Blas Festival: Gaelic-speaking Travellers take centre-stage in new commission

Glasgow-based fiddler and singer Chloë Bryce’s new project, The Summer Walkers, mixes live music and song with archive material to highlight the role played by Gaelic-speaking Travellers in the preservation of Highland traditions. Interview by Jim Gilchrist

Chloë Bryce PIC: Nicky Murray
Chloë Bryce PIC: Nicky Murray

The beginning of next month sees the welcome return, after a Covid-enforced two-year hiatus, of the Blas Festival, celebrating the culture of the Highlands and Islands across the region. Running from 2-10 September, Blas – Gaelic for “taste” or “sample” – features many leading traditional singers and musicians, but it opens with an event that taps deeply into the history and lore of the Highland Travellers.

Commissioned by the festival in conjunction with Scotland’s Year of Stories, The Summer Walkers mixes live music and song with archive material and has been created by Glasgow-based fiddler and singer Chloë Bryce to highlight the vital role Gaelic-speaking Travellers played in the preservation and transmission of Highland traditions, particularly storytelling. Its premiere, at the Carnegie Hall in Clashmore, Dornoch, will also celebrate the 80th birthday of Essie Stewart, one of the last people to remember personally the summer walking – the great seasonal peregrination, when the Travellers would take to the byways, travelling across Sutherland and into Ross-shire while tinsmithing and horse-trading.

The granddaughter of Ailidh Dall – “Blind” Alec Stewart, a Traveller tinsmith and renowned storyteller whose vast store of tales stretched back to the ancient Ossianic legends – Essie Stewart is herself a celebrated Gaelic storyteller. She lives in Bonar Bridge in Sutherland, just some 15 miles from Bryce’s home town of Tain. However, it was only through reading author and filmmaker Timothy Neat’s book The Summer Walkers, that Bryce, a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s traditional music course, realised that this significant tradition-bearer lived so near to her hometown.

The commission involved Bryce writing new music inspired by the talks she has enjoyed with Stewart, by Neat’s book and by recordings of both Essie and her grandfather from the vast Tobar an Dualchais online archive. Bryce will play fiddle and sing in Gaelic while other musicians involved are piper Brìghde Chaimbeul, cellist Juliette Lemoine and pianist Alistair Iain Paterson, with Innes White and Gillie O’Flaherty sharing guitar roles.

The show will visit Roybridge, Plockton and Nairn. For its opening night at Clashmore, however, to celebrate Stewart’s birthday, they’ll be joined by guests including folklorist Margaret Bennett, piper Duncan MacGillivray and singing duo Duncan and Rona Macleod. Stewart, says Bryce, curated the format of the opening event, although she herself will remain an honoured guest within the audience. “She won’t appear on stage,” Bryce explains. “I didn’t want to put too much pressure on her, but she’s happy to have the recordings played and she’ll be there.”

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Bryce doesn’t regard storytelling as being sufficiently celebrated: “We’re so lucky that there’s such a strong culture of traditional music alive today, but it’s rare these days that you’d sit down and tell these ancient stories. We’re very lucky to have these recordings of people like Ailidh Dall and Essie’s mother Mary as well as Essie herself still telling these stories.”

The show is a significant development for 25-year-old Bryce, one of the many music students unfortunate enough to graduate during lockdown: “I’m only really establishing myself as an artist now,” she says. “It’s been a tough time and I’ve been doing all sorts of different jobs, so I’m delighted to have been offered this commission and a chance of getting my name out there.”

Blas, organised by Fèisean nan Gàidheal, which promotes community-based Gaelic cultural activities, will stage some 40 concerts and ceilidhs in venues across the Highlands. Its extensive programme includes artists of the stature of piper Dr Angus MacDonald, fiddlers Ronan Martin and Charlie McKerron, pianist James Graham and singers Mary Ann Kennedy, Gillebrìde MacMillan and the trio Sian, as well as groups such as Mànran and Staran.

And this year’s programme is actually bookended by 80th birthday celebrations, closing with a concert in Stornoway to mark that of Gaelic singer and tradition-bearer Mary Smith, with an impressive cast including Julie Fowlis, Allan MacDonald, Pàdruig Morrison and Irish guests Maighréad and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill.

For full programme details, visit www.blas.scot