World War I memories revived with moving Far, Far from Ypres at Celtic Connections

Grouping together: performers during finale of the show
Grouping together: performers during finale of the showPete Heywood

Review by Malcolm Duff

Far, Far from Ypres is one of these collaborations that could only take place at Celtic Connections, though when the singers walked on stage uniformly dressed in black it was hard not to imagine them as a classically trained and rehearsed choir. Participants had queued up to offer their services, including Scottish folk legends such as Barbara Dickson and Dick Gaughan, whose Why Old Men Cry was one of many highlights. The show was put together by Ian McCalman, who along with Stephen Quigg, Ian Bruce, and narrator Ian Anderson, kept the show moving through the years of WWI as seen through the experiences of soldier Jimmy MacDonald and his fellow Scottish soldiers in the trenches.

Anderson’s reading of letters, diaries and the beautiful poem In Flanders’ Fields by Major John McCrae gave continuity and perspective on the history, experiences and music of the trenches, which included old favorites Pack up your Troubles in your Old Kitbag, Goodbyee, and It’s a long way to Tipperaray, and hymn parodies When this Bloody War is over and Whiter than the Whitewash on the Wall. Then there were the music hall favorites If you were the only Girl in the World and Roses of Peccary, and more recent songs such as Eric Bogle’s No Man’s Land and Judy Small’s Mothers, Daughters, Wives.

I was particularly impressed by the singing, which combined powerful solos, robust melody and beautiful harmony and told stories of excitement and hope, suffering and endurance, humour and escapism, fear and disillusionment in the words of those involved in the horrors of the Western Front. Scotland suffered 140,000 losses, not a large number in comparison with other countries, but a bigger proportion than any other nation, including seven Heart of Midlothian footballers, and an even more disproportionate number of Highlanders, whose contribution was beautifully recalled in the beautiful Gaelic song An Eala Bhan (The White Swan) by Sineag MacIntyre.

There were a few rough edges - understandable in a show with hardly any rehearsal - but the singing was powerful, the sound quality was excellent and the words were crystal clear. On top of (or rather behind) all this, was the projection of images of the war by Pete Heywood, who managed to link appropriate pictures to the songs, while never taking away from the centrality of the music and words. Sadly there were no cameras to capture this unique event, but the music was recorded, and a fuller version from 2007, remains available on CD from Greentrax.

Far, far from Ypres was a fitting memorial to the Scottish contribution in the First World War, and without being overtly political, it powerfully reminds us of the horrors of war and the individuals and communities touched by it. It ended with the personal story of Harry Lauder, whose own son’s death inspired his signature song, Keep Right on to the End of the Road.

Thank you Celtic Connections for taking this project on board - the sell-out audience showed their appreciation with a standing ovation, and I’m sure there are other themes that could lend themselves to similar treatment!

  • Malcolm Duff writes for The Living tradition magazine, which promotes traditional music in Scotland, the UK and Ireland.  For more information visit livingtradition.co.uk 

What do you think? Please Sign-in or Join to leave a comment. And check-out our House Rules so that we can all make this a better experience for everyone.