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Calum feels right at home for Blas!

The piping gods must be looking out for Calum MacCrimmon.

CALUM MacCRIMMON: Spent a week at his ancestral home.
CALUM MacCRIMMON: Spent a week at his ancestral home.

With one of the most famous surnames in Scottish piping's heritage, he had been thinking about writing music in a more traditional style than his work with popular folk band Braebach and his funk-based sideline, Man's Ruin.

MacCrimmon had just begun to come up with some ideas that needed a project to attach themselves to when the organisers of Blas!, the annual celebration of Highland culture, contacted him and offered him this year's festival commission.

Thus Boraraig, inspired by the former home of his illustrious ancestors on Skye, fell into place, although as with most commissions, there was a deal of work to be done before the first performance takes place in Beauly next week.

"I have been fortunate both in landing this commission and in my family background," says MacCrimmon, who was born in Canada but grew up in Monifieth, near Dundee.

"My grandfather was a keen genealogist and during the Second World War he met a man who had been working on the MacCrimmon family tree and was able to trace a line from my grandfather to Donald Ruadh MacCrimmon."

Donald Ruadh, or Red Donald, was the son of Malcolm MacCrimmon and grandson of Padraig Og MacCrimmon, who were both pipers to the chiefs of MacLeod of Dunvegan on Skye, and it was their uncle who inspired the famous MacCrimmon's Lament.

Despite this connection, Calum felt no obligation to take up the pipes as a youngster. "The music was just always around us," he says. "My dad plays and my grandfather, who died a couple of years ago, played too and it felt natural I should play the pipes. I have been doing a lot of reading up on it for this commission and it is fascinating."

To get a sense of Boraraig itself, MacCrimmon spent a week at the ancestral home, soaking up the atmosphere, and when he says he was lucky with the weather, he doesn't mean the sun blazed down every day - he experienced all four seasons, which helped him to imagine his surroundings all-year round.

"I decided fairly early on I was not going to write a whole lot of pibroch because I think pibroch's something that comes to you once or twice in your life if you are lucky and I hold that tradition in too high regard to use it in any kind of contrived way," he says. "But at the same time, I didn't want this to be a crossover project with funky rhythms. I wanted it to stay true to the tradition."

Much of the music began by improvising in canntaireachd, the singing pipers use to communicate melodies to one another. For the songs MacCrimmon worked closely with Gaelic singer Darren Maclean, who comes from Dunvegan.

"I would talk with Darren about what I wanted them to be about and he put lyrics to the tunes," he says. "The musicians I am working with were all natural choice. Angus Nicolson, on pipes, is from Skye and Eilidh Shaw on fiddle, although she is not from the island, she has, like Angus, the old style in her playing. It's a kind of magic that brings a tune to life in a certain way."

I'm really grateful to Blas! because although the ideas were percolating away in the background, it might have taken forever to bring them out in something like Boraraig, and I'm really looking forward to bringing it onto the stage.

Calum MacCrimmon plays Boraraig at Phipps Hall, Beauly, on September 10; Dunvegan Hall on 11; Glengarry Community Hall, Invergarry, on 12; Aviemore Primary, on 13; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, on 14.

Blas! runs from Septemer 6-14. www.blas-festival.com

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