"MacGillivray is a poet and performer who sang on Jem Finer and Andrew Kotting's 2013 album 'Swandown'. Her third album, 'Horse Sweat Chandelier', which she calls 'a soundscape for Scotland in 2014', derives its title from George Stubbs's beautifully violent 18th century paintings of a lion eating a horse (or is the horse allowing itself to be eaten by a lion?) that have long been seen as allegories of state power, and have special potency today when Scotland is readying itself for a referendum on independence. The country is braced for a torrent-storm of competing narratives and myths, visions and incantations - all of them seeking to fix or free the nation's identity. This fine, mysterious record - shifting between chamber music, Gaelic mountain songs and dramatic chansons - isn't a protest album. Its references to history are oblique, fabulistic: "O Bonnie Charlie where have you gone?/ Christ has lit a neon thumb/ Hollywood is trying hard to get a hero spitting blood". Throughout, the mood is one of fraught and blessed possession - the past is channelled rather than re-enacted. Norrie's vocals - at times reminiscent of Dead Can Dance's Lisa Gerrard, or even Nico (the record was produced by Nico's former collaborator and biographer James Young) - are at once forceful and fugitive. "Let Winter Round Me Rave", fattened by electronic beats, has the muscularity of Jenny Hval's "Innocence is Kinky" and PJ Harvey's "Let England Shake". Mostly the songs are unstable: ghostly requiems and martial prophecies, lonesome lullabies and fierce spells. Their lyrics are marinated in topographies and mythologies whose precise meanings are unclear. They hover, perhaps like Scotland itself, on the threshold between isolationism and epic adventure." - The Wire 362, Sukhdev Sandhu, April 2014.
"MacGillivray, the stage persona and Highland clan name of Scottish writer, performance artist and musician Kirsten Norrie, cuts a striking figure as she glides on to the Colchester Arts Centre stage. With flowing black robes and strawberry blond hair that falls to her waist she looks like a Thomas Malory heroine, piercing the Tuesday night crowd with a baleful glare and introducing her first song as the tale of a murdered mermaid. She then proceeds to scratch at her electric autoharp, producing a series of faintly aquatic pulses and clicks like something unspeakable happening to Flipper and then begins an anguished wail herself. The song seems less a tale of the murder and more field recordings of the event itself. It’s fair to say she has our attention. For the next hour, the Scottish Awards for New Music nominee (the ceremony is tonight so good luck to her) shapeshifts through a series of songs, personas and instruments in a never less than fascinating show. Unsurprising in a woman who reveals she once saw a medium to commune with the ghost of Arthur Conan Doyle, MacGillivray seems almost possessed by her songs. Her voice and mannerisms change and her voice seem sometimes to twitch involuntarily through her as if she is a conduit to some spirit. Still there’s a hint of a smile at the edges of her mouth when songs stop, suggesting she’s rather enjoying the effect she’s having on the crowd. There’s humour here, but it is molasses black. Her tales of myth and legend and use of instruments such as harmonium and dulcitone sees her flirt with folk, but there’s a rock aesthetic here too as she swipes power chords out of her autoharp and rams it up against the speakers for a feedback-fuelled coda to one song. It’s no surprise she has added to the sonic soundscapes of artists at the more avant garde end of rock such as The Fall and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. There is a more conventional side to her too. A sequence of songs on the grand piano seem to be channelling Tori Amos more than ancient spirits, but there is still a wildness and space to the ballads as she sings of her heart beating to the thrill of “chasing deer” on My Heart Is In The Highlands. Joined by a guitarist and tabla player, MacGillivray pumps away on harmonium for a mesmeric final track. The soporific effect of its swirling refrain completes the circadian rhythm of the whole gig from screamed wake-up call to gentle sleep. It was wonderful to share a day in her company. " - Colchester Gazette, March 2017.
