Archives for category: Celtic Connections


STORM, a 10 meter high sea goddess arose from the River Clyde last Saturday morning 18 January 2020 in the calmer wake of her big brother Brendan who had battered these shore a few days previously.  Made entirely of recycled and natural materials, STORM is said to be the largest puppet in the UK. With her movements guided  by a hard-working, rope-hauling crew of fisherfolk in sou’westers and kilts, STORM stood up, raised her head and looked around at the hundreds of mortal folk below her.

This woman giant, the culmination of two years’ work by creators Vision Mechanics, immediately captured the hearts of all gathered by the Clyde to welcome her.


Slowly moving her giant feet and legs, her strolling rhythm soon settled; stately, her head turning this way and that, eyes blinking, she gazed around her, up and down, then, chin raised she proudly processed through the city. In busy Argyll Street, shoppers stopped aghast and children froze mid-bite at their Big Macs.  Even some folk with ears blocked by headphones, sensed something and looked up.

While countless mobile phones recorded her every step, in time they were put away as people just gazed in wonder as STORM paraded trailing her own boom-box soundtrack specially composed by Mairi Campbell and Dave Grey.

There were some moving moments when Storm dropped on one knee to honour the singing of the young women of the Dileab Choir from the Western Isles and for the Campbeltown Pipe Group.


The expertise of the puppeteers made us forget the humans in control as we were held in thrall by that same timeless magic of rhymers, guisers and Galoshan who have been entrancing and frightening folk by turns since technologically simpler times.   Their skill, and the symbolism of an other-worldly giant in our midst proved that we can all still believe in a bit of magic. STORM’s character began to shine through even as we saw her being worked from the back.  STORM led her entourage uptown to the steps of Glasgow Royal Concert Hall just in time to herald the opening of the first weekend of Celtic Connections.  Saturday 18 January saw a whole day devoted to our shores:  Coast and Waters 2020 – a mini festival within a festival celebrated Scotland’s links with the sea and the unique musical and cultural heritage it has gifted us.

STORM reminded us of how much we owe the sea, that it gives and takes away, how much our lives depend on it and our responsibility to protect it.  How timely then that last Saturday, we witnessed STORM finally come home tae the Clyde – Glasgow’s once mighty waterway to the world.


Storm’s debut appearance kicked off the first week of Celtic Connections which runs throughout venues in Glasgow until February 2.  The city’s halls and clubs are playing host to events featuring around 2,000 musicians who have travelled from around the world to perform.

Danny MacAskill

Martyn Bennett’s second studio album Bothy Culture was given the full orchestral treatment on Saturday 27 January in Glasgow’s Hydro arena – mid-point highlight of this year’s sell-out Celtic Connections 25th  Anniversary Festival.  Building on the success of Greg Lawson’s arrangement of his friend Bennett’s album GritNae Regrets – premiered at Celtic Connections in 2015, this debut of ‘Bothy Culture and Beyond’ had a hard and complex act to follow.  The expectant capacity crowd – from babes in arms to mature silver backs – stacked in Glasgow’s vertiginous coliseum, mosh pit an all,  settled down for a spectacle which rocketed Bennett’s already innovative interpretations of Scots and Gaelic traditions in an altogether new direction.

Pumped up by the stomping beats and trippy lightshows of Skye’s Niteworks, their guitar riffs, steroid piping and paradiddles tanked through a traditional repertoire which successfully enfolded Julie Fowlis and The Shee. By the end of their set the event’s transition from ceilidh to house was complete. The 80+ strong Grit Orchestra et al took it from there with the velocity needed to continue the wholesale reboot of the audience’s Celtic Connectors which the evening was shaping up to be.

The son of Margaret Bennett the celebrated Scottish folklorist and singer, Martyn, who died of lymphoma aged 33 years in 2005, said of his work in 2003,

I’m not trying to change the face of Scottish music. It’ll change on its own in ways that I won’t ever know how in the future.

Bennett’s modest yet prophetic words may have been ringing in Musical Director Greg Lawson’s ear as he set about arranging his friend’s second studio album for GRIT Orchestra, trapeze, aerialist, spoken word, landscape, boat and trail bike.  The rationale behind this strange mega mash-up became clearer as the night went on but as sheer circus it seemed to work from the off.  The crowd were delighted by biking acrobat Danny MacAskill’s staged recreation of his Youtube smashhit ride on Skye in ‘The Ridge’ –  the cardboard rocks, lightshow loch, Cuillin backdrop, mountain trails and all managed somehow to stay this side of naff. Despite the scale and strangeness, the sweet, strong tones of Fiona Hunter singing ‘Blackbird’ accompanied by a harmonious men’s choir created a haunting delicacy around MacAskill’s wheelies and bunnyhops. Sweeping strings and a glorious heart-vibrating brass section were the necessary multipliers to the greatly expanded traditional line-up of whistle, pipe and drums sections which carried Bennett’s music across the cavernous auditorium and up to the furthest seats perched high up in the gods.

Aerial ballet

With Aisling ni Cheallaigh’s extraordinary aerial ballet and interwoven spoken word performances from David Hayman and Innes Watson (vocals + diddling), Lawson carefully wrapped Bennett’s ethics of connection around his Scottish, gamelan-tinged, Arabic and Indian infusions.  Could this curious Scottish orchestral admixture be the long-lost love bairn of the influential 9-piece Cauld Blast Orchestra  whose innovative and eclectic mix of Scottish folk, jazz and classical traditions blew through a startled Scottish music scene in the 1990s?    While the vast scale and physical remove of Bothy Culture and Beyond from its cultural roots and its audience may irk the critics and defy the copycats, a Scottish techno-circus for the 21st century may have been born.

Celtic Connections ends on 4 February 2018.


Celtic Connections columnist Anni Donaldson reviews one show looking at the life and music of Margaret Barry

This article first appeared in Common Space

THE gulf separating the lived experience of singers Margaret Barry and Karine Polwart could hardly be wider. 

Margaret, born into a family of street musicians in Cork in 1917, and Karine, a 40-something from Edinburgh, show the distance women have travelled in the world of traditional music and song.

‘She Moved Through the Fair’ by Colin Irwin and Mary McPartlan, which played at the Tron Theatre as part of Celtic Connections, gave us a funny, poignant and honestly tuneful evocation of Barry’s colourful life.

Karine Polwart

Finding herself homeless at 16, she took her chances on the road with just her bicycle and her ‘banji’, as she called it. Living rough at times and singing for bed and board, she traipsed around Ireland’s cities and country fairs singing on street corners, in pubs or wherever she could earn her keep.

Although she learned the hard way how to command an audience and compete with the clatter of street and stall, her powerfully sweet and melodic tones gave voice to Ireland’s eternal longing for itself in ballads of migration, of loves lost and found, of failed rebellion and roving in the years after the failed Easter Rising.

The self-styled ‘Queen of the Gypsies’ was strong in the face of the Irish Catholic Church’s view of independently-minded single mothers like herself, of a male-dominated culture and general prejudice against travellers – she held her own and had the last laugh.

Read more – Anni Donaldson: James Kelman on the Dirt Road to Lafayette

Bumping into tradition-hunters Robin Roberts and Alan Lomax in 1951, Barry’s gifts were recognised and she went on to become the centre of the growing Irish community in London, taking up residence at sessions in the famous Bedford Arms with her new musical partner, fiddler Michael Gorman.

Caring little at all for her appearance, lack of front teeth and more for stout, Margaret went on to a colourful career touring the US. Mary McPartlan (main picture) lovingly rendered Margaret’s signature songs like the Galway Shawl, The Factory Girl, My Laggan Love, the Wild Colonial Boy and others including the exquisite title song.

Larne-born actor Ruby Campbell’s fine portrayal of Margaret through her life gave a real sense of this huge character and the size of the toss she never gave for convention or sobriety.

