The Hebridean Celtic Festival

The article below is from Ed Pearlman’s music columns in Scottish Life magazine. If you’re interested in future publication of a book containing nearly 100 columns such as this one, please click here and check off your interests, to be kept in the loop.


A long time ago on an island far, far away, a new Celtic music festival was born. It was the summer of 1996, on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

Festival director Caroline McLennan recalls chatting with workmate Fiona Morrison back in the spring of 1995 about the new Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow. Could such an event could happen in the Outer Hebrides? It did not take long for them to find six or seven others who shared their vision, and made a plan to try it out. They had hoped to use a site near the spectacular ancient standing stones at Callanish, but ended up situating the event on Castle Green in front of Lews Castle, in Stornoway.

The first Hebridean Celtic Festival took place in the summer of 1996, featuring great performers such as Davy Spillane, Dougie MacLean, Wolfstone, Natalie MacMaster, Iron Horse, and Shooglenifty. Fiddler Jennifer Wrigley, piper Rory Campbell, and Gaelic singer Christine Primrose, among others, were recruited to tour the local schools as an educational part of the festivities.

In recent years, HebCelt, as the festival is fondly called, has been named one of the UK’s top summer festivals (it’s the only Scottish one on some lists). Some 15,000 people are estimated to have attended in recent years, about half from the Outer Hebrides, 30% from the rest of Scotland, 10% from elsewhere in the UK, and another 10% from around the world. In many cases, people born in Lewis use the festival as an opportunity to come back for a visit, and sometimes, people meet there, fall in love, and stay on.

Continue reading The Hebridean Celtic Festival

Tunes, Songs, and Robert Burns

The article below is from Ed Pearlman’s music columns in Scottish Life magazine. If you’re interested in future publication of a book containing nearly 100 columns such as this one, please click here and check off your interests, to be kept in the loop.


For the 250th birthday of Scotland’s national songwriter, Robert Burns, Scotland sponsored a Year of Homecoming. His actual birthday, January 25, was the focal point for many exhibits, discussions and celebrations, including a world-wide Burns Supper which connected over 3,600 Burns Night suppers around the world. Throughout the year, there continue to be many Burns events, as well as longer term projects such as the construction of a new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.

Did I say “Scotland’s national songwriter”? Maybe I should have said “poet” or “bard”. After all, literature classes around the world, including in Scotland, teach Burns as a great poet, not a songwriter. Yet a majority of his work was conceived as lyrics for songs, not as poetry later to be set to music. The music was uppermost in Burns’s mind as he wrote many of his poems. “Until I am complete master of a tune, in my own singing,” said Burns, “I can never compose [words] for it.” As a result, his words seem to fit effortlessly with their melodies.

Music is the language of nature,” wrote Burns, “and poetry, particularly songs, are always more or less localised…this is the reason why so many of our Scots airs have outlived their original and perhaps many subsequent sets of verses.” Continue reading Tunes, Songs, and Robert Burns

Twa Fiddles of Gow and Burns

The article below is from Ed Pearlman’s music columns in Scottish Life magazine. If you’re interested in a published collection of nearly 100 columns such as this one, please sign up here for info!


If you walk through the old market cross of Dunkeld toward the Cathedral, you might notice a round, blue plaque on the last house on the right, which says: “The Old Rectory… Dunkeld’s oldest surviving house. Fiddler Niel Gow and poet Robbie Burns entertained here 1787.”

Last year, in January, some 232 years after Burns and Gow met in Dunkeld, their violins met and made music together, at the Gaiety Theatre in Ayr. Ayrshire fiddler Alistair McCulloch, dressed as Robert Burns, greeted Perthshire fiddler Pete Clark, who personified Niel Gow, in a concert called “The Twa Fiddles.” They went on to perform again in September at the Scottish Parliament building, sponsored by Deputy First Minister John Swinney, whose district includes the homes of Niel Gow and Pete Clark. The concert was attended by several members of Parliament and about 60 invited academics, musicians, members of the National Trust for Scotland, and friends.

The pairing of these historic violins was the brainchild of retired schoolteacher Paul Creighton of Ayr. “I knew Pete was one of the few fiddlers allowed to play Neil Gow’s fiddle,” said Paul, “and Alistair was one of the few to play Burns’s fiddle. It occurred to me that we might have an opportunity to do something quite special.” Bringing together the two historic violins is certainly something special, and Alistair, Pete, and Paul are hoping to raise funds to present more Twa Fiddles concerts, as well as produce a video and an educational package for schools, so that the unique connection of Niel Gow and Robert Burns can be more widely appreciated.

The original meeting between Burns and Gow took place in late summer, 1787. Perhaps Burns was seeking more melodies for his project, the Scots Musical Museum. The first volume of this six-volume series had just been published by James Johnson, including such songs as “Auld Lang Syne,” and would ultimately Continue reading Twa Fiddles of Gow and Burns

Music of the Western Highlands

The article below is from Ed Pearlman’s music columns in Scottish Life magazine. If you’re interested in a published collection of nearly 100 columns such as this one, please sign up here for info!


