Tracing the Tide Lines

An interview with Rock'ndaal 2024's headlining band.

By Rachel Glueck

'Every time I close my eyes, I'm walking west along that river shore, searching for the innocence I knew back when I was there before... Long days in the summertime, just spending every hour as we'd choose, foreign wars and credit scores were nothing but distractions on the news'

Homeward Bound by Tide Lines

I imagine this sense of idyllic nostalgia is a part of what draws so many visitors to Islay year after year - the feeling that life entwined in this island community is so complete that the broader world fades away. It’s undoubtedly part of what encourages so many Illeachs who’ve left their island home for study or work to move back.

The verses are from Homeward Bound, the latest release from Tide Lines: the headlining band at this year’s Rock’ndaal. I had the chance to catch up with lead singer and guitarist, Robert Robertson, to learn more about the group and what inspires them. This song in particular, Robert says, is about his memories of growing up on the shores of River Lochie in Lochaber, but he reckons it has universal appeal. Any of us lucky enough to have had that particular freedom of growing up in a safe, rural community immersed in nature will likely recognise the sentiment the song invokes.

'I think probably what that song shows us is that people like me — and this goes for people on Islay as well — we’re very lucky to be brought up in a part of the world where we do remember the natural beauty of the environment we were raised in. When you’re from the Highlands and Islands, you’ve always got a homing instinct to get back into the fresh air.'

Robert’s musical journey began as a child, singing Gaelic music. He moved on to play the accordion and guitar and began writing songs while in university. Tide Lines formed after the members met one another in Glasgow: Robert on vocals and guitar, Ross on keyboard, Fergus on drums, and Alasdair on electric guitar and bagpipes.

All the members hail from various parts of the Highlands and Islands, from Fort William to Mull, Inverness-shire and the Moray Coast. Although each brings their own musical influence to the group, their upbringing in regions with deep roots in Gaelic culture means Gaelic music is the main thread that ties them together. In a nod of respect to these roots, they always play at least one Gaelic song in their live sets.

While many of the songs are written from Robert’s tenement flat in Glasgow and are inspired by the city, the landscape of the Highlands and Islands holds a particular sway over Tide Lines. The natural beauty of these lands is what inspires much of their music and what often gets them unstuck in the creative process.

'Sometimes you can spend days trying to come up with something...and then you jump in the car and head home and as soon as you’re up the A82 the sky opens out and you just get a different perspective.'

It's fitting then, that they record on the Isle of Mull, in an old church they converted into a recording studio.

'We’ve recorded in the city over the years and there are always distractions. Whereas when you’re up in Mull, the only distraction is people knocking on your door; coming in for a cuppa tea - which is a lovely distraction! When you’re sitting in Glasgow, you know… it just feels like you’re still in the middle of your busy life. The faster pace of life doesn’t put you in the right frame of mind for recording.'

It seems like the healthiest lifestyle a rock band could hope for: the zest of urban creative force blended with periodic wilderness recording retreats and international tours.

'We have to consider ourselves lucky that we’re able to do something that we love doing.

There are so many challenging parts to the life of a musician, of course, but the most difficult has to be the long journeys. [Like their most recent 10-hour drive from Munich to Hamburg.]

But then it just proves how good of pals we all are, that we could do a 9-hour journey like we did yesterday and then decide we all want to go out for dinner together in Hamburg and have a couple of pints. We’re great friends, so we enjoy ourselves 99% of the time.'

And the best part? Robert says it’s being up on stage and singing a chorus that he’s written in his flat in Glasgow and having the crowd sing it back, just as he’s always imagined it.

'To go back to full-circle gigs like Rock’ndaal is magic for that, ‘cause the audience are always up for it. That’s the best part. That’s what we do it for.'

Robert says the band doesn’t talk much about their plans for the future:

'We’re just delighted to be doing what we’re doing. If we’re still able to do this 10 years in the future, that’s good enough for us. Obviously, you always want to do a bigger gig, but really, it’s just the fact we’re doing all this. We’re very, very grateful for it.'

Bruichladdich Distillery has had the honour of seeing Tide Lines in its fledgling stages on through to what they’ve become: leaders in the Scottish folk-pop scene. Ross and Robert had both played at Fèis Ile before the group came together, but the first time Tide Lines played for Bruichladdich was at the distillery’s Christmas party. It went over so well that they were invited to play at Bruichladdich’s Fèis Day in 2017.

'When we play at Bruichladdich, it’s amazing ‘cause it’s such an international audience. It’s amazing how often we bump into people on our travels who’ve heard us at the distillery. Just the other night, we were playing in Amsterdam and a Dutch guy came up and shook my hand and said: "Aw, I first heard ya at Bruichladdich Distillery on Islay". It’s incredible how often that happens.'

'We love goin’ over to Bruichladdich ‘cause we get on so well with all the staff over there. They look after the bands so well at Fèis—it’s like a music festival. And we love the dram itself. We’ve always got a wee emergency bottle of Classic Laddie in the [tour] van just in case.'

It’s easy to see why Tide Lines is chosen year after year to headline at Rock’ndaal. Where so much modern music focuses on what’s missing and what’s not good enough, there’s a palpable sense of gratitude that rides like a wave through their verses. With anthemic choruses reminiscent of the landscapes that inspire them, this music lifts us up above the troubles of our lives, reminding us of the hopes of our youth—of our ties to a people and a place. It reminds us that the true gifts of this life are in the places we root ourselves and the people we share our time with.

But don't take our word for it, grab a dram and have a listen for yourself...