Brian McNeill passes baton on to Falkirk’s young musicians

Brian McNeill with youngsters from Falkirk's schools orchestra
Brian McNeill with youngsters from Falkirk's schools orchestra

There were lots of things symbolic about Brian McNeill’s return to Falkirk this week.

The magnificent Kelpies were the first thing he saw as he approached on the motorway; he was back to his roots in the Year of Homecoming; and he was here to work with the district’s musical talent of the future in the very same building where he sat his eleven-plus.

19-05-2014. Picture Michael Gillen. CAMELON, Education Centre. Brian McNeill with youngsters from orchestra who will be performing on June 24 when Queen's baton relay comes to town. Ian Boulter conductor.

19-05-2014. Picture Michael Gillen. CAMELON, Education Centre. Brian McNeill with youngsters from orchestra who will be performing on June 24 when Queen's baton relay comes to town. Ian Boulter conductor.

Nothing too extra-ordinary but add them all together and you have the makings of a unique creative project which it is hoped will once again put the spotlight on Falkirk as a place where exciting things happen.

What you have is one, if not the most talented musician the area has ever produced, in town to help deliver a feast of entertainment to mark the arrival of the Queen’s Baton in Falkirk on June 24.

While sport will be to the fore as the Commonwealth Games symbol is carried around the district, there will be a cultural input as musicians and singers of all ages and abilities join together that evening for an event in the Helix Park. The highlight will be the first performance of Brian’s specially composed ‘Kelpies Suite’, six pieces of music which reflect many facets of the area, including the new iconic landmarks.

Born in Falkirk 64 years ago, he has been described as “Scotland’s most meaningful contemporary songwriter” and there is something fitting that such a proponent of the nation’s musical heritage has written his latest piece about its newest landmark.

“When we drove in from Stirling and I saw the Kelpies I was ready to weep,” admitted Brian. “The first vision you used to get of Falkirk was industry or a little bit of desolation, but now the first thing you see is this fantastic art. Placed beside the motorway, people are not going to ignore them.

“I believe they are a very important piece of public art in Scotland and when I was approached to be part of this, I was delighted.”

Although there might not be time for the full suite to be performed on the night, there will be two further opportunities in March next year to hear them at concerts in Falkirk Town Hall.

The catalyst to take forward this work was Falkirk’s success in winning £150,000 funding earlier this year in the Creative Places awards. Based on themes of people, routes and pathways, ‘Acts Of Discovery’ will build on and complement Falkirk’s already wide-ranging culture.

Paul Eames, an arts team leader with Falkirk Community Trust, explained there were three main projects: the Queen’s Baton relay; people who pass through Falkirk on journeys; and the paths network, all linked into cultural activities.

Athough a wide range of musicians are already involved with the project, including members of Falkirk Folk Club, Falkirk Fiddle Workshop and the Sing Forth Choir, it is the opportunity to work with young people and hopefully inspire them with his own love of traditional music which most compelled Brian to become a part.

He has already visited high schools to hold workshops for pupils and this week began rehearsing with youngsters from the schools’ orchestra in Camelon Education Centre – a familiar venue for Brian as he attended it when it was a high school, before going on to Falkirk High.

However, he has been keen to emphasis that people of all abilities should be involved and made a conscious decision to write his music so that some pieces could be played by those who are still in the early stages of learning their instrument.

He said: “I’m a believer that folk music shouldn’t be elitist, but be part of everyday activity. It’s been interesting talking to the young people in schools, Some have heard of me but others haven’t.

“However, you can be talking to them and see the light go on as they realise that my background is the same as there’s. I come from the same place and if I can read music and play an instrument they can learn to do it too.

“It’s so important to ensure we keep that interest strong. In 1968 I couldn’t find a Scottish fiddle teacher to work with but two generations later we have Celtic Connections and all that it does to support traditional folk music. But I also warn people that we could just as easily lose it in two generations.”

Gayle Martin, arts and culture officer with Falkirk Council’s education services, was instrumental in getting Brian involved – two years work and discussion has taken place before reaching the current stage.

She said: “This is about creating that opportunity to inspire young people by showing them what they can achieve as long as they have the desire and the drive to do it. It’s about lighting a fire in their belly. Brian is an outstanding musician not just a teacher of traditional music and he highlights what people can achieve.”

One of the youngsters who will be singing with Brian on June 24 is a girl who attends the unit for pupils who have become disengaged with school.

Brian said: “She has discovered a love of singing and really focused on this. It’s been really inspirational working with her and seeing how music has made an impact on her life.”

One of Brian’s best known songs is ‘The Lads O’ The Fair’ written about the Falkirk Tryst, the annual cattle market where people gathered from all over the country. Two years ago a couple of lines from his song were carved into a viewpoint above Falkirk as part of the renovation of the former Policy Bing, an old pit spoil heap.

It’s something he is immensely proud of and he hopes that his ‘Kelpies Suite’, and the fact that the Helix is a modern-day gathering point, will also enjoy longevity allowing traditional Scottish folk music to entertain for generations to come.