Obituary: Martyn Bennett

Storming innovator in Scottish music

HE RECEIVED sadly little mainstream recognition of it in his lifetime, but Martyn Bennett's innovative work mixing his own thrilling bagpipe and fiddle playing with hardcore techno and dance beats broke new territory. Many had previously tried to blend the purity of traditional tunes with the frenzy of modern club culture and most had failed; but, well schooled in both cultures, Bennett cracked it in inspiring, groundbreaking style.

At least two of his albums, Bothy Culture (1998) and Hardland (2000), are landmarks, transporting beautiful yet often fiery tunes from a more innocent age into the supercharged world of DJs and electronica. His real achievement was to create a buoyant, inspiring new dance hybrid that fed on the grace and richness of the original source of tunes without compromising them. Unselfconsciously, he took folk music several bounds forward, yet maintained the respect of the same traditional music lovers who had acclaimed his sensitive solo fiddle playing years earlier.

He was a visionary whose work was still evolving and one of the tragedies of his premature death at 33 - and the long years fighting cancer that preceded it - is the sense of being cheated out of what would surely have been an even more creative future. His best years still seemed ahead of him.

Bennett had a rarefied background. He was born in Newfoundland, son of Iain Knight and Margaret Bennett, and spent his early years in the Cordroy Valley absorbing the Scots Gaelic culture of the Highlands emigres in the region. The family spent a year living in Quebec before returning to Scotland to live on the Isle of Mull. They continued a nomadic existence, living in tents with travellers at one point - "My mum was a hippy," said Martyn - but, already showing prodigious musical talent, he wound up in Edinburgh studying classical violin and piano.

It was here that his musical horizons widened. He played violin in a symphony orchestra and fiddle in informal pub sessions, also taking up the bagpipes and, during the 1990 summer of love, acquired a taste for the clubbing scenes in Edinburgh and Glasgow. He also took to busking, and first hit on the idea of playing fiddle tunes over a beatbox he heard pounding in the streets.

With his flailing dreadlocks and high energy, he cut a charismatic figure as he embarked on his bold experiments, exploring his dual interest in the Scots tradition and technology. He worked with another innovator, Martin Swan, on Swan's acclaimed Mouth Music project and in 1996 released his first album, Martyn Bennett, on the small indie label Eclectic. He caused a minor sensation with his explosive live performance at the Braveheart film premiere party at Stirling Castle.

His second album, Bothy Culture, released on the Ryko label in 1998, marked him out as a leading figure in the evolution of Scottish music. Taking its name from the old Highland bothies where shepherds and travellers would meet, rest up, swap tunes and party, the album was a storming mix of Gaelic tradition, raw emotion and glorious, full-blooded dance beats. It also drew on Scandinavian and Islamic music, and sampled the Gaelic bard Sorley MacLean reading his poem "Hallaig" shortly before he died.

The album won him a lot of friends, came agonisingly close to winning a Mercury Music Prize nomination and encouraged him to form a band, Cuillin, including his wife, Kirsten, on keyboards. At one famous gig in Paris before the opening World Cup match between Scotland and Brazil, Sean Connery, Ewan MacGregor and Ally McCoist got on stage to dance with them.

Some of the momentum was lost in the business problems that followed and Bennett moved to the Isle of Mull, where he met a kindred spirit, Martin Low. The result was a fierce explosion of hardcore Scottish dance on the album Hardland, released on his own Cuillin label in 2000. An electrifying live performance topping the Saturday night bill at the 2000 Cambridge Folk Festival is regularly talked of in hushed tones as one of the most spectacular shows in the long history of the festival - reflecting in 1,000 sales of the album at the festival alone.

It was the high point of Bennett's career - less than three months later he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. The next few years involved intense chemo and radiotherapy and several major operations; at one point he had all his bone marrow replaced.

Yet he still found the time and energy to produce two more albums. On Glen Lyon he recorded the natural sounds and rhythms of the Isle of Skye to accompany the singing of his mother Margaret Bennett, and in 2003 he was signed by Real World, the label founded by Peter Gabriel, to release Grit. It was perhaps the most extraordinary album of his career, sampling the great Scots travelling singers like Jeannie Robertson and Lizzie Higgins and the Gaelic-language singer Flora McNeil and setting them in challenging techno settings.

It was a painful album for him to record - literally and spiritually - and he admitted that at one point he was so frustrated and angry about his own inability to play that he smashed every instrument he had - pounds 20,000 worth - in a blinding rage.

By this time he had already taken the decision not to have any more treatment and accept whatever fate had in store for him. He seemed to have found solace, enjoying living close to the earth in Mull with his beloved wife Kirsten and communing with nature. In contrast to the wildness of his music, he had a gently spiritual demeanour and a wry, sense of humour.

Talking about how during his illness he had turned more and more to the purity of traditional music for his listening pleasure, he said, "I think it's great what you can do with electronics, but why twiddle with knobs when you could be twiddling with a fiddle peg or a woman's breast?"

Martyn Knight-Bennett, fiddler, piper and record producer: born St John's, Newfoundland 17 February 1971; married 2002 Kirsten Thomson; died Edinburgh 30 January 2005.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence