Light a Fire

There’s an examination subject in the Scottish Education system with the title “Modern Studies”. It aims to develop students’ knowledge and understanding of contemporary political and social issues in local, Scottish, United Kingdom and international contexts. When I was in the middle school (ages 13-15), those of us in the Science stream had two periods a week called Social Studies which, I assume, was the equivalent in England at the time. I say, “I assume”, because I didn’t understand what “social studies” could possibly mean, and the lessons themselves never clarified this for me. There was no unifying theme that I could detect, and nothing that happened in those lessons was the slightest bit interesting. Uniquely, for me, I would sit towards the back of the room – bored, distracted and disengaged. If the school had intended to spark an interest in what I would now call current affairs, those lessons were an abject failure.

The effect was absolute. I don’t remember the name of the teacher. I don’t remember a single topic of discussion. I just remember feeling that those social studies lessons were a complete waste of time1. It did, however, give me a glimmer of insight into how some of the less academic school kids must have felt. And, for them, it was all day, every schoolday. No wonder they were sometimes disruptive.

Modern Studies is also a Scottish pop/folk group. They were formed in 2015 when singer/songwriter Emily Scott decided to donate an old harmonium to her friend Pete Harvey. Together with drummer Joe Smillie and guitarist Rob St. John, they recorded some of Emily’s songs in Pete’s Pumpkinfield studio. The result was Swell to Great2, an album of songs originally written for the harmonium. Here’s a track from that first release:

That’s a pleasant, if unremarkable, song that could easily pass by unnoticed on a pop radio station. And yet, there are whispers of The Breath in the voice and an echo of The Staves in the harmonies. Perhaps it should not be dismissed so lightly.

The band’s second album, Welcome Strangers (2018), adds a chamber orchestra and choir to the mix, creating a rounder, fuller and more distinctive sound. The musicians are learning to function as a collective, not merely as the writer’s backing band.

By their third album, Weight of the Sun (2020), there’s a maturity and confidence about the compositions and performances that invites the listener to pay attention, and not just for the length of a radio single. This is music that stays enjoyable from a chilly dawn until you run for the duvet cover at the end of a winter’s day.

Modern Studies are due to release album number 4 on 18th February. If it continues the progression of their earlier work, it will be well worth exploring. The two taster tracks already available on streaming services sound promising. Here’s the most recent:

This song reminds me of Curved Air‘s Marie Antoinette, although I’m not sure why. Perhaps the violin conjures up the ghost of Darryl Way, or I hear Sonja Kristina’s voice reverberating across the years. Or, maybe, it’s just the slightly faster tempo that injects a little more energy into the song. Then again, it could just be some faulty wiring in the Crotchety brain.

I doubt if Modern Studies‘ new album will light a fire of obsession in these hallowed halls, but I have no doubt it will be far more inspirational than those wasted “social studies” periods of my school days.


  1. One thing I do remember is that I heard about the release of Sergeant Pepper while waiting for a social studies lesson to start. Needless to say, The Beatles‘ much anticipated new album was not even mentioned by the teacher.
  2. The album is named after a coupler on a pipe organ which, in this case, allows the stops of the Swell division to be played by the Great manual.

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