Folk Radio

Lossan is a Manx word (the Celtic language spoken on the Isle of Man) that can mean light, glimmer, sheen and flame. It’s also a well-chosen title for the collaborative album between Manx Gaelic singer Ruth Keggin and Scottish Harpist Rachel Hair, for this duo’s debut offering has all those qualities in vibrant abundance.

Manx is one of the three Goidelic languages alongside Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Manx was officially declared ‘extinct’ by UNESCO in 2009; despite there being hundreds of speakers on the Isle of Man…that status has now been changed to “critically endangered”.

Regular readers of these pages will be familiar with both Ruth and Rachel. Ruth has been something of a leading light on the Manx music scene, having released her solo debut Sheear in 2014; she returned in 2016 with Turrys (reviewed here). In the same year, Ruth teamed up with Mary Ann Kennedy and acclaimed sean-nòs singer Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin for their Aon Teanga:Un Çhengey (One Tongue) project.

Like Ruth, Rachel, one of Scotland’s finest Harpists and a leading expert on Manx Harp music, is no stranger to collaboration. On her 2015 album, Tri, her connection to the Isle of Man shone through on the likes of Jigs For Mann and later compositions for Sparks with Ron Jappy (reviewed here). In an interview with Folk Radio, Rachel revealed how she met her partner/now-husband, Adam Rhodes (also a member of Barrule), at a festival in Wales, “…and so started my interest in the island”.

On Lossan, Adam is a guest artist, performing on Bouzouki for two tracks, alongside Adam Brown on Bodhrán. They are joined by Manx fiddler Isla Callister (Trip), who is currently working on ‘Creeaght’ (courage in Manx Gaelic), a composition project exploring the lives and experiences of women who have shaped the history of the Isle of Man.

The album eases us in with two Christmas lullabies, which may sound a little out of place in the summer, but means you almost drift into the album for an incredibly soothing start.

The first tune, Arraneyn Cadlee, highlights the spaciousness of Rachel’s harp playing before she introduces some rich, full bass notes demonstrating the instrument’s dynamic range on the second tune, Arrane y Chlean.

The album, a gatefold CD, contains a short introduction to each song, and the Manx Gaelic lyrics and translation, can be found on Ruth’s website here.

On Mish As Y Keayn, there is a playfulness to the melody, befitting the rich song narrative, a beautiful poem by Manx poet Annie Kissack who, in 2018, became the fifth Manx Bard and makes a few contributions across this album. It’s a joy to hear Ruth’s voice, her graceful tones are perfectly matched to that of the harp.

Myself and the sea and the whole empty sky
And a rough cold wind fighting against us,
Waves rising up in a grey-blue wall
And myself alone on the shore.

Featuring three traditional tunes from around the Irish sea, Tri Nation Harp Jigs begins at a steady pace before the traditional Manx tune, My Sheen Ayr, picks things up, leading out on Willie Coleman’s, an Irish jig on which Rachel demonstrates some nifty finger work and beautiful flourishes and accents.

Although the melody of the traditional Manx song Arrane Saveenagh (Slumber Song) may not be familiar, the lullaby, collected by Manx cultural activist, folklorist, poet, novelist and journalist Mona Douglas, shares a similar first verse to Rock-a-bye baby. While mournful and longing, the verses are beautiful and not surprisingly, the sea and the environment feature in many of these songs.

Oh hush my child on a wave born along
The tall ship is swaying, loud the wind’s song
‘Tis over the tide-ways, over the sea
Wrapped safe you will slumber sailing to me.

With a very festive harp opening, all hands are on deck for Keayrt Hug Mee Graih, although they point out that the song is far from festive – the song’s protagonist turns his back on his love. The guest musicians’ contributions are subtle here, although they do get to stretch their muscles on Eubonia Soilshagh, a drinking song that dates back to the 1600s. But even here, while still a foot-tapping tune, the playing, as throughout this album, is graceful and poetic.

The music on Lossan has a movement that feels very much part of the landscape, and even though I don’t speak Manx Gaelic, I didn’t feel an urge to reach for Ruth’s translations during the first play of the album. Let it wash over you, for Ruth’s vocals and Rachel’s harp will still stir your emotions. Just listen to Graih Foalsey, on which they both sing. Likewise, on the mournful tale of Ny Kirree Fo-Sniaghtey (The Sheep All Are Buried), you can feel the remoteness of the land as they tell the story of Nicholas Raby’s sheep being lost in a snow blizzard in the late 1600s and how the people of Lonan set out to try and rescue them.

The people of the parish of Lonan rose up and went immediately,
They found the dead sheep in the hollow of Barrule.
Oh, rise up, my shepherds, and go to the mountain.
The sheep are under the snow, as deep as they ever were.

They end the track on a lovely Scottish air, Bothan àiridh ‘m bràigh raineach (The Bothy in the Braes of Rannoch), a fitting touch and a contemplative ending.

Rachel’s harp playing shines brightly on the Manx air Yn Scollag Aeg on which you appreciate the voice-like quality of the instrument as well as her skilled musicianship, for here she adds her own second part to a tune from Ballaugh whistle player Cairistona Dougherty.

While I suggested not reading the translations on the first listen, you must read Annie Kissack’s short lullaby Vuddee Veg (Sweet Little Girl), which was written for her daughter. Much like the music of this album, the vivid imagery is so moving.

Sweet little girl, child of my heart,
look out of the window at the night clouds
stretching out like the wing of a great black heron
bringing to darkness the end of the day.

The album ends on Arrane Oie Vie, also known as the goodnight song; it’s a touching end.

Throughout Lonnan, there are many magical touches. Still, some of the most transformative moments come from that heightened sensation of connection to the past and the human emotions expressed in the songs and tunes. They both clearly have a deep passion and respect for the Manx tradition but what is always striking about these songs is how they speak through time – even Annie Kissack’s poems feel deeply connected to the past. We still express those same feelings found in these songs, and that’s something that Ruth and Rachel really tap into.

Lossan is one of the most beautiful albums I’ve heard this year, and it’s one I will enjoy revisiting. If anything makes you fall in love with the Manx culture and language, this will.

Alex Gallacher

View original review HERE