Celtic Connections 2008:BBC Scotland Young Traditional Musician Of The Year 2008

30 Jan 2008 in Festival, Music

City Halls, Glasgow, 27 January 2008

Ewan Robertson

THE IMPRESSIVE City Halls in Glasgow was the new setting for the BBC Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year Final on the middle weekend of Celtic Connections. This competition was opened by Linda Fabiani, Scottish Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture, and the hall was packed to near capacity.

It makes for a good venue for the event which has grown in popularity for each of its eight years. Billed as a concert rather than a competition, that’s exactly what it is, and the atmosphere is as relaxed as it can be when the contestants know it is being broadcast live on BBC Radio Scotland.

The six finalists to win their way through the heats and semi finals this year were Steven Blake from Livingston on pipes, Scots singer Amy Lord from Dunblane, James Duncan Mackenzie from Lewis on pipes, Robert Menzies from Dumfries on accordion and piano, Ailie Robertson from Edinburgh on clàrsach and Ewan Robertson from Carrbridge on guitar and voice.

Mary Ann Kennedy was on fine – and her usual humorous – form with the difficult job of presenting the concert live, making sure the audience kept to timings and co-ordinating guests and participants alike.

The standard of the musical talent of the participants is completely mesmerising at times, and the audience must keep reminding themselves that these are indeed folk of tender years performing as if they have been there for years. The breadth of talent and confidence of these artists is indeed reassurance for the future of Scottish traditional music.

There has been some debate on what exactly ‘traditional’ means in this context. Does it mean that the performers should be performing ‘traditional’ material, in a ‘traditional’ style or on a ‘traditional’ instrument? Should the participants not be permitted to perform ‘new’ material or self penned tunes? Should the ‘traditional’ Scots songs of Amy Lord, delivered in a humerous and totally engaging manner be considered above Ewan Robertson’s moving and individual delivery of Ewan MacColl’s ‘Shoals of Herring’ for example?

Indeed, is it not more important that we regard this whole competition as a fine example of what our ‘new’ traditions are and are becoming? After all, the new tunes and songs we may hear on the platform are what will become the ‘traditional’ music of the future.

This year’s competition must have presented the judges with some difficult decisions as the standard of all the musicians was exceptionally high and every participant had something extra to offer, above the others, from intricate dexterity on the pipes, virtuoso and intricate harp playing, or a variety of texture on a range of instruments, through to accompanying skills.

It was not a job to envy, and each audience member would of course have a personal champion, but the eventual winner, Ewan Robertson , was a popular choice if audience reaction was anything to go by. A member of the band Breabach and perhaps not so well known for his singing, Robertson displayed a maturity and confidence of style and technique way beyond his age (24) both in voice and guitar, and his accompanying of Hamish Napier (another Strathspey native) on whistle was a beautiful and completely sympathetic experience.

He has a warm and passionate tone of voice which complemented his choice of songs. To this writer, he is a deserving winner and one who will no doubt reap many benefits in his year of reign, including a recording contract with Greentrax and Watercolour music, and an international Festival appearance supported by the British Council Scotland. Now all he needs to do is learn some Gaelic songs … .

Fiona MacKenzie is the Mairi Mhor Gaelic Song Fellow for Highland Council.

© Fiona MacKenzie, 2008