FOR many musicians, the search for inspiration can be protracted. For Ewan MacPherson, one third of Salt House, it’s as simple as walking out the door of his highland home.

“There’s a bit of a joke within the band that we write songs about politics and going outside,” says MacPherson. And, while there is some truth to that, the reality is far more interesting. Salt House (whose third album Huam – Scots for the call of an owl – is released next month) blend poetry, the outdoors, the environment and their concerns for the state of the world in a way that is refreshingly modern yet deeply rooted in the traditional.

Their new, self-penned, songs wear the clothes of tradition easily, while their interpretations of poems and traditional ballads are fresh and exciting. It is a unique outlook and it results in a staggeringly accomplished album that blends big, global themes with the smallest details of life and nature.

READ MORE: Yoko Pwno's debut album is a marriage made in heaven

This latest incarnation of Salt House – MacPherson, fiddler Lauren MacColl from the Black Isle and Shetland-based singer and guitarist Jenny Sturgeon – has seen the band become increasingly confident in their approach to songs and songwriting and the dividends are clear.

“The band originally started with a different name,” says MacPherson. “Singer Maeve Mackinnon and Lauren were looking to get a trio together and we did some gigs way back in 2010. And then when Maeve began doing more solo projects that was when we started working with Siobhan Miller as Salt House. So we did our first album with her (2013’s Lay Your Dark Low) but it all started with a desire to have some sort of vehicle for writing and performing new songs.

The National: Maeve Mackinnon was in the first Salt HouseMaeve Mackinnon was in the first Salt House

"Since Jenny has been in the band the writing has been more prevalent. She’s not a traditional singer as such, she’s more of a singer/songwriter which is also more my thing. We love writing new songs.”

This new Salt House announced their arrival with 2018’s Undersong, and Huam very much follows on from where that other album left off. There are reworkings of Scandinavian ballads, songs about birds – Sturgeon has a PHD in seabirds – and several poems given new life by being gifted melodies. Opening track Fire Light is itself a reworking of a Nan Shepherd poem, beautifully sung by Sturgeon with MacColl’s fiddle helping the track soar.

READ MORE: Maeve Mackinnon on Gaelic, Stri, and feminism

“We do a lot of stuff with poetry,” says MacPherson. “Lauren loves writing a melody to a poem so we do a lot of delving into old books of poetry and reworkings of that. So there’s a lot to be dug out which isn’t necessarily trad but I guess it occupies the same emotional area.”

The National: Salt House's Fire Light is a reworking of a Nan Shepherd poemSalt House's Fire Light is a reworking of a Nan Shepherd poem

It’s one of the delights of Salt House that they are so hard to pigeon hole. They are identifiably Scottish, but not exclusively so. There is room in their music for other traditions – English, Irish, Scandinavian – and that willingness to explore beyond our borders helps make them a unique and exceptional proposition. It may be music born in, and of, Scotland and Shetland, but it feels bigger than that.

“It’s not massively conscious, we just do what we do,” says MacPherson. “I’m from Liverpool originally and I was brought up in Wales and have family connections to Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Jenny is from England originally but moved to Scotland very young. So I suppose Lauren is the one with the strongest connections to the traditions of Scotland, and the Black Isle in particular.”

Perhaps it is their shared vision that allows Salt House to freely engage with other traditions, genres and ideas. Through all their songs the concept of hope shines through.

READ MORE: Simon Thoumire talks about Scotland's traditional folk scene

“We do share many worries, as most people do today, about environmental issues and nature so we do write about that a lot,” says MacPherson. “We don’t to be preachy and we don’t want to be moany either. We’re trying to find a place where we can share those concerns and try and find some positivity among it all.”

ONE such place where the band have found positive action has been through the Trees for Life conservation project. The charity has so far planted almost two million trees at 44 sites across Scotland. Salt House have recently bought a grove and are asking people to buy a tree to help fill it.

“We do a lot of travelling so that’s obviously a concern,” says MacPherson. “It’s not a guilt thing but you’ve got to do something. It’s not a huge thing but I think it’s a nice thing to do and hopefully lots of other people will do it too.

“As for the songwriting, I don't think we’re going out there to change the world massively but we are putting our voices into the stream of many voices of positive art, I think, and trying to contribute to that a little bit. At the same time as enjoying celebrating all the poetry and the material out there which we didn’t write.