"I remember one particular school assembly back when I was seven. “If you have a secret and you want to tell someone,” the teacher said, “tell it to a glass of water.” I was baffled at the time, but now I understand. It’s a means of offloading the emotional burden without the ill consequence of letting a sensitive detail roam free. With MacGillivray the sensation is the same. Often it’s just her and a solitary instrument sharing a small space, with nothing but cavernous echo for miles on either side. She lets her truths spill out gently – sometimes perforated with a shudder of melancholy as they pass through – and dribble down the gaps between piano notes and into the holes punched open by bass drums. Her tone is so soft and frail that I feel certain that I’m not supposed to hear her. Surely no one would exhibit themselves in a state of such darkness and sincerity if they thought someone might be watching? Sometimes, her confessions are wrapped in the fantasy of an elsewhere. She’s at an underground rave (“Lonely In The Season Of Dreams”): bass drums pulse from beneath, electronics whirr like dim lighting. Her words gush onto the floor as the bodies around her sway and dance obliviously. She’s a ghost. On the title track, she’s lifted into the sky where organs and angels congeal into clouds, dragged across the air by reverb, cocooned in the fathomless privacy of 30,000ft. Even at her most lonely and melancholic, she often manages to maintain the faintest outline of grace – somewhere between the swooping flights of choral music and the pastoral warmth of folk. That’s what makes “The Trees Sleep Overtime” so difficult to listen to. She sounds exhausted to the point where her singing voice fails her, the notes slumping out of tune as her body buckles under the weight of eternal sadness. When will it end? The tone of the album never lifts her quest of confession progresses. More potent than any of these tracks is the miserable, underlying truth that gradually reveals itself: is MacGillivray destined to dwell in the dark forever, chained to the despondency of the minor key?" - Jack Chuter, ATTN: MAGAZINE, Review of 'Once Upon A Dirty Ear', July 8th 2015.
"Utterly intrigued by the voice thought it was wonderful" - Adam Walton BBC Radio Wales.
"You are a good musician and, as my father used to say about me, I can hear you thinking while you sing" - Peggy Seeger.
"In long black coat, hair tossed by the wind, the keening singer, MacGillivray, gave a performance of otherworldly intensity, staring through the lens with Scottish eyes. Waves crashed at her back. Her unaccompanied voice rose and fell with heart-stopping passion, recalling the drowned, the fabled shapeshifting swans of legend." - Iain Sinclair, Swandown.
"MacGillivray is a singer of exquisite depth and range, from breathless operatic swoon, lonely as the ocean, to tortured tragic heroine via some wonderful Gaelic incantations. Her music, played entirely on piano tonight, swoops from barely-there minimalism to an oddly restrained form of catharsis, everything reaches a peak as she loops her vocals and allows them to swarm around the room . . . MacGillivray is a singular talent." - Nightshift Music Magazine.
"MacGillivray is a warm-voiced woman with dramatic tones who enraptures the early comers with spindly piano ballads that ring dramatically around the old hall." - The Quietus on MacGillivray, Shirley Collins and Current 93 at Union Chapel.
"The Scottish Laurie Anderson." - Pendle Poucher, composer.
"We are OverMoon and FoxFaced to UTTER our dear friend the Hallucinatory and HoneyHowlThroated GhostPoet MacGillivray is Current 93’s special guest this evening." - David Tibet, Current 93.
"remarkable stuff by MacGillivray" - BBC Radio Lancashire.
"MacGillivray looks startled and curious, and sometimes it’s as though she’s discovering these songs (and her voice, for that matter) for the first time, marvelling at their changes in direction as if they move of an independent will. There’s nothing particularly complicated about her music– which is an earthly, lonely, and yet somewhat romantic dialogue with emptiness – and she seems to hold a fascination for the intricacies that lie innately within simplicity and minor event: the uneven plod of solitary piano keys, the curdling overtones that seep out of her autoharp, the gentle vocal hiccups that cause her voice to dance and momentarily arch upward, like a bird propelling itself into the sky. She pushes her voice up against its technical limits, stooping to notes beyond her natural range that warble and falter as a result, and despite the domineering sadness that laps up against the chapel’s stone walls, there is a playfulness to her buoyant exploration of the unknown, skipping into shadows of feedback and imperfection." - Jack Chuter ATTN Magazine on MacGillivray, Shirley Collins and Current 93 at Union Chapel.
"Cut-ups and smidgeons abound. Jem Finer and Andrew Kötting have assembled yet another veritable bricolage featuring the gorgeous voice of MacGillivray. As well as original music from the film Swandown, acoustic magic weaves its way through these beautifully constructed soundscapes. Elegaic, beguiling and haunting. The compositions have a sublime and soaring beauty that might never sink to the bottom of the ocean.” - Joe Haulaway.
Live Review: Sound Lab presents MacGillivray + Pefkin
May 4, 2016
Sound Lab presents MacGillivray + Pefkin MacGillivray and Pefkin City Halls, Recital Room, RRP £6, 30th September 2015
It’s a real shame that Sound Lab is coming to an end after years of providing some of the strangest experimental noises in Glasgow, including –maybe because it was niche enough already – never being scared to chuck some poetry in there too. It will be missed.
