Blas 2011: Heisgeir

12 Sep 2011 in Festival, Film, Gaelic, General, Highland, Music, Showcase

Phipps Hall, Beauly, 9 September 2011

THERE aren’t many music festivals, let alone ones whose budget seems inversely proportional to their geographical spread, which could lay on the world première of a specially-commissioned feature film, created by and integrated with live music from one of today’s leading Celtic acts – but that’s what this year’s seventh Blas festival pulled off on its opening night. Talk about punching above your weight: all the Phipps Hall was missing was a red carpet.

A capacity crowd (one of five sellouts that evening, among six Blas concerts scattered between Skye and the top of Cairngorm), sat utterly rapt for the hour-long duration of Heisgeir, Julie Fowlis’s half-documentary, half-arthouse meditation on the history, landscape and legend of the now-uninhabited Monach Isles, a few miles west of her native North Uist.

Heisgeir - Julie Fowlis, Duncan Chisholm and Ross Martin (image © Reaaz Mohammad, courtesy Blas festival)

Heisgeir - Julie Fowlis, Duncan Chisholm and Ross Martin (image © Reaaz Mohammad, courtesy Blas festival)

Made under the auspices of Don Coutts’s Black Isle-based Move On Up production company, beautifully shot by John MacKinnon and edited by Lindy Cameron, the film combined Fowlis’s narrative voiceover with talking-head recollections – both in Gaelic, subtitled in English – from half a dozen or so individuals variously linked to Heisgeir, each depicted amid views of dunes, sea and machair. Completing the show, which shares the islands’ indigenous name, was a potent selection of traditional and newly-written Gaelic songs and tunes, performed with Fowlis’s regular cohorts Éamon Doorley (bouzouki), Ross Martin (guitar) and Duncan Chisholm (fiddle).

Stories of shipwrecks, pirates, narrow escapes from death and supernatural dealings with seals dovetailed with descriptions of everyday Heisgeir life – especially resonant among the latter being one former resident’s matter-of-fact statement that “we didn’t want for anything”, as well as several contributors’ testimony to the islands’ uniquely peaceful atmosphere and “aura of enchantment”.

The project’s foreground deployment of Gaelic came across as wholly natural, unforced and inclusive, while its wider resonances, touching on such issues as how culture is created and sustained within a community, how it’s preserved or lost over time, the symbiosis between folklore and lived experience, and the price exacted by “progress”, emerged subtly and organically.

The live music passages, which saw the performers half-illuminated behind the translucent projection screen, appearing spectrally to merge with the film’s more abstract imagery, while elsewhere underscoring sections of narrative, lent a winning extra dimension of immediacy and dynamism to the show, compared to a recorded soundtrack. At once celebratory and elegiac, with a simplicity and directness that belies the skill and care expended on all its elements, Heisgeir stands as another outstanding achievement not only for Fowlis and her collaborators, but for Blas as a progenitor of new Highland art.

© Sue Wilson, 2011