Tony Cummings talked to some of the people behind the pioneering Christmas card/CD released BEACON MUSIC

Beacon Music: Shetland folk meets Christmas carols to produce

It has already been observed by Cross Rhythms on numerous occasions that the Christmas season seems to do peculiar things to large numbers of Christian musicians. For some strange reason the majority of artists, whether they work in the CCM "ministry" field or the secular mainstream, seem utterly unable to record an album of songs celebrating Christmas without a monumental plunge in artistic quality. Maybe it's the commercial pressure put on them by record companies who know only too well that CDs sell in larger numbers at Christmas. Maybe it's theological confusion which leads to songs about Santa Claus and sleigh bells interspersing compositions celebrating the incarnation. Or maybe it's simply that the 30 or 40 carols now considered Christmas classics have simply been recorded so many times that little if any freshness can be brought to such over-used material. But whatever the reason the fact remains that of the dozens of Christmas albums released each year, the bulk are aesthetically dire.

It was in this as a background that the Cross Rhythms reviews team were stunned by the release in 2007 of a Christmas album which not only demonstrated a musical freshness utterly lacking in the bulk of releases, but showed an inventive way of communicating the Gospel which set it apart as a unique evangelistic initiative. Beacon Music is a record company-come-brand which is a kind of spin off of a long established Scottish prison ministry. What they did in 2007 and are repeating the process this year is package a CD of Christmas music performed by Shetland-based folk musicians with an attractively designed Christmas card. These Christmas cards/CDs were then distributed in packs to churches all over the UK. The creative brain behind the Beacon Music initiative is a 60 year old house husband and one time prison worker, Eddie Macguire. (Eddie's work running a Prison Fellowship group in Glenochil High Security Prison is told in part in the book And You Visited Me published by Prison Fellowship, Scotland in 1993.)

Eddie Macguire
Eddie Macguire

Eddie explained to Cross Rhythms the background behind Beacon Music's pioneering initiative. "The Beacon Music project was an offshoot of our prison work. In the prison we had no easy access to the halls, so we had to rely on prisoners reaching out to their fellow inmates and inviting them up to the meetings. With the advent of CDs (that couldn't be copied over like tapes) we used to lend CCM CDs to the prisoners as a means of encouraging them and building them up spiritually when they were away from the meetings. They would play the CDs in their cells at recreation time, when other prisoners would circulate around the cells. This formed a sort of outreach. We thought that if this worked on the 'inside', could we somehow use in the outside world?"

Eddie obtained agreement from a number of local authorities in Scotland to place CCM CDs into public libraries. He explained, "We regularly supply about 25 libraries throughout Scotland. These are loaned on the same terms as the libraries' normal CD offerings and are generally mixed in, for example, country style in the country section rather than in the religious section. We have a little label on the back of each CD, stating that it was placed by Beacon Music with a contact address and telephone number. Over the years we have had an encouraging number of contacts, often asking where the albums can be purchased. I was encouraged recently to discover that two people in our church house group were introduced to CCM through the library project and have built their collections around the artists they had been introduced to via the library. We place CDs that are donated by artists and record companies; this tends to come from their promotional budgets."

Eddie continued, "When we were operating in the prison, we discovered that a particularly difficult period of the year for prisoners is Christmas. One form of outreach we could do was to send prisoners Christmas cards. However, we were very hard up, so I made the cards myself. This has become a rod for my back since, although I no longer have to make the cards for prisoners, all our friends and contacts seem to look forward to our Christmas card every year. In fact there are quite a number of people who have a complete collection - now I have to produce about 250 a year. I tend to take the words from an appropriate Christian song and work the card around the lyrics. So now we come to the point where music and Christmas cards come together.

"I loved Bruce Cockburn's 'Christmas' album, which was a stripped down production of Christmas carols (admittedly some a bit obscure) but with different arrangements that revealed the lyrics afresh. Also in the same vein more recently 'Your King Has Come' from Detuned Radio/Indelible Grace. From these little seeds our mighty oak tree grew. Also a 'vision' started to be revealed to me. I spoke with my friends at ICC and obtained some quotes for the production of a CD housed in a cardboard outer that would form a Christmas card. But, what to put on the CD and who would record it for us?"

Eddie knew Mandy Tait, a Shetlander now living in Central Scotland, from church, and met through her Mandy's sister Freda Leask on her occasional visits from Shetland. Freda sang in a well known Shetland-based folk group, Shoormal, whose output includes the critically acclaimed 'Migrant' (2003) and 'Turning Tide' (2006) for Greentrax Records. Explained Eddie, "To cut a very long story short, one evening we were out to dinner at Mandy's and Freda was staying over and I asked her if she thought Shoormal would be interested in recording an album of Christmas carols, and proceeded to present a 'business plan' for the project. She was interested, but felt that a complete album might be too much, since the members of the group all have their professional occupations. However, she said she would discuss it and get back to me.

"Eventually after many months of highs and lows, it was concluded that they couldn't afford the time, and I thought the scheme was for the bin. However, to my surprise, and hers, Freda came back to me to tell me that she had been talking about the scheme with a number of musicians in Shetland and she suggested that Shoormal might do three of the tracks and other singers and musicians who were very enthusiastic about the project might do the other tracks. I had to talk this through with my fellow trustees, since the majority of the musicians were not Christians. However, the meeting concluded that these were the very people we were trying to reach, so we should go ahead. I got back to Freda and we agreed to go ahead with the project and it was very much left up to Freda to take charge of the whole thing in Shetland. We had decided that we would go for traditional carols, but that the musicians should be able to choose which carols to perform. The main reason for carols was that they were non-threatening, and that also they would be in the public domain and therefore we would have no copyright problems! Eventually we had to pay royalties on two of the carols - but by that time they had been recorded."

