As this year’s official “Country of Honour” at Brittany’s Festival Interceltique de Lorient – Europe’s largest folk gathering, pulling a crowd of 750,000 – Scotland triumphantly lived up to its billing. From the Saltire bunting bedecking Lorient’s streets, to the 5,000-strong standing ovation that greeted Monday’s sold-out Grande Nuit de l’Écosse, Scottish music and culture were unanimously the toast of the fête.
With Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop in attendance, our ambassadors on the ground were around 220 musicians, comprising 35 acts, and collectively delivering some 180 performances over the festival’s 10-day span.
Produced by Showcase Scotland Expo, this concerted promotional effort united a dozen major partners including the Scottish Government, Creative Scotland, VisitScotland, the British Council, Bòrd na Gàidhlig and Fèis Rois. Encapsulating just how thoroughly the whole delegation did the business, a late-night set from young Highland combo The Elephant Sessions, at the main Scottish Pavilion, incited such heights of euphoria that their audience ultimately broke the sprung wooden dancefloor.
Underlying all this craic, however, was a serious concern shared by both Scottish and French event teams: the threats to free human and cultural exchange posed by Brexit. The same issue was squarely front and centre in Fiona Hyslop’s address to festival press and dignitaries.
“European cultural collaboration is central to Scotland’s open, international cultural outlook,” she said. “The Scottish culture sector received at least £59 million in funding from the EU over 2007-16, supporting around 650 projects. This provides vital finance for the sector, but just as importantly, supports cultural collaboration and professional development which can only be fully achieved with freedom of movement. ”
In an interview later, Hyslop highlighted the scale of planning and organisation behind Scotland’s presence at Lorient 2017. “Imagine the huge additional costs, in time and money, if everyone here - musicians, crew, staff – had needed work permits, for instance,” she continued. “We don’t want obstacles put in the way of our artists making a living, or of sharing Scotland’s culture with our European friends. I don’t think people fully understand all the dangers that would come with a hard Brexit.”
Hyslop’s first-lady counterpart among the musicians, Capercaillie’s Karen Matheson, pithily echoed the point amid the Grande Nuit de l’Écosse’s exhilarating finale - with all four preceding acts, Talisk, Breabach, Blazin’ Fiddles and Fara, recalled onstage for a mass musical rammy - when she declaimed, “Nous avons dit ‘Non!’ à la Brexit, mais nous disons ‘Oui!’ a l’indépendance!” On a night when the tumultuous applause started with Talisk’s brief but phenomenal opening set, this earned perhaps the loudest cheer of all. (Hyslop, by this time, was on her feet with the rest.)
The Scots’ laudable all-round effort to speak the local language was spearheaded by Creative Scotland’s Head of Music, Alan Morrison, who delivered his entire keynote speech in French, and by Hyslop’s triplicate words of welcome in English, Gaelic and Breizh, Brittany’s own Celtic language.
Primarily, though, it was left to the music to get our message across – a purport tastefully lubricated by sponsors Belhaven Brewery and Loch Ness Water, judiciously blended with Breton cidre and excellent vin français.
By way of an overall mise en scène, Brittany’s musical links with Scotland – besides ancient Celtic kinship – go way back, with contacts between French and Scottish regiments during the First World War leading to widespread adoption of the Highland bagpipes, which now predominate in the region’s numerous bagadou, or pipe bands. When Lorient’s festival started in 1971, it was mainly bagpipe-focused, and has remained a popular pilgrimage for Scottish pipers ever since.
Today, the festival’s hub is an extensive tented village in a town-centre park by the harbour. Alongside the huge Marché Celtique – selling myriad artisanal crafts and local delicacies – this houses marquees promoting each Celtic territory, from Cornwall to Canada, complete with non-stop live music.
Occupying central pride of place, the Scottish Pavilion was routinely packed from lunchtime till late, with crowds lapping up at least at least 12 hours’ music a day. As with The Elephant Sessions - whose ferocious yet intricate, fiddle/mandolin-led sound won them a whole new Breton fan-base - up-and-coming acts featured prominently here. Further standouts included Hebridean trio Hecla, imbuing Gaelic songs and tunes with tremendous charm and taste, and the alternately fiery and graceful arrangements of vocal/instrumental four-piece Tannara.
Beyond the main site, Scotland’s first showcase concert was Saturday’s Soirée d’Ouverture Écosse, at the 1,000-seater Théâtre de Lorient, curated by Hebridean Celtic Festival director Caroline MacLennan. Another sellout – as were all the big Scottish shows – it began in stunning style with a 12-minute edit of Scotland’s Wild Heart, a BBC film visually hymning the Highlands, islands and their wildlife, with an equally magnificent live score by Capercaillie’s/Celtic Connections’ Donald Shaw.
Following that seemed a mighty tall order, but MacLennan’s expert selection of Highland and island rising stars – Blasta’s boldly arrayed Gaelic harmonies; the exquisitely timeless voice of Mischa Machpherson; Tide Lines’ buoyant folk-rock, plus the aforementioned Elephant Sessions – delivered a splendidly rich and varied snapshot of the region’s current cultural health.
Sunday featured two key annual Lorient fixtures, firstly La Grande Parade des Nations Celtes, which sees 3,500 participants in national dress marching a 4.5km route, lined by 60,000 spectators, with the Methil and District and Isle of Cumbrae Pipe Bands flying the Scottish flag this time. Come the evening, these same bands featured among 600 musicians and dancers in Les Nuits Interceltiques, a nightly son et lumière spectacular at Lorient’s football stadium, whose visual and aural impact – and theatrical imagination - more than rivalled Edinburgh’s Tattoo.
And so to the Grande Nuit de l’Écosse, Scotland’s final major showpiece, which proved “grand” indeed in both English and French. From Talisk’s opening salvo – centred on Mohsen Amini’s jaw-dropping concertina pyrotechnics – to Capercaillie’s majestic closing performance, every act did themselves proud, with Breabach eliciting audible “Wow”s by bringing on a pipe band mid-set, while Fara and Blazin’ Fiddles displayed the full glorious cornucopia of contemporary Scottish fiddle sounds, plus superb singing from Jeana Leslie and Blazers’ guest Claire Hastings.
While much of the cultural world converged on Edinburgh, in Lorient Scotland comprehensively proved itself a world-class musical force.