There’s two Gutter reviewers at this gig. We’ve arrived together, one half cut, and the other dying of the flu, and we’re trying together to recreate the experience for you now. Support has come from Pefkin (Gayle Brogan); and the field recordings of Ayrshire beaches combined with looped guitars and ethereal vocals have settled us in nicely.
Enter MacGillivray. Poet, musician, folk-lorist, performance artist? We’re not sure. Something between Captain Beefheart, Kate Bush, and Hart Crane –MacGillivray tells the audience that a recent review described her, less flatteringly, as a B-side Enya. The set is a combination of poetry, song, and storytelling, with electric guitar and heavily distorted auto-harp. The content is a combination of Gaelic bardism, beat poetry and westerns. It’s inauthentic. But it’s excitingly inauthentic. MacGillivray picks up and puts down identities as it suits her exploring and melding together traditions; moving from neon, piss-soaked cities, to the Western Isles, to the Wild West un-self-consciously. These false identities are all performed with the utmost genuineness. There’s nothing mocking in her delivery or writing, just a real respect for tradition, and a feeling that it’s up for grabs. I am sure there are people who’d take against this magpie approach. But it’s also thrilling, ideal for anyone who’s heard one po-faced poem about St Kilda too many.
Either my Lemsip has run out, or somewhere amid the stormy of instrumentation, a psychedelic séance commences. Young Robert McGee, tomahawked, scalped and bleeding to death in the desert sands of Santa Fe in 1864 cries out his ‘true’ story in Scots, English, Latin, French and Orcadian – or more specifically, his scalplock does. Animating MacGillivray’s debut poetry collection Last Wolf of Scotland, this performance is a wild and howling affair, combining horror folk as ‘true as your great grandmother’ with peyote-based ‘hallucinations in a near-death cinema’. Think Wickerman’s end parade relocated to the desert plains and rescored by William Burroughs, Hugh MacDairmid and Hélène Cixous, (head-spinning fever probably helps). Off the page, the work’s gleefully obtuse verbal kleptomania revels in its excess. There are po-mo recasts a plenty: Buffalo Bill tours Scotland and wolf hunters stalk the back streets of Vegas, early press hysteria merges into oral legend, obscure dialect and cinematic cut-up lyricism. I may only snatch the odd line from the emotional blasts of lo-fi strumming, but the richness could be savoured, extending out to timeless stories or contracting into a flash of sensual detail. The past returns spewing cinematic dreams, colonial settler mythology and trippy occult mysticism from its comet trails, an electrifying L’écriture Feminine, incandescent and staggering –comprehensible may not be the point. Explosion may be a more accurate scale. What just happened?
While such wild experimental reinvention may not be to everyone’s tastes, MacGillivray is one of the few artists truly pushing the immediacy and urgency of spoken word and sound performance, and she can sniff out the wild spaces that lie beyond. With a new book, The Nine of Diamonds: Surroial Mordantless, out on Bloodaxe later this year, how a true original like her will be packaged on the page should be interesting to watch.
The night ends appropriately enough with Gutter’s two fearless reviewers pushing a shopping trolley full of Macgillivray’s instruments through the doors of The Laurieston, just in time for a lock in.
"Nine of Diamonds overflows . . . its project is nothing less than a Scots modernist epic poem, an attempt to encapsulate Scots traditions, language and politics as Frederico Garcia Lorca did for Andalusia.' - The Poetry Review, Vol. 107:1 Spring 2017.
"What do you do with three hundred years of Scottish history, a tarot deck and a battalion of European surrealist artists? If you’re MacGillivray, a multi-disciplinary artist exploring the Highland psyche, you make The Nine of Diamonds, Surroial Mordantless, her second collection, and first under the Bloodaxe imprint.
Surroial Mordantless explores the legacy of ‘The Butcher’, aka the Duke of Cumberland, who prior to the battle of Culloden gave the hurried order, scribbled on a playing card – the titular nine of diamonds – for “no quarter to be given” to men on the battlefield (i.e., take no prisoners). Since then, this card has been known as the Curse of Scotland.
Most revealingly, the book was written in Skye during the the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, when attempts to define Scottish identity took a global stage. With this background in mind, Macgillvray’s perspective is at once refreshingly original and enticingly other:
Come upon me! Come upon me in such a darkness! Take me by my very eyes – secede! Secede the now departing, granular dark, whose substance fades sheerly now, in acquiescence to your burnished arrival.
Structured in nine ‘Paces‘ of nine poems each, the book explores many different physical and psychological landscapes, juxtaposing Highland and Scottish innovators against ancient and modern cultures and artistic traditions. In doing so, MacGillivray honours her vanquished ancestors, and even plays at assuming the role of the Butcher:
In winter, he prevaricates, loosening the stakes sucked the lens clean at your feet sucked the clear marrow of hate
By the end of the collection we are brought back to reality through the recess of a waterfall, via another one of Macgillvray’s terrifying visions:
I am terrified. Waterfall tickling.
The red carpet at my feet descends to hell and rises up again in a black rash of glittering frozen road.
Both the vital motif of the deer and the cultural centrality of the Gaeltachd (a word used to denote Gaelic-speaking regions) are immediately established in the first ‘Pace’, Suit of the Gaelic Garden of the Dead ‘where vultures fang[take]bone on the sandalwood trail, / fang leaky meat from the old gang dule, / skulk the dusted dream tooth pile.’
This deer canters on through the entire text – witness, victim and accuser of the Butcher’s callousness ‘he has leapt in the womb of his country, bucket bound / with slops’. ‘Surroial Mordantless’ refers to the stag’s predicament: ‘Surroyal’ is a critical part of the antler mass; mordant is a dye fixative. Surroial Mordantless witnesses the wounded stag, whose antlers continue to grow but who cannot fix them, give them form, structure and stability. It also witnesses the dye of Culloden’s lost and of continued bloodshed after the 1745 rebellion.
‘Surroial’ of course sounds like ‘Surreal’, and it’s no accident. The collection taps in to surrealist European traditions and juxtaposes them against Highland culture. The whole piece could be read as a dream, trance or vision. At the very beginning of the book, a text from Dwelly’s Scottish Gaelic Dictionary outlines ‘taghairm’ – the Highland tradition of sending an elder, mantled in a fresh stag or ox hide, to contemplate ‘any important question concerning futurity’.
Surroial Mordantless combines references to Breton, Duchamp and Gascoyne, as well as to Vaslav Nijinsky’s journals and Mallarmé based performances. This background is illuminated by extensive notes – many of the references would have been hard to ascertain without them, and belies a rigorous method to MacGiilivray’s madness.
As well as this international perspective, MacGillivray’s ambitions are intra-national, combining the three languages of Scotland. Whilst the dominant weave of the text is English, there is a Gaelic colour to the entire landscape. With the intention of straddling the Highland/Lowland divide, the poet also judiciously uses medieval Scots from Henryson and Dunbar to bring to the piece extra flavour:
Where sweats the doe, auroras piked, her panicked musculature, shudders rustic at the wind’s young touch, schadowed in her pelt.
Mellifluate she pours, the honey hour ourgilt [gold-tinged], now lyant [grey] stands her wood.
Surroial Mordantless also skillfully and at times unsettlingly juxtaposes tarot and pagan imagery with the visceral witnessing of bloodshed and Christian imagery, particularly the cross. It’s as if MacGillivray is spellbound by the wounds of the Highland genocide. In this reading, the poem is an invocation, designed to heal those wounds and bring some sort of justice to the perpetrators.
The final three suits in particular explore this, through the men of the Crois Taireidh, nine teams of nine men tasked with spreading news of bloodshed through the glens by way of burning crosses, and the site of the Old High Church in Inverness, where Highland troops were held in the aftermath of Culloden before being executed in the Kirkyard:
Whose warmth can dissolve the sanguine leap? Can create a new river of melted blood?
I am terrified. Waterfall tickling.
The red carpet at my feet descends to hell and rises up again in a black rash of glittering frozen road.
The conclusion of the piece brings a circularity to MacGillivray’s act of inter-generational witness. Once more we are brought to a waterfall recess – but this one is no home to sprites and fairies:
I stand behind a frozen waterfall comprised of universal blood.
A mirror and lens of suspended pain. My reverse iteration: blood makes me the ghost of my own slightly moving form – frozen blood dissuades my materialism.
This is a kind of antidote to romantic Highland discourses. The vast spaces and empty landscapes may be pleasing to the eye, but they were once home to people whose oppression has extended beyond their unmarked graves. The piece attempts to unfreeze the moment of their slaughter, to reanimate those whose collective lives have been written out of history.
Surroial Mordantless will not be to everyone’s tastes. If you’re likely to be offended by images of Christ chain smoking in downtown New York or growing flowers through his vulva, this won’t be your cup of tea. If however you like bold imagery, scope and fearless imagination, you won’t be disappointed here.
