The Tweed Sessions


The Tweed Sessions were conceived as a series of events which would connect musicians with each other, musicians with tunes and songs, and tunes and songs with other songs and tunes. The overarching context was provided by the River Tweed or more specifically, important physical locations and produced spaces with symbolic significance such as the source and mouth of the river and Borders sites with historical or cultural significance.

In addition it was decided to make use of, investigate, and develop if possible the culture and conventions of the traditional music session, its habitus if you like, celebrating in particular the culture of young people in relation to traditional music and how connections are established with more experienced players or players from different musical idioms. These were to be in effect sound gatherings – sharings or ceilidhs in the traditional sense of a participative social meeting where anyone and everyone is invited to do a turn should they wish to. To frame these gatherings within an art context was a less explicit aim given that the cultural weight of the sessions would lie on the side of musical expression and performative group dynamics, but the aim was nonetheless important to a way of thinking about art, art objects, artistic processes and about what might constitute a local and regional definition of socially engaged art.

Early expectations were reasonable and none too ambitious: to ensure that the locations would serve as suitable venues, comfortable and amenable to good music- making; to attempt to celebrate the Borders repertoire in particular and within that project to explore what a Borders repertoire might consist of in terms of both musical material and styles of playing. The core of the sessions was to be young people from The Small Hall Band, a regional group of young people led by adults and experienced players which over the course of its performances and outreach activities has entertained all sections of the Borders community, on both sides the Tweed, and which has regularly produced professional musicians, many of which are currently making an impact internationally with their work. For a sparsely populated region with travel and communication difficulties we are well served in this respect.

The Innerleithen session was played out at the Union Club within the context of the Innerleithen Music Festival. The Paxton event took place outdoors in the sunny courtyard of Paxton House. Another session at Berwick was held in a Bohemian-style café above a music shop, at Tweedsmuir in a remote village hall and at Fairnilee in an old mill next to the river, used nowadays as a fishing bothy. All were close enough to the river to be conceptually meaningful and each had its own specific importance within the working life of the Borders. For example Paxton House is a building of architectural and historical interest open to the public, Tweedsmuir a fine representative example of the Borders village hall, an essential cornerstone of many rural communities. Fairnilee is a historically significant working mill and a place of rest and repose for Tweed anglers. The Gordon Arms keeps alive regular music sessions in a relatively remote but historically significant corner of the Borders. Each venue affords the players its own unique acoustic properties and spatial architecture. As an educational or formative exercise, this is invaluable for young players as they learn to negotiate the idiosyncracies of given spaces, making best use of physical features to produce a successful listening environment. The ability to make a place sing is eventually a hallmark of good professionals.

What emerged in terms of the social connections will ultimately be determined over time and is probably unmeasurable. People met, played music and enjoyed the experience. Now more people know each other than before and more musicians are aware of fellow musicians, again on both sides the Tweed. Without going into the small details of every session, in terms of repertoire the picture is more difficult to frame, though more interesting as a result. In researching the notion or fact of a Borders repertoire and gathering representative tunes I assumed initially that Borders musicians would meet and easily play Borders tunes all day long. But outside of the celebrated Border Ballad repertoire the notion of a specifically Scottish or Northumbrian Borders repertoire of tunes is arguably a thin one. There are of course several well known tunes associated with people and places, a common situation with respect to giving titles to older pieces.

There are if you like two levels of autonomy here: one where a session is capable of playing (all night long) only tunes from the locale or wider region. This might be seen as a hypothetical construct, but I’ve attended sessions in Aberdeenshire, Shetland, Donegal, County Clare and Brittany where players have successfully challenged themselves to play only local tunes over long periods. The second level of autonomy is where the players (obviously) have a common bundle of tunes, but it’s their own bundle, specific to the Borders for example, and a different bundle from the tunes played at a regular Inverness or Fife session. So what we can conclude for certain is that there does exist, in common with every region I’ve ever visited in Scotland and Ireland, a repertoire of favoured tunes. Many of these are of Borders origin, others are contemporary tunes brought in from the cities and from overseas, having found their way into the sessions because a handful of young people devoted time to learning them. There are also a growing number of new tunes and occasionally songs of recent origin, written by very young players and by seasoned non-professional players, or ‘enlightened amateurs’ if you prefer. Without this group of devotees, sessions would run the risk of dying out completely as more and more professional musicans shun sessions in favour of paid performances.

