Reflections on Celtic Connections 2020

The critically acclaimed Grit Orchestra opened Celtic Connections 2020 in the Royal Concert Hall.

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Oban FM’s Campbell Cameron reflects on this year’s Celtic Connections.

Celtic Connections comes to us from Christmas to spring each year, leaving us in decent spirits given the wet and windy start to 2020.

This year has been busier so getting to Glasgow has been less frequent, so I do approve of the 5pm recital concerts at the city hall giving us a two bites of the cherry per Thursday night this year.

Dave Milligan and Messrs Peach and Grey offered concerts a week apart at the venue, giving us experience at each end of the musical chronology. Dave has 40 years under his belt in the music business, where the lads are fresh faced and newly let loose.

Boisterous and calm in equal measures. Delicate licks and deft touches or vice versa. Both acts held their audience in their spell. Milligan took us on a musical journey in the mind with occasional prompts from the maestro on the classic grand piano.

The boys, Joseph Peach on piano and Charlie Grey on fiddle, took us away to the islands on the edge of the world in both our imaginations and on Hamish MacLeod’s excellent film, Air Iomall.

St Kilda and the Flannan Isles provided footage of the islands left, in St Kilda’s case 88 years to the day before the performance in the wee church.

The event left me more determined and longing for more, so here’s hoping that we can make the trip to the magical isles this year.

Assynt got us warmed up for the big event – Orcadians in Hudson’s Bay – at the lovely Mitchell Theatre. Assynt were crowned ‘up and coming artist of the year’ at 2018’s Scots Trad Music Awards, and the Highland trio have come on leaps and bounds since last summer’s visit to the Benderloch Palladium.

Comprising  Graham Mackenzie on the fiddle, David Shedden on the pipes and whistles and Pablo on the guitar – in for regular Innes White – the new music material previewed from their imminent second album is going to take them higher still. Storming sets on pipes and fiddle welded together as one were balanced by the gentle airs and the clever guitar flicks from the worthy sub.

When Orkney born and bred Gnoss fiddler and mandolinist Graham Rorie looked for inspiration, he found it in ‘the watter of Stromness just 10 meenites doon the road’ as he tells us in his delicious mellifluous accent. This was where the Hudson’s Bay Company’s ships called for supplies after sailing north from the Thames. As well as ‘watter’ they drew men and at least one disguised woman, Isobel Gunn, from the ‘hardy, hardworking and generally sober’ population of the isles.

So popular was the desire for adventure and escape from the hardships of 18th-century life that at one point more than 400 employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company, 79 per cent, were Orcadian.

This year is the 350th anniversary of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the première of Rorie’s new instrumental suite celebrating Orkney’s uniquely close ties with the firm. We enjoyed famous and unknown stories from this long-shared history as Rorie performed with a terrific band enhanced by roof-raising Québécois quintet Le Vent du Nord. Many stayed on and formed now famous cities, including Edmonton we learned. Some came home with fortunes made and helped grow the isles by building schools and giving them their names. Some are honoured along with the Stromness well.

Friday night in Glasgow at the end of January is Transatlantic sessions for me. The amazing gathering of musicians is now in its 17th year and the Glasgow gig is now the warm up for a British tour.

Aly Bain is now officially old he says, and Phil Cunningham is coming up fast behind celebrating 70 himself. Even Sierra Hull is no longer a child prodigy and Tommy Emmanuel is looking spritely. Rachael Sermanni has started a family. Together with Cathy Jordan they blew us all away with amazing energy and ever innovative musical interpretation. The amazing band was never many less than a dozen – peaked at 16, I think, and on occasions when they went off for a breather, they left director Jerry Douglas with one of the chanteuses to enchant us. It was just magical. But it’s done.

By the time you read this the sets will be packed up and the Transatlantic sessions coach will be approaching Birmingham. More than 2,000 artistes will be making their way on from 300 events in 29 venues – ready for a rest and 130,000 folk will be waxing lyrical literally with stories of the concerts that made their Celtic Connections 2020.

Last word to Taynuilt’s very own Donald Shaw who has plans under way already for 2021.

‘The end of the festival is always a bittersweet moment,’ said the long-time creative producer. ‘Though it’s sad when the music stops, it’s also great to look back on such a successful event as this one, which has brought together so many talented performers and presented so many dynamic and creative collaborations. Feedback from our audiences and musicians has been fantastic.

‘Programming an event on this scale is a huge logistical operation and after all the months of planning and organisation by such a dedicated team, it’s been wonderful to experience the festival in full swing. Bring on 2021!’