Celtic Connections

Songs of the Gael

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Keith Bruce

four stars

AS the evening wore on, and after BBC Alba had the scripted part of their programmes (transmitting on February 24 and March 3) in the can, things loosened up a little. But for the first hour this was Gaelic Scotland doing what the Irish have been doing for years: bringing slick presentation (linked by Kirsteen MacDonald) to traditional culture, in a way that gives it internationally saleable gloss but can’t help but sanitise it a little as well.

For the most part it also focussed on a particular tone and style of Gaelic song, whether ancient or from the pens of contemporary bards. We did hear a deal of unrequited love and the pain of loss of a person or a homeland. It goes with the territory, and when the anguish is expressed by singers of the quality of Julie Fowlis, Kathleen MacInnes or Robert Robertson it becomes that much easier to take.

MacDonald and the singers made the journey one of bi-lingual clarity throughout the long night, with compelling stories of Highland culture like that of South Uist grass-weaver Angus McPhee, as sung by the MacKenzie Sisters, stops along the way. Contemporary classics like Blair Douglas’s Fisherman’s Lullaby (MacInnes and Arthur Cormack) and Donald Shaw’s Delirium (Karen Matheson) sat naturally next to Julie Fowlis demonstrating Puirt-a-beul.

Occasionally the music gave a brief platform to the soloists of a fine trad quintet, but the vast bulk of the concert featured at least the strings of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Stephen Bell, with half a dozen arrangers credited and four of those producing charts specially created for the concert. The Afro-Celt Sound System’s Griogair Labhruidh was at the front of the stage for some of the most fully orchestrated, with Duncan McPherson’s remembrance of the landscape of Morvern bringing the brass and percussion memorably into the fray.