Ahead of their upcoming appearance at the Skye Live Festival this weekend, Peatbog Faeries frontman Peter Morrison spoke to the Free Press’ Keith MacKenzie...
Inspiration from a couple of local worthies who played at Vatten Bridge school Christmas party, and the chance to swap morning maths for chanter lessons, set Peter Morrison on a musical journey that has spanned the globe.
As a founder member and frontman of the Peatbog Faeries – hailed as one of the great Scottish festival bands – he’s now been touring for 28 years on stages from Asia to the Americas. But this week the ‘Peatbogs’ will be back on home turf to showcase their energetic brand of traditional-inspired electronica as part of this year’s Skye Live Festival.
The rare Skye gig will mark the start of another autumn tour for the six-piece group, for whom constant re-invention has proved key to longevity spanning almost three decades.
The sound that’ll boom out in the tent high above Portree Harbour this Saturday will be far removed from the group’s roots as a folk band playing in local pubs. But the Peatbogs, like more recent successors such as Niteworks, are a reminder that a grounding in traditional music is no barrier to a lifetime of instrumental experimentation.
Life for the Peatbog Faeries began with a gig in Edinbane Lodge in the spring of 1991. Peter Morrison and bass player Innes Hutton from Braes – the two constants in the line-up – were joined by Davie Tait, Ali Pentland and Alan Edmunds.
Pubs and village hall dances became their early staple, but gradually more adventurous elements crept into their set and the audiences lapped it up.
Morrison recalled: “We’d bring in a blues or a reggae sound, and we found it was these things that started to go down best with audiences.
“We moved to more of a world music sound around about 1994, but we never expected much to come of it. We were just out to play at pubs and parties and have a bit of fun”.
Their first tape – the ‘Great Ceilidh Swindle’ – sold well locally and paid for a demo in Edinburgh, which in turn caught the ear of Greentrax Records, the specialist label in Scottish traditional music.
With bands like Shooglenifty and Martyn Bennett also arriving on the scene it proved a perfect time to be breaking new ground and the Peatbog Faeries’ debut album ‘Mellowsity’ would stay in Greentrax’s top ten for the next decade-and-a-half.
Morrison remembers: “Because of our size and sound, bands like us and Shooglenifty cost a lot more to record than other folk bands at the time. So there was a worry at the start.
“But as soon as we signed to Greentrax, we quite quickly got an agent and we got sought-after slots at Glastonbury, Nomad and Celtic Connections.
“We didn’t really notice what was happening, in a way – it felt like one day we were playing in the pub, the next day playing in front of thousands.
“There weren’t that many precedents for bands like ours. Most folk bands just played in pubs. There were some accordion bands that were full-time or groups like ‘Silly Wizard’, but for us coming out of Skye we never thought it would turn into a full-time occupation.
“We just went with the flow and luckily for us it proved a lot more popular than we thought it would be.”
The band’s line-up has changed several times, and in turn, each addition helped explore new sounds – the most dramatic shift coming when Rick Taylor and Nigel Hitchcock arrived on Skye in the 2000s to add a three-piece brass section.
Taylor – who passed away earlier this year – was a revered musician who had toured with Elton John, while in recent years the Peatbog’s fiddler Peter Tickell left the group to take to the road with Sting.
The current scaled-back line-up has seen Morrison and Hutton joined by Edinburgh-based Tom Salter on guitar; keyboard player Graeme Stafford from Ardnamurchan; drummer Stu Haikney and Shetlander Ross Couper on fiddle.
For Peter Morrison, the global tours, the record deals and the Glastonbury stage all owe their origins to the chance he got to learn the chanter in the long-since closed Vatten Bridge primary school.
He explains: “Every year Norman MacLeod – the teacher’s husband – and John Laing used to pipe us all in to the Christmas Party, so that was where I first heard the pipes.
“Every pupil got the chance of learning the chanter at school, and I think nine of us started playing. It was either that or an hour of maths.
“I think I was the only one who carried on into secondary school, but I got the bug. I didn’t like the competing part, but I enjoyed listening to the pipes and learning to play them.
“My pal Donnie MacAskill from Roag also played the accordion, so I learned to play drums along with him and from about the age of 13 I was always in bands.”
Morrison’s early piping tutor was Cameron MacFadyen, and he received additional help from Nicol Campbell – another well-known local piper and character from Dunvegan, whose memory has been honoured across the globe.
Morrison added: “When he passed away Nicol left me his kilt, which has since been worn on stages in Japan, Africa and America.”
A joiner to trade, who also worked for a period as a hotelier in Dunvegan, Peter Morrison has seen attitudes to traditional music change over the years, and with it opportunities flourish.
He still lives in Roag with wife Johan and grown-up kids Jenny and Calum, and it’s no surprise to hear him promote the virtues of free access to music tuition in local schools.
He continues to be “amazed” at some of the local talent learning traditional instruments, some of whom he can be heard playing alongside at regular music sessions laid on in the Edinbane Inn and the Old Inn in Carbost.
“It’s changed a lot since when I was a youngster when if you wanted to learn music the only real opportunity was the pipes,” he recalled.
“Things like the fis movement have been really helpful in creating opportunities. There now seems to be a constant stream of really good young musicians coming out of Skye.
“When I started you would never have thought of making a career out of it, but now with some of these youngsters, it seems to be the only thing they think about.
“A lot of these kids are now at a standard that in previous years only a handful of people in Scotland were achieving.
“In Skye you have the likes of Daimh, Niteworks, Bridghe Campbell – the list goes on and on.
“At these regular sessions there are some great young local players going along like Anna Scott, Dugald McKiggan, Archie and Isobel Maclean and Malin Lewis.”
Morrison continued: “Recently over in Lorient (the famed French Celtic festival) I saw a great act. It was a Sikh beatboxer, accompanied by step-dancer Sophie Stevenson along with Catherine Tinney from Portree singing puirt-a-beul.
“This was another Skye person on the international stage, singing to an incredible standard, but she was someone I’d never heard sing before.
“In the past, going somewhere like Lorient, if there was a person from Skye on stage you would know exactly who it was – they would be an established name. Now you can go somewhere like that and get a surprise.
“It shows the strength in depth there is now.”
Some of that west-coast musical talent will be showcased at Skye Live this weekend among a varied line-up that will also include some of the country’s top nightclub DJs.
Morrison urged the local community to rally behind the festival weekend, which this year starts with a Thursday-night concert to the Waterboys.
He added: “We played at the very first Skye Live five years ago and are looking forward to getting on stage at the Lump in Portree again.
“It’s an iconic setting, but organisers have kept the festival to a level that is comfortable for the place.
“A capacity of 2,000 people is about a fifth of the population of Skye and is manageable. When you start to go into the tens of thousands it brings pressures, and it’s a risk to go too big without the infrastructure to support it.
“Whenever anyone organises a festival there will always be people who might want to pick holes in it or knock it in some way.
“But people need to remember that these guys are putting on a platform for so many types of music.
“It’s something people of all ages can go to and hear some of the best music in Scotland in Portree. I would hope local people can support it in any way they can.”
The Skye Live festival runs from Thursday 5th until Saturday 7th September. Acts on the bill include Niteworks, Elephant Sessions, Lau, Tide Lines and Peat and Diesel as well as DJs Erol Alkan, Optimo (Espacio) and Leon Vynehall.
For more information, visit the Skye Live website.