Although many tunes have passed through and circulated around the region, leaving their mark on local players, only a few are of local or regional provenance. The majority originate from the core session repertoires of Ireland and other Scottish regions, notably Shetland and the West Coast. Speaking of Shetland, there exists, on the face of it somewhat unusually, a strong link between Scotland’s Deep South and Far North, a relationship which has been strengthened in recent times by the Small Hall Band’s 2013 summer tour to Shetland and by regular ‘Shetland tune’ sessions in Yetholm. Although I’m not an expert in this field, I can see the similarities between Shetland and the Borders in terms of their relative isolation within a strong historical and cultural identity, though the similarities end there because of the fact of the Shetland’s island geography has enabled it to generate a distinctive home-grown repertoire throughout the mid- to late-20th century, strengthened considerably as notable players have emerged and become ambassadors for the islands’ music. Finally, though this would need further research and field recording analysis, elements of the clarity, accuracy and metrical rigour of Shetland fiddling have found their way into  the playing of several young Borders fiddlers. This is very much as it should be.

Having said all that, certain Borders tunes and songs did emerge as popular across many of the sessions: The Fair Flower of Northumberland (at Innerleithen in particular) and the tunes Teviot Bridge, Roxburgh Castle, Lindisfarne, Kale Water and The New Road to Bowden.

Scottish Borders Council has been prescient in funding traditional music officers and teachers in both song and instrumental tuition. These tutors are of the very highest calibre and have been responsible for keeping the tradition alive. The funding of peripatetic tutors became the catalyst which set Shetland up as a major location for their own and visiting young people to learn traditional music. The Borders is very much a place of flow and passage, more so than Shetland, and as such it has different mechanisms for absorbing outside influences as far as the instrumental repertoire goes. The quality of cultural flow has been influenced, positively in my opinion, by the proximity of Universities, in particular that of Newcastle, which teaches traditional music to degree level. Young people are studying, learning, then returning to the Borders to teach and regenerate the culture of traditional musical as new generations of yonger players emerge. This is a living tradition, visible at many of the Tweed sessions as tunes were passed around, learned, relearned, combined, modified, confused and rearranged, again as one would expect from any healthy traditional musical culture.

Finally, some reflections on knowing and moving along the river, thoughts which would sit comfortably in a more poetic discourse about the river. I’ve found myself regularly moving from an attitude of detachment to one of engagement with the river. I’ve spoken with others, river professionals and artists, about this very ordinary but nonetheless delicious dialectic and have discovered that such an oscillation of attitudes towards the river is common to all who fish around under the surface, both literally and figuratively. From analysing and rationalising we find it refreshingly simple to wander off into less rational thinking about how the river functions as an imaginary as opposed to a materially produced space or process. I’ve heard talk of the river as a vehicle or organic entity which carries the sounds of the tunes from source to mouth and I’ve overheard notions of fish and other animals carrying vital and creative energy from mouth to source and back upriver. As we sat in Fairnilee bothy, warm and glowing from the music, all the time listening beyond to the river raging a few feet from where we sat, some of these ideas were elegantly expressed by one of the company whose ‘turn’ was a short spoken contribution about how workers at the mill might well have sat and played fiddle for relaxation during their break, no doubt ‘playing off’ against the sound of the river and the ambient environmental soundscape. This thought turned to how the sessions have taken the music upstream and and down again, how the river has been the means of musical transportation, how the sessions and the river have merged in encouraging us to listen to the river in new ways, that same river, always visible as we walk or drive around the Borders. Reflections like these encapsulate the ethos and perhaps even the aesthetic of the sessions, above and beyond considering music as simply tunes and songs, ultimately empowering and lending added value to the whole exercise.

