STAYING true to an ideal over 20 years takes a lot of commitment. Fashions change, music changes but for those bands whose dedication to a fundamental concept remains unwavering, the sense of satisfaction becomes something more important than even notions of “success”.

Malinky are one such band. They have gone through several line-up changes since emerging on to the scene in 1998, but their commitment to reviving Scots song, at a time when so many up-and-coming artists were experimenting with the purely instrumental, has never faltered.

They are now celebrating their 20th anniversary with new album Handsel that takes the listener on a journey through Scots song and includes a bonus CD of previously unreleased material spanning the band’s history from the 1990s to the present.

It has been quite a journey. Emanating originally from the Edinburgh session scene of the mid-1990s, Malinky were founded by Steve Byrne, Mark Dunlop, Kit Patterson and Karine Polwart and were, from the outset, determined to be a little bit different from their contemporaries. As Byrne explains.

“We were quite determined that we had a mission as far as the band went in terms of supporting Scots song,” says Byrne. “At that time there wasn’t much to be had in that sense. Most of the bands were instrumental so we were quite single-minded in that vision.

“I don’t know that we would have planned to go on for 20 years necessarily but it seems that there’s always been a job needing doing in terms of supporting Scots song as a tradition.

“At that time we formed, it was before all the courses in Glasgow, and Edinburgh was the place to be for trad music. I came to Edinburgh in 1996 to study and part of the reason I came down was the music scene. We were going to sessions two or three nights at week, sometimes more, and meeting up with various people, and that’s how we met.

“We noticed at that we were all singing Scots songs and at that time it was kind of unusual to see young people singing songs in sessions.”

The band’s continuing commitment has seen them become the foremost torch-bearers for that tradition. But, like all folk musicians, they are also hugely informed by a sense of place. Byrne himself hails from Arbroath, while fellow founding member Dunlop is from County Antrim. The current line-up is completed by fiddler Mike Vass from Nairn and singer Fiona Hunter from Glasgow. However, there is, and has always been, a real sense of the east coast about the band. It is not a coincidence.

“Certainly on a personal level for me, and the rest of the members of the band, we’re trying to represent our own traditions,” says Byrne. “That impetus has never really left us.

“I’m from Arbroath and I never miss the chance to tell anyone that,” says Byrne. “I’ve always tried to represent my home area of Angus but I guess the main reason there’s an east-coast bias to our work is that one of our main fonts of knowledge is the Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection, the Aberdeenshire collection which obviously lends itself to that kind of geographical spread.”

For Handsel, Malinky have brought in a slew of guest singers, from older established names such as Barbara Dymock, Hector Riddell, and Len Graham who represent the Lowland Scots, North-East bothy ballad, and Ulster song traditions which have helped form the band’s tastes over the years, to a new generation of singers. The decision to bring in younger talent to sing alongside these legends of the genre is very much a deliberate choice.

“We have tried to reflect the traditions that each of us enjoy and that have inspired us, but we’ve also tried to highlight some people who we think are deserving of a wider audience,” says Byrne. “So we have established singers such as Barbara and Hector and also Len, who had a huge influence on Matt Dunlop in Ulster song, and who it was great to get on this album as he’s such a torch-bearer for that tradition. And then with the younger singers – Ellie Beaton (17), Cameron Nixon (20) and Dàibhidh Stiùbhard (23) – we hit on the idea that there is still is a relative lack of young singers coming through in the Scots tradition. We’re not necessarily in the lucky position of being as well supported structurally as the Gaelic tradition through the feis movement, which has a strong teaching and singing thread which is always bringing through new Galeic singers. There just aren’t

the same structures in place for Scots song.

“We certainly look at what the Gaelic world has done in admiration. And we’re never very far away from it – many of us in the band regularly play with Gaelic singers. Fiona and Mike work with Kathleen MacInnes, I’ve worked with Margaret Stewart and Gillebride MacMillan so we’re well aware of that world and we try to take lessons from it too.”

IT is a noble idea and one that works superbly well on Handsel. The singing of the youngsters is electrifying, Beaton in particular sings a version of Sleepytoon that is dripping with emotion –perhaps as a result of her being brought up a stone’s throw from where the Aberdeenshire farm once stood. It is that passing on of the torch, that connection to place, that makes Malinky such a force in this era of Scottish folk music.

Handsel is, throughout, a work that places Malinky front and centre of the Scots tradition. It looks not only backwards but forwards and the way traditional songs are arranged, added to and edited is the very embodiment of a living tradition. Verses are rewritten, moved about and, in some cases, drafted in from different songs entirely, yet it always works. It is testament to the band’s experience and skill as not only musicians but also storytellers that the narrative strand is never lost.

“I have an academic life alongside the music that looks at context and how traditions come about,” says Byrne.

“We dispensed a long time ago with the idea that the tradition is a static thing and you only sing what’s on the page. We quite freely go to many different sources to produce singable versions of songs.

“Often things you find in the tradition are fragmented yet people got into the habit of writing them down as if they were gospel when in fact you have to do a bit more work than that.”

And Handsel is testament to that work ethic.

Malinky play Stonehaven Folk Festival this weekend before heading to Glasgow’s Admiral Bar on July 23

Handsel is available now on Greentrax Records. For more info go to