Fiddler Louise Bichan Releases Her Second Solo Recording, Almost a Decade in the Making

Though she's now US-based, it would seem a fair portion of her heart remains in the Scottish archipelago of Orkney

By Megan Westberg | From the May-June 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

It will have started before you notice it’s happening. You’ll hit play on fiddler Louise Bichan’s title track to her recent release, The Lost Summer (Adhyâropa Records), and you’ll suddenly realize you’re moving. In fact, you’ve been moving since Conor Hearn’s guitar and Bichan’s fiddle first lured you into the tune. You’re swaying gently in your seat, your toe tapping, foot waving—chair dancing has long since commenced, no conscious thought required. The music seems a study in delight. A sparkling, clear-eyed energy sweeps through it nimbly with moments of coy rhythmic playfulness. What fun, you think.


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So you might be surprised to discover this tune was written in 2020 (ah, that lost summer) and inspired by Bichan’s distress at being unable to return home to Orkney—a group of islands off the northeast tip of Scotland—where she grew up. “I was missing my family back home and not able to leave the States because of Covid and visa restrictions,” she says over the phone while on a trip to California. “I ended up—it’s sort of ironic in a way—I ended up having a really great summer, but I was just feeling sort of sad and miserable at the time about not being near my family.” Wishing she were back home, she immersed herself in Scottish music and now thinks she may have found the bones of this tune in the sound of the bagpipes, which isn’t necessarily reflective of Orkney’s own particular musical dialect. It’s a “much more ‘pipe-y,’ more west coast kind of music,” she says of “The Lost Summer.” Bichan wasn’t able to make her way back across the Atlantic for “three and a bit” years, the composition of this tune thus marking the beginning of rather a long wait to reconnect with her home and family.

Though Bichan is now US based, it would seem a fair portion of her heart remains in that Scottish archipelago. Reachable only by ferry and flight, Orkney sits between the Scottish mainland and Shetland, still further to the northeast in the North Sea. Twenty of Orkney’s 70 islands are inhabited, and Bichan comes from its largest, the Mainland. “I grew up in Orphir, a little town that’s just between Kirkwall and Stromness, on a farm,” she says. 

Orkney is a place of rich history, bearing evidence of at least five thousand years of sophisticated human settlement, some of which now makes up the Mainland’s UNESCO Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. Stone circles and prehistoric buildings, including a chambered tomb, stand as haunting, enduring sentinels across the landscape. Vikings set up shop there for a time during the late eighth century until 1468, when some befuddlement over a dowry led to Orkney’s re-nationalization as the property of the Scottish crown. It was, no doubt, a bummer for Denmark’s Christian I. Orkney also served as base for the British home fleet during both World Wars. And all this is to say that for a small place (Orkney is about 375 square miles total, or about three quarters the size of Los Angeles), it’s certainly seen a lot of action. For, like, millennia.

Louise Bichan, The Lost Summer album cover
Louise Bichan, The Lost Summer

A distinct buzz of activity seems to define the music scene as well. “There’s just such a great fiddle community, a great music community in Orkney, as well as some really great schools,” says Bichan. “I’ve always been very inspired by everything that’s going on up there.” Bichan started playing fiddle at age seven and took lessons from something of an Orcadian legend. “I was taught by Douglas Montgomery, who’s just a fantastic fiddle player and who kind of, in a way, made fiddle cool in Orkney,” says Bichan with a laugh. “Everybody really wanted to play because Douglas is cool, and Douglas played the fiddle.” He encouraged her to begin writing her own tunes from a very young age. “I have often written tunes that are in some way ‘crooked’—it was just kind of how they came out of me—and I would quite often take this tune I’d written and go to Douglas and play it for him many, many times, and he would sit and work out how on earth to write it down!” she recalls. 


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On Saturdays, she attended free hourlong fiddle classes provided by the Orkney Traditional Music Project. With thirty to fifty other fiddlers, she learned tunes from Orkney and other parts of Scotland. “That was such a great way for me to build up my fiddle repertoire and be excited about learning with other people,” she says. 

She later began teaching the adult class and tuning fiddles for the kids’ class as her first job. Mentored by renowned Orkney fiddler Jennifer Wrigley, Bichan and her friend, pianist Jennifer Austin (who also appears on The Lost Summer), started their own after-school class for teens, “sort of in the style of a pub session—but without the drinking!—for teenagers to learn how to play fiddle tunes together after school.” Thus student became teacher, Bichan taking her turn in the continuum of string players passing along Orkney’s unique musical language to the next generation. 

And that language doesn’t actually involve bagpipes. “Fiddle and accordion are the two biggest instruments in Orkney,” says Bichan. “I think in the west of Scotland, maybe the fiddle style is kind of mimicking the sound of the bagpipes and those ornaments that you’d play with the bagpipes, whereas in Orkney, the ornamentation is a little slower and more flattened out in a way, and it’s often quite swung, the Orkney fiddle style. I feel like the music reflects the landscape, the rolling hills, and the way of life almost—a little slower. Even the way people speak—it’s quite, sort of, lilting. Orkney is very much a fiddle-and-accordion tradition, playing for dancing.” 