Music is the art of sound and traditional music in particular, recursively re-embedded into the environment from which it arose, in this case the land and its rivers, offers us not only a material content – the tunes and their instrumentation – but also a profound semiotic content in offering to player and listener alike what it is that these tunes and songs represent in relation to the land and the rivers, and in what the land and its rivers mean to the people.


The Berwick Session – photo by David Kilpatrick

audio examples of the Innerleithen session can be had here

– of Kirsty law lilting a Border Ballad by the riverside 1 2 3

– of Rachel Hales playing Border tunes on fiddle and viola by the riverside 1 2 3 4

Rethinking the border

Cinema Sark
Cinema Sark, John Wallace
photo, James Wyness

Borderlands: The Historical and Cultural Significance of the Anglo-Scottish Border

13 December 2013, Gallery North, Northumbria University.
Convened by Dr Ysanne Holt (Northumbria University) and Dr Angela McClanahan (Edinburgh College of Art)

On 13 December Claire, Jules and I attended ‘Close Friends’, the first in an ESRC seminar series hosted by Northumbria University on the theme of assessing the impact of greater Scottish autonomy on the North of England. The programme can be consulted here and an account by our close friends in Dumfries and Galloway, who spoke at the seminar, can be read here

My impression of the event was that it offered a forum for meaningful and incisive discussion on a range of topics that are not easily covered by those representations of debates (dressed up as real debates) which take place in television studios. Nor are such meaningful discussions likely to happen in the village and town halls of the Borders. This was yet another excellent opportunity, following the series of discussion events hosted by the Environmental Arts Festival Scotland in the autumn of 2013, to listen to a range of speakers covering topics of critical importance to the margins, edges, centres and borderlines in, around and between the counties of Southern Scotland and the shires of Northern England.  The complexity of cultural, social and economic relationships between the regions was aptly described as a set of superimposed Venn diagrams, not dissimilar to a living ecosystem.

Without echoing too much what has been said in The Commonty (above), we learned that the whole notion of ‘North’ is up for fresh discussion in the light of moves towards Scottish independence. Regardless of the referendum result, preparations, both practical and intellectual, will have to be made by those regions adjoining Scotland. Both Northumberland and Cumbria might very soon, in the face of possible Scottish independence or at least a process of moving towards greater autonomy, find itself on the extreme Northern fringes of a different England, itself independent of Scotland. And paradoxically or if you prefer, reasonably, professionals are looking with great interest at topics of mutual interest to regions on either side of the borderline: land use and (crucially) food production, tourism, transport, cultural strategies, not to mention differing policies, attitudes and initiatives relating to health and education. In addition Northumberland and Cumbria might themselves be forced into a new East/West dialogue, again looking at areas of mutual interest in the wake of their (possible) increasing isolation from London following the production of new abstract spaces along the border.

As a discussion around the arts and individual arts projects we were treated to illustrated accounts of projects from Dumfries and Galloway (John Wallace’s Cinema Sark, shown in the image above), North Northumberland (Northumbrian Exchanges) and the ghost town of Riccarton near Hawick. There is a long and deeply embedded tradition of cross-border cultural merging and collaboration, a well-oiled machinery of processes and institutional methodologies that are set to grow and develop over time in spite of national political changes. There is no University of the Borders which represents the needs of the creative and cultural community on the Scottish side – any notion of advocacy or mediation on the part of Edinburgh or Glasgow is fanciful. It would therefore be apposite (and again wonderfully paradoxical) to look to institutions like Northumbria University for such advocacy and mediation, not only because they have already begun the work of cross-border collaboration, but more importantly because doing so subverts the notion of border as a produced space implying exclusion, exclusivity and divisiveness.

