A story that begged to be told

Louise Bichan incorporates traditional Scottish fiddle and modern influences.
Photo courtesy Louise Bichan

A family story can be a precious heirloom, passed among relatives and across generations. But sometimes, the story is so inspiring, so compelling, it has to be shared with the wider world.

Such is the case for Brighton resident Louise Bichan, a fiddler from Scotland’s Orkney Islands studying at the Berklee College of Music who four years ago embarked on an effort to retrace the epic journey taken by her grandmother, Margaret S. Tait, across Canada more than six decades ago.
Now, Bichan’s Margaret S. Tait Project has yielded the album “Out of My Own Light,” a suite of instrumental pieces composed by Bichan, plus restored archival recordings of Tait’s performance of Scottish songs on Canadian radio during her trip. Bichan draws on the Orkney fiddle tradition (she began playing at age 7) for her compositions while incorporating other influences and styles – chamber-folk, jazz, experimental – assisted by a quintet of musicians on fiddle, double bass, cello, piano, tenor guitar and percussion.

“Out of My Own Light” ranges from festive full-bodied ensemble pieces to brooding, meditative patchworks of riffs or soundscapes, evoking the people, places and events central to her grandmother’s odyssey, which took her through Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, and parts of Saskatchewan to Victoria.

The project [louisebichan.co.uk/out-of-my-own-light] has been at times all-consuming, yet enormously satisfying for Bichan from both a personal and artistic standpoint, making use of her talents as a photographer and videographer as well as musician. It has given her a deeper insight into her family history while enabling her to make her own memorable journey – at the same age (25) Margaret began hers – which led her, indirectly, to Boston. In a city shaped to a great extent by Celtic heritage and legacy, Bichan and her family story nestles comfortably.

“Granny was always next door to me,” she says of her grandmother, who died in 2008. “We’d spend lots of time together. I was really lucky to have her as part of my life. But I never thought of the history there before me. Although everyone knew she had gone on this journey years before, it was something that just wasn’t talked about.”

The discovery of her grandmother’s journals, letters and other memorabilia after her death revealed much of those unspoken details, including the turmoil that prompted Tait to cross the ocean to a place she’d never been. She was being courted by two suitors, and the dilemma had colored just about every aspect of her life. As she wrote in May of 1950: “I’m so darned restless and unhappy these days just can’t make a decision one way or another. If only I could get right away for a while I’m sure it would help. I’ll never get out of my own light while I continue here.”

The two men in Tait’s life represented a significant contrast. Ian, whom she’d met in college, was an engineer whose path seemed destined to lead out of the Orkneys – before Margaret’s departure he was preparing to take a job in Edinburgh. Sydney was a farmer who, though rooted to the land, wasn’t confined to it; he frequently piloted his small plane around the islands, earning the nickname “The Flying Farmer.”

There was another dimension to Sydney: He was Tait’s widowed brother-in-law, whose wife Myrtle – Margaret’s older sister – had died shortly after giving birth to their son. In the years following Myrtle’s death, Margaret found herself growing closer to Sydney as she, along with her other sisters, helped him raise Sydney Jr. He was, Bichan says, the family’s “approved choice.”

As Bichan sees it, though, her grandmother wasn’t so much fleeing a romantic quandry but rather trying to find herself as a young woman come of age in a world that had been drastically transformed in the quarter-century since her birth. While that exploration involved staying with relatives living in Canada (she also spent time briefly in Michigan), going out on her own was nonetheless a big undertaking, one still viewed in some quarters as unconventional for a single female in her 20s.

“Nobody thought she would come back,” says Bichan.

In the end, however strong her feelings for Ian, Margaret felt an even stronger tie to her family, and the Orkneys, and that proved to be decisive in her decision to marry Sydney: “Flying farmer” weds, proclaims the headline of a newspaper story on the wedding, among the clippings in Tait’s collection and featured among the photos Bichan took for her project.

“Ian could have gone anywhere,” says Bichan, “but Margaret didn’t want to be anywhere else.”

The experience of sifting through her grandmother’s possessions crystalized for Bichan the traits and interests she had in common with Margaret. “Granny couldn’t go to a family event without a camera in hand, just like me. And I have boxes of newspaper and magazine clippings, just like her. So I really think that it’s from her I got that need to document things, and it shaped me as an artist.”

