As the organisers of the Solas Festival have discovered since its inception in 2010, small isn’t just beautiful. It can also be stimulating, healing, joyful and relaxing, just as its Gaelic name suggests. This bijou 1,000-capacity weekend festival in rural Perthshire – dubbed Scotland’s “wee Woodstock” – is a festival with a conscience, an all-singing, all-thinking triple threat combining music, justice and faith in one holistic whole.
Programming and marketing co-ordinator Morag Wells likes to sum up the appeal of the festival by quoting a previous attendee, who testified that “Solas has a heart, a soul and a brain – it’s not simply showbiz”.
“I think that is a nice way of describing it,” she says. “Even though music is a big part of the programme, it does offer something more in being able to engage in big discussions and big topics, and have debates in a respectful manner. It’s a big melting pot of different influences over the years. It’s a gathering place, a community of people from different walks of life who come together every year. We’re small but that helps with the sense of belonging.”
For Frank Strang, the chair of the festival board, it’s important that Solas is “a relaxed, friendly gathering which is safe for everybody. We try to be inclusive and welcoming. Quality art is important to us but we also like to think about the whole person, so we’re not afraid of debates around all sorts of issues including faith issues, policy issues. We take quite a progressive stance on justice issues.”
Strang has been attending the festival since it was founded in 2010, conceived as a Scottish equivalent of the long-running Christian arts festival Greenbelt. For three years, Solas made its home at Wiston Lodge, near Biggar, before moving to the Bield retreat centre in Blackruthven, establishing its connection to Perthshire, and welcoming performers such as Deacon Blue frontman and broadcaster Ricky Ross, Idlewild frontman Roddy Woomble and the bands Admiral Fallow and Breabach.
“Over time we’ve become our own thing,” says Strang. “The faith strand is still there but we are open to people of all faiths – and none. It’s easy to describe T in the Park or a climate change rally or a Bible event but this is the intersection between those things. It has to be a place for healthy debate. To disagree well is part of this.”
Solas moved to its current site in Errol Park in 2019. No sooner had they put down roots in their new location than the pandemic struck, sabotaging the very principle of gathering. Like many other festivals, Solas deftly pivoted to an online offering in 2020 and then a socially distanced Wee Solas festival in 2021, which took place in the grounds of Scone Palace – and coincided with the first rainy Solas in memory.
“It bucketed down,” says Wells. “We didn’t have any indoor venues because of Covid so we brought all the gazebos up to the front of the stage so people could get some cover. But the rain went away just in time for Rachel Sermanni’s set, so it was a lovely intimate moment with the people who had managed to survive the downpour.”
Wells also picks folk trio Lau’s performance in 2017 and rapper Kobi Onyame in 2019 as personal Solas highlights. Strang, meanwhile, has fond recollections of seeing the late Michael Marra, as well as Karine Polwart, dancer Claire Cunningham, Scottish Opera performing on the back of a lorry, and a particular quirky festival tradition. “I love the moment when the bicycle comes round the field with the cocktails,” he says, “and sitting on straw bales while someone is playing jazz and you can choose your cocktail.”
It is often the small moments which make the Solas experience. But for a festival which prides itself on gathering, the choice of headliners is crucial. This year Edinburgh rap collective Stanley Odd will get the party started on Friday, while Don Kipper, a self-styled Mediterranean disco funk outfit from London, are set to galvanise the Saturday crowd and the festival will go out on a high with a Sunday evening ceilidh.
Elsewhere on the bill, Lau’s Kris Drever returns, along with award-winning Scots singer Iona Fyfe, Scots-Sudanese musician Eliza Shaddad, rising jazz stars Noushy 4Tet and the unique electro blues stylings of Young Fathers associate Callum Easter.
The theme of this first post-lockdown edition of Solas is the suitably broad-minded What’s Next? The talks programme includes panels grappling with post-pandemic challenges, the Rest and Be Thankful wellbeing strand caters for body, mind and soul, and Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022 will be embraced and embodied by guest speakers including Scotland’s Makar Kathleen Jamie, authors Kirstin Innes and Jess Smith, storyteller Margaret Bennett and comedian Josie Long.
The festival continues to strengthen its green credentials with contributions from the Woodland Trust and RSPB, as well as welcoming new Scots. Refugees and asylum seekers volunteer and perform at the festival and receive free admission – as do the under-12s, who can enjoy puppet-making, circus skills and music workshops across the Children and Families programme.
All at Solas are revved up for its return and ready to deliver what’s next. “For me it’s about re-establishing what we are as a festival,” says Wells. “Even though we have managed to do something over the last two years, it’s been a long time since we did what we are there to do. I feel there are things that have been lost in the last few years as a society and as a culture so I think there is going to be a lot gained from just coming together as that community again. Hopefully we’ll feel like Solas again. That’s the amazing thing about festivals – they only happen once a year, you arrive and you feel you’ve never left. They exist in their own space and time.”
Solas takes place at Errol Park, Perthshire, from 17-19 June. Day and weekend tickets are priced from £21-£110 with a 20% discount on adult weekend tickets for groups of ten or more. All weekend tickets include camping. See www.solasfestival.co.uk