilmartin region. As they note, ‘Over 5,000 years of human history are traced across the Kilmartin Valley. At least 150 prehistoric sites lie within 6 miles of the quiet village of Kilmartin. There are enigmatic carved rocks, mysterious standing stones, impressive burial cairns and the fortress of the earliest Scottish Kings. But who were the early hunters, farmers and warriors and why did they leave behind such rich remains? Kilmartin House helps to answer these questions, and more.’ Interestingly enough, the Kilmartin Museum says that this was where the Scottish nation was born!

Using original instruments and reconstructions, this singular CD offers, for the first time, a chance to hear the sounds that would have been familiar to my Scottish ancestors thousands of years ago. It includes the first widely available recordings of the 2000 year old Caprington horn, the 8th century iron bell of St Adomnan, ninth century Pictish triple pipes, and many other remarkable items, including the aforementioned carnyx. (The amazing sound of the carnyx was specially recorded for the Kilmartin Sessions in Smoo Cave.) The music ranges from sacred ringing rocks at the Iona Abbey to bird-bone flutes, and Bronze Age horns and drums. Did I mention that the recording opens with some rather pleasant bird songs played on bone flutes? They sounded so birdlike that even the cats sprawling here in the Green Man Library when I played it in my office were enchanted by them! Now the carnyx was a different matter — let’s just say they got out of hearing range rather quickly!

The Kilmartin Sessions CD has 35 tracks and is accompanied by a glossy 23 page booklet with lots of information about Scotland’s ancient musical past. This is a CD that has to be heard to be believed. The CD is divided into six sections: Bones and Stones, Skin and Bone, Horn and Bronze, the Bronze Age Orchestra, The Sound of Battle (which is where the carnyx is heard), Hearing Pictish Stones, and the Cry of Prayer. This is one seriously documented CD! Just read this note about the track, ‘Calling Birds’:

This block and duct flute is made from the end of a cow’s femur and is a simple type of recorder. It is similar to an original instrument found in Sweden, dating from around 2000 BC. The player improvises a variety of bird calls, some which might have been used to lure birds within bow-shot. The different effects are produced by the fingers moving against the open end of the instrument, and by varying the air pressure.

Or this note about one of the Sound of Battle cuts, ‘Dark Army’:

This ghostly and terrifying sound, made at night as well as daytime, was a traditional ‘weapon’, used by the Scottish army as late as the 14th century according to the French historian, Froissart: ‘The Scots have a custom, when assembled in arms, for those who are on foot to be well dressed, each having a large horn, slung round his neck, in the manner of hunters, and when they blow all together, the horns being of different sizes, the noise is so great it maybe heard four miles off to the great dismay of their enemies.

Eeeeek! His description is very accurate: this was one very scary cut!

The best parts for me were the Bronze Age Orchestra and The Sound of Battle sections, which have the fullest sound to them. The Smoo Cave Carnyx cut comes complete with running water and the sound of bats startled — quite rightfully — by the loud tones of the carnyx! The carnyx is one of the oddest musical instruments of all time. There is incredible workmanship in the four metre tall hand-crafted bronze tube which leads up to an image of a wild boar’s head with raised crest, gaping movable jaw, lolling tongue, alert ears and red enamel eyes. Held vertically, the sound issues from almost four metres above the ground, over the noise of battle. The power of the tone makes this one of the loudest instruments ever made, uniquely suited to being used to scare the shite out of the enemy. The Romans thought they had encountered something out of a very bad nightmare when they encountered blue-painted picts blowing carnyxes!

The bottom line is anyone interested in how Celtic music as we now know it came to be, should purchase The Kilmartin Sessions. The later cuts clearly show the origins of modern Celtic music. But keep the lights on when The Sound of Battle cuts are playing!

(Kilmartin Museum, 1997)

Iain Nicholas Mackenzie

I'm the Librarian for the Kinrowan Estate. I do love fresh brewed teas, curling, English mysteries and will often be playing Scandinavian or Celtic  music here in the Library here in Kinrowan Hall if the Neverending Session is elsewhere. I'm a violinist too, so you'll me playing in various contradance band such as Chasing Fireflies and Mouse in the Cupboard as well as backing my wife Catherine up on yearly Christmas season tours in the Nordic countries.

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