It is a somewhat sobering thought for those of us who remember its early years that the Celtic Connections festival is about to be staged for the 25th time. To this day, the very idea of staging a major event in the depths of winter – when spending money is short and daylight is in even shorter supply – sounds bonkers.
However, by the time of the second Celtic Connections in 1995 there seemed little doubt that it was here to stay, so enthusiastic were musicians and audiences about the event. Now it is well woven into the cultural fabric of the city.
Within three years Celtic Connections was being staged across 11 different venues and drawing in audiences of more than 50,000. Decades on, ticket sales have at least doubled, while 26 venues are in this year’s line-up.
Such is the scale and complexity of the event many hidden gems in its programme are tucked away in intimate venues. Eugene Kelly from The Vaselines, James Yorkston, Broken Records, Deacon Blue’s Ricky Ross and Teddy Thomson can be found performing well off the beaten track this year.
Celtic Connections has for years offered some of its most prestigious slots and venues to largely previously unheralded overseas acts – confident that enough trust has been built up between the event and its fiercely loyal audience that when they fork out for a ticket they will be rewarded with something special.
Cuban Juan de Marcos and his band, Malian singer Oumou Sangare, Nashville star Dale Watson, Galician outfit Luar na Lubre and Norwegian group Frigg will all take to the biggest stages at Celtic Connections, to name but a few.
The Royal Concert Hall, the headquarters of the event since its inception by the staff there 25 years ago, buzzes day and night when the festival is on. But venues can now be found in every corner of the city, from the Mackintosh Church, The Hug and Pint and Oran Mor in the west end to the Barrowland Ballroom, the Drygate Brewery and St Luke’s in the east end.
While Celtic Connections is certainly not on the same scale as the Edinburgh festivals, its geographical spread of venues is now far greater. So too, albeit it more arguably, has been its championing of traditional Scottish culture since that first event in 1994.
Audience numbers for ticketed events at Celtic Connections are actually not that far behind the 70-year-old Edinburgh International Festval. Yet, despite some lobbying over the years, Celtic Connections has had nowhere near the public funding support traditionally given to the EIF, which amount to more than £4.5 million last year.
Intriguingly, the most recent Celtic Connections had an even more international flavour than the EIF, with 50 countries represented and 300 more performers taking the stage.
Yet Celtic Connections is organised by a core year-round team of three, including artistic director Donald Shaw, who made it clear at the festival’s launch in October how much he felt they are under-resourced and over-stretched.
With Shaw warning at the weekend of his concerns about how the event may be impacted by the forthcoming Brexit, it will be intriguing to see how much help it will secure having reached such a landmark on its journey.