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  • Liza Mulholland

Ceilidh makes lighter work of row, row, rowing your boat.

If anything was going to raise a smile in these cheerless winter days, it was surely the sight of the three bare-chested MacLean brothers at the successful end of their epic row across the Atlantic, arriving into Nelson’s Dockyard, Antigua, with bagpipes skirling in celebration!


Interviews and images of the trio have been shared globally across press, television and the internet, and rightly so – it was an astonishing feat. In the course of their thirty-five days completing the 3000-mile Talisker Atlantic Challenge, these Edinburgh siblings set three world records; the youngest trio to row the Atlantic, the fastest trio, and the first three brothers to row any ocean.

Enduring and overcoming all manner of hardships and obstacles during the trip, including physical, mental, technical, mechanical, weather and sea-related, the brothers have shown remarkable strength of character, resilience and stamina. What stood out for me in their post-row interviews were two factors they said made the whole endeavour easier; the fact they were brothers and music.


Being brothers, there was familial ease between them during weeks of close confines of the boat, with the only small fall-out, as far as I understand, relating to one eating more of their porridge rations than the other two!


Music has clearly figured large in these high-achieving brothers’ lives, all playing a variety of instruments, and despite being essential to keep weight low on their small craft, team Broar took with them a set of bagpipes, a low whistle, ukulele and harmonica. Judging the advantage of minimising weight against the benefits of music, they opted for the latter, and once out on the high seas that decision proved a good one.


When salt sea conditions damaged iPhone cables, they were unable to listen to podcasts or music, so instead made their own. Singing sea shanties and playing instruments not only passed the time but made the relentless work and fatigue at the oars a little easier.

Eldest brother Ewan said it was ‘little things like a wee dram at New Year and taking a moment to play music together that kept us going.’

Using music to make light of arduous, exhausting or repetitive tasks is of course well known and possibly goes back millennia. In Scotland we have a long tradition of ‘work songs’, particularly in Gaelic - for everything from spinning, milking, weaving, cutting hay, waulking the tweed and rocking the cradle, to rowing - that date back many centuries. These songs are rich in story, anecdote, love, loss, longing, gossip and fun, and offer us a window into the everyday lives and concerns of our ancestors, as well as myth, fable, beliefs and legend.


Instrumental tunes likewise evolved with purposeful aim, whether for rousing soldiers into battle, marching, praising, celebrating or lamenting. In folk and traditional circles these tunes and songs are still played and sung widely, thus sharing with audiences, and the next generation, the stories and cultural importance, even if the tasks associated with them are largely long gone.


Still, our more modern challenges are also made easier with music. As a mum, singing a gentle lullaby to my baby son helped him off to sleep, while in later years, long car journeys passed so much more quickly and easily when the two of us were belting out Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz, Jessie J’s Price Tag or Manran’s Latha Math!


Now that my son is driving himself, my solo car singing is often fuelled by Peat And Diesel’s Hebridean best and no doubt some strange looks have come my way from passers-by at the wee woman giving Heorna Mhòr full pelt at the wheel.


So perhaps we should all take a leaf out of Lachlan, Jamie and Ewan MacLean’s book? Next time we’re doing the dishes, hoovering, digging the garden or hoofing it into work, instead of feeling tired and grumpy, maybe we should sing, or, if concerned about being overheard singing in public, hum or whistle? In terms of benefits, it’s just like rowing the Atlantic!


(First published by Scottish Provincial Press 7th February 2020)

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