My Best of Scotland series continues to roll with today’s post, in which I focus on a handful of places to reliably find excellent traditional Scottish folk music. My early trips to Scotland invariably centered on finding those places where local musicians united in darkened pubs, as if drawn together by Hendrix’s All Along the Watch Tower*, to play traditional Scottish tunes. I had my share of successes, and those nights at Sandy Bell’s or the Port Charlotte Hotel quaffing pints to the wildly talented strains of local folk music are some of my favorite memories.
Trad music isn’t hard to find in Scotland. Musicians gather in pubs and community centers all across the country to weave their melodies and rhythms. The trick, for visitors, is to be in the right place at the right time. Trad sessions blaze into life and fade as common and quickly as a fireflies over a summer cornfield.
Below I’ve chosen five destinations where the chances of catching some live trad music are higher than the average. No guarantees, but since these are places renown for their music with high concentrations of excellent musicians, chances are good.
Sure, there’s something to be said for serendipity, like the night I stumbled on a rollicking session at the Merchant Bar in Portree. There’s also something to be said about a perma-sadface after you’ve failed to catch even a single note from a fiddle’s bow.
Listen up! This is your chance to listen in.
Dunkeld is one of my favorite towns in all of Scotland. Less touristed than Pitlochry to the north and tucked in the heavily forested Perthshire hills along the banks of the River Tay, Dunkeld makes an ideal visit. The Hermitage Forest and gorgeous, ruined Dunkeld Abbey provide further enticement, but the reason Dunkeld makes this list is because it also happens to be a folk music Mecca.
The Taybank Hotel used to be run by Dougie MacLean, a famous Scottish folk musician who has been a part of such groups as The Tannahill Weavers and Silly Wizard and still maintains a strong solo career today. The Taybank remains the place to go for local trad and an excellent pint or dram. I think that every time I’ve visited they’ve had music going in the bar.
The Perthshire Amber Festival and Neil Gow Fiddle Festival also happen to make Dunkeld their annual home. It’s kind of amazing that this tiny town can be the epicenter of all this great music. A perfect day is hiking the hills around Dunkeld and returning to town in the evening for a stovie and a pint at the Taybank while the music takes off. Dunkeld might seem a quiet place with a slow pace, but it brings together many strands of Scottishness in perfect bow.
The Shetland Islands play host to one of Scotland’s biggest folk festivals each year. The Shetland Folk Festival is a multi-day romp around the islands with many concurrent scheduled and ad hoc shows at various community centers, hotels, and pubs. Of course that’s not the only festival – Shetland also hosts the Shetland Accordion and Fiddle Festival, Shetland Blues Festival, Shetland Fiddle Frenzy, and the Peerie Willie Johnson Guitar Festival.
It takes a music-loving folk to organize so many music festivals, and indeed music is strong in so many people here, from children to grandparents. Outside the festivals, trad can often be heard at famous music pubs like the Lounge Bar, Da Noost, and the Douglas Arms (aka Marlex).
Given the size of Shetland, you might find yourself sitting next to musicians of great renown!
Orkney, too, has a folk music festival of world renown (what is with these northern archipelagos?). In a similar vein as the Shetland Folk Festival, the Orkney Folk Festival highlights both visiting and local acts, giving each a chance to shine on stages around the islands.
To be fair, I have not had the chance to attend the Orkney Folk Festival, but I have visited the islands several times and listened to trad at places like The Ferry Inn, The Stromness Hotel, and The Royal Hotel in Stromness and The Reel in Kirkwall.
As a rule of thumb, wherever you find folk festivals you’re likely to find at least a pub or two where you can hear live music on a frequent basis.
Edinburgh is the cultural capital of Scotland, so it should come as no surprise that it appears on this list. In fact, Edinburgh might well be your best and easiest chance to hear some live music. Pubs all over town often have a dedicated trad music night, and all you need to do to obtain this information is go on a pub crawl or three and ask.
A couple of my favorite pubs to hear live music are Sandy Bell’s and The Royal Oak. Conveniently, these pubs are quite near one another just south of the Royal Mile so if you strike out at one you can make the quick jaunt to the other. Sandy Bell’s might have live music every night. I can say without hesitation that if I lived in Edinburgh you would often find me there. It’s a warm, close, and convivial space that seems to hug you when the music’s playing.
The city also puts on TRADFEST Edinburgh – Dùn Èideann (previously known as Ceilidh Culture) each spring, which packs many different music and art events into a concentrated period of time.
You’re going to be in Edinburgh on your trip to Scotland anyway – seek out some trad at the city’s great, traditional pubs.
Western Scotland is renown for its musical culture, and Ullapool on the west coast of the northwest highlands is fast becoming a focal point for Scottish folk music. The Loopallu Festival brings musicians big and small to this distant ferry town each fall, while the Ceilidh Place just off the harbor is considered one of the highlands’ most happening musical spots.
Pubs and hotel bars up and down this fjord-like coastline play host to many local musicians whether on scheduled trad nights or whenever the spirit takes them. Get out there and explore the tiny towns, stop in for a pint, and relax. You never know what you might see.
If you’ve got your own instrument, even better. From everything I’ve seen, trad is a communal, welcoming activity where musicians are simply looking to have a good time, feed off each other’s energy, and make some damn fine music.
*Yes, that is a nerdy Battlestar Galactica reference.
Ullapool photo by Eglos via Flickr/Creative Commons