Ancient stone monuments, white sand beaches, crashing seas, wildflowers — and contemporary Scottish life and work. This is life in the Outer Hebrides. Musician Julie Fowlis grew up in these western isles, forty miles off the coast of Scotland. “We knew all the top chart hits on the radio,” she says, “but we also learned all the old songs. They are part of day to day life too.”
That connection which keeps tradition part of every day life in the twenty first century is lived out every day in the Hebrides. It is especially celebrated during the Hebridean Celtic Festival each year.
When the music festival convenes this year from 14 through 17 July, Runrig will be among the headliners. The band got their start on the neighboring island of Skye, and are a top act known across Europe and North America for their mix of Celtic trad with rock energy. Afro Celt Sound System will be there too, with a warp speed blend of Irish music with techno sound. There’s a good helping of Gaelic tradition on the schedule, as well. Iain Morrison, who was born in the isles, draws inspiration for his original song melodies from piping tunes. Fowlis, who has won top awards for her singing and taken Gaelic song around the world, will be there. too. There will be a concert featuring piping traditions of the Isle of Lewis, and a concert of locally based musicians. In past years, musicians from Quebec, Ontario, Australia, Ireland, and the United States have featured among the performers, as well as artists from all across Scotland. “The programming is a mix of popular Celtic musicians and those less well known on our shores, along with a sprinkling of the unusual. We are also very proud to support local musicians at all levels,” festival director Caroline MacLennan says.
The festival is marking its fifteenth anniversary this year. Through those years it has become an internationally respected event in the world music calendar. It is also a time for those with ties to the Hebrides to come home. Because of their political and economic history, these small islands have a huge and far flung diaspora, with especially close ties to Cape Breton in Canada. Hebridean people settled as well in Australia, New Zealand, Ontario, Quebec, and western Canada, as well as other parts of the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the United States. Another connector is that he western isles are one of the few places where Scottish Gaelic is still common in daily use, and Scottish Gaelic in song and speech is very much present at the festival.
New visitors or home comers, those who attend HebCeltFest, as it’s known for short, will have chances to to experience high energy concerts under the Big Blue Tent on Lews Castle grounds, quieter shows at An Lanntair Arts Center, a relaxing vibe at the after hours festival club, and other events from Gaelic language taster courses to family concerts to street dances to games of shinty that are part of the festival time. These events take place in Stornoway on Lewis, the main town of the isles, and this year there are concerts on Harris and in the northern part of Lewis as well. Sail Hebrides and the Lewis Highland Games are taking place around the same time “so if you fancy a trip in a boat or tossing the caber then check them out!” MacLennan says, pointing out too that there is much natural beauty of the isles to be explored through your own rambles as well.
Musicians, festival organizers, volunteers, vendors, concert goers, children, adults, teenagers, elders, English speakers, Gaelic speakers, families, island natives, travelers from afar — they all are part of HebCeltFest. It is very much a community event, and at the heart of this welcoming community is music. Musician and producer Mary Ann Kennedy, who has appeared at the festival several times, reflected on her most recent appearance. “I think that was the best show I have ever had the pleasure of being involved in. It was music being made for all the right reasons,” she says. Festival director Caroline MacLennan adds “There is something very warm and appealing when you manage to connect with local people, and share and enjoy time together.”
Radio nan Gaidheal will broadcast live with festival highlights from Stornoway at 2 pm UK time each day of the festival, 14 through 17 July.