In this regular Sunday feature, we ask Scots about 10 things that changed their life ...

1. Dougie’s mixtape and Handful of Earth

The National:

THE first love of my life was Dougie. I had moved to Dundee to study and he was a Birkhill boy who courted me with mixtapes, dropped through the letterbox of my flat in Step Row. This was the first time I heard John Martyn, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen, Michael Marra and Dick Gaughan – and they blew my wee mind. Dougie and I eventually got it together and would explore the city together.

I was overwhelmed the first time he bought me something – a cassette of Dick Gaughan’s Handful of Earth, costing £1 from Groucho’s record shop. The whole album blew me away but because he gave it to me the day before my grandpa’s funeral, the track called Craigie Hill broke me. All his life my grandpa, Peter Quinn, lived in a wee semi in a place called Hayhill in Craigie, an area of Ayr. It’s also an Irish emigrant song and his father had come over from Donegal.

As well as the Dick Gaughan obsession, I also took away a love of Michael Marra’s work from that time. I think Dick opened up a world that set me on the journey to where I am now. As well as being an inspiration, the few conversations we have had have set me on a different path or confirmed I was on the right one.

2. The Oxford Bar

The National:

I DIDN’T know anyone when I moved to Edinburgh in the late 1990s for a job with Scottish Women’s Aid. I joined an adult learning project for women’s folk song, which was run by an amazing woman called Eileen Penman. Most of the songs were highly politicised. Some were Scottish, others were international, but they were all protest songs.

The class was pretty much full of women who worked in social work, mental health, teaching and the caring professions. These were women who spent most of the day campaigning against things or looking after people and were all in that class to decompress.

We would go on to The Oxford Bar, where we would have singing sessions. Of course The Oxford Bar doesn’t have music, but the barman Harry secretly quite liked us, so tolerated our singing.

I found my voice there. I was still painfully shy but singing there got me into the pub session scene and that’s where I emerged as a folk singer. It was a place of friendship and solidarity and a big part of what motivated me. I care what songs are about and the experiences of being connected to other people shaped what I do. I met some of my best pals in the world there.

3. Selling my flat

The National:

IN the early part of my career, I got myself into what I would describe as a business arrangement that didn’t suit.

I had bought a flat when I had a salary that allowed me to get a mortgage on a wee place in Edinburgh. Being honest, the only reason I could afford it was because prices were being driven down by repossessions and you could get a mortgage on next to nothing.

Within four years the flat had trebled in price, but I was stressed over business mistakes that cost me an eye-watering sum of money. If I sold the flat I could pay off the debt and have enough to make my next album. It would buy my independence and allow me to make a go of being a musician.

I don’t bear any ill will to the people I got into legal dispute with and realise that I’m pretty thrawn, and got myself into a mess of my own making.

Now I’m in my late 40s and still renting privately. The reality is I’ll probably never own a house again, as what I earn now wouldn’t buy a one-bedroom flat in Edinburgh.

I know I profited from misfortune and the only reason I had money when I sold was the crazy housing market. The legacy of that, and the irony, is that I can’t afford to buy a house now.

4. The pink-footed geese

The National:

THE pink-footed geese land every winter at Fala Moor, about two miles south of where I live in Midlothian. They inspired me to make my first piece of theatre, Wind Resistance. They fly over my house and I became obsessed by the formation of how they fly, how beautifully co-operative it is and how each creates a pocket of wind resistance for the bird that’s in behind it. It was a metaphor of how we can work collectively.

That theatre piece and the album that I made definitely changed my life.

Wind Resistance has tapped into something and connected with people and that’s what I’m about. I’ve been overwhelmed by the feedback I’ve had. It’s been a beautiful experience – and the geese started it.

5. Student exchange

The National:

I HAD originally signed up for European Studies, but switched to philosophy in my second year. I applied for a student exchange and headed off to Canada, to Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.

This was a big thing for me to do. I used to blush from head to foot every time someone spoke to me. I was confident in a setting where I had a clear role, in classes for example, but in a social setting I was a car crash.

