by Margaret Chrystall
IT took just a day and a half for Orkney’s Saltfishforty to record the tracks on new album Bere – named after a unique Orkney barley.
But centuries have gone into the music traditions and stories behind some of the songs on Bere that appear alongside sets of tunes from Douglas Montgomery (fiddle, viola and vocals) and Brian Cromarty (guitar, mandola and vocals).
"It’s also a bit of a play on words too," said Douglas, referring to the ‘bare’ or stripped-back approach they wanted to take to their fifth album.
Douglas said: "You start planning your next album pretty much when you finish doing the last one.
"We’ve been mulling over half of it since, but the other half we wrote between September and November last year and recorded it really quite fresh.
"We both have jobs and young families, so we could only really give up a short time – and we wanted to do it in Castlesound Studios, We love the music that comes out of there."
So heading for the West Lothian studios, the two arrived as ready as possible.
Douglas puts it: "The only way we could do it was to be as match fit as we could. So we pretty much had it done and dusted in a couple of days."
They spent the last half-day picking out the takes and "the runs" they liked, Douglas explained.
"I think it’s quite a good way of doing things. It certainly has a fresh feel to it."
And the music has already begun to evolve, he revealed.
"We’ve always taken the approach it’s a record of the way we do it at that time.
"I would say already a couple of the tracks have slightly changed to suit playing live since we recorded them.
"I never think you have a definitive version of anything really. It’s always nice to keep things moving."
But it’s back into the past to find the stories behind the two original songs of the five fetured on the album.
The Odin Stone is about a true act of vandalism done to ancient Orcadian standing stones .
Douglas said: "This farmer came in from Caithness and not having the same love for the land as the Orcadians – or maybe not even being too aware of the stones, he, unfortunately, took them down – and tried to take down others. But the one that hit home was the Odin Stone and he got hounded out.
"But the other bit of the story I heard – and I don’t know how much truth there is in this part – is that years later another farmer was building a road and found this old stone lying in the shed and took the stone and smashed it up to use and that was the Odin Stone."
And past horrors just couldn’t stay in the past in Douglas and Brian’s song The Jack Snipe ...
Douglas said: "That was a story Brian’s mother mentioned – she is also my mother in law.
"We were sitting at the dinner table speaking about things – and she said there was a story where it was thought her great grandfather had left Orkney, but hadn’t got very far – they thought he had just been lost at sea.
"But 50 years later in the ’60s this other guy made a confession on his deathbed, something he had to get off his chest.
"And he said that back in 1907 his boat had hit the Orkney schooner Jack Snipe and had capsized it.
"Whether it was an accident or not nobody knew, but rather than face the consequences of that – it could have been hanging, I suppose – they fought the Jack Snipe’s crew off. They were trying to climb onto the boat and – this is not in the song – they fought them off with axes.
"So for this guy, it had been preying on his mind."
Douglas is happy with the mix of sets and original songs onBere.
"I think the original stuff on the album this time means a lot to us.
"There’s a tune on there called The Battle Of Passchendaele which is about my great grand-uncle who died in the First World War 100 years ago. He was 19-years-old when he left the island and never came back.
"There are lots of things like that on the album and we’re quite chuffed with the way it has all come together."
It ws Brian who came up with Bere as a title – a process Douglas says they aren’t good at.
"We were going round in circles then Brian came with it.
"And Saltfishforty itself is a play on words, it means lots of different things.
"But a local landlord needed an excuse to pour himself a drink, so he would always say he’d had saltfish for his tea which made him really thirsty. So it was a great excuse!
"But there are so many other meanings as well, with Saltfishforty. You use salt for preserving things and we do a little bit of that too."
As well as playing in the duo, Douglas teaches strings on Orkney and has taught younger players such as Fara along the way.
"I’ve been teaching now for over 20 years and I remember their first fiddle lessons – it is lovely to see these guys coming through."
Douglas himself learned from a fiddler, farmer and fisherman from the next island.
He said: "It was an old guy roond the hill on the next island, South Ronaldsay, who was a friend of my grandfather.
"He had given up teaching and he said he would never teach again, he had had enough and he was just doing farming.
"What they say about Orcadians is most people are farmers with a fishing boat, in Shetland most people are fishermen with a croft!
"So this guy was a farmer but also had a fishing boat – my grandfather was a boatbuilder, so he was great pals with my grandad.
"When I was growing up I was second youngest in the family of all the grandchildren and none of them really wanted to play the fiddle, though one of the tunes on the album is The Swanee Brothers and that was my great-grandfather and his two brothers, they all played the fiddle."
Douglas’s granny was the next in line to play it.
"When I came along, I showed an interest in the fiddle lying on top of the wardrobe in the spare room.
"She said ‘Would you want lessons?’ and I said ‘I’d love to learn’.
"And my mum told me ‘A friend of the family has agreed to see if you’re musical. He won’t teach you himself but will maybe recommend somebody’.
"So we went to visit him and spent all evening at his house – about four hours and we left and my mum asked him ‘Do you think it is worth getting fiddle lessons for Douglas?’.
"And the guy said ‘Just come back next week!’.
"I went to him for five years, he was up into his 80s then, but that is how I learned. Later I went off to study classical music at Napier University and then came back here.
"But that’s how it started."
The bere barley is believed to have been brought to Orkney in the eighth century by the Vikings and is now familiar in bere bannocks and home brewed ale – "both excelllent with saltfish", say Brian and Douglas on the album notes.
The day after their album launch – they are guests at Bogbain Farm as part of Saturday’s Inverness Whisky Gin Festival.
Douglas said: "There’s an Orkney gin involved with the festival called Kirkjuvagr.
"And one of the botanicals involved in that is actually bere.
"So if you want to know what bere tastes like, you could have a taste of that!
"And no, we’re not sponsored by them – though that would be a dream!"
Saltfishforty play Bogbain Farm on Saturday.