Blas 2005: Cliar, Mary Smith

7 Sep 2005 in Festival, Gaelic, Highland, Music

Spean Bridge Community Centre, 6 September 2005


GAELIC LANGUAGE has been a central part of the Blas Festival right from its inception as a gleam in the eye of Highland Council, and it was no accident that Fèisean nan Gàidheal was chosen to oversee the event.

Each concert in the festival comes complete with an informal introduction to some Gaelic words and phrases, mostly associated with music, and aims to send non-Gaelic speakers away with a handful of new words to impress their friends. The responsibility for these ‘lessons’ lies with the evening’s Bean or Fear an Taighe, and they are backed up with PowerPoint projections behind the stage.

Except that the community centre at Spean Bridge has a huge saltire painted on the wall behind the stage, rendering the PowerPoint useless. Arthur Cormack, who doubles as director of Fèisean nan Gàidheal as well as member of Cliar (actually, he does a lot more things as well), gamely took us through the Gaelic pronunciations even without technical aid.

Interestingly, in a show of hands, only two members of the audience claimed to be Gaelic speakers, which suggest either that Gaels are painfully shy at coming forward – I think we can discount that one – or that the festival is succeeding in reaching out beyond what might be regarded as the core Gaelic audience. That would be good news for Blas if it is indeed the case.

The concert itself united Gaelic language and music in impressive fashion. Unlike most events in the festival, this one did not feature any young up-and-coming talents. Both Cliar and Mary Smith (Màiri Nic a’ Ghobhainn) are well-established torch-bearers for Gaelic song, and brought their artistry to bear in contrasting approaches to the medium.

That flexibility to explore harmonic combinations is a big part of Cliar’s sound.

Clair performed the first half of the show, then Mary sang her solo set after the interval, followed by a return of Cliar for a further half-set to close out the evening.

The shades of vocal colour and expressiveness in the unaccompanied singing of Mary Smith, a well-travelled lady in her work as an art teacher, but a native of Ness in Lewis, was a delight.

She explored a repertoire mainly gathered in Lewis, the Uists and the smaller islands surrounding them. She gave us lullabies that double as milking songs, bitter-sweet songs of emigration (including one written by her great-great-grandfather), the usual love songs, and more, all delivered with real artistry and intimate feel for the songs and their heritage.

The unadorned solo singing brought out the distinctive melodic and rhythmic details of the songs in a way that can be lost in more elaborate settings. A love song set to the rhythm of a spinning wheel and a waulking song intended for waulking the tweed with the feet rather than the hands – and with a subtly different rhythmic feel as a consequence – illustrated that point well.

Cliar took a contemporary approach to traditional Gaelic material, going back as far as the mid-18th century in a setting of a poem by the famous bard Duncan Ban McIntyre. They ran through their range of material, taking in love songs (of course), waulking songs, puirt a beul, and even an adaptation of an Irish Gaelic Jacobite song that shares a tune with ‘Will Ye No Come Back Again?’.

Arthur Cormack, Maggie MacDonald and Mary Anne Kennedy shared lead vocal duties in their usual refined and expressive fashion, and the band can also call on Ingrid Henderson for a fourth harmony voice, although her principal contributions were made on clarsach and keyboards. That flexibility to explore harmonic combinations is a big part of their sound.

The instrumental accompaniments also included Ross Martin’s guitar and the whistles and pipes of the band’s newest addition, Hector Henderson, replacing the more familiar fiddle (a chair formerly occupied by Bruce MacGregor and Allan Henderson, among others). The vocal harmonies and instrumental accompaniments bring a more contemporary feel to their treatment of the tradition they are helping both to perpetuate and extend.

© George MacKay, 2005