Jim Gilchrist: Tidal wave of talent at this year’s Celtic Connections

In his enduring Gaelic lament, An Ataireachd Àrd, Donald MacIver potently evokes “The eternal surge of the sea... the sound of the high swelling waves / The ocean’s thunder is as I heard it in my youth /
Unchanging, pitiless, beating the sands on the shore.” That eternal surge against Scotland’s 10,000km of convoluted coast erodes, enriches, creates livelihoods, takes lives and, in the case of MacIver’s inspiration, disperses communities through clearance or other emigration. Inevitably, its tides ebb and flow through the music of our seaboard cultures.

Julie Fowlis PIC: Michael Gillen
Julie Fowlis PIC: Michael Gillen

This year has been officially designated Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters and later this month, Glasgow’s mammoth Celtic Connections festival launches the year with its own Coastal Connections event, a packed afternoon programme celebrating Scotland’s maritime heritage and culture, combining music and song with film and theatre.

The afternoon will feature performances from musicians with coastal and island connections, including such established names as Capercaillie and Skerryvore, founded in Oban and Tiree respectively, Gnoss and Fara from Orkney and Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis.

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For Fowlis, who grew up in North Uist before moving to Ross-shire as a teenager, the sea has a huge influence on her music: “I feel there’s something about the sound of the sea that shapes the way we express ourselves. There’s something hugely emotional about the sea, and the older I get, there is this pull towards the water. I’m kind of obsessed by it.”

Some years ago Fowlis, who now lives near Inverness, embarked on a film and music project about Heisgeir, as Gaels know the Monach Isles, uninhabited since the 1940s, to which she’s connected through her mother’s family. She also visited St Kilda for the first time with film-maker David Buckland’s Cape Farewell project to generate cultural response to climate change – an experience she describes as “life-changing” in more ways than one.

“I’d just had my first daughter and just before that expedition I found out that I was expecting my second,” she recalls. Apart from that sea change in her life, another was standing on St Kilda and looking eastwards to the west side of North Uist, home to her late grandparents.

“From their house where I spent so much time as a child and continue to spend time, on a clear day you could look out on St Kilda. It seemed a kind of magical place. Finally getting there in my thirties, and looking back to Uist and the hill Eaval, it felt as if I’d turned the world on its head.”

For the Coastal Connections gig, Fowlis and her husband, Irish musician Éamon Doorley, will be reuniting with folk-classical-straddling violinist Zoë Conway and guitarist John McIntyre for their Allt project creating new songs inspired by Scots and Irish Gaeldom – traditions which have been shaped by the sea for a thousand years and more.

For both Scots and Irish Gaels, emigration, whether forced or otherwise, has left a deep cultural legacy. Coastal Connections will also feature The Voyage of the Hector, a composition commissioned by Fèis Rois from accordionist John Somerville, commemorating the epic journey of the ship which in 1773 took early settlers from Ullapool, Wester Ross, to Pictou in Nova Scotia.

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That westward journey was reversed, however, for Angus MacKenzie, piper with the powerful west Highland Band Dàimh, also appearing at the event. Born on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, MacKenzie, at 42, has spent more than half his life on the Isle of Skye, “which means that I’ve always lived on an island, surrounded by water”.

MacKenzie’s mother grew up in Cape Breton but went to work in South Uist and met his father, the pair settling in Canada. The relationship between Cape Breton and Hebridean Gaeldom seems to have been a fluid one, with the family returning to Uist for holidays: “I always thought that Cape Breton was simply an extension of the Outer Hebrides.”

The young MacKenzie only planned to stay in Skye a year, but met up with the other founding members of Dàimh – the name means “kinship”. Twenty-two years on, the band has played 32 of Scotland’s inhabited islands, with the stated aim of performing on them all. Present members have ties to such communities as Harris, Glenelg or Morar, while, of its two “jobsharing” fiddlers, Lewis-born Alasdair White lives in New York while Gabe McVarish hails from California but lives on Eigg.

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The term “remote”, however, can be misjudged when applied to such communities, suggests MacKenzie, pointing out that when Dàimh played on Canna a couple of years back, its population of 16 was swelled to over 70 by folk arriving from neighbouring islands. And these “remote” Hebridean communities were historically accessible by established sea routes going back centuries. Hence Mackenzie’s interest in a theory touted recently that the ancestor of the Great Highland bagpipe may have arrived in Scotland in the form of the gaita of north-west Spain, via these same timeless sea lanes.

Other components to Coastal Connections include Launch, described as an – ahem – “immersive” performance combining archive film from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution with live music from beatboxer Jason Singh and singer songwriter Jenny Sturgeon. And it’s not all coastal: harpist Esther Swift’s brooding chamber piece The Flood was inspired by climate-change-related flooding in her native Peebles. The National Theatre of Scotland will preview its Ferry Tales programme of pop-up shows designed for seagoing performances on board Caledonian MacBrayne ferries. Community arts specialists Vision Mechanics, meanwhile, will introduce the formidable figure of Storm, a ten metre tall mythical goddess of the sea.

Later during Celtic Connections, voyaging to uninhabited isles is also the theme of Air Iomall – “On the Edge” – a show by the young fiddle and piano duo of Charlie Grey and Joseph Peach, arising from their voyage with filmmaker Hamish MacLeod aboard the top-sail schooner Wylde Swan to such far-flung islands as the Flannans, North Rona and St Kilda.

“There was this one trip going to all these islands,” says keyboard and accordion player Peach, originally from Achiltibuie, who had previously crewed on the Wylde Swan. “So we thought why not go and write music about these places?”

MacLeod’s film documents the pair exploring such resonant sites as the Flannan Isles, dedicating a tune to its three notoriously vanished lighthouse keepers, and of course St Kilda, where, on the 88th anniversary of its evacuation, they arrive to play a poignant air for their fellow voyagers in the long-empty church.

Peach describes the sea as a physical presence that dictates everything you do, and explains: “The Air Iomall project was about the sea in a big way – the history of the people who inhabited these islands, their relationship with it, and our own experience of it, as we saw these places first hand.

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“The sea dictates so much about mobility, sustenance, shelter and the nature of surroundings. It’s huge really, and though Charlie and I write in such a subconscious way, I think being so surrounded by the space, power and motion of the North Atlantic meant these qualities were reflected in the music.”

Coastal Connections is at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 18 January. Charlie Grey & Joseph Peach: Air Iomall is at the City Halls Recital Room, Glasgow, on 30 January. For details, see www.celticconnections.com