ENGLAND’S border county of Northumberland has always had a rich musical tradition all of its own. In fact, Newcastle University’s degree in traditional music is one of only a handful across the UK and has been the birthplace of several well-known bands – Elephant Sessions being just one such example.

For one Hexham lad, however, there was only one place to study when he decided upon a music course. Uist.

Nicky Kirk made the decision to study at the University of the Highlands and Islands and it’s fair to say it has paid dividends with the young guitarist meeting a collection of kindred spirits who then went on to form Eabhal, one of the most talked about young bands to emerge over the last year.

“I’d heard about the course from a friend and started looking into it and found it very different and exciting,” says Kirk. “You don’t often get the opportunity to study on an island and I was also quite enticed by the Gaelic music thing. I’d been up to Glasgow quite a lot and got involved in the session scene there and just felt like I’d like to do something a little bit different.”

The move was certainly an eye-opener for Kirk.

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“It was very different from Newcastle!” he admits. “It was fantastic. There was a real sense of community. There was only something like 16 students in total on the island and everybody spent a lot of time playing house ceilidhs and sessions, so we had this grouping of musicians who became very close. It was great.”

It was from this scene that Eabhal fiddler Jamie MacDonald, singer Kaitlin Ross, accordionist Megan MacDonald, piper Hamish Hepburn and Kirk, evolved.

“That’s where I met a the guys,” says Kirk. “I used to live with Jamie on South Uist, Hamish was in my year as was Kaitlin. Then we met Megan a couple of years in, although she never lived on the island as she was doing the course from Glasgow.”

The band first came to wider notice in 2018 when they won the Hands Up for Trad Battle of the Folk Bands and since then there rise has been nothing short of meteoric.

They were nominated as one of the up-and-coming bands of the year at the 2018 MG Alba Trad Awards and have since released their first album, This Is How The Ladies Dance. It is such an accomplished piece of work that it is difficult to believe it has been achieved by such a young band.

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Their talent, however, belies their age. This Is How The Ladies Dance is a richly textured debut which mixes new arrangements of traditional tunes and self-penned songs brimming with exuberance and a desire to forge a new and exciting avenue for Scottish folk music.

“Winning the battle of the bands was really good for us,”

says Kirk. “We got a little more on Simon Thoumire’s (of Hands Up for Trad) radar and he was quite helpful to us.

“Because we already had Gaelic connections it had never been difficult for us to get a gig on the west coast but it was a bit harder to get audiences to come out in Glasgow or places like that, so after winning the battle of the bands we were able to break into that scene a little bit more.

“And that then led to us being nominated for the Trad Awards and that was good for us as well.”

The work put in by the likes of Thoumire and his organisation is hard to overstate. For young bands such exposure as is offered by the Trad Awards can make a huge difference and, in Eabhal’s case, opens many doors.

“It’s pretty crucial in terms of getting young bands off the ground,” says Kirk. “You can do it without but the fact Simon’s providing platforms for people to get proper exposure and because his organisations are so respected it helps people take you seriously.”

Eabhal worked with Scott Wood for This Is How The Ladies Dance and his input helped them realise their vision for the album.

“He was just an absolute dream to work with. He’s so creative and calm. A really nice guy, really experienced and really professional,” explains Kirk.

“We wanted to keep the album quite varied,” he adds. “Obviously, our roots are in the Gaelic music and we really wanted to express that as much as we could but also be able to show that there’s a slightly more dynamic and creative modern vibe going on as well.

“I think there’s always a temptation to just do an album of Gaelic songs and pipe tunes but we were quite keen to put some outliers on there.”

The ambition is certainly realised with tracks such as The Artist showing off the band’s flair for arrangement as they take fiddler Emma Sweeney’s track and breathe new life into it. It is this ability to confound expectations with arrangements and composition that mark Eabhal down as more than just the latest name on a burgeoning scene.

They may be firmly rooted in the music of the Highlands and Islands but they are able to draw on more than simply the deep well of tunes that have gone before them. Although, as Kirk explains, the reviving of lost tunes is a passion of the band.

“Hamish was lucky enough to have been taught by Iain ‘The Whaler’ MacDonald and one of the benefits of that is that Iain has this crazy wealth of tunes a lot of which people don’t really play anymore or don’t really know or which aren’t recorded,” says Kirk. “And Hamish was able to bring some of these to the album. So tunes like St Valery Pipes which forms part of the title track came from Iain.

“I think it’s good to keep old tunes alive,” says Kirk.

“There’s something quite special about getting a tune that hasn’t been recorded before and doing your own thing with it and then people hopefully go on and learn those tunes and they become more widely known again.”

Eabhal are clearly a band steeped in the tradition – they understand it fully – yet they are also embarking upon a journey which will see them bring in new elements to add to old tunes, compose their own modern interpretations of west coast folk and, along with their contemporaries, ultimately, allow this scene continue to be vital and relevant as we continue deeper into the 21st century.