Andrew Curry writes: It was the anniversary yesterday of the untimely death in 2005 of the Scots piper and composer Martyn Bennett, of a lymphoma. He was only 33 at the time. Today’s Song of the Day, then, is by way of a tribute to Bennett, who flared like a comet across Scots music in his short career.
He was born in Canada, but his mother was the Gaelic singer and folklorist Margaret Bennett, and he returned to Scotland as a child with his mother after his parents separated. He was precociously talented, and played multiple instruments, including the violin.
But he was also a product of ‘90s culture, and his music drew on both the Scottish folk tradition—especially the Gaelic tradition—and the beats and samples of dance and trance music.
(Martyn Bennett, by B.J. Stewart. Photo: via Real World Records)
The result was a succession of innovative and intriguing records. His final record, Grit, on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, is probably the most fully realised, even though he was already too ill to play on it, but sampled his own playing and that of others.
Looking back at his career, his impact was huge. An article by Jim Gilchrist on the BBC website 10 years after his death describes him as
'the techno piper', a dreadlocked iconoclast who took clubs and folk festivals alike by storm, combining his superb piping technique with a beefy sound system and an arsenal of beats and samples.
A Scotsman profile in 2002 quoted with some relish a review of his appearance at Cambridge Folk Festival in 2000, just before he was first diagnosed with cancer:
Scots music has never sounded like this before. No music has ever sounded like this before. Half the audience fled in fear of their lives.
My Song of the Day is taken from his earlier recording, Bothy Culture, which took me completely by surprise when I first heard it. The track is Hallaig, which combines Bennett’s piping and playing with a reading by the Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean of his poem about a village on the Isle of Raasay that was emptied for sheep during the Highland Clearances.
MacLean reads an English translation by Seamus Heaney, and the effect of it all is evocative enough that when I was in Skye in 2021 on holiday I made sure that I crossed the sound of Raasay to walk to the stones that still remain.
Three of Bennett’s records can be found in full on YouTube—Grit, Bothy Culture, and Glen Lyon, which is a collaboration with his mother. Bothy Culture and Grit are also on Spotify. There’s more information about him and his career at the website that is maintained by the Martyn Bennett Trust in his memory.
His work’s been celebrated since his death at Celtic Connections, and included in the programme of the Edinburgh Tattoo. But it would be good if someone, somewhere, found a way to reissue some of his deleted records—even just digitally—in time for the 20th anniversary of his death next year.
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