Shoormal contributed three songs to the Beacon Music project: "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" (with a haunting lead from Freda Leask), "In The Bleak Midwinter" (with Joyce McDill singing lead), and "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear" (with lead vocal by Donna Smith). Cross Rhythms asked Freda to provide a potted history of Shoormal. "Shoormal was formed in 1997 and incidentally is a Shetland dialect word meaning 'the water's edge.' It certainly has been a place of constant change! I had been out of the mainstream music scene in Shetland while my daughter and son were small and had been involved with music within a Pentecostal church, where we attended as a family. I have been privileged to meet and work with some fantastic musicians in this context. However, from the mid-'90s, I was no longer involved with music within church and had a real desire to get back to music on the Shetland mainstream scene. Things had changed quite a bit since I had been on the circuit. There was a whole new generation of people out there. Shetland now had a world-famous annual Folk Festival, there were many music developments, local Arts Trust projects and many Shetlanders were traveling with their music worldwide. Shetland has such a wealth of music for the size of the place and in relation to the population.

"I had a desire to work with three-part harmony singing, acoustic instruments, guitar, keys, initially fiddle, and double bass. I phoned around a group of people I had worked with in one shape or form over the years who could play these instruments well and sing three-part harmonies naturally. When I think about it, it could really have been a disaster. We had never all played together before, we were a variety of ages, all had different backgrounds and musical influences. However, it worked, and the band developed into something quite unique, I think, because of those same factors.

"From the outset, Shoormal was not intended to be a 'Christian band' although some of us within the band are Christians. We usually have a gospel piece or pieces as part of our set, but generally we sing songs about life. Over the years our music has evolved to have a contemporary folk feel. We are not renowned for being a party band. Our music is more reflective, although I have seen people dance along to the most unexpected songs! We have had some band member changes and this, in turn, has changed the way we perform and sound. I wouldn't say we have a typically traditional Shetland sound. Music from our islands has been best known for its fiddlers and is mainly instrumental whereas our band, although we have keen instrumentalists within it, has a real focus on vocals, vocal harmony and lyrics. We no longer even have a fiddler in the band, although it worked well when we did. We currently use two guitarists, keys and a rhythm section."

When it became clear that other commitments of Shoormal meant they could not deliver a whole Christmas album by themselves, Freda was initially "really disappointed." However, when talking to a musician friend of hers, JJ Jamieson, about Eddie Macguire's grandiose vision to record and produce a Christmas card/CD to her surprise Jamieson volunteered to help with some of the recording. Producer and engineer Jamieson had in fact recorded Shoormal's debut album, the independently released 'Indigo Skies', in 2000. With the offer of some studio time Freda began to think of a new approach to the Beacon Music idea, namely opening the album out to various singers and musicians living in Shetland. Said Freda, "Beacon Trust's aim was to get as many of these Christmas cards/CDs into as many homes as possible and from a PR point of view for Shetland music, our aim would be the same. Everyone contacted was happy to become involved and Beacon gave the go ahead for a compilation to be produced. This was quite a step of faith for Beacon, as they had not heard any of the other artists. So, a shared project it became, and we are all very happy with the result. We even raised a bit of money for local charity! It is unbelievable that around 50,000 CDs/cards were sold within two months of release. Given the population of Shetland is 21,000, that is a truly amazing figure, and, as everyone sends cards all over the globe at Christmas-time, the album has also had world-wide distribution."

Freda Leask and Mandy Tate (The Tullocks)
Freda Leask and Mandy Tate (The Tullocks)

Freda has vivid memories about the recording sessions. "My sister, Mandy Tait, who incidentally did the art design for the card, performed on the track 'Go Tell It On The Mountain' by The Tullochs. She now lives outside Stirling in Scotland but was in Shetland for the summer months. She is a wonderful harmony singer and excellent fiddler but hadn't been performing for some time. Her schedule had been so busy while she was on the islands that it been very difficult to get a window of time for her recording session. The last day of her holiday had arrived and still we had not got anything down. I was determined that we should duet on a track as we hadn't recorded a song together before. Mandy had been fishing off Yell (the island) with my uncle all day, as one does in these parts in summertime! She planned to travel back past JJ's studio and I had asked her to stop in on her way. We were waiting, all set up. She arrived, looking rather windswept and wonderful with bag of mackerel in hand, ready to sing Christmas carols on a long, light, mid-summer Shetland night. It was all a bit surreal but a good job was done."

Mandy herself is a passionate lover of traditional carols. She commented, "Nowadays we live in a society where Christmas practically starts in August. Folks get caught up in the swirl of trying to get into that perfect party dress, or get bombarded with unrealistic imagery of tables laiden with glistening food and happy, ecstatic, connected families. Welcome to Stepford, ladies and gentlemen! So people shop and get stressed and further into debt and then perhaps on their way home get accosted by a well meaning Christian giving out 'keep the Christ in Christmas' leaflets. Sadly it is the last thing people want to hear although they would have a happier time if they did.