Blas Festival: ‘A’ Bhanais Ghaidhealach/The Highland Wedding

10 Sep 2012 in Festival, Gaelic, Highland, Music, Showcase

Magnus House, Aigas Field Centre, 7 September 2012

THIS year’s Blas Festival commission was handed to Lewis-born, Nairn-based Gaelic singer, Margaret Stewart.

FOR the last few years, she has been closely involved with the Tobar an Dualchais project as Gaelic Song specialist, resulting in a wealth of riches to draw on. Taking the theme of wedding traditions of the Highlands and Islands, she has created a feast of glorious singing and top notch music linked by gently informative narration and seasoned with the earthy humour that is the wellspring of Gaeldom.

Margaret Stewart (photo Euphoria Photography)

Margaret Stewart (photo Euphoria Photography)

The earthiness was, it must be said, often supplied by the musicians, chiefly Allan Henderson, abetted by his fellow Blazin’ Fiddler Iain MacFarlane, Ingrid Henderson on clarsach, and piper Angus Nicholson. Cows were the chief catalyst, representing the major part of a bride’s dowry in the days when dowries were an integral part of a marriage.

But to begin at the beginning – the stage was set with a gentle lullaby, a song which lulls a baby boy to sleep telling him how, when he grows up and gets married, all the nobility of Gaeldom will dance at his wedding; followed by a sprightly song about lads going a-courting. This leads to an idiosyncratically Gaelic custom, ‘night visiting’, evoked by some tunes from the MacInnes Collection, a challenging volume of piping tunes where every sequence has a different variation, and there did indeed seem to be a noticeable air of concentration on the musicians’ faces.

Longing and Yearning was the next section, that stage in a relationship which leads to the proposal of marriage. Margaret Stewart’s a capella rendition of the answer to the proposal led into a pibroch by and duet with Angus Nicholson, the high point of the evening for this reviewer as her exquisite, pure silver tones mingled perfectly with the pipes. A set, it turns out, which were made specifically to match her voice – a practice which could be more widespread. It was fabulously good to hear.

An Cordadh – the dowry agreement – was historically expressed in the number of cattle the bride brought with her, and led to A’Reiteach (the betrothal) which was an occasion for considerable celebration. Each section of the evening was illustrated with projected images and for this Stewart had chosen a David Wilkie painting. As the musicians played a Cape Breton wedding reel, the figures almost seemed to be dancing along with it…

The second half opened with Stewart, solo, singing Salm XVI, the Royal Wedding psalm, in the Lewis style, a coup de theatre which was very moving in its simplicity, but as we moved on to ‘Clach a Phosach’ (the marriage stone) things were swiftly brought down to earth by a risque but very funny joke, featuring some of those dowry cows, from Allan Henderson… and so on to the actual wedding celebrations, and the wedding night itself, evoked by a charming video, nicely directed by Stewart. The evening finished with some tunes for ‘A Bhanais Taigh’, the second day of celebrations, traditionally held at the groom’s house.

As well as scouring the archives for suitable tunes, and unearthing many lovely treasures, Stewart had written several herself which more than stood comparison with them, and will hopefully encourage her not to hide that particular light under a bushel in future. An evening full of delights and surprises to begin Blas 2012.

© Jennie Macfie, 2012