The National: Robert Buchanan compiled Scandivanian ballads in Scots during his time in DenmarkRobert Buchanan compiled Scandivanian ballads in Scots during his time in Denmark

“We do like an old ballad. There’s a really lovely book we’ve worked up a couple of songs from called the Ballad Stories of the Affections. It’s a Scandinavian ballad book collected by 19th century Scottish poet Robert Buchanan. He travelled in the mid 1800s to Denmark, I believe, and collected a whole load of ballads from the Scandinavian tradition and translated them into quite flowery Scots, slightly romanticised and Victorian, but there are some real gems.

“We recorded one called The Sisters’ Revenge on Undersong and William and Elsie (on Huam) is another one. He didn’t put any music in the book so we’ve had to write melodies and edited some of the text to create songs that are, we think, pretty relevant.”

READ MORE: Fiddler Eilidh Shaw to Shoogle full time after joining band

Growing up in Wales meant that MacPherson had a different pathway to traditional music than many of today’s Scottish musicians, who came through the feis movement. He studied music at Paul McCartney’s famous Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, before graduating in 1998 and then moving to Edinburgh, largely to become involved in the Scottish traditional music scene.

“I was into quite a lot of different styles,” says MacPherson. “I was into metal for a long time and I liked my dance music as well but I guess I drifted into the folk scene by going to see gigs with my parents at an arts centre in Llangollen in north Wales. And so I thought it would be a good idea for me to move to Scotland because of bands coming out of Edinburgh like Martyn Bennet and of course, Shooglenifty.”

The National: Llangollen panorama walk, photo: Sean ThompsonLlangollen panorama walk, photo: Sean Thompson

MacPherson not only got involved in that Edinburgh scene of the late 1990s, he also made such an impression that when Shooglenifty needed a new mandolin player seven years ago, they came to him.

“It’s a funny one because Shooglenifty have this thing where you never officially join the band and you never officially leave,” says MacPherson. “Angus Grant phoned me up one day and asked me if I’d like to do some gigs with them as the previous mandolin player Luke Plumb was struggling with health issues so I ended up doing all the gigs for a year and Luke was by then based in Australia, he’s from Tasmania, and it became pretty obvious that I was in the band but it was never official. Luke still does the occasional gig when the band are in Australia so he’s never particularly left either.

READ MORE: New Scots: The singer-songwriter mixing Senegal and Scotland

“Iain Macleod, the original mandolin player for Shooglenifty, was a huge influence on me,” adds MacPherson. “He’s a unique musician and an amazing tunewriter.”

Shooglenifty have an album out this year, the first the band have done since the death of their iconic fiddler Angus Grant back in 2016. It has been an emotional journey for the band.

The National: Shooglenifty with Angus Grant (far left)Shooglenifty with Angus Grant (far left)

“When we lost Angus, we had what was almost like a year of farewell concerts and a lot of sadness,” says MacPherson. “So many people were sharing the sadness of losing Angus for the first time when they saw us play without him, so for us it was like a constant process of sadness and also positivity.

READ MORE: Shooglenifty: Life after Angus

“This album will be the first album we’re recording with our new fiddler Eilidh Shaw and the first one recorded just by the band since we lost Angus. We’ve had a great time recording it in Ardgour with producer Andy Bell who also produced Huam for Salt House. The album will be out on September 18 and we’ve a few dates lined up through the summer.”

AS part of Shooglenifty, MacPherson is able to indulge his passion for the more raucous, tune-fuelled and visceral side of trad while with Salt House he is able to explore more gentle and cerebral songwriting. It’s a perfect fit for him.

“I feel very lucky about that,” says MacPherson. “It’s nice when you’ve been off doing a mental tour with Shooglenifty to then go and do a nice chilled out tour with Salt House and vice versa. I really love working with Lauren and Jenny, they’re so organised. And with Shooglenifty it’s a completely different ballgame altogether!”

Salt House play Leicester Guildhall on March 13 and will be playing Scottish dates in June ahead of a full UK tour in October.

Shooglenifty play The Sound Archive in Kirkwall tomorrow (Saturday February 22) and Universal Hall promotions in Forres on Friday, February 28. More dates at

For more info on Salt House go to

To read about the work of Trees for Life go to