Jim Gilchrist on small festivals thinking big

Skerryvore accordionist, Daniel Gillespie. Picture: Contributed
Skerryvore accordionist, Daniel Gillespie. Picture: Contributed
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From Tiree to Dumfriesshire, small festivals are thinking big

It’s a wonder the beautiful Inner Hebridean island of Tiree doesn’t sink on a seasonal basis. Each July, since 2010, the “Hawaii of the North”, as it’s termed by surfers and other aficionados, has hosted the Tiree Music Festival, selling out and increasing capacity annually, until this summer saw numbers trebling its normal population of around 550.

Tonight, as the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards hold their annual ceremonial fling in Aberdeen Music Hall, the Tiree festival, which has already picked up other awards, is among four nominees in the Scots Trad Event of the Year category. The other nominees are: Jura Music Festival, Moniaive Folk Festival and Edinburgh Folk Club’s Carrying Stream celebration.

These are, notably, all small festivals which seem to draw punters despite the current economic stringency. Tiree, with its famous white sands and Atlantic rollers, has attracted devoted crowds of surfers for years, as well as kite surfers and sand-yachtsmen. But the island is also the founding home of the widely popular folk-rock band Skerryvore, and it was their accordionist, Daniel Gillespie, who came up with idea of a music festival to revivify his native island’s established but flagging music scene. “We were touring abroad a lot and I had this thing at the back of my mind for a couple of years, wondering if we could do a festival back home.”

Far from deterring visitors, the four-hour ferry crossing from Oban could be part of the attraction. “We don’t have a budget that can compete with HebCelt or Belladrum festivals,” says Gillespie, “but we try and sell that sense of island adventure. Tiree’s got some of the most stunning beaches in the world and the fact that the festival overlooks Crossapol Bay with its white sands is a major bonus.”

At the other end of the country, in Dumfries and Galloway, the village of Moniaive established its folk festival in 2001 on the back of economic regeneration cash following the devastating foot and mouth epidemic. Also nominated for that Scots Trad award, its May music bash, says its musical director, harpist Wendy Stewart, has become the biggest earner of the year for local traders.

Stewart reckons the picturesque village is a draw in itself – “Just the atmosphere, while a lot of people come just for sessions, not even the concerts. We have a real diversity of fairly traditional material as well as more unexpected stuff, and our other big strength is a lot of free children’s events.”

They’re clearly getting something right, despite the inevitable budget juggling: one overwhelmed London journalist was moved to describe Moniaive in festival mode as “one of the coolest villages in Britain”.

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