Polwart’s play, Wind Resistance, by contrast, expressed more 20th century concerns for land, nature, community, birth and motherhood. Centred on her beloved Falla Moss, Polwart’s multi-dimensional performance combined songs and stories old and new, chat, audio interviews and wondrous back projections of geese in flight.

Read more – Anni Donaldson: Is it time Scotland paid a new piper?

Polwart drew the connections and cooperation between bird, land, people, history and agriculture, weaving her tale around the love story of Roberta and Will who settled in Falla Moor in 1919. This deeply moving musical essay shared one highly creative woman’s art through reminiscence, via football, medieval medicine, peat bogs, moss and birth.

That Polwart had the funding and freedom to do what Barry could only do by force of will shows how far we have come in recognising the art women can make given half a chance.

We must thank Celtic Connections for reminding us of those uproarious foremothers like Margaret Barry who carved those first paths through the peat bog of centuries of tradition and silt and ended up on the boards of the Tron Theatre.

Pictures courtesy of Celtic Connections

Our Celtic Connections columnist Anni Donaldson goes on a musical journey with Dirt Road author James Kelman


JAMES KELMAN in conversation with Alan Bisset at a packed ‘meet the author’ session at this year’s Celtic Connections festival was full of surprises. 

The ‘connection’ celtic-wise between Kelman’s latest novel, Dirt Road, and Glasgow’s annual music festival is stronger than you might expect from Scotland’s renowned Booker prize winner, known mainly for his dark and gritty urban tales.

Kelman’s latest novel, which began life as a screenplay for the forthcoming film Dirt Road to Lafayette, is long in miles yet existential in spirit. This sojourn from Bute (maybe) to Louisiana via Alabama is a coming-of-age odyssey steeped in grief, west of Scotland male-style.

Read more from Celtic Connections – Anni Donaldson: Is it time Scotland paid a new piper?

It is a masterful portrayal of the inner life of Murdo, a bereaved, helplessly inarticulate 16-year-old accordion wizard, and Tom, his excruciatingly silent and grieving father. The moment when Murdo finally stops flayling around in his scant emotional vocabulary and gets to the point of his life and the book is simply a joy. That point is music.

The life-changing connection between oor Murdo and the Lafayette’s Zydeco culture he encounters on his travels is the core of the book’s journey. The discussion at the event revealed Kelman’s hitherto quiet passion and breadth of knowledge about American traditional music cultures which began when he emigrated to the States as a teenager with his family in the 1960s.

The musical mash-up between Kelman’s youthful musical discoveries and his political views emerged. For Kelman, the music of Appalachian, Zydeco, Cajun, Blue Grass, Hispanic, Scots and Irish cultures were all essentially “black and white working class people’s music which went around the world and moved people”.

They shared a common root in the experience of “poor people with agricultural roots making joy in their lives”. For Kelman, this music links Scots, Irish, African-Americans, Hispanic, Creole, French Canadians, Louisiana settlers and many more besides.

The maritime journeys and the fiddles, whistles, drums, accordions and harmonicas in their baggage created the opportunity for a shared migrant language which set the scene for jazz, blues and modern popular music.

Preston Frank and daughter Jennifer

Before the Beatles, the Everly Brothers had snuck their own rural family and community tradition of music and song into the emergent pop music of the 1950s. Blues hunters like Alan Lomax fed an appetite among the youth of Scotland and the UK for the truth of the African–American experience rendered in music and song and encouraged them to give voice to their own lives.

The forces of commercialism in popular culture in the 1960s tried their best to distance the new generation from its own cultural roots on both sides of the Atlantic while the previous generation hung on despairing that no one would listen.

Fortunately they did not succeed, family and community ties remain strong and Kelman’s pleasure was plain to see as he introduced his ‘Dirt Road Band’. The line up included Zydeco button box wizard Preston Frank and his daughter Jennifer on bass (pictured), Dirk Powell on fiddle and guitar and his daughter Amelia on guitar, and accordion player and singer Neil Sutcliffe (aka Murdo in the film).