Trent is quite a liberal arts university and had a massive international programme. There were a lot of privileged students, the sons and daughters of diplomats and politicians, and all very left wing, but I also met people from places I had never even heard of. Places like Vanuatu in the South Pacific and St Kitts and Nevis, with people who had never seen snow. I felt a part of this international community after experiencing Denny and Dundee.

I became more politicised too, particularly after meeting students from South Africa. There was a huge difference in reading about the anti-apartheid movement and talking to people who experienced it first-hand.

Also that year, there was a shooting in Montreal (pictured, inset), where the gunman killed 14 women at École Polytechnique, calling them a bunch of feminists. That heightened my interest and involvement in feminist politics.

6. The jam cupboard

The National:

MY mum made a lot of jam. We had tonnes of fruit in the garden, so did our neighbours and so did my gran. So loads of jars, in every flavour you can imagine, sat in a hall cupboard with louvre doors.

I’ve always been quite a dark-minded person. Even in childhood, I imagined every kind of disaster. To me the jam cupboard was the place that my family would hide when the nuclear bomb dropped. I had a game plan for the moment that the four-minute warning sounded. We had jam of course, but we would also have to take digestive biscuits into the cupboard, and food for the dogs. This was my survival plan for nuclear apocalypse. So the jam cupboard is synonymous with growing up with the threat of nuclear war, with programmes like Threads, and the Protect and Survive leaflets coming through the door. Even then I knew that you couldn’t make a fallout shelter from a couch!

I needed a place that felt like a sanctuary from that fear and the jam cupboard was that. Being honest, that fear has come and gone over the years, but at the moment I feel that dread about what is happening in our world. If more of us made jam the world would be a better place.

7. Loneliness

ONE thing that has shaped my life is loneliness. I think that’s why I’m drawn to collaborative work and community. I’m the only adult in my household, and despite the fact that I’m out and about in the world, I’m sure that I do it so that I don’t fall into existentialism nihilism about human isolation. I think we live in a culture that isolates people. I see it all around me – several of my neighbours are very elderly, live on their own and have very few visitors, it’s horrible. It’s not independence, it’s the worst kind of alone. I get over this feeling of loneliness by making things. I constantly talk about connection and collaboration.

I also think loneliness is what’s at play in a lot of the negative behaviour that’s unfurling these days. There’s a feeling of isolation or a feeling that nobody’s caring. It’s one of the underlying painful human things in our times Karine Polwart is due to release her new album Laws Of Motion on October 19.

8. Glasgow’s Women’s Aid

The National:

I HAD spent a summer volunteering on the play scheme at Dundee Women’s Aid, so when I moved to Glasgow in 1993 to continue my studies, I volunteered at Glasgow Women’s Aid. They ended up offering me a paid job as a children’s worker, where I worked with women and children in emergency accommodation.

That transformed my life, meeting some of the most inspiring womrn I’ve ever encountered.

One in particular, Rita Goudie, was a senior children’s worker in Glasgow and had set up toy banks and childcare when there was nothing. I met women in shelters at the first point of escaping domestic abuse. I was fortunate in that it was something I had no benchmark for in my childhood.

9. Giving birth

The National:

BEING a parent would come into a longer list, but this is about the act of giving birth. I have two children and their births were very different. With my first, my son, neither of us would have survived if we had lived two generations ago. Modern maternity care kept us alive.

There is still nervousness around talking about giving birth and I know it can be fraught. For me, I think it’s the most I’ve ever felt like an animal. The actual process of giving birth is terrifying and amazing at the same time – I felt superhuman.

10. The kindness of others

The National:

I WAS in the final year of students to go through university with a full grant, but that didn’t stretch to buying clothing for the Canadian winter.

I was totally skint and needed boots and clothes for temperatures that plummeted to -20 degrees, but I didn’t even have money to buy sanitary protection.

My friend Carla from Northern Ontario stepped in. She comes from a village where they get snowed in so they stockpile for winter. Carla said: “Come and take whatever you need”.

She also gave me her guitar as I hadn’t been able to afford to bring mine. That was the key to meeting people. Getting up at open mics made people talk to me – and that’s why I decided to sing.

Karine Polwart is due to release her new album Laws Of Motion on October 19.