From the get-go, a deep sorrow seems to emanate from “The Year of the Burning,” a bluesy waltz off Scottish folk rocker Alasdair Roberts‘ latest album, A Wonder Working Stone. The singer leads an orchestra of banjos, violin and morose guitars as he recants stories of families evicted from their homelands, punctuated by the harrowing line, “Whipcrack on whipcrack on whipcrack.” If it all sounds a bit heavy, that’s because it’s based on a true story.
“‘The Year of the Burning’ is an attempt to write about an event in Scotland’s recent history known as the Highland Clearances,” Roberts says, referring to events that took place in the 18th and 19th Century. “This was when a large number of people were forcefully displaced from their homes in the north of Scotland by hereditary aristocratic landowners, who deemed that the land would be put to more profitable use in the rearing of sheep. The song pays tribute to those displaced, predominantly Gaelic-speaking, people.”
Roberts found the inspiration for the song from reading historian John Prebble’s 1982 book, The Highland Clearances. Interestingly, though, the song reflects Roberts’s interest in Irish music more than that of his homeland. “The melody is derived from that of an Irish traditional song,” he says. “Although I have not an ounce of Irish in me, I am attracted to the grand and beautiful melodies that that nation seems to produce, and am particularly interested in the ‘sean-nos’ singing style, which has had an influence on my own singing style.” He and his band recorded the track live in a Glaswegian studio and nailed it in about three takes. It’s an approach he used for the whole album, which contains songs with similar political themes. None, though, are as historically specific as “The Year of the Burning.”
“I recently came across a quote from the Scottish poet Ian Crichton Smith along the lines of, ‘Who nowadays would write about the Highland Clearances?’,” Roberts says. “But by then it was too late, as my song already existed.”
Alasdair Roberts & Friends’ new album A Wonder Working Stone is out January 22 via Drag CityAlasdair Roberts - The Year of the Burning