Bichan then spent eight years in Glasgow, earning her degree in photography at the Glasgow School of Art and playing at sessions and in various bands. She had chosen the school and city knowing Glasgow was “the place to be for music,” and dove into the scene wholeheartedly—despite a few initial butterflies. “I remember the first time going to the Ben Nevis Bar with my friend Jen Austin, practically holding hands because we were so nervous and excited. And just being embraced by that scene,” she says, her voice bright with amusement at the memory. 

But it was the memories of someone else altogether that would pull her away from Glasgow and into an adventure on another continent. An adventure that eventually led to Bichan’s lost summer. 

In 1950, when Bichan’s grandmother, Margaret Tait, was 25, she set out from Orkney on an odyssey across Canada, visiting family who lived there while she contemplated her future. Should she marry her fiancé, Iain, or another rather tempting romantic prospect? (Alas for Iain, upon her return, Tait married the “dashing” Sydney Bichan instead.) When she died in 2008, Tait’s journals were discovered—but one was missing. And hints of her musical history, including the recording of a Canadian Broadcasting Company showcase of Tait singing traditional Scottish tunes, added to her story’s intrigue. Bichan decided she had to fill in the gaps—how did Tait make her choice, and why was she on the Canadian radio? 


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In 2013, also at age 25, Bichan made her own way across Canada, following her grandmother’s path and interviewing family who remembered her. Bichan’s trip served as the basis for her 2015 project and first album, Out of My Own Light, its title taken from one of Tait’s journal entries. Bichan wrote and recorded music inspired by her grandmother’s story and produced an accompanying limited-edition art book of her own photography. It was a huge project that, in contradictory fashion, both hindered and made possible the next. 

Creatively, it proved a bit of a stumbling block, and for almost a decade thereafter, Bichan felt stuck in terms of solo recording, mulling over how to follow up that first album. “I think, you know, part of me felt like, oh, I can’t just make an album of fiddle tunes. I need to do something bigger,” she says. “And it took me a while to come round to realizing, of course I can do that. Of course I can just play my heart out on a bunch of tunes I’m proud of or that I really am excited about. And showcase my own musical journey, I suppose.” 

If Out of My Own Light made Bichan a bit reluctant to reenter the studio, it also guided her to a pivotal experience that shaped her musical journey during the decade between her two albums. A visit to Alasdair Fraser’s Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddle Camp during her travels yielded not only the motivation to move to the US and study at the Berklee College of Music, which she did, but also introduced her to several of the collaborators that appear on her new album, including guitarist Conor Hearn and cellist Brendan Hearn—two members of the “core band” that also includes mandolinist Ethan Setiawan, whom Bichan met at Berklee—and hammered dulcimer player Simon Chrisman. Double bassist Dan Klingsberg, who plays a couple of guest spots on the album, also met Bichan in Boston. 

“In those ten years, I feel like [I became] a different person and a different musician in a lot of ways,” she says. And so, from an intensive, family-inspired passion project, Bichan moved on to a recording of tunes she loves, some of which she’s written herself, including the title track and “Adam and Eric’s,” “A Tune for Claire,” “The Little Cowpig,” “Rhena’s 80th,” “Arnie’s 80th,” and “Coldstream.” From stately to poignant to capering to charmingly easygoing, these pieces all serve as warmhearted audible portraits of the people or experiences (or, in one case, the pet) they’re meant to capture. “It’s a mix of older tunes reimagined and some more recently written,” says Bichan. “It’s definitely favorite fiddle tunes.”


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Also included in the mix are tunes by friends (“The Auch Jig” by Siobhan Anderson, for example) and inspirational fiddlers (“Musical Chisholm Household” by Jerry Holland) alongside traditional tunes. Not all the trad tunes come from Orkney, and some mashups combine traditions. In fact, the fourth track pairs “Deltingside” from Shetland with “Squirrel Hunters” from the Appalachian Mountains, and highlights Chrisman’s hammered dulcimer and Brad Kolodner’s clawhammer banjo.

Given how primary a role photography played in Bichan’s last recording project, one might expect an intensive multimedia component this time around as well. There was “less of a strong photography element overall to this project than with my first record,” she says, “but there’s certainly a couple of videos to go along with some tracks, and we recorded a video with the band playing ‘The Lost Summer.’” The majority of those videos relate to how Bichan ended up spending her time during the warmer months of 2020 and “a fun silly side project called Fiddlecam.” 

The Fiddlecam concept can be outlined as follows: With a GoPro mounted to her fiddle, looking down the neck, Bichan creates videos of her playing tunes in beautiful places. She then posts them online. And so, when Bichan hit the road during the late summer of 2020, “buying an old Volvo and doing an incredible road trip across the country and back again, hiking in national parks and camping in national forests,” she created videos for “Deltingside” and “Squirrel Hunters” using this method. “I played those in every place, and I put together a kind of huge road trip Fiddlecam video that goes along with that track of all these places that we visited across the country and all the national parks,” she says. Audiences will be invited to get lost in Bichan’s summer, too, as the videos are released with the singles.

Now that she’s overcome her solo-recording jitters and completed this second album, Bichan is excited to tour the music through the spring and summer and take her band Corner House to the Orkney Folk Festival this year. Her next planned recording is as a part of duo Hildaland (with Setiawan), “exploring this home state of Maine that we’re living in at the moment—writing music in reaction to place, landscape, and going out there into parts of Maine and writing music based on what we feel and what we see and what we notice,” she says. 

“No plans for my next solo record just yet,” she adds, and then laughs. “But I don’t think I’ll leave it ten years this time!”