Scotland may or may not shake off the curse she was dealt by the Butcher at Culloden. In this collection, and its author, she has blessings to count." - The Poetry School, December 2016.
"Some readers coming to the debut poetry collection The Last Wolf of Scotland might have first encountered its Scottish author, MacGillivray, from situations off the page. Variously a performance artist, musician, and clan chief, as a writer she is aware of—indeed she exploits—the intimacy of words on a page, in space, encountered in solitude and silence. Her book enters into the public traditions of oral culture, lyricism, and mythography to reinvent an unfortunate 19th-century historical figure. Yet, instead of being about these traditions, it uses their methods to reinvent the man locally, personally, and really.
The occasion of the book, its subject and take-off point, is described in the preface. It is 1864. In a Santa Fe gully, scalped thirteen-year-old Robert McGee lies bleeding to death. This book is his dream, etched onto the plate of pioneer America, his scalplock speaking back to him, a hallucination projected in a near-death cinema. A photograph of and short 1890 account by McGee, nicknamed "The Man With Fourteen Lives", depict the violence of the attack, carried out 'by about 100 Brule Sioux Warriors under Little Turtle, their Chief', who held McGee to witness the massacre of all his comrades. McGee concludes: 'I have suffered terribly for over 23 years, and now offer this my photograph to help support myself and family. I will now take myself with William Cody, Buffalo Bill as part of the Wild West Show to Scotland for which this likeness was made.' The book's intention is to walk this same line from Topeka to Glasgow, from Plains to Highlands.
McGee's statement suggests his awareness that he had become an attraction of cowboy culture, that his suffering was prolonged by the media and the landscape of invention which surrounded him. Indeed certain elements of the source material do not ring true: 'Little Turtle' is not a Sioux name, and it is not clear who the figure of that name was; furthermore, the attack was presumably a retribution for something, glossed over by the colonial literature. MacGillivray brings McGee (who might have been illiterate) out of media-created image, and reinvents him into language.
One of her methods, a motif throughout, is to focus on the role played by cinema in creating modern myths. The Western film, in particular, collapses identities and reinvents history—to MacGillivray, the figures in her poems are not American, as they would erroneously be in films, but rather of Scottish and Irish descent. Her personal reinvention of a story which was fictionalised by the media from the start is akin to cinematic reinvention. 'You are the cinema of my country', she writes. She sees there to have been a 'zoopraxiscope of broken wills', by which 'the holy optics of freak show union' made McGee something like a circus attraction.
MacGillivray's idiosyncratic use of language is appropriately visual, cinematic, and experiential, yet the point is that it is language and not cinema. Using a unique combination of familiar and highly unfamiliar vocabulary from Scots dialect, her mixture of registers creates a depth of meaning across place and time, and ultimately tracks, or draws, McGee to Scotland. The authenticity of the words is not necessarily clear, but that unconcern is part of playfully reinventing the man. Many of the words are footnoted, the notes acting as bad shadows akin to the bad shadows in the poems, such as those who scalped McGee.
Unusually, the poems are also centred on the page, creating horizontal 'moving-picture planes' visualising the distances and landscapes in the poems. McGee's prostrate dying in the desert is pictured by passages such as:
lying unlidded in the desart
where the dirt, like a friend,
made a strange bell-pow
The format of the poems portends the arrival of strangers, benevolent or malign, on the horizon, and adds physicality to the at once literal and metaphorical movement of McGee to Scotland. Words enter the poems' horizons like riders on the storm, with MacGillivray making reference to Jim Morrison as a reader of both the Scottish poet James Macpherson (as Ossian) and the American Hart Crane.
The Last Wolf of Scotland presents 'a wild west palimpsest, on compressed heat', upon which MacGillivray drives 'recollected imprints'. In one poem, 'Black Elk', the lines are given twice, in English and in dialect side-by-side. She describes McGee, 'burnt in chest', walking in pain, 'intention gripped in a dry fist', until the doubled lines are broken by the single, centred line 'and released'. The translated form of these two words, 'an lowsed', is found in the line beneath, alongside the English 'keeps dropping it', whose translation has in turn been dropped to the line beneath. With methods such as this, MacGillivray's poetry plays out the movements and emotions of McGee, as well as the violence of his story. The uniqueness of her voice makes this an accomplished collection, both playful and serious in its aims and techniques. As it reinvents one man into language, it offers huge inventiveness of its own." - Will Shutes, Shearsman, 2014.