But a key portion of the journals was missing: the time Tait spent in Canada. “I felt I was lacking a big part of the story,” says Bichan, who’d been to Canada as a teenager with her own family and had met some of her relatives. “So I decided I would go find the relatives she’d visited and see what memories and impressions of her they had. What was she thinking then? What was her mood? And what were the things they might have seen in her, as a young woman, that I saw years later when I knew her?”

Stopping in Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Victoria, Bichan caught up with surviving family members who helped fill in some of the blanks for her: “We’d sit for hours, and they remembered more than they thought. They had loads of amazing stories about when the family came to visit the Orkneys, as well as about Margaret.” Bichan captured these encounters in photos as well as on video and audio and, while perhaps she didn’t know it at the time, slowly gathered inspiration for the musical part of “Out of My Own Light.”

Upon returning to Orkney, Bichan spent about a month holed up at home writing out her musical ideas, even though she had “little knowledge of harmony or chords – I just made some demo tracks and wrote the scores as best I could.” She recruited a group of musicians – Jennifer Austin, Signy Jakobsdottir, Su-a Lee, Duncan Lyall and Mike Vass – whom she respected not only for their talents but also for their comfort level in working with multifaceted styles of music.

“Trying to direct everything was kind of terrifying,” she laughs, “but everyone was so wonderful, and very excited about what we were doing.”

“Out of My Own Light” follows a roughly chronological outline: The opening track, “Quoyburray,” is named after Tait’s childhood home; “Swanbister,” the concluding piece, was the town where she and Sydney settled after their marriage. Other tracks center around events or places in this chapter of Margaret’s life, or serve as introductions to major characters: “Ian,” “Sydney the Pilot” and – one of the album’s more intense, vivid compositions – “Myrtle,” which begins with a slow, elegiac passage that transitions into a crazy-quilt of dissonant notes, until the stringed instruments coalesce around a heartbeat-steady percussive rhythm; a family member’s poem composed for Myrtle’s obituary, and set to music and sung by Bichan, appears at the beginning and end, with the memorable final line “Love and memory outlive all.”

“Myrtle is a very important character in this story,” says Bichan. “Margaret looked up to Myrtle – she never thought she was as good a singer as Myrtle. I think her devotion to Myrtle played a big part in the feelings she developed for Sydney.”

The excerpts from Tait’s performance on CBC Winnipeg were taken from a vinyl record that had been produced for her, and had gotten lost among her possessions. The LP was in bad condition when it was found, but listening to her grandmother sing “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose,” “Highland Laddie” and other staples of Scottish folk song in the parlor-formal style, with piano accompaniment, was a revelation for Bichan.

“I knew she sang, because she was in the choir, but I’d never heard her sound like that,” says Bichan. “It was very special, a totally emotional experience.”

Bichan salvaged as much of the recording as possible to piece together an eight-and-a-half-minute “bonus” track. Fragments appear at a few other junctures on the album, notably on “CBC Winnipeg,” with Lee’s cello gently churning underneath – a portal of sorts, connecting past to present.

Even as Bichan began putting “Out of My Own Light” together, she pursued other ventures, including one that was an unexpected dividend from her trip. In addition to visiting her relatives, Bichan made stops in, among other places, Nova Scotia and northern California, where she attended the Valley of the Moon Fiddle Camp, a popular destination for many Boston-area musicians. People she met – such as Cape Breton fiddler Kimberley Fraser, who had lived in Boston for several years while studying at Berklee – encouraged her to apply to Berklee. Although dubious about her chances, Bichan decided to give it a try, and wound up earning a scholarship. She arrived in September of 2015.

“It’s been absolutely fantastic,” says Bichan, a performance major with a minor in American roots. “What’s great is I’m not boxed into one genre: Middle Eastern, Brazilian, Ecuadoran, old-timey, jazz, bluegrass – I’ve been able to play around with all of them.”

Add to that the opportunity to sit in at local sessions, and the various friends and acquaintances she’s made, and Bichan feels she’s gained enormously from her time in Boston.

Yet Bichan still finds herself tugged toward home, to continue exploring her grandmother’s story. She’s organized some live performances of “Out of My Own Light,” and thinks of creating a film (a cousin has even suggested a ballet). Naturally, she wishes her Granny was still around, so she could ask her a multitude of questions about her adventures: What was it like? What were you feeling?

“I could spend ages going back through the diaries, because I always seem to find little nuggets and insights.

“I’m not done with this at all,” she smiles.