Any discussion of Borders and Borderlands is of great interest to projects like Working the Tweed, for obvious reasons relating to the topography and political geography of the river, less obviously perhaps in view of the fact that Scotland’s Land Use Strategy is currently being piloted in the Scottish Borders and Aberdeenshire. The Borders pilot, in adopting an ecosystem approach, will be considering the following:-

•Provisioning services: e.g. food, fibre

•Regulating services: e.g. water quality, soil carbon

•Supporting services: e.g. biodiversity

•Cultural services: e.g. recreation, sense of place pilot looking at cultural strategy as a subset of the main heading.

While all of these areas are of interest to artists like ourselves engaged with a working river, the last field of investigation sits especially well alongside many of the key points discussed at the seminar. This study will undoubtedly be met with great enthusiasm by the ‘cultural sector’, which includes artists and arts administrators working in the region, but the initiative also carries the potential to encourage new perceptions among the wider community of scientists, educators, landowners, food producers and, hopefully, politicians. We look forward with to Northumbria University’s proposed conference in 2014.

James Wyness

World Listening Day – a selection of links

A selection of work celebrating Riverbank Listening, our  contribution to World Listening Day 2013 :-

Bridget Khursheed: Huntlyburn meets the Tweed

Jules Horne: Teviot meets Tweed: Junction Pool at Kelso

Kate Foster: listening upriver, downriver

Claire Pençak: junction of the Cogsmill Burn and the Slitrig

Felicity Bristow: Laret Burn – The Embankment – Kirk back

Joy Parker: meeting of theYarrow and the Ettrick

Fin McDermid: Leader joining the Tweed, with anonymous bird and low A68

Chris Whitehead: where the small Murk Esk joins the River Esk at Whitby

James Wyness: junction of the Jed Water and the Teviot

Chris Hurst: where a burn meets the Tweed with participant coughs, a Border Biscuit barking and a taciturn frog in the burn

The Tweed Sessions


Are you interested in the traditional song and music of the Borders region? Would you like to participate in a series of sessions along the Tweed throughout 2013 and into 2014?

If so, you’ll be interested in The Tweed Sessions, a series of six traditional music sessions, and one of the main strands of our Working the Tweed project.

These sessions, which will take place throughout 2013 and into early 2014, aim to celebrate the music and song of the Tweed catchment in particular, and of the Borders region more generally, meaning ‘both sides the Tweed’.

We will be holding these sessions at various locations along the Tweed, inviting along local musicians and members of the public. All are welcome to attend and all events will have both dry weather and wet weather plans.

Please pass on details of these sessions to friends and colleagues and do get in touch if you plan to attend. We look forward to meeting you at the sessions.

The dates so far are as follows:-

17 August 2013, 5 – 7 pm in the Union Club Innerleithen as part of the Innerleithen Music Festival

25 August 2013, 2 – 5 pm at Paxton House in the courtyard

28 September 2013, afternoon at Berwick-upon-Tweed, location to be decided. We’re delighted to be welcoming the Northumbrian Ranters to this session.




t: 01835 863061

m: 07896305368


Innerleithen Music Festival

The Northumbrian Ranters

Riverbank Listening – a World Listening Day Project

Do you want to join international artists and environmentalists in a global listening project?

Are you interested in contributing to a creative celebration of the River Tweed and its tributaries or of your own nearest river system?

If so, we welcome you to participate in Riverbank Listening on Thursday 18th July. This is a World Listening Day  project in which people from all over the world are invited to spend some time during the day listening to their environment, be it urban, rural or wilderness.

The four artists of  Working the Tweed, Kate Foster (visual artist), Jules Horne (writer), Claire Pençak (choreographer) and James Wyness (composer) will contribute to World Listening Day 2013 by making a meaningful connection between a celebration of environmental listening, and our own overall aim which is to celebrate the River Tweed catchment in the Scottish Borders. We wish therefore to extend an invitation to everyone to join us in a day of Riverbank Listening.

