If much of the ambitious programme of events planned for 2020’s Year of Coasts and Waters has been swept away by the rip tide of Covid-19, one event – if online only – which has picked up on it is Blas, the 11-day Highland traditional music festival which opens on 20 November and continues until 30 November.
The festival will present pre-recorded and live-streamed concerts, ceilidhs and workshops, both free and ticketed, from numerous Highland and island venues. Among much else, 29 November sees the Glenfinnan-based harpist Ingrid Henderson lead Brath sa Bhuideal / Message In a Bottle, her multi-media commission from NatureScot (formerly Scottish Natural Heritage), a tantalising fragment of which was presented during Celtic Connections in January. Blas presents the full, hour-long programme, in which she is joined by her fiddling, singing sister Megan Henderson, guitarist Anna Massie and uilleann piper Conal McDonagh, as well as by Cat Bruce’s beguiling animation depicting a magical marine world under threat.
The festival also closes on an environmental theme with a St Andrew’s Night celebration, Cuirm Naomh Anndrais, featuring newly composed Gaelic songs inspired by coasts and waters.
Other events across the 11 days include a “significant birthday” celebration for the highly-regarded Gaelic singer Christine Primrose and performances from musicians such as Hamish Napier, Su-a Lee and Lauren McColl, Radio 2 Young Folk Award-winner Josie Duncan, Gaelic trio SIAN and harpist-singer Rachel Newton (who has just released a new album, To the Awe), while Trail West celebrate their tenth anniversary. The festival was opened last night by young musicians from the ever-fruitful Fèisean movement, directed by Mike Vass.
As a recent BBC report highlighted the worrying erosion of the Uist machair due to rising sea levels and storms, Ingrid Henderson, a member of the notable Highland musical family (who perform with other members, as well as fiddler husband Iain Macfarlane, at the opening concert), agrees that she and other Highland and island musicians are increasingly of environmental issues.
“Certainly, for Message in a Bottle,” she explains, “I was working with experts from NatureScot who made me aware of machair erosion and marine plastics. But also, because I’m from Mallaig I saw the fishing industry boom then its decline, but also the way that people viewed the seas as somewhere you could dump almost anything and it wouldn’t come back to harm you.
“There is much more awareness now about man’s impact on environment and I’m noticing it in new music pieces and in the way musicians work together. People have become very aware of whether they really need to travel somewhere to rehearse together. Now we’ve been forced not to through Covid, but there is a definite awareness. Whether it’s a generational thing or particular to the arts, I’m not sure.”
Henderson and company had planned to record an album of Message in a Bottle in the spring, but their application for Creative Scotland funding collapsed because at that stage Henderson didn’t feel they could record it remotely as individuals – “I just didn’t have the confidence at the time to do that. I do now though, although it’s not my ideal way of working. Personally I like that human connection and bouncing off each other musically.”
They now hope to record the album remotely this winter, with a view to release next year – when, it transpires, elements of the Coasts and Waters programme are to be carried over. “So most of our gigs to promote the album will be transferred to next year.”
As Covid-19 has forced musicians and events organisers to adopt new practices, Henderson reckons that events such as Blas should be commended, “for still going ahead, because the technical skills they’ve had to take on to get performances online is incredible. It would have been very easy – and understandable – for these festivals just to rest for a year.”
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