I am writing from my attic apartment situated across from the Royal Portrait Gallery, a red brick neoclassical building bedecked with many, many life-sized statues of important, snooty-looking men, on Queen Street in Edinburgh. One such figure, wearing knee britches and sporting an unimpressive pompadour, faces my window at eye level. I get the odd feeling that he is watching me.
Down the street, there is a pub called the Barony. Today, there is a long line of people waiting to be seated. Lines outside of pubs are uncommon. Traditionally, people just pile in and rub shoulders intimately with complete strangers as they nurse overflowing pints.
If you know anything about the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Isle of Man…hell, all of the Celtic nations, it is that pubs are a major cultural institution. People gather there after work, to watch a football match, to have a long night with their mates, to meet girls (otherwise known as “pulling”), to moan about a tough day.
Pubs function as a sort of social equalizer. In the pub, a man on the dole will speak to someone in finance, a famous chef will chat comfortably with a social worker, and the local drunk is treated not with judgment but with sympathy and fondness. You see, in the pub, you are not what you do, you are just one of the fellas, having the “craic.”
But, of course, Covid-19 has changed all that. On May 21st, Scotland published a strategy, composed of four “phases” to carefully lead the nation out of lockdown. On July 15th, as part of Phase 3, the pubs were allowed to re-open, albeit with new safety measures.
People wait in line for ages just to have 1.5 hours to drink in socially-distanced, plastic-lined cubicles. When the time is up, the bartender anxiously ushers them out and, after a thorough disinfectant wipe-down, the next person enters and participates in the shadow-pantomime of pub culture. For those who don’t want to risk entering a pub and inhaling potentially infected air, plastic takeaway cups have become a popular option. Some pubs even offer a substantial discount if people bring gallon jugs to fill. Still, the locals complain that this is nothing like the old days, that the spirit of pub culture is, in fact, gone.
August would have been the apex of the Fringe, the world’s largest art festival. The Fringe was cancelled in late March as the United Kingdom went into lockdown. During the festival, in just 25 days, over 3,000 different shows go up, and around 55,000 performances take place. During that month, the city’s population nearly doubles. Visitors from all over the world crowd the streets. They are missing in action now and you can feel the void where they should be.
My flat is close to the Barony Pub. On my daily walks I pass by and hear accents from Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, London, Wales. Due to travel restrictions on European countries like Spain, France and Greece, British tourists cannot visit traditional vacation spots. As a result, unprecedented numbers of English citizens are taking their holiday here in Scotland. There are crowds here, but like the shifted pub culture, these masses of people are shadows of the missing, international population that usually comes with the Fringe.
There is something else missing from the city: the sound of music. Scotland, like Ireland, has a robust oral history tradition that comes in the form of folk music. Edinburgh is full of music pubs. Under normal circumstances, were you to wander through the Old Town or the New Town, Stockbridge or Leith Walk, you would likely hear the soft whine of a fiddle or the arrhythmic thump of a bodhran leaking out of a bar. Now, there is silence.
Today the Royal Oak and Sandy Bell’s are dark, their doors barred shut. The musicians are alienated from the venues they proliferated and the livelihoods they made there. The owners dare not reopen; they know they won’t make any money, not under the current safety regulations. The government deems singing to be a threat, and understandably so. Belting out lyrics into a cramped space is awfully effective at spreading Covid.
The Captain’s Bar has made strides in adapting to the current situation. As of August 30th, the pub holds gatherings of musicians outside of the pub. Cradling pints in plastic cups musicians sing in a loose circle, battling the wind that snatches our voices away. It is something, at least.
Bar owners are hoping that, in September, regulations will be loosened more and things can go back to normal. Folk musicians pray for the day that they can play indoors and hear their voices bouncing off the old woodwork of the historic pubs.
The Scottish folk scene is a niche subculture composed of performers, avid listeners and bar owners dedicated to promoting traditional and world music. Arguably, the three most important pubs in Edinburgh are The Captain’s Bar, The Royal Oak and Sandy Bell’s. Located right off of the Royal Mile (a long street connecting Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace), the pubs form a loose triangle around the Scottish National Museum and abut Edinburgh University.
