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Bothy Culture

How a techno piper reinvented Scotland's Bothy Culture

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Meet Scotland's ultimate folk revival album, its new orchestral sound, and the man who started it all, Martyn Bennett.

So, who was Martyn Bennett?

He's kind of a big deal in Scottish folk music. Known to many as the "techno piper", Bennett was enormously influential in the Celtic fusion revival and is remembered for changing the face of folk during his time alive. By showing how it could be composed electronically and then experimented with that way, he opened the doors for other producers to play with field recordings and push genres to their limits - some have even drawn comparisons between him and Moby. 

Bennett spent much of his adulthood battling cancer, which would eventually claim his life at the untimely age of 33. In spite of this, he released a total of seven albums, including Bothy Culture, that incorporated multiple musical zeitgeists at the time - the rejuvenation of folk, the rave scene's "Second Summer of Love" in 1988, and numerous other traditional music styles from around the world. Who knows where else he might have pushed Scotland's traditional culture if he were still with us today?

Okay, you have my attention. And what is a bothy culture?

Bennett actually came up with this phrase himself. A “bothy” is another word for a small hut that climbers (and in the old days, shepherds) use for shelter while on the move through the mountains. They are still dotted throughout Scotland’s hilly landscape, and Bennett got to experience them when his bandmate, Rory Pierces, took him hiking through the Highlands. 

We’d bring our pipes, we’d bring flutes, we’d bring all sorts of bottles of whisky, and we’d have a wild crack up there. And we met all these salmon poachers and poets and photographers - not outlaws, but kind of maverick figures.

Rory Pierces, member of Bennett's band Cuillin and GRIT Orchestra musician

So bothy culture is tied to the Highlands, where Bennett lived as a child – it’s about Scotland’s rugged landscape, late nights singing folk songs with a bottle of whisky around a fire, and meeting colourful characters on the footpath. 

But, as this BBC 6Music documentary puts it, it’s also a very Edinburgh phenomenon:

Wait, Edinburgh? What do the bothies have to do with Edinburgh?

More than you’d think! Bennett saw a big connection between bothy culture and rave culture, which permeated through Edinburgh's underground scene at the same time that he was beginning to experiment with electronic composition. 

Bothies have the same, familiar atmosphere to urban nightclubs … it is the same sense of excitement that can transform four bare walls into a chamber of sheer sensual delight.

Martyn Bennett

When you think of the capital city’s music scene, you will probably picture trad music gigs in places like the Scottish Storytelling Centre, or classical music in The Queen’s Hall. But we also have a rich electronic music tradition. Edinburgh is the kind of place where Boards of Canada can be born, or Finiflex, or nowadays Young Fathers. This scene exploded in the 1980s and 90s, with venues like the techno club Sativa or the club night Squid encouraging the kind of experimentation that made it into Bennett’s own music. 

Bothies, according to BBC Radio 3 DJ Mary Ann Kennedy, were places where Highland teenagers could retreat from prying eyes to throw parties. They had an “anarchic” vibe about them that made them not so different from clubs like La Belle Angele or the Bongo Club, which Bennett used to frequent and that still play host to Edinburgh’s numerous soundsystems and local bands.

So you could say that the album Bothy Culture evokes two Scottish cultures – the well-known traditional side, but also a local, more underground one that is still going strong today.

Wow, that’s an interesting combination! But what does it sound like?

Well, it's a big mix of folk singing, bagpipes, breaks, Scottish poetry, jungle MCs, deep bass, and pounding beats. It's a bit like someone has taken an old Scots song and remixed it for YouTube - which is essentially what Bennett did, but on a massive and intricate scale. 

At the time his fellow musicians thought what he was doing was impossible, or at least sacrilege. As Greg Lawson put it, he was "taking that beautiful free form and setting it with these totally uncompromising massive dance grooves." It shouldn't have worked, but, while he received treatment for his illness, Bennett had the time on his hands to make sure it did.

What's different about his second album Bothy Culture is the Islamic and Scandinavian influences that Bennett began to draw from. Inspired by his attempts to keep linking back to his own culture's traditions, he then took a more international approach and incorporated old styles from across the world into a contemporary sound. 

Su-a Lee | Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

I like the sound of that. But without Martyn, who’s going to play it?

Bothy Culture is in safe hands, don’t you worry. Greg Lawson met Bennett while they were both playing with the Scottish Ensemble, and was a good friend of his before he died.

Years after Bennett's death, Lawson listened to his album GRIT and realised that, although it was composed electronically, it sounded orchestral. He went about re-composing GRIT to be performed by a live ensemble, which he did with the GRIT Orchestra at the International Festival two years ago. 

The GRIT Orchestra has since morphed into a supergroup of Scottish stars from music scenes across the spectrum –  including members from Shooglenifty and Lau, and also Su-a Lee of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, who is just as likely to be seen playing a saw (yes, you read that right) as she is her cello. 

That must be a great group to watch perform.

Yes, and it helps that they're all friends! Scotland's music scene is relatively small, which makes it very intimate. The people that Lawson has invited into the orchestra have been playing together in different capacities for years, so the gig is a lot like being invited to watch lots of talented friends having a good time jamming. Expect lots of energy onstage, big smiles, and potentially some ceilidh dancing in the aisles...

This definitely sounds like my jam. When and where is it? 

Great! Bothy Culture happens at the Edinburgh Playhouse on 21 August at 8.00pm. You can buy your tickets here (starting at £30). Check whether you're eligible for a discount too - you could get 30% off the ticket if you are a Senior Citizen, an Arts worker, or registered as unemployed, or 50% if you are aged under-18, a student, a European Youth Card holder, or a Young Scot Card holder. See you there!

Grit Orchestra

Book tickets to Martyn Bennett's 'Bothy Culture'

Bothy Culture

Listen to more folk music in the programme

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