The aim is to visit your nearest junction of two streams, a spot where a tributary joins a larger tributary, or a main river such as the Tweed itself. In the Borders for example the Tweed catchment has more tributary streams than any river in Europe and as such most Borderers will find a junction of two streams within easy walking distance of their homes. Others will be pleasantly surprised to find how close they live to a junction of two streams.

The second part of the project involves documenting or logging your listening experience using your choice of medium: drawing, photography, writing, sound mapping, recording. This needn’t necessarily or exclusively involve technology – the aim is simply to register the event in your own way and to enjoy documenting our listening experiences.

We would welcome you to send us a link or links, by email, to any documentation that you have of your riverbank listening experience. We’ll be happy to list all links on our Working the Tweed website.


The Riparian Listener or Knowing the River

25 June 2013, Twizel Bridge to Norham

If, like the aesthete, fish divide perfumes into light and dark, and bees classify luminosity in terms of weight…… the work of the painter, the poet or the musician, like the myths and symbols of the savage, ought to be seen by us, if not as a superior form of knowledge, at least as the most fundamental and the only one really common to us all; scientific thought is merely the sharp point – more penetrating because it has been whetted on the stone of fact, but at the cost of some loss of substance – and its effectiveness is to be explained by its power to pierce sufficiently deeply for the main body of the tool to follow the head.

Claude Levi-Strauss

Artists are often thought of as knowledge producers. This process is flattering for the artist, but it can also become means of dragging artists and artistic discourse into the realm of empirical and scientific thought, which can then see that knowledge packaged and appropriated for various uses far removed from the artists’ intentions.

How can we ‘know’ a river, if knowing means a way of realising or gathering knowledge? Given that our project Working the Tweed will of course take account of both scholastic and phenomenological approaches to knowledge production, one of my adopted ‘problems’, in a research sense, converges on the relative merits of these different forms of knowing. Is a walk by the river, senses alert and mind in low gear (if not absent), as effective a means of epistemological enquiry as a professionally administered scientific survey?

I’d like to think that in drawing on decades of research and practice, my midsummer walk from Twizel Bridge towards Norham, on the Northumbrian side of the Tweed, unveiled as much important and useful knowledge as the most rigorous of scientific surveys, though the nature of that knowledge is less measurable and therefore less easy to represent, or misrepresent, than the knowledge produced by scientific means.

Throughout the year I want to listen intently to various aspects of the river Tweed and its larger tributaries, in this case the mouth of the Till, with a view to establishing a modest typology or nascent archive of a variety of sites and walks where the visitor can engage with the river without suffering too much noise or intrusion. This is less an airbrushing exercise and more a search for the quiet places, which, I’m happy to report, do still exist.

Looking at the map of the Tweed catchment, and knowing the river systems well enough, it becomes clear to me that busy trunk roads run close alongside many of the larger rivers, largely for historical reasons. This particular stretch, Twizel Bridge to Norham, takes the walker off the main roads and away from the noise quite quickly and assumes a trail close in to the river, separated from most traffic noise by large arable and mixed fields, mature and new woodland plantation. Finally, the river valley itself provides fine acoustic cover from all but the more intimate river sounds.

Walking from the car park below the ruins of  Twizel Castle , I took the path along the final reaches of the Till. This is uncomfortable walking at the height of summer because of an overgrown path, stinging nettles and various invasive flora of frightening proportions such as giant hogweed. The invasive species issue becomes immediately apparent – see it, touch it and know it. The path soon veers away from the road, passing beneath the Twizel Viaduct, offering glimpses of the Till, sandy and sluggish in its final mile. With more open views in early spring, autumn or winter this would be an excellent recreational walk with good river listening.