Counter to the traditionalist trends found in some folk communities, Edinburgh is unique in its eclecticism and open-mindedness. Perhaps this is due to the proximity of the university and the Fringe Festival. Perhaps it’s a result of the Scottish people’s largely warm dispositions. There is Giulia Drummond, a Brazilian singer. There is Conor Riordan, from the Wirral, Northern England. The Auld Reekie String Band composed of Jakov Jandric, a Croatian; Linda Larking, a Swede; James Stewart, a Cumbrian; and Ben Errington, a Scotsman. There is John Anaya from San Francisco. Then there are the Peerie Faeries, a queer music group. The term “faerie” is a double entendre: on the one hand, it is a non-gender, non-binary identifier. On the other, it recalls the pagan, magical nature of Scotland’s history.
For members of the folk scene like myself, singing in the pubs is a way of life. If the bars close permanently it will be devastating to the community. Moreover, as a form of oral history, the decline of the contemporary folk scene will be a blow to Scottish cultural heritage.
Things are looking grim. The onslaught of tourists coming to Scotland and the reopening of pubs, restaurants, shops and museums, has resulted in rising cases of Covid. Where only one case was reported on June 20th, many new cases are being reported. On August 5th, Aberdeen went back into lockdown. And clusters of outbreaks have been identified in Northeast Glasgow and North Lanarkshire. It is only a matter of time before Edinburgh reports a serious outbreak again too. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, in an interview, announced that the Scottish government may go back into lockdown this winter.
It looks like the folk pubs will not reopen this year.
For the past two summers, I have lived in Edinburgh as a folk singer and writer.
The folk pubs fulfill important personal and spiritual purposes for me. In this eclectic community full of both international and queer artists, I can safely express myself. I can be one of the “fellas,” and have “the craic.”
There, often dressed in men’s clothes — a three-piece suit, or a t-shirt with suspenders and cargo pants — I can comfortably express my queer, non-binary nature through performing my drag king persona, “Chemeche.”
In this persona, I sing Americana, Old Time, Irish and Scottish folk music and the blues.
At the same time, the folk pubs serve as a place of spiritual expression. In a country with a small Jewish population and very few temples, the folk scene has become an odd Shabbat table, a halal club, of sorts.
Every Friday night, while performing in The Royal Oak or The Captains Bar, I sing Hebrew songs I grew up performing with my Israeli family.
When I sing in Hebrew, I close my eyes and pretend I am back home, that it is a Friday night in New York City. I am sitting at a table full of Israeli artists at the home of my aunts Aya or Dvora. In those moments, I am filled with a connection to my family and faith. It is like I am transported back home.
Nearly every time I perform a song in Hebrew, from within the pub crowd, a Jewish tourist or local comes to speak with me. Remarkably, the pub is a place of Jewish fellowship too.
I met a young, Iraqi-Israeli Jewish man who’d been discharged from the army and told me painful stories of being posted on the Gaza Strip; a young Moroccan-Jewish artist who was inspired by the Scottish highlands; a couple from New York with an obsession for Jacobite history; a man from Canada who opened a bagel shop in Edinburgh; even a fellow Yale alum and member of the same Jewish club.
I remember the first time I sang Hebrew in the Royal Oak.
It was the fall of 2018. I had been living in Scotland for two months, having moved there in the summer on a whim after graduating from Yale. I had joined the local folk community and was singing regularly. However until that night, I had not sung any Jewish material. I admit, I was frightened of anti-Semitism, having encountered it in already in Europe during some visits to France and Belgium.
It was early September. It was a Friday night, Ciaran McGhee’s session at the Oak. That day, I realized I was going to miss sharing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with my family and I felt very isolated.
I was seated among the performers on the “musician’s bench.” Built into the corner of the pub, it made a loose, half-circle that faced an audience. Woe betide any non-muso (short for musician) who attempted to sit there. No, dutifully the tourists and regulars, pints in hand, stood in front of us, listening avidly and without talking.
