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Music / Brian McNeill

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Brian McNeill (born April 6, 1950) is a Scottish traditional musician from Falkirk, Scotland.

A multi-instrumentalist playing guitar, fiddle, viola, mandolin, concertina, and hurdy-gurdy, Brian McNeill was a violinist for the Battlefield Band from 1969 to 1990, and played with the supergroup Clan Alba from 1992 to 1994. He also has a longstanding solo career, and is a frequent contributor to The Thistle & Shamrock, a weekly Celtic music program produced by NPR. Many of his songs are historical ballads, including most of his 2009 album The Baltic tae Byzantium.

Solo albums:

  • Monksgate (1978)
  • Unstrung Hero (1985)
  • The Busker and the Devil's Only Daughter (1985)
  • The Back O' the North Wind (1991)
  • Horses for Courses (with Tom Mc Donagh, 1994)
  • No Gods (1995)
  • Stage By Stage (with Iain Mac Kintosh, 1995)
  • To Answer the Peacock (1999)
  • Live and Kicking (with Iain MacKintosh, 2000)
  • The Baltic tae Byzantium: Tales of the Scots in Europe (2009)
  • The Crew o' the Copenhagen (with Drones And Bellows, 2010)
  • The Falkirk Music Pot (2015)

Tropes in Brian McNeill's music include:

  • And the Adventure Continues: The last verse of "The Baltic tae Byzantium" has the protagonist become afflicted with wanderlust again, and saddle up his horse and load up a peddler's pack to start Walking the Earth again.
  • Blasphemous Boast: In "Ewen and the Gold", about a Scotsman who spent his life Walking the Earth with Gold Fever:
    For God made Ewen Gillies, God gave him wings to fly
    But only from the land where he belonged
    But I'd fight with God himself for the light in Ewen's eye
    Or with any man who tells me he was wrong
  • Concept Album: The Back o' the North Wind and The Baltic tae Byzantium both discuss aspects of Scottish history, especially the diaspora. The earlier album is about Scottish immigrants and their descendants in the United States, the later one discusses Scottish relations with mainland Europe.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Downplayed with Andrew Carnegie in "Steel Man". He's both praised for his generosity at the end of his life, and cursed for working his employees to the bone and paying them next to nothing in order to advance himself.
  • Funetik Aksent: McNeill writes many of his songs in Scots dialect, not Gaelic but not conventional English, either. Even the album titles sometimes use this, c.f. The Baltic tae Byzantium ("The Baltic to Byzantium").
  • Heaven Above: "Muir and the Master Builder" states that "God lives above the redwoods" that inspired song subject John Muir to become one of the world's first effective conservationists.
    God lives above the redwoods, so men say
    Looking down, straight and true, at the best of all his treasures
    And if a man should stand among them to pray
    It's against them the Lord will take his measure
  • Hillbilly Moonshiner: To hear "The Best o' the Barley" tell it, Brian's great-uncle James McNeill made moonshine on the side during Prohibition.
  • Historical Domain Character: Many of the artist's songs, especially on The Back o' the North Wind and The Baltic tae Byzantium, are either written about or dedicated to prominent figures in Scottish history.
    • "Muir and the Master Builder" is about the famed naturalist John Muir, regarded as one of the founders of the American national park system.
    • "A Far North Land" uses Mary of Scotland and her political and religious opponent the Rev. John Knox, concluding that each was as bad as the other.
    • "The Gothenburg Reel" refers to Gustavus Adolphus, who employed many Scots mercenaries during the Thirty Years' War.
  • Language of Love: The third verse of "The Baltic tae Byzantium" has the Scottish protagonist trying to woo a girl he falls in love with in Croatia.
    I bade her teach me twenty words by auld Dubrovnik's walls
    By the time she taught me forty, I'd enough to plead my cause
  • Love at First Sight: "Bring the Lassie Hame" portrays the meeting of his father and mother in post-WWII Austria as this.
    When it was over, still nae bed o' clover
    A continent lay bleedin', and tears like ne'er before
    And then ye found her, hard times around her
    And ye knew that yer life had changed forevermore
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Mary of Scotland and the Rev. John Knox in "A Far North Land". McNeill calls them "different tongues for different lies" who both used Scotland for personal gain, and as always it was the common folk who paid the price for their conflict.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: The third verse of "The Baltic tae Byzantium" has the protagonist's Croatian girlfriend's father try to convince her to find a richer husband than some roving Scottish trader, but the protagonist wins him over by saying "the Baltic and Byzantium were mine."
  • Private Military Contractors: "The Gothenburg Reel" is dedicated to Scots mercenaries who fought for King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden.
  • Pun-Based Title: His second album, Unstrung Hero, a pun on musical instrument strings and the phrase "unsung hero".
  • Rags to Riches: Andrew Carnegie in "Steel Man".
    Come and stand, said the poor man, in the shadow of Carnegie
    He left the shores of Fife without a penny to his name
    But he ended his days drinking wine with lords and ladies
    And across the wide Atlantic my sons can do the same
  • Sinister Minister: "A Far North Land" portrays the Rev. John Knox as a religious zealot little better than Queen Mary Stuart, asking in the second verse:
    "What were ye first, man or priest
    Or the tool o' Revelation's beast
    Primed wi' fire and thunder
    Tae tear Scotland's soul asunder"
    • His "My Bonnie Yew Tree" also speaks of John Knox:
    "But you knew the bargain he sold them
    And freedom was only one part
    For the price o' their souls was a gospel sae cold
    It would freeze up the joy in their hearts"
  • Slave Galley: "A Far North Land" notes that the Rev. John Knox spent time as a galley slave to the French.
  • Uptown Girl: "Bring the Lassie Hame" is all about how his parents met. His father was a baker's son who served in the British Army as an engineer in World War II. His mother was an Austrian upper-class woman who worked for the Allies as an interpreter, having learned English in college. They met in Styria during the postwar occupation, and apparently their courtship included him teaching her to drive in a three-ton army truck.