A Musical Mystery Tour

- by Lillian Stewart Carl

Many years ago, on one of our trips to Scotland, my family and I visited Culzean (“Cull-ane”) castle in Ayrshire. The gardens soon became the setting of an early scene in Dust to Dust. Even sooner, though—as in, when we returned to the hotel—I realized that the album I’d bought in the gift shop was missing.

I dug through the suitcases I’d packed for our trip home. I phoned the castle. Nada.

Still, we stopped by on our way to the airport the next morning. The people in the shop were very nice but couldn’t help…. Until, out of the mirk and mist, appeared a young man who was the doppelganger of Michael Campbell, the hero of Ashes to Ashes and Dust to Dust. He handed over the damp but undamaged album, announced, “‘Twas in the carrr parrrk,” and vanished.

That album is, appropriately enough, Scottish folk/rock group Runrig’s “Discovery”. Story of my musical life.

When I was very young, my mother signed me up for ballet classes—only to learn that despite being born with a love of music, I’d also been born with two left feet, a condition only remedied when I recently discovered tai chi.

Music classes came next, and, since we didn’t have a piano, I found myself playing a small piano accordion. This enterprise was a success—I had two left feet, but all ten fingers—and I soon graduated to an adult-sized instrument, so much larger and heavier I might as well have been wearing pleated body armor.

For years I played pieces such as “Fascination” and “Beer Barrel Polka”, nothing that really, well, sang to me. For even more years the accordion sat in a back closet. At last I donated it to the Salvation Army. Whether it made a joyful noise for them, or was sold in a thrift shop, I have no idea—but someone got a beautiful instrument.

Only then did a friend give us his Steeleye Span albums. The music of the British folk/rock group opened up new worlds, and led me to the albums sold by a dealer-friend at science fiction conventions—British and Celtic folk/rock groups like Runrig, Battlefield Band, Silly Wizard, Wolfestone, Clannad, and more.

Lillian with Brian McNeillWhen we started attending the Texas Scottish Festival, I discovered more music, ranging from hard rock flavored with Celtica to traditional ballads—Seven Nations, The Killdares, Jiggernaut, Beyond the Pale, Clandestine, Ed Miller, John Taylor, and Brian McNeill, pictured with me at left.

Some of these musicians played accordions. Accordions could make compelling music. Who knew? And now that I knew, was it too late?

Thanks to Enya and Riverdance and all, Celtic music is no longer obscure. When Howard Shore wrote his magnificent score for The Lord of the Rings, he based many passages on Celtic melodies. The haunting qualities of that soundtrack are worthy of the source material, my favorite book of all time.

Three decades ago we bought a piano. For way too long I did no more than parse bits of classical music—nothing like pounding out the Mozart “Rondo alla Turca”. But I usually played only the right hand. The left hand on the accordion is played on buttons, so I couldn’t equate the written music with the left side of the piano keyboard

Then I discovered that there were books of the music from The Lord of the Rings—and lo and behold, I play the piano with both hands! From Middle-earth to Middle C….

I’ve never written a character who plays the accordion or the piano, unless you count the haunted piano in Blackness Tower. But my characters and I definitely hear the music. For example, in Shadows in Scarlet the couple falls in love while an accordion plays “The Misty Mountains of Home”. (Isle of Lewis native Alyth McCormack once sang this at a Chieftains concert, making the hair on the back of my neck tingle. If they ever make a movie of The Blue Hackle, she’s the banshee.)The Blue Hackle

The abovementioned Michael Campbell plays the bagpipes. So does Mick Dewar in Lucifer’s Crown. There’s nothing as evocative, not to mention assertive, as a well-tempered set of pipes.

They, however, are amateurs. My professional-musician character is Hugh Munro in the Fairbairn/Cameron series. Hugh is a thinly-disguised version of the also abovementioned Brian McNeill, a founder of my early favorite, Battlefield Band. He’s a Scottish storyteller, singer, songwriter, novelist, and player of fiddle, guitar, mandolin, concertina and more—but not the small Scottish harp or clarsach, never mind Hugh doing so in the novels.

Brian keeps telling me I should kill Hugh off in some horrible fashion, and I keep refusing. I need my literary soundtrack. Who knows what musical discoveries I have yet to make?

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