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When fall - or should we say autumn - descends, that's the time when lovers of traditional Celtic folk music head to a pub with a roaring fire to sip a pint, or maybe a malt whisky. At least, that's what producer Gordon Black remembers about dark, cold nights in his native Scotland. We sent him back to the auld country in search of a warm fire, a warm beer, and music to warm his soul.

Folk Music in Scotland

by Gordon Black, 11/30/2001

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When it comes to pubs, I'm thoroughly old-fashioned. Pubs should be temples to good ale, good cheer, and good music. So with that in mind I set off on quest to find my ideal pub in Scotland's capital. The Grassmarket area lies in the shadow of Edinburgh's ancient castle and has a clutch of bars.

The only glow at my first stop is from a half-dozen televisions tuned to a soccer match. Yells are the way to hold conversation, apparently.

I retreat to the Beehive Inn, a pub up the street that dates to the days of public hangings.

Still no open fire, but at least no televisions either. I squeeze my way to the bar and shout for a drink, and gulp in the scene. It must be "bad-pop-music night" at the Beehive. It gets worse. I notice the others around me are sipping budweiser and corona from bottles. Ouch? Globilisation is painful to witness.

I linger outside three more bars long enough to know that disappointment awaits me. Of course, I'm not the only one to cry in his beer about the new world order of homogenized bars. Among the others is acclaimed folk recording artist Dougie MacLean.

Dougie: A lot of the old pubs were disappearin', sort of one by one. So for a lot of pubs, they all want it to be more hip and trendy - and American probably. And anything that was sort of Scottish for a while was thought to be sort of parochial and twee and wasn't fashionable.

Maclean grew up in the highland village of Dunkeld, where as a youngster he would play for money in local pubs. When he heard that the last pub in his village that welcomed musicians to play was requiring 24 hours advance notice, he decided to buy his own pub.

Time to flee the big city and head north. Dunkled is a one-street village and finding Maclean's pub is easy - the Taybank Hotel overlooks the river Tay. The exterior is a bit faded but a quick scan inside reveals no televisons, no video games, no gaming machines. Not even a floral carpet.

I was feeling positively nostalgic. Everything about the place lacked the self-consciousness of the Edinburgh bars I had visited. And those were real, playable musical instruments hanging on the wall, not just decorations. At this moment I have never wished more that I could pluck a fiddle down and actually play it.

I admit to musing over a MacEwan's seventy shilling ale while staring at the fire in the grate. That's music I hear seeping through the floorboards. In a room upstairs, Alan Brown and Jenny Barbor are rehearsing. Brown, who grew up in Dunkeld, is here because four years ago he went to see Dougie MacLean in concert.

Brown: He said anyone in the audience should come along. So I thought it was a brilliant opportunity to renew his acquintance. And he recognised me right away despite the gray hair that has materialised in between.

Brown, who played with MacLean in the '60s, did more than renew his friendship with his old friend. The connection is reklinding his interest in folk music. He's even teaching beginners.

Brown: One tends to get into a rut just playing on one's own.so I'd like some more guitar players getting involved in the scene.

Brown is also a regular at the Friday night accoustic-music club at the Taybank, a kind of open mic session. Everyone is welcomed to perform - me, I'd come to listen, maybe do some foot-tapping.

American country music? Well, there's room for all tastes at the Taybank. Next up is a couple I had seen arrive with the tell-tale black cases in their hands. Keith Crook is a fiddler and Jo Powell accommpanies him on guitar.

Powell and Crook drove 100 miles - and that's a long way in a country that's only 350 miles from north to south - to take part. They slept in their VW camper overnight. It was their first Taybank visit and they were impressed.

Crook: Would love to have somewhere like this where we live
Powell: The boy that runs this place is into music anyway, but most publicans are not, they are just into the tilling going, that is what it is, though most musicians I know drink a lot of beer. They spend a lot of money.

The bar downstairs was doing a good trade that night. I did my part, drinking beer until the last-order shout close to midnight. But I went to sleep wondering if the Taybank will survive.

MacLean: The whole Taybank's really a bit of a labor of love really, sort of trying to invent something completely new that doesn't really exist at the moment in Scotland.

Next day, I caught up with MacLean in the old primary school he calls home. He says that with a successful recording career, he doesn't need the Taybank to generate an income. Covering its costs are enough, he says, and that allows the Taybank to devote itself to music.

MacLean: Sometimes we have had 25 fiddlers playing in there, and it just sort of rocks in the bar; the whole building's just been taken over by music. If you arrive at the door of the Taybank with an instrument, you are god.

Even if you're like me and can't play an instrument, for about $25 you can bed down in a Taybank room named for Scotland's most famous fiddle player, Neil Gow.

MacLean: You can look out from the pub across to the little church where he is buried.

To be honest, I'd never heard of Neil Gow before I arrived in Dunkeld, but by the time people leave the Taybank, everyone is a little wiser.

Barbour: this place is amazing.

Jenny Barbour, is on vacation from New Zealand. She arrived at the Taybank with the all-defining musical instrument.

Barbour: I am determined that when I go home I am going to try to create something like we have going on here, but I would like to create place where musicians feel that they are welcomed to come and play and people are going to listen to them and enjoy it, yeah.

As for me, I' felt my trip to Scotland was complete. Knowing that traditional music and cozy pubs are not yet purely nostalgia.

For the Savvy Traveler, I'm Gordon Black

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