I love this time of year. In the Highlands, it brings the Blas Festival to village halls across the vastness of northern and western Scotland. The festival provides a perfect platform for established and, even more crucially, young musicians and brings performance to remote rural Scotland. As a celebration of Highland cultures, it also provides workshops for local people to engage with performers.
This year Blas runs from 2-10 September and includes a streaming service.
So, I was delighted to attend the opening event at Clashmore. The evening honoured a local legend Essie Stewart, whose story and stories are of the travellers and crofting communities and the Gaelic epics of the Highlands. Essie is one of the last people who grew up in the Highland Gaelic traveller community known as the “Summer Walkers”, with an oral tradition that is distinctive and increasingly celebrated in its own right.
The evening brought together storytelling and music from generations apart. Opening with Duncan MacGillivray whose pipes shook the hall to attention! Margaret Bennet, long-time friend of Essie, paid tribute with an evocative tale and lilting song which united the human and the fable in a tangible, richly textured oral experience it is hard to communicate. The evening then skipped down several generations to the local duo Duncan and Rona MacLeod. Their elegant performance moved through ages to the present and from heartfelt lyricism to foot stomping and sheer joy.
The sound of a new Gaelic Future
The second half brought local musician Chloë Bryce back to her local roots. Her Blas commissioned “The Summer Walkers” piece was inspired by Essie Stewart and her stories. It brought together outstanding musicians in their own right; Brìghde Chaimbeul, Alistair Iain Paterson, Juliette Lemoine and Innes White. Their performance transported me through the rhythms of another way of life, of walking and of telling stories of a time when time meant spending time. Chloë Bryce’s composition is a soundscape of tales retold, of the sound of the voice and of music. The ensemble of musicians uniting unlikely bedfellows of a cello and small pipes in sound that was both deeply traditional but also resonated with the sound of new Gaelic future. A wonderful uplifting evening to refresh and inspire imagination.
Blas is a living proof that Gaelic is far from dying or dead, it is, in fact, going through a revival and with it less explored histories are becoming better understood. If you can catch any of the performances either live or via their streaming service, I would thoroughly encourage you to do so. The blend of old and contemporary is enticing and a wonderfully positive experience.
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