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Hidlaland, Sule Skerry – a review

Explore Sule Skerry, where Scottish fiddle meets American mandolin for a captivating fusion of folk traditions by Bichan and Setiawan.

Release Date
3 November 2023
Hidlaland, Sule Skerry
Scottish fiddler Louise Bichan and American mandolinist Ethan Setiawan merge their talents in Sule Skerry, a heartfelt album weaving Scottish folk and bluegrass. Their music, from the haunting 'Tune For Ellice' to the collaborative 'Trains/Fins,' juxtaposes tradition with innovative surprises. Through vocal harmonies and instrumental interplay, they reinterpret classics like 'Everything is Free,' capturing the essence of two distinct folk heritages converging harmoniously.

Scottish fiddle player, Louise Bichan, and American mandolinist, Ethan Setiawan, clearly have an intuitive relationship. They can usually be found in Corner House, the Transatlantic four-piece string band, but, here, they have produced an album where their seperate backgrounds blend together beautifully.

Sule Skerry is a small, rocky island in the North Atlantic, off the coast of Scotland and steeped in folkloric tales of selkies. The lighthouse that sits atop it used to be the most remote manned lighthouse in Great Britain, casting its beam into the endless darkness up there. Bichan and Setiawan, similarly, take things that are old fashioned and shine them, back and forth, across the ocean.

‘Tune For Ellice’ is a beautiful way to start, mandolin and fiddle creating the gorgeous Scottish atmosphere. Windswept and full of longing, a pretty tune that seems to ramble across heather-clad wilds, the two instruments joining hands and, very gently, twirling in the breeze, criss-crossing as they go. It is, almost, the only tune on the album that does what you imagine it’s going to do. After this, there are all manner of little surprises, tiny treats.

The treats happen most obviously when Bichan’s Scottishness collides with Setiawan’s take on bluegrass. The tunes often begin with continuous dance phrases that anyone familiar with Celtic folk music will understand. A repeated moment, both fiddle and mandolin working a danceable groove and then they drift off into something far more experimental, far more interesting. This happens on both ‘Silver Dollar’ and ‘Coffee and Incense’. ‘Silver Dollar’ is the first single from the album and is delightfully jaunty. Bichan’s fiddle keeps things light and the dancers on their toes. It is when the mandolin joins that the tune takes an interesting turn. If Chris Thile is the master of the bluegrass mandolin then Setiawan has definite echoes of him, not only in his Nickel Creek days but in his Punch Brothers guise too. There’s something almost jazzy in the experimentalism, something that pushes at the boundaries. 

‘Trains/Fins’ is the latest single taken from the album and is another tune that starts firmly rooted in Scotland before casting a quick glance eastwards. It’s upbeat, danceable, both instruments twirling together until the mandolin forces a bluegrass breakdown. The change in gear is smooth and dextrous, heather suddenly flattened under good-time dancing feet. 

As much as the tunes are magical, it’s the songs that really steal the show on Sule Skerry. ‘Ettrick’ is trad and Scottish, taken from a nineteenth-century poem by Lady John Scott – there is a version by The Corries. Hildaland add gorgeous vocal harmonies to their already harmonious instrumentation. It is very sweet, very charming. ‘The Selkie of Sule Skerry’ is equally delightful. Versions abound – everyone from The Byrds to This Mortal Coil, Judy Collins to The Unthanks have had a go at Child Ballad 113 – but few can have the stinging sea-spray majesty of this one. Bichan’s voice is multi-tracked, creating a ghostly harmony while a vast drone is as deep and wide as the North Atlantic itself. Setiawan’s Mandolin sends glistening shimmers across the darkness. 

It’s not all traditional and not all Scottish though. ‘Fall On My Knees’ is an old bluegrass tune and has all of the cracked magnificence that you’d expect from something that the Old Crow Medicine Show have covered. The mandolin effortlessly slides to the fore as Setiawan takes the vocal, Bichan’s fiddle simply lovely. It suddenly becomes obvious that these two musical styles are the closest of cousins, Scottish and American folk music effortlessly mixed.

Gillian Welch’s ‘Everything is Free’ has become a bit of a classic since it appeared on her wonderful Time (the Revelator) album. Hildaland’s version is marked with obvious love but it’s not a simple re-tread. Bichan’s voice is just as strong as Welch’s but it’s not as wracked or worn. There’s a brightness, an optimism, a warmth. Setiawan’s mandolin replaces the Rawlings guitar and feels entirely free. There is a moment, near the start of the song, where it gently fades in, as though he’s sleepily wandering to the microphone. This captures the spirit of Sule Skerry – this is music played with, and for, love. Two wonderful musicians joining hands to tie together two separate places, to cast a beam of light across the ocean. A reassuring reminder that there’s someone else out there. 

Sule Skerry by Hidlaland is out on November 3rd. It can be bought from the artists’ Bandcamp page.