My first stop: facing southwest at Tillmouth proper with the Till on the left joining the Tweed on the right. Two standing anglers upstream and a cottage on the Scottish side having its verges trimmed by a noisy motorised tractor-mower. Rowing boats both sides the Tweed. The occasional vehicle on the B6437 reminds the listener just how far and with how much energy low frequencies will carry. The tractor-mower stopped for around forty minutes, conveniently allowing me to take a long recording, from the wooden bench by the rod-stand, and to digest my surroundings in relative peace. The recording will be archived until we decide what to do with these comnplex and problematic representations. Back to the river, you have to allow time for the soundscape to establish itself. Given enough time and gentle wide-field concentration, emergent properties become apparent, of which more at a future date.



I’m no expert, but the birdlife here seems to be exceptionally rich, or more accurately the topography lends itself to a variety of species. Almost cacophonous at times, the birds dominate the recorded soundscape with their ceaseless foraging and chattering. The covering of deciduous behind me, in addition to harbouring all manner of unidentified tappings, whoopings and flutterings, echoed the wider field of sound from the large thick horizontal blanket expanse of mature broadleaf across the river, and from the smaller riparian trees along the main channel. I’ll take a chance and suggest that these might be ‘residual alluvial forests’. A fine range of contrasting habitats. Finally the flurry of various waterfowl and the delicious sound of muscular salmon breaking the surface occupied the middle foreground, with insects taking up the nearfield panorama.

Walking downstream to ‘The Rocks’ you pass numerous small wooden signposts marking the beats. The bothy at The Rocks is another fine listening point opposite sandstone crags. This stretch in its entirety offers an excellent soundwalk. Here I spoke with two Northumbrian anglers who told me the following:-

  • Tillmouth salmon fishing costs around £70.00/day but at peak season can cost up to £700/day.
  • An angler caught six fine salmon yesterday (he was out on a boat again today on the same beat). The young lad I spoke to was looking out an orange fly which seemed to be doing the trick. The colour of fly, as opposed to the specific fly, seemed to be the deciding factor.
  • Poachers are rare because the authorities have devised methods of testing for river fish which prevents quick and easy black market sales.
  • Scottish rules (whatever those are) are in force for angling on both sides of the river.




Eventually the path rises away from the river to  Twizel farmhouse. Some kind of high pressure siphoning from the river is taking place for irrigation purposes, no doubt closely monitored according to the statutory regulations in the Tweed Catchment Management Plan. Either that or I’ve just alerted the authorities and somebody’s about to be nicked.

Of the three paths on offer I descended again to the river towards Norham. Here the path runs high above the Tweed affording tantalising glimpses of the river through the covering of thick wood and luxuriant vegetation. At times the woodland soundscape is Edenic, broken occasionally by startled waterfowl. Some notes and observations: this is a path less travelled, almost completely overgrown in places; no midges – you couldn’t walk this kind of path on the West Coast in comfort; the joy of brushing against riverside oak, too rare in Scotland these days; a series of excellent contrasting listening environments, especially from the small footbridges over tributary streams which offer resting points, in particular the bridge facing the rushing weir before Dreeper Island.

Just after Dreeper Island the river opens out and you’re level with a completely different Tweed, now expansive and slow flowing, more like a large lochain, which soon folds back into various canalisation morphologies. Traces of wild garlic, a riot of songbirds and incongruous but inviting rondavels on the opposite bank at Upsettlington, a meeting place for warring parties during the wars of Scottish Independence.






Finally on listening points, I’d recommend a stop at any of the bothies along the way, especially the black painted corrugated iron shack upstream of the small weir.

Returning by a different set of paths marked out on the map wasn’t easy or pleasant. What looks like a straight run of open land is actually waist- and even head-high with various crops. Creative cartography is required to avoid damaging the crops, so out of respect for the farmers I’ll refrain from mapping a return course and recommend that during the summer months you either aim for the nearest road as soon as possible or return the way you came. But I should mention to finish that the liminal zones between thick broadleaf woodland and hay meadows are unspeakably beautiful with their secret and intimate moods, as are the random explosions of poppies which pepper the fields of oilseed.







Next up – soundwalking and listening somewhere around Scott’s View and Bemersyde.