Illustrating Kelman’s point perfectly, the set of Zydeco rhythms including Scottish and American versions of the famous MacPherson’s Rant had the audience not quite knowing whether they were in Townhead or Texas.

James Kelman, Dirt Road, Canongate 2016

Celtic Connections finishes on 5 February 2017.

Pictures courtesy of Anni Donaldson


Our Celtic Connections columnist, Anni Donaldson, explores the politics of gender in Scottish traditional music

WITH the chants of a women’s anti-Trump demonstration booming outside Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, it was an auspicious moment to start a new conversation about gender and Scottish traditional music. 

Judging by the audience’s response to the lively discussion during the ‘Exploring Gender and Music’ event on the second afternoon of Celtic Connections 2017, this apparently last minute addition to the festival programme billed this year as “a celebration of inspiring women artists” is long overdue.

The craic, as they say in ceilidh circles, was mighty. An impressive panel of female doyennes of the traditional music scene got down to it. Kicking off the discussion, Rachel Newton (main picture), harpist and vocalist in The Shee who organised the event, talked about the moment she became aware that almost all of the bands nominated for the 2016 Scots Trad music awards were male and there were only three women out of 39 band members in the whole category.

Newton hesitated before going public on Facebook but felt “overwhelmed by the amount of all-male and more importantly very masculine bands that are dominating the Scottish traditional music scene”.

Newton hesitated before going public on Facebook but felt “overwhelmed by the amount of all-male and more importantly very masculine bands that are dominating the Scottish traditional music scene”.

Newton found there was a growing band of women Trad musicians and artists who felt the same. They were staring into the cavernous depths of a newly discovered Scottish gender gap. The artistic gap may now be added to all the other fissures in Scottish society which add up to gender inequality (pay, care, income, representation, power, freedom).

The musicians, journalists, agents and publicists on the panel and in the audience were full of examples: of festival and gig programmers not booking enough women artists, of women being paid less than men.

Agent Lisa Wyttock talked about festival organisers rarely booking more than one so-called ‘girl band’ and how women simply do not headline Trad Scottish festivals. Journalist Sue Wilson had also observed a level of discrimination against women artists by festival programmers which just does not exist for all-male bands: “Turn it around the other way and that type of discrimination just does not apply.”

Expectations also differ. Whereas string-driven, or air blown, seriously fast and furious sets are what is expected from guys, women are more often favoured for their vocals over their instrumental skills.

Expectations also differ. Whereas string-driven, or air blown, seriously fast and furious sets are what is expected from guys, women are more often favoured for their vocals over their instrumental skills.

Guitarist and singer Jenn Butterworth was less than flattered by being told that her all-woman band had “balls” and “played like men”. According to Jenny Hill, double bass player, publicists and record labels often expect women to dress prettily and be ultra-feminine.

Hill and Butterworth were involved in a unique collaboration of women trad musicians from across the UK. The exquisite and critically acclaimed Songs of Separation (pictured) successfully premiered at last year’s Celtic Connections and was unusual not least for the fact that the sight of 10 extraordinarily gifted women composers, musicians and singers solely occupying a Scottish stage was in itself highly unusual.

20160124_204401 (1)

Funding is also an issue. Hill was unequivocal: “There’s a need for some positive discrimination for women to equalise the grants available.” Butterworth and Sandra Kerr, both also teachers agreed that while young women outnumber young men on folk music degree courses, this is not reflected in the numbers going on to sustain professional musical careers.

Michaela Atkins, press officer at Celtic Connections, described an industry which favours “those who shout the loudest”, and there was a consensus among the women and men in the audience that overall, women’s voices, ironically, were not being heard in the folk scene, that this conversation was long overdue and in need of oxygen and, above all, data.

To the sounds of the throng of protest still ringing from outside, the discussion ended with email addresses being shared, calls for more discussion, research and mutual support and in a firm resolve that women artists needed a fairer shout.

