For more than 45 years the Whistlebinkies have maintained one of the most distinctive sounds in the Scottish folk revival, their essential musical core of “rantin’ pipe and tremblin’ string”, along with clarsach, concertina and side drum winning over audiences throughout Scotland and Europe and as far flung as Memphis and Beijing.
The band pioneered the effective use of revived bellows-blown Lowland pipes, have consistently pursued a democratic group approach to their all-acoustic arrangements and frequently and successfully bridge the divide between Scottish traditional and “art” music, in collaboration with such institutions as the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Cappella Nova and such revered figures as classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin and avant-garde music luminary John Cage. They were also the first Scottish folk ensemble ever to play in China, in November 1991.
They were the first group to bring the pipes, clarsach and fiddle into regular performance, a combination that seems commonplace now. They continue to use only acoustic traditional instruments and prefer to play in a good natural acoustic without amplification.
These musical ambassadors for Scotland emerged from a loose grouping of folk musicians calling themselves the Gaels, including fiddler Jim Daly and guitarist Mike Murphy who played mainly Irish and American music in various north Lanarkshire pubs as well as Glasgow’s hotbed of folk and bohemian culture, the Scotia Bar. They were joined by the late Mick Broderick, a shipyard boilermaker and pal of Billy Connolly, who would be an ebullient bodhran-wielding singer and raconteur for the band for more than two decades. It was Mick who suggested they call themselves the Whistlebinkies, after an old Scots term for a musician who whistled or otherwise played for his supper, or at penny weddings, while seated on a bink or bench.
A first, tentative eponymously titled and long forgotten album was recorded by the Whistlebinkies in 1971, featuring Daly, Broderick, Geordie McGovern on banjo and mandolin and Sean McGee on guitar.
The group’s creative and syncretic approach to Scottish music began in earnest when they were joined by flautist and emerging composer Edward McGuire, then by piper Rab Wallace. In 1975 they had established themselves sufficiently to record a track for an album of songs and poems by the folklorist Hamish Henderson, on Dublin’s Claddagh record label, who were so taken with them that they invited the ‘Binkies to make the first of several albums for the Irish label (their more recent recordings are on Greentrax). In the sleeve notes, Henderson himself commended both their musicality and their “militantly Burnsian and anti-bourgeois” ethos, adding “they have got it together artistically with coruscating effect … One can confidently predict a great future for them on the Scottish folk cultural scene.”
This duly came to pass, with Rab Wallace pre-empting the “cauld-wind pipes revival” with his reconstructed Lowland pipes and flautist Eddie McGuire’s parallel life as an increasingly respected composer reflected by the eclecticism of their performances and venues. These have ranged from politically-driven concerts for the Chile Solidarity Campaign and trades union gatherings, through village halls and folk clubs, to the premiering of major compositions by Eddie, such as L’Épopée Celtique at the massive Interceltic Festival in Lorient, Brittany and appearances with the main Scottish orchestras, not to mention a Far East gig with the Hong Kong City Chamber Orchestra.
Other longstanding members remain fiddler Mark Hayward, ethnomusicologist and researcher Stuart Eydmann on concertina and fiddle, harpist-singer Rhona MacKay and, of course, the distinctive percussive snarl supplied by Peter Anderson’s side drum. In recent years their ranks have been augmented by fiddler Alastair Savage and double-bassist Iain Crawford.
Others who have recorded with the band over the years include Bob Nelson, fiddle, Mary Ann Kennedy, clarsach, Jo Miller, fiddle and Scots song, and Judith Peacock, clarsach and Gaelic song.
Regardless of the kailyairdie origins of their name, the band’s approach is anything but parochial. They’ve recorded Eddie’s music for the first Scots language adaptation of MacBeth on BBC Radio Scotland, have contributed to pop and rock recordings by David Essex and the Cutting Crew, while McGuire composed a wistful Scots air, The Fiddler’s Farewell for Sir Yehudi Menuhin when he visited the Edinburgh International Festival in 1985.
Two years ago during the Rotterdam Philharmonic Gergiev Festival they reprised the very contemporary and highly atmospheric Scottish Circus, written for them in 1990 by avant-garde music guru John Cage. Mode Records of New York have recorded their performance and hope to release it in the near future..
Without allowing themselves to be being pigeonholed, the ‘Binkies remain very much themselves, deeply rooted in the Scottish tradition, yet willing to experiment. A typically enthusiastic reaction, from someone not necessarily a regular folk aficionado, came from the Herald’s arts editor, Keith Bruce, at Orkney’s St Magnus Festival: “Anyone who made the trip to see their show at St Margaret’s Hope church in the afternoon got to experience the most moving performance of the whole festival when [the Whistlebinkies] backed the Limbe Choir in a reprise of MacMillan’s Sanctus. I was, I confess, close to tears.”