My perch atop the Glenfinnan Monument was surrounded by scenery, history, and music. In one direction I could see the soaring Glenfinnan Viaduct, with its 21 arches, and in the other direction, the waters of Loch Shiel cutting through wooded mountainsides. History stood right next to me in the shape of a giant statue of a kilted highlander. He is often presumed (falsely but plausibly) by viewers to be Bonnie Prince Charlie, for here is where Charlie landed, raised his standard, and gathered the clans to begin the uprising of 1745.

I couldn’t actually hear the music but knew it was taking place, less than 500 yards away, on the broad lawn of the Glenfinnan House Hotel. A long temporary tent had been set up by BBC Alba so they could film a ceilidh for a television special, featuring the Glenfinnan Ceilidh Band. No doubt they were playing Highland waltzes, schottisches, two-steps, barn dances, jigs, and reels, on fiddle, accordion, piano, and banjo, as can be heard on their 2010 CD, Glenfinnan Gathering.

One member of the band is fiddler Iain MacFarlane, who Continue reading Music of the Western Highlands

Gaelic singing in the Highlands and Islands

The article below is from Ed Pearlman’s music columns in Scottish Life magazine.  If you’re interested in a published collection of nearly 100 columns such as this one, please sign up here for info!


My first experience of Gaelic singing in Scotland was magical and unexpected. 

It was nearly 11:00pm. The sun was setting over the striking landscape and glistening waters at the Kyle of Lochalsh. Brimming with a day of gorgeous Highland glens and castles, my wife and I impulsively decided to drive onto the ferry to Skye, and take our chances finding a place to stay. 

Across the sea to Skye we rode, and stopped at the first payphone with our list of B&Bs. Alas–not a coin in our pockets!

Nearby was an inn. I walked in to ask for change–and immediately was drawn down the hallway by music like a siren’s call. A Gaelic singer and a local fiddler were giving a slide show of the Western Isles. The singer was Catherine-Anne MacPhee of Barra, one of Scotland’s finest Gaelic singers.

A year later, Catherine-Anne made the first of her three beautiful recordings of Gaelic singing, backed by some of Scotland’s finest musicians from the great bands Ossian, Capercaillie, and Easy Club. In her latest album she sings the title role on the soundtrack of Mairi Mhor, a TV production about a Gaelic woman ousted from her native Skye in the 19th century. Mairi Mhor began writing her own songs at age 50, and her first song begins,

I am weary of the speakers of English
I long for some warmth and music

The warmth and music of Gaelic singing is accessible to us all. It took hold of me that lucky night on Skye. Never mind that I don’t speak a word of Gaelic. Gaelic singing is some of the most enjoyable listening you could hope for–sweet, lilting music punctuated by powerful rhythms and haunting melodies.

It is one of the wellsprings of Scottish music. Many songs of Robert Burns, and tunes played on fiddle, pipes and harp, derive from Gaelic songs. Even some tunes and gospel songs found in the U.S. can be traced through Scottish immigrants to old Gaelic melodies. It is said that Dvorak’s theme in the New World Symphony was inspired by the Gaelic song, McIntosh’s Lament, as heard in this country.

No matter how strong the beat, or how plaintive the song, I find there is an effortless flow in the music and words of the Gaelic song. The descriptive songs can be sparkling and light, the love songs or laments may be dark and haunting–sometimes with breathtaking twists in the melody. The songs for working the cloth (waulking songs) have a strong rhythm, while the “mouth music” (puirt-a-beul) pulses with a dance beat. Yet overall, listening to an album of Gaelic singing is a quieting experience.

One of my favorite albums of Gaelic songs is called Mairidh Gaol Is Ceol, by the “supergroup” Mac-Talla. This group includes three of the finest contemporary singers of the Western Isles: Arthur Cormack of Skye, and Christine Primrose and Eilidh MacKenzie, both of Lewis. Their soaring harmonies and heartfelt singing are captivating, with instrumental accompaniment on harp, cello and keyboards. Each of these singers also has at least one solo album, backed by musicians from the Battlefield Band.

While some seek to preserve traditions, others incorporate them into their own artistry. The result is often striking and creative. Runrig is a Gaelic band with a rock beat. Capercaillie, which appeared in Rob Roy, offers beautiful Gaelic singing mixed with English-language songs and instrumentals. The Rankin Family of Cape Breton offers Gaelic songs with rich harmonies, and solo singers such as Mairi MacInnes make Gaelic a major part of their popular repertoire.

But the older traditional recordings have an unmatched heart and soul despite the rough edges of untrained singers. The School of Scottish Studies offers a series of traditional albums available on Greentrax Records, including Music from the Western Isles, Waulking Songs from Barra, and Gaelic Psalms from Lewis.

Temple Records presents traditional but more polished singers such as Flora MacNeil of Barra, who helped revive Gaelic singing in Scotland after the war, and scholar, piper and singer Finlay MacNeill from Lewis.

Listen also to Maeve MacKinnon of Skye, or the Glasgow Gaelic Music Association’s choral music. There is no better way to appreciate Gaelic singing than to listen to it. Don’t miss out on one of Scotland’s musical treasures.

By the way, we did find a B&B on Skye after 11pm, but do you think it was easy to tear myself away from the singing of Cathy-Anne MacPhee, just to make a few phone calls?

©1996 Edward Scott Pearlman


Although this column was written in 1996, the recordings referenced are timeless.  Many more recordings have been made available since then as well!  Enjoy.