Guitarist and singer Jen Butterworth was less than flattered by being told that her all-woman band had “balls” and “played like men”.

Traditional music is, by its nature, well, traditional. Scots and Gaelic culture reflect the totems of Scottish identity which have always been essentially male with some outdated attitudes to women.

Our national story is a graphic boy’s own comic with its heroes and villains, emigrants, martyrs and the odd fruitcake queen or dead lover. It tells of blokes bonding in battles fought in factory, field or far away, of disasters and drams, triumphs over adversity, poverty, the English, other Scottish guys, the ruling classes, etc. Even with the soundtrack down low it is easy to detect whose voices are the loudest.

The folk singers and working class troubadors of the 1960s and 1970s Scottish folk revival did a fine thing – truly. However, that Sandy Bells culture of late night, drunken music sessions was full of hairy fellows with no visible means of support, who got the breaks and went on to successful professional careers as performers and national treasures – wizards of box and bow. There are not so many women among their number.

There’s an old joke that neatly sums up the gender politics of those times – Q: What do you call a folk musician without a girl friend? A: Homeless.

Q: What do you call a folk musician without a girl friend? A: Homeless.

Is it time for Scotland’s women musicians to wrench the trad scene away from its 1970s attitudes? Let’s call time on that old story: 21st century Scotland needs to pay a new piper, call a different tune.

Celtic Connections continues until 5 February 2017.

Picture courtesy of Celtic Connections


This review first appeared in The Lennox Herald 29 January 2016

Linsey Aitken and Ken Campbell pull off a musical world tour at their first Celtic Connections gig.

Like the wild geese taking off above Linsey Aitken and Ken Campbell’s home in Gartocharn on Loch Lomondside, a full house at the Glasgow Art Club on Friday 22 January caught the thermals of their fine opener Northern Winds and were transported on a musical round-the-world-tour. In the art nouveau splendour of the Art Club’s recently refurbished Gallery with its Charles Rennie Mackintosh frieze, panelled walls and breathtaking fireplaces, the accomplished couple created a comfortable and easy feel for this, their first Celtic Connections gig.


Linsey knows her way around a cello and the rich resonant tones of her arrangements brought the violin’s often shy big sister centre stage to lead and cavort with open bowing, slap base licks and melancholy harmonics. With Ken’s twelve string guitar, Northumbrian pipes and Spanish laud accompaniments and their friendly incidental chat, the pair’s many self-penned songs offered a glimpse of what they do on their holidays.

Whether taking inspiration from local archives for the rousing whaling song Dundee Bound and Ellis Island for Land of Hope, re-imagining a Pushkin poem and a Russian folk tune in Silent and Shy or recreating a day in the life of a Tuscan café owner in the ‘world premiere’ of the distinctly Czardas-esque instrumental Giovanni, Linsey and Ken offer a syncretic repertoire which never strayed far from its Scottish musical roots. This was never more effective than Linsey’s exquisite Achachrome, an instrumental inspired by the croft in Kilmartin Glen from whence Ken’s family were cleared in the 19th century. The duet melted Linsey’s cello at its harmonic and melancholic best with Ken’s Northumbrian pipes which took up the melody to create an ‘droney’ (Linsey’s words) and atmospheric combination evoking the wrench from kith and kin.

With some covers thrown in for excellent measure: their tribute to the late Michael Marra, Take me out drinking tonight, Mick West’s favourite The hills are clad in purple and a sparklingly original arrangement of Wild Rover the crowd were well pleased.  Clearly well-loved and active in Gartocharn with a large local and family contingent there present, Linsey and Ken pulled off the right amount of community singing with their clever chorus handout sheets and managed easily to stay this side of sentimental with their finale Red is the Rose, the beautiful and not often heard Irish version of Loch Lomond.   With that they were back on home turf at the south end of Loch Lomond and all seemed to agree that their Celtic Connections debut was a winner.

%d bloggers like this: