More than just a band, Saor Patrol embody a concept and are going from strength to strength. Kate Large spoke to Charlie Allan about the ancestors, identity, community and rocking with bagpipes…
You named the band for freedom – why was that, and what does freedom mean to you?
The name has a double meaning for us. One is the Gaelic of course, from the word ‘saorsa’, meaning freedom, but it has another meaning to us: ‘shore patrol’. As an educational group (with our Clanranald Trust), we deal with kids and so people would use this term to each other like a code. For, example, if someone had had a coffee break and still had a cigarette in their mouth they’d forgotten about, you’d say “shore patrol “. We are an educational charity and need to be appropriate when people see us in our uniforms, so it grew from there.
The Clanranald group had been going a couple of years before gaining charitable status in 1996,and the band officially kicked off in 2000. I’ve always been interested in my culture and heritage.
How did you all meet, and what got you playing together?
We all met through the Clan (Clanranald Trust), although Steve came much later via an advert and interview. Turned out we knew each other in our youth! I decided that whilst we had all the other elements of history intact we didn’t have any music, so I decided to teach myself the bagpipes. I simply bought a set.
You’ve carved yourself out a distinctive niche, somewhere beyond the Afro-Celts and Mogwai, between world music, and post-rock. How did your sound evolve?
I guess we all had a background in rock and the sound was even more simple back then. One bagpipe, three drums: that was it. I tend to compose from the heart so it was truly a unique sound, I didn’t even listen to bagpipe music.
You recreate the past in order to honour the ancestors: does ancestral veneration play a central part in your wider spiritual paths? What can we gain from honouring our ancestors?
It does in some ways, yes. Utmost respect and awareness of our connections to the past lead us on our path. It also helps us understand who we are, why we feel what we feel about ourselves, our race and our country. Often, as we travel and attend cultural festivals worldwide we meet other ‘warriors’: it’s as though we feel what they feel when we communicate and it’s all very similar.
Come to think of it, how would you define your spiritual/religious beliefs? Do you regard yourselves as Pagan/Heathen, or similar path, or simply nature-focused?
Speaking for the rest of the band, we are not big on any one religion. We all have our beliefs, but they do cross over with each other – they don’t clash, though. Nature’s path is likely the one aspect you could categorise as uniting us all. We are very concerned about and interested in our surroundings and environment, and we feel extremely protective towards them too. We all have varying levels of specific interest; for example, Mark is more versed in religion as he studied that, and still does show an interest. I listen to all that I hear, and as for Steve, well his religion is football!
Community is obviously really important to you – what do you offer your fans, and what do you get back from them?
We offer them a one to one experience, and we make sure that we always take the time to listen to them, after every single show. Sometimes we might do four shows in a day and eight in a weekend, so it can be exhausting after our performances, especially if we are there for three or four days, but it’s all about committing to them, as they are committing to us.
We try to just keep our normal, off-stage behaviour going when we’re on stage as much as possible: we can get up to all sorts of crazy antics, but luckily, the fans love it. What we really get back is loyalty and support: even when it’s lashing down with rain, there’ll still be a mass hardcore of fans, dancing in the rain.
Is there a deeper dimension to performing live? What do your performances mean to you?
It’s just about joy: pure joy, and performing live means that anything can happen. Sometimes we have happy accidents and we have to try not to crack up at each others’ expressions on stage. What gets me is trying to play the bagpipes while laughing – it’s absolutely hopeless. Even the crowd laughs at me. Steve is hilarious too – they all are.
One thing that feeds back to us – and it makes us feel very proud – is that fans both old and new all say they can ‘see we are bonded together’. That’s Saor Patrol: if you don’t bond, you don’t fit .
Duncarron is a hugely ambitious project. Does it really give you the feeling of being in another time? And what can we learn from spending time in ancient settings?
I’ve spent time in ancient places since I was young. They’ve always intrigued me: the pace of life then: the long days in summer, the work done in order to survive the winter, how long it took to get anywhere. I love old Pictish Brochs and that era. Life in Scotland, or anywhere in Britain for that matter, must have been brutally tough at times. We continue to raise awareness as we need another £800,000 in materials alone to finish it.
Similarly, with your Combat International re-enactment work: how does it feel to be kitted out and actually involved in the heat of battle?
I think battle is all part of our genetic memories in some way. For me, it’s a good thing to know the brutality of it all: it means you know why you have to stop it outside on the street. Kids are curious in schools and at events but it really hits home when you show them the difference between reality and movie SFX. For example, when you describe real, blunt-force trauma, connecting it with what they are actually holding in their hands: they soon realise that this is not anything like being de-sensitised through gaming and TV gore. We show them the effects aren’t real.
Scottish culture is obviously really important to you. How would you define Scottish identity, conflicted as it may be? Would we all benefit from connecting with our own ancient culture?
I wouldn’t say we are conflicted about our identity: we are Scots, plain and simple. Descendants of a mixed race of Celtic tribes, and Irish who later defined themselves as Scots; with a bit of Norse and Dane in there too, depending on which coast, east or west. But I think more and more people in Scotland are connecting with their culture now. We’ve moved away from the tartan shortbread biscuit tin ideology and have woken up politically too. We have more freedom of choice to study our own culture and heritage, which was another reason to set up the Clanranald Trust in 1996: because since then, we were not allowed to teach Scottish culture and heritage in schools as part of the National Curriculum.
What does the future hold for Scotland in a wider society that’s fractured and desperately seeking meaning?
Scotland is disgruntled: just the same as everyone else on the planet. The powers that be are abusing ordinary people, and there needs to be change. I think the people of Scotland need a voice, as does much of northern England. Polls show that most of Northern England want to be a part of Scotland – never in my life would I have thought of anything like that!
Scotland, apart from its midges and rain, has much to offer, although we don’t have much room: so many mountains and lochs and free, green areas.
What are your plans for 2016, for the band, for Clanranald and Combat International?
As always: onwards and upwards. There will be a new album and new horizons for the band, one being travelling to Australia. Clanranald continues to grow all the time, while DunCarron will further benefit from the volunteer input we drum up all year worldwide. Combat International should be shifting up gear and moving into the public eye.
More on all the above, plus some great music, over at www.saorpatrol.com.