‘Who Is This?’ is a song shaped and inspired by the Cuillin (An Cuilithionn) mountains on the Isle of Skye. The Cuillin are the shattered remains of the magma chamber of an immense volcano complex which was active around 60 million years ago. Born of fire and then shaped by ice, they now form a jagged, continuous ridge of tops, razor-edge ridges, scree-and boulder-fields, running for twelve kilometres, comprising twenty-two peaks, and involving over 4000 metres of ascent and descent, much of it technical.
In June this year, Robert Macfarlane (The Old Ways, Mountains of the Mind, The Lost Words) set out to attempt the mountaineering traverse of the Cuillin Ridge over two days, in the company of radio producer Helen Needham and guide Rich Parker. From the beginning of the journey — when Rob received a spontaneous gift from someone who had come to the Cuillin with the ashes of her father — the mountains surprised, amazed and challenged the group.
After returning, Rob worked with his friend and collaborator Julie Fowlis on a song about the range. Lines and images that Rob had jotted down while on the Ridge formed a basis for the song’s lyrics, which Julie shaped and set to music. She worked on the song with brilliant musician Donald Shaw, who beautifully arranged the song for the Clockwork Sessions strings, conducted by Adam Robinson, and the track also features renowned fiddler Duncan Chisholm.
The title phrase intentionally echoes the refrain from ‘An Cuilithionn 1939’ (‘The Cuillin, 1939’), an epic poem about the mountains (and much more) written by the great Gaelic-language poet Somhairle MacGill-Eain (Sorley MacLean).
‘Who Is This?’ features in the second of the two BBC4 radio programmes that Rob made while on the Ridge, produced by Helen Needham; both available to listen to on BBC Sounds as ‘Crossing the Cuillin Mountains (1 and 2)’.