It was an energetic night. Ciaran and his band, Kishmul — made up of a four-string banjo, accordion, guitar and tin whistle — played a riotous, foot-stomping Irish tune. The floor vibrated and the visitors bounced in time with the music.
When the tune ended, Ciaran looked at me, giving me a nod. This is how a session leader directs the other musicians to perform. I was supposed to break into “Wayfaring Stranger” or The “L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” — songs the band knew how to play. But my homesickness overcame me. Standing up, I started to sing in Hebrew. Singing a cappella is common. Singing in Hebrew is not.
The audience was still basking in the afterglow of the Celtic jam session when I broke into my slow rendition of “Oseh Shalom.”
The nature of folk music, much like jazz, is to be improvisational. I let my feelings control the cadence, rhythm and content of the song. “Oseh Shalom” is meant to be celebratory, upbeat. But my longing for my family and for a spiritual connection added a note of sadness. The song became a prayer, an attempt to summon that which I didn’t have.
The force of my yearning for my father, to hear Hebrew language, to taste Jewish food, swayed me. I felt my arms dance around me, my head tilt to the side with each dissonant note. I swayed with the rhythm of the music, twisting like the flame on a candlestick.
When I finished, I shyly opened my eyes to the crowd. I knew I had taken a risk. Even in this eclectic community, no one had sung in Hebrew yet. I was surprised when they started to clap and when I saw a woman with tears in her eyes.
Afterwards, the woman approached me. She had come to Scotland for the Fringe Festival but had decided to stay on through the fall. She was Jewish; she too missed her community. My song had meant something to her. In this brief moment of fellowship, I felt something ease within me.
From then on, every Friday night I sang a song in Hebrew and in doing so, found a measure of spiritual fulfillment while away from my community in New York.
On March 23rd, Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom went into lockdown. A week later, on March 29th, I returned to the United States to support my family during the height of the outbreak in New York.
From my apartment in Chelsea, I watched on social media as the folk scene went into decline, as musicians and pub owners faced existential threats to their livelihoods and culture.
Brien O’Reilly posted on Facebook the folk scene was in “One word. Decimated.” Folk pubs created Kickstarters and GoFundMe pages to try to make enough money to pay return and stall bankruptcy. Musicians, like John Anaya, live-streamed performances on Facebook with Paypal tip jars linked on their pages. Folk session leaders, like Gerry Mulvenna, created online gigs like the “Captain’s Bar Stream Sessions,” hoping to keep up the tradition of making music together, even if it was digitally done.
In addition to the economic toll the closure of the scene had, there was a personal toll as well. Many musicians, like myself, see the folk scene as a platform for self-expression.
Giulia Drummond connects with her spiritualism by performing what she calls, “magical music.” Kevin Gore and Bobby Nicholson, ardent socialists and supporters of the Scottish Independence movement, articulate their political beliefs through song. And Sylvia McGowan, whose rich voice recalls none other than June Tabor and Dick Gaughan, connects with and recollects the memories of dearly departed family members through her soulful music. Gerry Mulvenna, an Irish singer-songwriter who also promotes Catalonian self-determination in his music said, “Although the pandemic has made us and the general public aware of the rich abundance of talent in our folk community, the removal of our ability to share this cultural expression has been devastating.”
After two months, on June 12th, I flew back to Scotland. I was not alone. Other musicians who went home for the lockdown returned from Spain, South America, the United States, Ireland and more. We all knew the pubs were closed but chose, regardless, to be in close proximity to our musical homes again. Now, together, we just wait, hoping for the scene to reopen. In the meantime, in small, social distanced gatherings we gather under Arthurs’s Seat, in The Meadows and on the Waters of Leith. We gather outside of the Captain’s Bar. We meet online too on Quarantunes. We are trying to make what music we can to tide us over.
In Scotland’s pubs, a Jewish artist found her home. Then came the lockdown.
Amanda Chemeche is a writer, filmmaker and musician. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Lithub, Popula, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Harvard Review Online, Medium, Jezebel and Litro. She is a graduate of Yale University and is currently attending Trinity College in Dublin completing an MPhil in creative writing.
Scotland’s musicians face uncertain future under COVID.