Ballantyne cover image Craig Armstrong

How Hollywood came to the Ballantyne Psalm singing project

They seem like a bit of an odd couple: the award-winning Hollywood composer behind the soundtracks to films such as Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby, and the Lewis tradition bearer who’s also an elder in the Free Church.

So when I heard that Craig Armstrong and Calum Martin were collaborating on a project to do with Gaelic Psalm singing, I was more than a little intrigued — and quite impressed. It seemed so unlikely.

But then, with them both being Scottish musicians and composers, and Glasgow-born Craig having a family connection to Psalm singing — it wasn’t actually as unlikely as all that, and was instead a connection full of possibilities.

To my mind, nothing on this Earth can compare to the experience of being in the midst of a church giving praise in this way, following the precenter as he gives them the line. When it’s a big congregation in full flight… wow. So moving, so ‘home’. Like the sea as she rises and falls, loosely marking the passage of time.

Personally, Gaelic Psalm singing is the soundtrack to grief too but that’s become part of its beauty. I remember the strength of a congregation’s singing giving me a physical sensation of being buoyed up when I could not have uttered a sound myself.

Ballantyne score by Craig Armstrong and Calum Martin

Ballantyne is the second collaboration between Craig and Calum and will be having its world premiere in An Lanntair in Stornoway on Saturday night (August 27). It was commissioned by the arts centre as the flagship event for the Creative Place project, Bealach, and brought together by their head of performing arts, Alex Macdonald. Tickets still available!

Eager anticipation surrounds it and if ever an event deserved to be a sellout, then this is it. Tickets are still available folks, so visit or call the box office on 01851 708480.

Craig will be taking time out from work on Oliver Stone’s new film — as you do — to come to the island for the premiere, and will be taking some of his family with him. I asked him a few questions this week, in advance of it.

He told me: “I think for me, Gaelic Psalm singing is one of the most surprising and beautiful forms of music to be created in Scotland.  It’s also music that seems to be so much part of the landscape of the Highlands and Islands.”

He added it was “part of your job, as a composer living in Scotland, to be aware of the traditional music of your own country as well as seeing what international music interests you”.

Craig Armstrong
A personal connection: Craig Armstrong

Craig recalled becoming interested in Gaelic Psalm singing in the 1980s and going to the Scottish Music Studies Centre in Edinburgh University to buy vinyl copies of Psalm singing from Lewis.

There is a personal connection too, as relatives on his mother’s side would attend church in Hilton, on the Moray Firth seaboard, where Psalm singing was part of their service.

Ballantyne follows Craig and Calum’s first collaboration — which also involved the Scottish Ensemble, as does this one. That composition was called the Martyrdom Variations and was played exclusively for guests at the Ryder Cup in 2014 and commissioned by Diageo.

As well as strings musicians from the Ensemble, Ballantyne will also feature cellist Neil Johnstone, Highland fiddle player Duncan Chisholm and 13 Psalm singers, including Calum’s daughter Isobel Ann and two Free Church ministers – Calum Iain Macleod and Iain D Campbell. The soloists will be Isobel Ann and Reverend Macleod.

It features a completely new Psalm tune, written by Calum, and will be the final piece in an evening of spiritual music from the islands, also involving other musicians and singers including Willie Campbell, who collaborated with Calum on his Gaelic album, Dalma.

A number of Psalms will be precented acapella, as they would be in church, but the strings will work with the singing in Ballantyne.

Craig admitted that, musically, “the biggest challenge was to incorporate instrumental players within a tradition that is purely vocal” — and to do so in a way “that hopefully doesn’t compromise either but creates something new”.

Having been to Lewis previously, and gone to a prayer meeting in Back where he experienced Gaelic Psalm singing in its truest setting, he added: “Meeting Calum and having personal contact with the congregation has been a wonderful and valuable experience.

Calum Martin (c) Brighter Still
A life’s dream: Calum Martin (c) Brighter Still

“For me the Gaelic Psalm singing is without doubt one of the most interesting types of music to come out of Scotland.  I think the first time anyone comes into contact with it (they are) usually very moved by its beauty and spirituality.

