Ah Scotland, a land rich in cultural history, with a proud tradition of passing down tales from generation to generation. It is a nation of Celtic fables and homespun folk songs, and it’s these traditional tunes which form the backbone of this new documentary from one of the tartan nation’s modern raconteurs.
Aidan Moffat is probably best known as one half of the band Arab Strap, who are nowadays considered something of a cornerstone in the Scottish indie music scene. His new film follows his 2014 Where You’re Meant To Be tour, which saw him and his band travelling across his native Scotland to perform updated versions of traditional folk songs.
Along the way he meets Sheila Stewart MBE, a veteran practitioner of these traditional shanties with a steadfast belief that they don’t need updating. Moffat thinks the lyrics aren’t relevant to modern audiences, Sheila thinks to change a word would be blasphemy.
Sheila is very much from the old school, and her opposition to modern retellings puts her at loggerheads with Moffat, setting the stage for one of the key themes of the film; the idea of the values of modernisation and the dichotomy between the old ways and the new.
Scotland is a sumptuously beautiful country, and it is captured in all it’s glory here by cinematographer Julian Schwanitz. Rolling green hills and blue skies are balanced alongside neon lit cities, with both the old and new worlds providing their own unique visual charms.
Moffat makes for a genially puerile host, as we see him exploring and performing the songs in various stages of inebriation. The language is often coarse and the Scottish brogues thick, but it is intriguing to see the songs develop over time as more meaning is bestowed upon them by the locals. One piece in particular, ‘Parting Glass’, features throughout in various different forms, and the final renditions of it at the film’s climax are powerful enough to bring a tear to the eye.
There is also another overarching theme to the piece however; that of death. Sheila unfortunately passed away just after Moffat completed his tour, and he delivers his narrative monologue as a eulogy to her, lamenting her passing and wistfully reminiscing about her life. Sheila desperately hoped that the ballads she learnt as a child would not be forgotten once she was gone, and despite their differences, Moffat uses this film to ensure that their memory will live on.
Despite the permeating sense of death throughout (the opening shot is seen through the rear doors of what look like an ambulance) the film manages to be both an endearingly ramshackle celebration of the traditions of Scottish storytelling and the communal power of music, and a fine obituary for Sheila Stewart herself.
And whilst a documentary about traditional folk music may not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, as Moffat himself says, “the feeling means more than the notes”.
WHERE YOU’RE MEANT TO BE IS OUT IN CINEMAS NOW
READ OUR INTERVIEW WITH AIDAN MOFFAT!