How Glasgow’s Celtic Connections has transformed Scotland’s music scene – Brian Ferguson

Celtic Connections is now Glasgow’s equivalent to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and has had a significant effect on raising the profile of Scotland’s musicians, writes Brian Ferguson.
Scotland's musicians have been stepping out of the shadows thanks, in part, to the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow (Picture: John Devlin)Scotland's musicians have been stepping out of the shadows thanks, in part, to the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow (Picture: John Devlin)
Scotland's musicians have been stepping out of the shadows thanks, in part, to the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow (Picture: John Devlin)

Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall was an eerily quiet place to drop into on a Friday afternoon in November, especially after braving the early festive season throngs on Buchanan Street. My mission was to collect a fresh-off-the-press copy of the Celtic Connections festival programme.

It seems extraordinary to think that event, launched on an unsuspecting public 25 years ago, has become Glasgow’s equivalent of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. But that’s what it feels like to me after being lucky enough to follow its development over virtually every chapter of its evolution from an event created to fill the “darkest” periods in the Royal Concert Hall’s calendar to one offering an unprecedented showcase for musicians from almost every conceivable genre.

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The opening Friday offers a bewildering array of appetisers in the form of punk (The Rezillos), jazz-folk (Fat Suit), solo fiddle (Duncan Chisholm), Gaelic singing and stepdancing (Anita MacDonald) and a Hebrides-based “indie-folk-electro-retro popster” (Johnny Lynch aka Pictish Trail).

The days of Celtic Connections being seen as a folk music festival were pretty much banished before the end of the 1990s.

But what the festival has done is helped bolster the confidence of artists with traditional roots from every corner of Scotland, given them a blank canvas from which to launch new and ambitious projects, allowed them to quickly develop new audiences, and provided the best stages in the city for them to perform on to largely full houses.

Pub gigs to Barrowlands in a year

It is a bit simplistic to give Celtic Connections the sole credit, but it is worth considering the rude health the Scottish traditional music scene (in the widest possible sense) finds itself in at the moment.

One current firm favourite with its audiences, Karine Polwart, won an “open stage” award there with her former band Malinky 20 years ago. She attracted a full house to the Usher Hall on Saturday for her “Scottish Songbook” show, which reimagines classic tracks by the likes of Deacon Blue, The Waterboys, The Blue Nile and Big Country. She tweeted it was exactly 20 years since she decided to quit a salaried job and “take my chances as a folk singer”.

Roddy Hart, mastermind of some of Celtic Connections’ most memorable shows, has branched out into movie soundtracks with fellow singer-songwriter Tommy Reilly, including cult zombie musical Anna and the Apocalypse and forthcoming coming-of-age drama Our Ladies, featuring a showstopping Big Country cover by Eddi Reader.

The Barrowland Ballroom, a legendary venue out of reach to most Scottish musicians during their careers, is now a stomping ground for acts like Skerryvore, Skipinnish and Manran, whose followings are now so vast that they are organising their own festivals to cater for demand.

Other long-running events in Stornoway, Orkney and Shetland appear to be going from strength to strength while big hitters like T in the Park and Wickerman have left the fields.

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Somewhat astonishingly, Peat & Diesel, the hottest outfit on the trad scene, are about to make their Celtic Connections debut at an already sold-out Barrowlands gig, a year after performing in Stornoway’s pubs.

My last Barrowland gig was a remarkable show by the Skye-based electronica act Niteworks. With their latest project providing the soundtrack for the opening sequence of the Castle of Light, the first ever after-hours show staged at Edinburgh Castle, it seems the sky is now the limit for the current crop of musicians and singers.