“It’s positive to be part of a project that helps make Gaelic Psalm singing more widely known among the general public as it’s such a special tradition.”

He added: “I feel very lucky to have met Calum and had access to his extensive knowledge on this subject. As well as working together on these projects we have become friends and I feel it’s been very special to be invited up to Lewis to be part of this ongoing process.

“Calum’s knowledge and enthusiasm and his ability to get the Gaelic Psalm singing heard within a wider audience throughout Scotland and the world is very, very important for the tradition to continue.”

Calum said he was “excited” about the project. “It’s a dream that I’ve had pretty much all my life; to be able to do this up here on the island. Without financial help from the Creative Places award, it just would not have been possible. We’re bringing it back to its heartland.

“Hopefully it will raise awareness among people and hopefully they will be impressed by it. We’re putting it on stage so that it will stimulate people’s interest in finding out more (but) whatever we do with Gaelic Psalm singing, my aim for everyone would be to point them back to church, where they would find the real thing.”

Psalm book, pictured for Ballantyne

Calum hopes this project will help prevent the tradition from dying out. He believes one of the reasons it is in decline is that significant numbers of fluent Gaelic speakers are preferring to go to English church services. “That’s their choice,” said Calum, but “I can’t understand it”.

Between 80 and 100 churchgoers will attend a Gaelic Sunday morning service in his church, the Free Church in Back on Lewis, for example, and that is considered to be a good number.

But back in the 60s, Calum recalled how there would be more than 1000 people in the congregation in the Free Church during the Stornoway Communions — and what a sound they made. Although there are no recordings — “such a pity” — Calum remembers the singing very clearly. “It was phenomenal,” he said. “When it’s done well, there’s nothing like it in the world”.

Explaining his interest in creating a musical project around Psalm singing, he said: “I’ve always said, you cannot beat the voice but the musician in me is really, really keen on seeing how close musicians can get to it.

“And if you use non-fretted instruments, where you can play around, you can get very close – and the cello is an instrument that you can actually do that on.”

Ballantyne rehearsal in Craig Armstrong studio
Classical and folk: Ballantyne rehearsals in Craig’s studio

As he explains it, there are two main reasons why Gaelic Psalm singing is so wonderful – and so tricky to replicate outside the church congregation.

The first is that it has no time structure. Although the singing will follow one basic melody, everyone will, to some degree, do their own thing.

The tune will be slowed right down — “tempo is suspended” — said Calum, and all the embellishing grace notes will be added in, wherever, by all the individual singers.

There are no bar lines in Psalm singing and Calum recalls Craig listening to a recording of Isobel Ann, and painstakingly trying to follow every one of her grace notes. “I said, ‘Craig, you’re crazy, man!'” Normal rules don’t apply.

The other reason is that Gaelic Psalm singing is a “vertical and horizontal” experience at the one time.

“The vertical is that every individual in that church is doing an individual act of worship between them and their God, based on the melody.” The horizontal is an individual singer’s gradual awareness of, and coming into line with, the notes being sung by those around them.

Essentially, according to Calum, Gaelic Psalm singing is an old folk Sean-nòs singing style — a secular style — that came into church.

After the Ryder Cup project, Calum wanted to bring folk musicians into the new one to give it even more of the ‘blàs’, or Gaelic flavour and feeling. And the finished result? “The more I listen to it, the more I love it.”

Duncan Chisholm and Calum Martin on Ballantyne
Bringing the blàs: Duncan plays and Calum listens

Comments 3

  1. As a child I remember thinking I would much prefer to stay at home reading a book rather than having to attend church in Kinloch with my parents. But even then ,at a young age ,I loved to listen to the psalm singing although

    the thumping of the pulpit as the minister belched fire and brimstone tended to disturb the meditative state induced by the magical singing.
    My recollection goes back 60years and thankfully the Gaelic psalm singing remains the same but the fire and brimstone has diminished.
    Looking forward to the performance on Saturday night .

  2. A spine chilling performance culminating in a memorable new composition .
    Calum Iain Macleod ,Free Church minister in Back ,could share the stage with one of my favourite singers ,Andrea Bocelli.,,!!!.
    Tremendous achievement by Calum Martin .

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