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Retreat and advance

It is on a wild and windy night that I turn up at singer and fiddler Mairi Campbell's door in Portobello, Edinburgh.

MAIRI CAMPBELL: Chosen as Tutor of the Year in the 2012 Scots Trad Music Awards. Picture: Steve Cox
MAIRI CAMPBELL: Chosen as Tutor of the Year in the 2012 Scots Trad Music Awards. Picture: Steve Cox

She welcomes me into a room lit by warm colours and a glowing fire, we draw our chairs close to the stove and the gale howls outside. I wonder if the weather is even wilder tonight over on the west coast, where Campbell has family, on the isle of Lismore.

She says that the idea to start a music retreat in the family croft on the island came to her, some years ago, almost overnight. Since then, the horizon of the fiddle retreats has expanded, and different weekend programmes now include singing, dancing, photography, poetry and craft, as well as plenty of fiddle music. And all of it under one charming red cottage roof.

Chosen as Tutor of the Year in the 2012 Scots Trad Music Awards, Campbell is described by one Lismore weekend participant, Gordon Stevenson, as "a fantastic teacher, but almost more of a guide". Campbell says she is open to "just whoever turns up at the door – I want to bring more of their talents out. That's what I'm drawn to."

On a practical level this means that any level of ability and experience is welcomed. With a maximum of eight people on each weekend retreat, there's time for proper personal attention. Each participant brings one tune with them, so that they all go home with eight. And although there is about ten hours of teaching in total over the weekend, what those hours might involve is very flexible. Campbell describes the ethos of the retreats as "Where technique meets tradition. We use the tunes to get into different issues – if someone wants their bow arm unlocked, to be more physically relaxed, or wants to find ways to improvise, to harmonise – we can look at all those things."

There's a relaxed and communal feel to the whole weekend. Everyone sleeps under the same roof, and all lend a hand in the kitchen. There have been, reflects Campbell, "surprisingly few surprises over the years. The well [the only water source] has run dry a couple of times," she chuckles, "but I have never known there to be any angst. Everybody has made a commitment to their playing and to their music in being there, and making that journey across the water, so they come willing to share time in music."

Each night, there is a ceilidh at the fireside. Family members and friends from the island come over to join in the evening sessions. This "joining up with others" is an important part of the experience for Campbell, because her belief is that traditional music is "so much more than just a tune. Tunes have a backstory – there's a body behind the tune, a body of people. It's taken me a long time to understand that I want to bring people back to the music – it's a kind of healing. So when people come to Lismore, we create a community."

Stevenson, a former Commando officer and executive jet pilot from Oban, found himself on one of Mairi's fiddle weekends in October 2012, after hearing her sing at Glenkinchie Distillery. At that performance, he describes feeling powerfully "drawn to her – her 'sounding', as she calls some of her own singing, is absolutely primal". So he packed his fiddle and made the trip to Lismore. "It wasn't what I was expecting at all. It was as though I had been magicked away, removed from normal experience. You don't realise until you get there." Stevenson goes on to describes how at one point on the weekend, creating a winter soundscape with the group, "I was completely absorbed in the moment – I was absolutely there. I haven't felt like that since I was a kid."

Campbell's own musical path has lead her from Edinburgh, through formal classical training at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama, via Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, back to traditional Scottish music and the isle of Lismore. She describes meeting the man who is now her husband and duo partner, Dave Francis, many years previously, as an 18-year-old on Lismore. Back then he taught her a tune – the first tune she ever learnt by ear. Knowing at the time that it was significant, she took some years to realise why.

For Campbell, the hankering she felt for traditional music and the need to "come home" with her music, has always been very strong. She describes the fact that in her earlier years as a freelance classical player, she felt she couldn't fully relate to the classical music that she was playing as "almost painful. Because music and sound go so deep." She admits to "a lifelong obsession with rhythm – the underbelly of life", and seeks, above all, honesty in her music, where there is "nothing to hide behind."

Twenty years ago, while still in London, Campbell was seized by a feeling that traditional music was about to undergo a revival in Scotland. "I just had this sense that things were about to hot up there. I knew that I needed to get back to Scotland, because I felt I had a role to play in it." And she wasn't wrong.

More information available at www.lismoremusicretreats.com

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