The West is a region of myth. In the 30 years of the Old West's heyday, from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the 20th century, the bulk of the legends were born, leaving behind a legacy in song and cinema that historians have spent a century trying to debunk.
In the process of forging their own musical genre, David Wilkie and Cowboy Celtic have forever changed the landscape of the Old West. Suddenly we're finding Gaelic spoken at the Alamo and Scots at Little Big Horn, rescoring the soundtrack to a revisionist view of the West.
Wilkie has spent most of the past five years immersed in this cross-cultural musical project, tracing melodies back to Celtic country and following the path of centuries-old immigrants bringing their stamp to the West. Speaking by phone with the Indy from his home in the ranch country of Turner Valley, Alberta, Wilkie spoke about a song he's uncovered called "Farewell to Coigach," written in Montana around the turn of the century by a Scottish immigrant cowboy.
"As far as I know it's the last remaining cowboy song written in the Gaelic language," Wilkie said. "It was written in Montana around the turn of the century. Coigach's a mountain that's on the coast right above Ullapool, a fishing village. For some reason about 25 men of that village decided to move to Montana to become cowboys. It's an incredible story."
Wilkie has also tried his hand at retelling more familiar tales, including the story of General Custer in his medley of "Garry Owen/Custer Died a-Runnin'/Off 'til Monday." Wilkie explained that "a lot of the men that died with Custer were Irish and Scottish. They introduced that music to Custer. 'Garry Owen' was his battle song. It's an old Irish battle song that goes back centuries that his Irish men gave him in the Civil War. They had a brass band on horseback and they actually performed those songs while Custer charged ... But Custer didn't bring them to Little Big Horn, because he figured they'd be in his way. He left his Gatling guns and his musicians behind."
After several visits across the water, Wilkie has become something of an expert on the link to the ancient cattle tradition in the old country. "The cattle culture in Scotland, in particular, goes back centuries, six, seven hundred years of cattle stories and cattle driving, cattle thieving," Wilkie explained.
"Their cattle industry was just winding down when the American cattle industry was just getting started. They were looking for markets in which they could open up to do their cattle business, and the American West was that place. I think at one point, maybe eighty percent of the ranches in Texas and Colorado were owned by Scottish and Irish ranchers."
With three albums to their credit, Cowboy Celtic has been focusing on showing the Celtic influence on American cowboy songs. "What I've tried to do is take the cowboy songs and use Celtic instrumentation, like whistles, harps, and Celtic fiddle styles," Wilkie said. "And then I've tried to take the Scottish songs and play them in a more cowboy way. I've tried to bring them into this middle ground somewhere where it's a different kind of a deal."
The band is at work on a new album, with more of a focus on the Old Country songs, delving farther back into the ancient cowboy culture. "The castles would have these wars over the cattle. There's just some fascinating stories that are not unlike Jesse James and Billy the Kid. But they go back centuries. Back into the 1300s, 1400s."
Wilkie also found out about the cattle "trysts," an old-fashioned precursor to modern day cowboy gatherings. "It was the same kind of thing. There was music, a lot of festivity, a lot of drinking, a lot of fighting," he laughed.
In the long run, the Scottish drovers had at least one essential characteristic in common with their western counterparts. "They sang to the cattle at night for the same reason the cowboys in the West did," Wilkie said, "to calm the herd."