An Tobar in Tobermory is more than just an arts centre, it is a community with its own record label that is reaching out to the rest of the country with a month-long tour

THERE'S a music show from Mull headed your way, and Balamory it ain't. The An Tobar Commissions is a Scottish Arts Council Tune-Up tour celebrating the inordinately creative An Tobar arts centre, which perches on the hill above Tobermory's much-photographed harbour.

In 2007, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its conversion from an old school that had lain empty since the 1970s, the arts centre commissioned pieces from two respected and eclectically minded Scottish musicians, fiddler Aidan O'Rourke and jazz pianist Dave Milligan. Starting on Monday at Perth and winding their way across the country from Dunfermline to Stornoway, O'Rourke's An Tobar Band and the Dave Milligan Trio will perform the resulting music, as well as combining to perform some new, jointly composed material.

O'Rourke's album An Tobar wove a strikingly textured sonic tartan of interweaving fiddle, saxophone, accordion, harp and electronic effects, reprised on the tour by O'Rourke with his Lau bandmate Martin Green on accordion, saxophonist Phil Bancroft, harpist Catriona McKay and percussionist Martin O'Neill, all of whom played on the album.

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The Dave Milligan Trio's anniversary commission led to the wonderfully idiosyncratic Shops album, after Milligan, drummer Tom Bancroft and bassist Tom Lyne not only interviewed the owners and staff of the shops on Tobermory's famously picturesque waterfront – working the sampled conversation and "found sound" into their compositions – but in some instances performed the pieces in the retail premises concerned.

As well as providing exhibition space, which might house anything from island landscapes to a Dalziel + Scullion installation, a hospitable caf and a superb view across Tobermory Bay, An Tobar boasts its own Tob record label and has seeded an astonishing number of fruitful music projects, often with local participation. Since harpist Savourna Stevenson wrote her Calman the Dove for the centre's opening, it has seen Michael Marra record two EP albums there, and clarinettist and composer Karen Wimhurst work with local schoolchildren, the results later performed by Mr McFall's Chamber.

Free jazz may not be what one readily associates with an Inner Hebridean town more famous, musically, for the late, legendary accordionist (and Tobermory provost) Bobby MacLeod, but another residency saw the George Burt/Raymond MacDonald free-improvising quintet with guest pianist Keith Tippet composing music inspired by the clock that dominates the harbour. The same clock contributes a chime to The Water, the current album from former Mull Historical Society singer Colin MacIntyre, who returned to his native island to record it at An Tobar, in what had once been his old school science lab, recruiting the present High School's girls' choir for backing vocals.

Then there was the conversation about lugworms between a jazz drummer and a bemused shopkeeper (in Tackle & Books, which sells the invertebrates as bait) that found its way into the Milligan trio's Shops exercise.

An Tobar is Gaelic for "the well", traditionally both a source of sustenance or inspiration, but also a gathering place, and community involvement has been a central ethos for the centre, says its artistic director, Gordon Maclean, an energetic character who also plays bass in various bands, including that of his son, rising singer songwriter Sorren Maclean. "We always felt this had to be for the local community first. Obviously we welcome the many visitors who come here, and Tobermory's a very small town, so there's no way you could make a place like this run without a few more people around."

The diminutive studio's ethos, I suspect, is also imbued with some of the mercurial spirit of Martyn Bennett, who established his studio there during An Tobar's early years, and recorded his defiantly valedictory album Grit there before his untimely death in 2005.

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Not that bemused Muileachs don't scratch their heads at some of Maclean's more off-the-wall ploys. "I'm sure some of (the locals] think what is that about?" he says. "But everyone knows the folk who work here and they've seen what we've done over the years, so we can get away with a few eccentric things." For his part, O'Rourke recalls visiting the island to write the An Tobar album amid atypically hot weather. "Tobermory's one of the wettest towns in Scotland, but every time I went up there to write this, the sun was splitting the rocks. I used to take to the hills or go over and sit at Calgary Bay with the manuscript. I'd write a bit then get back in and record it.

"The music that's come through that venue over the years has been amazing, and a lot of that is to do with Gordon and his energy and ideas," adds O'Rourke. "Also, although it's not really a difficult place to get to, you do have to travel for a few hours, and get the ferry, so it does feel like a bit of an adventure."

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Milligan, too, waxes enthusiastically about the centre. "It's not hard to get inspired there. Apart from the beautiful location, there's something very motivating about working with a promoter like Gordon who is so passionate about all the art he brings to An Tobar. He's been a catalyst for some of the most amazing projects, and always seems to be thinking up new ways to bring together different cultural elements. That ethos is not so uncommon in the context of well-funded, city-based arts organisations and concert halls, but what's extraordinary is that this is an arts centre with a 60-seat venue on an Island with a population of less than 3,000 people.

"And what I love about it is there's always a connection to the island community in some way – as was very much the case when he approached us about the Shops project. There was a wonderful mixture of heartfelt enthusiasm and mild bemusement, but the shop owners in particular were really up for it," recalls Milligan. "I don't think they were altogether sure what to expect but, then again, neither were we.

"The defining moment for us was when Olive Brown, then owner of Brown's hardware store, gave up trying to serve customers half-way through the trio's performance behind the counter, and told a man trying to buy a lightbulb he would just have to wait."

• The An Tobar Commissions Tour starts at the Redrooms, Perth Theatre, on 19 April, and tours until 15 May. For details, see and