Silence falls after a decade of musical bliss for the fiddlers of Taransay
By Fred Silver
Taransay had ten years to win their hearts – but for the hundreds of fiddlers who have attended the annual Fiddle Week in July, it took barely a fraction of that time. Taransay’s curving beaches, sauntering hills, abundant history and fabulous location off the stunning coast of West Harris captivated them – and then the quality of the music totally seduced them.
Taransay’s very name is musical and hearing music in the open air gives the sounds a fantastic timbre – the sounds of fiddles and pipes drifting across the coastal grass and dunes, and over the tropically fringed azure sound that divides the island from Harris bring the music of the isles back to origins in village and community life.
But Fiddle Week this summer had all this glory tinged with sadness – as, after what everybody present agreed had been ten wonderful years, this was the last one. Thursday July 21st was the last full day of the event and every moment was poignant as all those attending – four of whom had attended every one of the weeks – savoured what they knew was the last of its kind.
Organising committee chairman Dolan Morrison said that this year’s camp was the largest to date with a total of 90 on the island for the camp. Many of this year’s students were younger players which was very encouraging for the future of traditional fiddling in Lewis and Harris.
Many extra activities took place including a history walk, golf tournaments on the five-hole course on the slopes behind the camp village, fishing trips, and the annual football match between the Hebrides v Rest of the World. Participants this year came from Galicia, Spain; Auckland and Christchurch, New Zealand; and Melbourne, Australia as well all regions of the UK.
The tune writing competition this year was won again by Robbie Leask of Shetland. Fiddle guru Charlie Webster from Abriachan attended the camp and his fiddle surgery proved very successful with fiddles being tweaked and bows being repaired. Wolfstone fiddler Duncan Chisholm attended also and he proved he is a handy golfer as well as a fiddler.
Although the Fiddlers Week has had grant aid over the years from sources like Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, it is basically a voluntary event and, perhaps unexpectedly for an event internationally identified with Harris, originated in Stornoway. Dolan Morrison was acclaimed as the founder by the fiddlers packed into the marquee for the final camp concert on the Thursday night – although he modestly ascribes it all to a “Gang of Four” – himself, David “Woody” Wood, Kenny “Spoonyan” Maclean and Willie “Caledonian” Macrae. Added to the original team over the years were Murdo Johnson and William Mackenzie who started out as parents of participants.
However, it was widely expressed in a succession of eloquent tributes that the key to the years of success was the kitchen team of sisters Catherine Murray and Isabel Macritchie, assisted by the jovial figure of Al Crae. With only a four-ring domestic cooker available on the island, the dynamic duo have spent weeks each year preparing food in advance and freezing it so that camp could enjoy the best possible diet to maintain their musical skills.
As anyone who has tried this sort of thing knows, there is a vast distinction between camping with electricity and camping without it. Electricity on Taransay has been provided using a wind-turbine and solar panels in the past but this time was entirely dependent on the soothing and reassuring hum of a diesel generator. Electricity means hot showers and power for lights and amplifiers – and as any man who has taken a woman camping knows, it’s the showers that really matter!
If music be the food of love, play on, wrote the Bard – but also required are good food, hot water, and regularly cleaned toilets – I actually heard a man publicly offering to thank whoever had recently cleaned the toilets for their excellent work which shows the high degree of civilisation attained around the camp. The camp itself was based around the house, cottage and steading restored by the BBC for the 2000 series Castaway – and these facilities were backed up by a marquee and a field of tents of all sizes. (The setting will also be familiar to anyone who watched the film Rocket Post which, although set on Scarp, was filmed on Taransay.)
It is difficult to list all those who played a significant role. There was the ever-present, always vocal and tireless figure of Alasdair White – veteran of many an event in the Islands, and since the age of 18, a member of the Battlefield Band. Alasdair announced that he intends to carry on the Taransay tradition with an annual event based in Tarbert and if he is going to to take feedback from the participants into account, this event should always include a day on Taransay!
Underpinning the whole event was a truly comprehensive marine logistics division, headed by Willie “Caledonian” Macrae who managed who whole issue of supplies and people-movement from the Ardhasaig slipway. (For those unfamiliar with the sea routes off West Harris it is interesting to look at the map and see just how close northern Taransay is to Ardhasaig and Amhuinnsuidhe.)
The truly mind-boggling list of tutors included Patsy Reid, the youngest ever winner of the Glennfiddich Fiddle Championship, and a member of the band Braebach; Charlie Mackerron, a muscian with a massive range of influences and interests and a long-time member of Capercaillie; Andy Thorburn who in addition to playing with bands such as Babelfish, Blazin’ Fiddles (Best Live Act, 2004 Scots Traditional Music Award), The Loveboat Big Band, and The Ghillies, has emerged in recent years as a composer, whether writing traditional-style tunes, extended ensemble works, or music for theatre and dance productions; Allan Henderson who plays fiddle, whistle, pipes and piano and was one of the first graduates from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama’s Scottish Music degree and is also a founder member of Blazin’ Fiddles; and Iain MacFarlane, also of ‘Blazin’ Fiddles’, and who is now the principal tutor at the School of Excellence in Traditional Music and does regular teaching stints at Feisean and the Irish World Music Centre. Also acting as a tutor for the first time was Lynsay Macritchie, who is studying music in Glasgow, and who has attended all the fiddle camps.
The whole event had an international flavour – introducing the final Thursday night camp concert, Anne Wilkinson spoke not only in Gaelic and English (and with an Australian twang!) but also in Polish, French, and Spanish. After the ceremonial piping in of the camp mascot, there was a Polish folk song and Galician songs and dances. The Polish folk song was sung enthusiastically by the whole tent and – assuming there had been no secret practice sessions beforehand – demonstrated what you can achieve with a group of musicians, many of whom are totally familiar with the prescenting and following of Gaelic psalms. From just one recital of the words in Polish, came a fantastic chorus of singing. Other performances at the concert came from Corran Raa, a group that evolved from earlier festivals and is named from Taransay; and Catriona Watt who gave her first public performance at the festival nine years ago. There was also a virtuoso performance by the specially-formed “The Box Doctors” – carefully hidden behind exotic theatre masks but widely believed to involve several of the Gang of Four, plus, for the first time, Murdo Johnston.
Isabel Macritchie, one of the festival cooks, works at Lochs School and an auction was held in aid of the sensory garden planned for the school – with almost £300 raised from the sale of a painting and two of the festival bar signs, painted years ago and now sadly unneeded in the future.
A series of tributes followed with Alasdair White saying it had been a privilege to be a tutor. Anne Wilkinson said: “it’s a special week, a special team, and special people, a chance to get away from the pressures of out normal lives.” Dolan said:” Thank you very much to absolutely every one of you. It’s been absolutely fabulous.”
After leaving the island for the last time, the final concert on the Friday night in Tarbert Community Hall was sold out with the students and tutors playing to a full house. The organisers gave a special “thank you” to Stuart Macaulay from Stornoway for playing the big pipes at the concerts on Thursday and Friday evenings. The camp’s Gaelic choir performed the Harris anthem “Chi mi ‘n tìr ‘s an robh mi na m’ bhalach” (I see the land where I was a boy) and Sandra Mackerron and Andy Thorburn again did a wonderful job with the choir in such a short space of time, said Dolan Morrison
The organising group Feidhleirean Eilean an Fhraoich is a non-profit organisation which is committed to promoting the understanding and learning of traditional fiddle music through the support of fiddle instruction and related activities. Dolan Morrison said the group’s original aim is to revitalise and nurture traditional fiddle playing in the Hebrides had been successful in generating wide interest in fiddle-playing over the last decade.