Blas Festival preview: Marriage becomes a moveable feast as Blas hits the Highlands

Gaelic singer Margaret Stewart, who has been commissioned to write a new piece for the festival entitled Highland Wedding''Margaret Stewart on 01471 888323 '
Gaelic singer Margaret Stewart, who has been commissioned to write a new piece for the festival entitled Highland Wedding''Margaret Stewart on 01471 888323 '
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‘I’M IN DANGER of becoming pigeonholed as a singer of dirges, you know?” Margaret Stewart protests, not entirely seriously.

“I’m so often involved in heavy song projects, with topics such as emigration, the Clearances, war and all that stuff. It would be nice to let people know that I’m quite a happy person,” she laughs.

We’re discussing her flagship commission for Blas, next month’s annual festival of Highland culture. In The Highland Wedding, the highly regarded singer will, for a change, celebrate some of the happier themes of Gaelic culture, drawing from the wealth of traditional music and song relating to courtship and matrimony. She does so with the help of a crack team of Highland musicians: Iain MacFarlane on fiddle and accordion, Allan Henderson on fiddle and piano, Ingrid Henderson on clarsach and piper Angus Nicolson.

Stewart is speaking from her office at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on Skye, where she is musician-in-residence. However, Highland Wedding doesn’t particularly arise from her current residence. “It was just an opportunity to be able to perform stuff with a happier theme.”

Stewart has drawn upon her considerable store of sometimes rarely heard Gaelic song to evoke such essential traditional elements as the rèiteach – the engagement celebration – and an còrdadh – the agreement on the dowry – leading on to the wedding ceremony, the bedding of the bride and the subsequent house wedding, held traditionally in the groom’s home, and which could go on for some days.

Stewart’s creation is not quite so taxing, opening with the gentle strains of the lullaby Bi Clann Ulaidh air do Bhanais, which promises honour and prosperity to the young heir. “We then take an imaginary leap,” she explains, “to the moment when a young couple fall in love, and we’ll have relevant music and song on the themes of courting and night visiting.”

She has also composed new material, including a pibroch-style piece she has co-written with Angus Nicolson, reflecting her long-standing interest in piping, while the whole show, she promises, will “end on a high” with some fast traditional tunes from the band.

The show’s venues are characteristic of the moveable feast ethos of Blas as a whole, opening on 7 September at the Aigas Field Centre, west of Inverness, then – in the manner of traditional Highland weddings going on over several nights – playing Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Skye, on the 8th, Poolewe Village Hall on the 10th and Nairn Community centre on the 11th.

The Blas programme as a whole spans much of the Highlands, showcasing local and visiting musicians. Another highlight is Eilean Fraoich, a tribute to Calum Kennedy, hosted by Fiona Kennedy – the daughter of the late, legendary singer – and Arthur Cormack, with guest performers including James Ross, Kristine Kennedy and Darren MacLean. Elsewhere, the “MacKenzies of Mabou” feature the formidable pipe and fiddle skills of Angus, Kenneth and Calum Mackenzie, Scottish-based but hailing from the Gaelic diaspora of Cape Breton.

Some potentially sparky stage encounters include: Blazin’ Fiddles with the Donegal trio Fidil; a “Girls Allowed” programme featuring award-winning fiddler Kristan Harvey and the Sanna, and Shetland fiddler Catriona MacDonald’s new trio, Vamm; and An Guth – The Voice, enlisting Maeve McKinnon with Senegalese singer Samba Sene and Inverness Gaelic choir, the Scots-Irish Gaelic trio Dual and Lowland singer Emily Smith.

In conjunction with Blas, the prestigious Northern Meeting piping competition on 6-8 September seems to be taking a leaf out of Glasgow’s Piping Live! book by holding its own piping festival, with such notable guests as Duncan MacGillivray (ex-Battlefield), Breabach, Irish group Réalta and the 18th-century Highland pipes quartet Seudan.

Blas further manifests itself across the Highlands in a programme full of house ceilidhs, storytelling sessions, and even a musical cruise on Loch Ness. Monster sightings not obligatory.

• Blas runs 7-15 September. For full programme details, see www.blas-festival.com