Dick Gaughan:
debunking Scottish claptrap

An interview by Tom Knapp,
September 1997

To many Americans, the entire culture of Scotland and Ireland can be summed up by an Enya CD and a copy of Braveheart. But don't believe it.

"It's all fake," says Scottish singer-songwriter/guitarist Dick Gaughan. "It's an invented Scottish culture. ... We've become the Brigadoon fantasy of what Scotland is about."

Ireland, with its separate political and cultural identity, has had an easier time "getting rid of the nonsense," Gaughan says. Scotland, still fighting for an identity, is lagging a generation behind.

Gaughan often tries to dispel a little of that nonsense during his one-man tours of America. "I love the challenge of being alone on stage with a guitar," Gaughan said. "There's a particular buzz you get that way. There's nowhere to hide."

When he does share the stage -- as he did as a member of Boys of the Lough, Five Hand Reel and Clan Alba -- he'd rather maintain a low profile. "I don't like being the frontman in a band," he says. "Let someone else do all the talking. ... I prefer being in the back line. That's my natural habitat."

Gaughan, whose career on the Celtic folk music scene spans three decades, doesn't fit the mold of the traditional folksinger. Not content to sit quietly in a pub, waxing over the wonders of heather and peat with a warm pint in his hand, Gaughan prefers the high-tech, high-speed world of the Internet. "When the very first small home computers came out in Britain, I just became fascinated with them," he says. "Obsessed with them, really." He took a programming course at Edinburgh's Telford College in 1985, is system operator on a Compuserve forum and regularly participates on a handful of folk-related newsgroups on the Internet. He also designs websites.

Gaughan tried using his electronic tools for writing music, but soon found that anything written on a computer "sounds like computer music. ... It's much faster to sit down with a pen and a manuscript." And, while Gaughan is equally comfortable with acoustic or "plugged" instruments, he doesn't like a synthesized sound. He loves digital recording, however, which "allows the purity and clarity of acoustic instruments to come to the fore again."

As for the pop-culture version of the Celtic tradition, Gaughan dismisses it with a tolerant chuckle. "It's not surprising, really," he said. "We live in a world that tends to romanticize things."

Besides, he added, "there is a grain of truth in everything. There was a grain of truth in Braveheart. Most of it was nonsense, although it was entertaining nonsense. And Enya -- the music she makes is modern music. I enjoy it, but it doesn't touch what I do. ... I've got no argument with Enya."

An outspoken singer who isn't afraid to let his liberal politics come through in his music, Gaughan doesn't seem too impressed by recent doings in his homeland. When Scottish voters approved a new Parliament to be established in the year 2000, the singer predicted, "I think that parliament is more symbolic than useful. It will end up with a hell of a lot less power than one of your states. ... It'll be more like a city council."

Born in Glasgow, Gaughan was raised in Leith, an Edinburgh port on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth. His mother was a Highland Scot, his father a generation away from Ireland. From childhood, he was immersed in Scots and Irish musical traditions by both sides of his family.

[ by Tom Knapp ]




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