Blas Festival to celebrate Scotland’s coasts and waters

Brand new music and song will showcase Highland talent

21st October 2020, This year’s Blas Festival, which will take place online for the first time, will celebrate Scotland’s musical talent with a host of new song and music commissions – demonstrating the wealth of composers and musicians across the country, whilst showcasing people, life and stories from Scotland’s extensive coasts and waters.

The Blas Festival, which began with small-scale events at three venues in Strontian, Clashmore and Strathpeffer in 2004, celebrates Highland music, Gaelic language and culture.  The festival, organised by Gaelic arts organisation Fèisean nan Gàidheal, in partnership with The Highland Council, has commissioned many new works over the years. This year, several commissions have been awarded to Scottish musicians in a bid to bring newly composed and arranged Gaelic music and song to the forefront, as well as providing much needed financial support to musicians at this time.

Due to the impact of the global Covid-19 pandemic, this year’s festival will largely be held online with a series of pre-recorded and live performances, workshops, lectures and other musical events. An important aspect of Blas Festival has always been the involvement of young musicians and this year will be no different. A new musical work for young musicians from across Scotland has been commissioned and awarded to multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer and producer, Mike Vass.  In celebration of Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters, Mike, who is the current traditional artist in residence at the University of Edinburgh, based at the School of Scottish Studies, will lead an ensemble of young musicians on an imagined voyage from Skye to Mull, Iona and Islay, with each island represented by a piece of music or song transcribed from the School of Scottish Studies Archives in a piece of music called Air falbh ann am bàta/Off in a boat.

About 30-40 young musicians, who will come from local Fèisean across Scotland, will be involved and will be encouraged to listen to the original recordings in Tobar an Dualchais/Kist O’Riches, to inspire their own performance whilst providing them with an insight into the wealth of traditional material in the archives.  This commission, which is worth £3k, will be pre-recorded remotely and the performance will open this year’s Blas Festival on Friday 20 November. 

Brand new Gaelic song will also be a focus at this year’s festival. Fèisean nan Gàidheal has awarded Gaelic singer and songwriter, Rachel Walker, the Fuaran Coasts and Waters commission to write a Gaelic song in celebration of 2020’s Scottish Government themed year. Rachel, who has released three solo albums and often appears as a guest artist with well-known band Skipinnish, will perform her song, which will explore the importance and beauty of the coasts and waters from the north to the south of Scotland, as part of a St Andrew’s Night concert on 30th November, the festival’s finale. 

Rachel’s song-writing has earned her critical acclaim in the past, with her single, The Arms of the Ocean, featuring Skerryvore’s lead singer Alec Dalglish, reaching number 1 in the World Music download chart in 2018. Her Coasts and Waters song will be added to the Fuaran Year of Coasts and Waters website, a year-long project by Fèisean nan Gàidheal, and supported by the Scottish Government. The online archive now features 39 Gaelic songs, with more being added on a weekly basis, complete with new recordings of each song, links to archive recordings, the words, historical and background information on the area from where the songs originate, providing a fascinating resource and an opportunity to learn some of those songs while the majority of people are at home. 

Rachel Walker commented: “I’m absolutely delighted to have been awarded this commission to write a Gaelic song celebrating the year of Scotland’s Coasts and Waters for the Blas Festival 2020. My idea for the song was to take a journey through Scotland, exploring the seas, shores, rivers and waterways, the myths and legends hidden beneath the waves and the links to people and their livelihoods. The challenge has been to fit that all into a song without having 100 verses, but I’m really pleased with how it’s progressing and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to let people hear it as part of the festival.  

“I’d like to say a huge thank you to Fèisean nan Gàidheal for the opportunity to be creative in such challenging times for the music industry. Having festivals like Blas and the Royal National Mòd continuing to run, even if it is virtually, is such a boost for musicians and listeners alike.”

Due to the high standard of entries to the original commission call, three other songwriters have also been awarded a £500 commission, resulting in three additional Coasts and Waters themed Gaelic songs. Songwriters Mary Ann Kennedy, James Hind and Niall O’Gallagher will have their songs performed alongside Rachel’s at the festival next month.

Arthur Cormack of Fèisean nan Gàidheal added: “The Blas Festival has commissioned many Highland artists over the past 15 years to produce new work, some of which has had a life through performances at other festivals and events following its premiere at Blas.  We are very happy to work with several musicians in this challenging year by commissioning a range of pieces to be showcased at the festival and even more delighted to be able to bring Blas to an online audience ending on St Andrew’s Night.” 

This year’s Blas Festival, which takes place from 20th -30th November, will feature a series of specially-curated livestreamed concerts from venues across the Highlands. As always, significant birthdays of some of Scotland’s most treasured musicians will be celebrated, including that of Gaelic singer, Christine Primrose.  Information on tickets for the livestreams will be available at from the last week of October, with more information about events being announced in the coming weeks.

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