After a night spent preparing and wrapping rolls for 74 packed lunches it was a relief to finally finish work and get ready for the excitement to come.
The ferry trip to Colonsay is always where the Ceol Cholasa feeling begins and this year was no exception. There were lots of familiar faces and a blether about what lies in store in the next few days ensued over a pint or two.
After I had settled in, it was time for our first rehearsal session. Running through a few songs and tune sets got us in the festival spirit. A trip to the pub and a win in the quiz ended up with other spirits in us.
On Thursday another ferry load of festival goers arrived and it was time for the action to get under way. The Failte concert began with Pedie doing a selection of songs from his formative years that stirred the memories. Roberto Diana then entertained us with his with his exceptional guitar playing and sang a beautiful Sardinian song. As Pedie went off to rehearse for the comeback of Colonsay’s favourite boyband (Nae Direction?), Caitlin took over the proceedings for the second half and started things off with a song or two. She then introduced Ian Bruce & Ian Walker who gave us a preview of the evening show. “Ode to an Old Friend” was my particular favourite. They were joined at various times by Mo Walker and Fraser Bruce. Fraser produced one of the most emotional moments of the week with his song about the Ibrox Disaster which brought tears to the eyes of more than one member of the audience.
The first concert of the evening was the traditional Local Concert and it just keeps getting better each year. There were so many great moments but special mention has to go to Morna & Helen with their superb rendition of “Good Man’s Wife”. The concert was brought to an end by the long awaited return of Niall & Pedie to the Colonsay stage. Accompanied by Roberto, they produced a set of songs that all brought back memories of days gone by and were beautifully sung. The first spine-tingling moment of the festival came during their final song, David Francey’s “Wonder”. It was simply stunning
Ian Bruce & Ian Walker were they main act of the first evening and they put on a good show. They have a fine repertoire of songs and the audience joined in with gusto even on the difficult to learn songs such as “Hawks and Eagles”. It was a great set (my own favourites being “Mary Button” and the anthemic “I Stand Tall”) and a very enjoyable start to the festival.
The first night of the Festival Club is usually a gentle, easing into things, session but this is year it was full speed from minute one. A tune session was well under way in the bar and a few of us older codgers decided to start a session in the back room. It was great fun with Niall pulling out songs that we had forgotten we even knew. Ian Bruce joined in with a few songs too and it was a brilliant start to the weekend and a sign of things to come.
Pedie got day two under way with the first of the Lunchtime Sessions at the Hotel. After a couple of songs from him there was a queue of people waiting to perform. It was great to see some different acts from Wales and England joining in the fun.
We had to leave early to go and prepare for the Machrins McNeills concert. The sound check went well but turned out to be unnecessary. Due to the fantastic weather there were only a few people in the hall so Pedie made the inspired suggestion to move the concert into the garden. We sat at the picnic benches and played an acoustic set of songs and tunes to an ever-growing audience getting nicely sunburned as they watched. It turned into a magical afternoon and was great fun for us.
It was then time to move back inside for the next concert. Roberto Diana from Sardinia gave his usual polished and quite magnificent performance. “Empty Rooms” still pulls on the heart strings and Roberto’s easy charm shines throughout the concert. The other highlights for me were the Sardinian folk song and the great “Airport Dance” which had the audience joining in with gusto.
At this point I managed to sneak off for a quick sleep and was awakened by the magnificent sound of four pipers leading the cars off the ferry!
The first concert of the evening was Kris Drever & Ian Carr. Kris is a Colonsay regular and Ian’s guitar work and quirky songs went very well with his laid back style. “Edinburgh” was a very popular number but my personal favourite was the reworking of “Harvest Gypsies”. It was really nice set that was much appreciated by the audience in the ever-filling hall. The gap between concerts was filled, as ever, by great craic, great Colonsay Ale, great pies and burgers from the Pantry and amazing sales of raffle tickets.
Next up was the Ceol Cholasa debut of Jenn Butterworth and Laura-Beth Salter. This is a duo I have seen many times so I knew what was coming. A cracking set of tunes and songs, delivered with humour and an almost telepathic connection, wowed the audience and won them many new fans. “I Wish it Would Rain” was always one of my favourites but you could actually pick any song or tune from their set list and it would be a thing of beauty. It was a truly magic set.
The final act of Day Two (once the missing fiddler had been found) was Blazin’ Fiddles, another of my favourite acts. The energy was there, the musicianship was undeniable and the craic was good but the whole thing was slightly let down for me by over-cranked sound. I struggled to pick up the tune changes and that took this from a possible brilliant gig to just a good one.
Off up the hill then to the Festival Club at the Hotel and it was another cracker. Canach (minus one) and Liam got things going with a great session that was joined by many (including myself). The session grew steadily as the pros joined in. Seeing Caitlin and Liam playing alongside Jenn, LB and Kris Drever left me feeling that the future of Colonsay traditional music was in safe hands.
Again, a few of the older guard started a song session in the back room. I have vague memories of lying back on a sofa singing “Livin’ Next Door to Alice” in the early hours and it was highly enjoyable. That should have been that but a trip to the cottage followed with a cup of tea and glass of Rose wine. Just what you need after a night on beer and whisky. At least it meant that I could walk home safely as it was daylight by then!
Seumas and I kicked off Day Three with the lunchtime session in the Hotel. Once again it only took a couple of songs before the queue of performers began to appear. A special moment in this session was when Stephen sang “If Tomorrow Never Comes” in a tribute to his Mum and Dad. It was good to see regulars like John & Hilary and Eugene performing among some of the great new talent at this year’s sessions.
Canach were the first act at the hall today and they put on a very good set of songs and tunes. Caitlin on guitar and vocals, Alana on whistle, small pipes, bagpipes and very bad good jokes and Robbie on fiddle worked effortlessly together through a very enjoyable show. Caitlin’s singing was as impressive as ever but the last set on the great highland bagpipe has to be the highlight.
Here, I have to make a confession. Having spent my four hours in bed unable to sleep due to an extremely painful shoulder, I had to do something I haven’t done in eight years of Ceol Cholasa and miss a concert. Thankfully my string of cub reporters informed me that Kris and Ian put on another very good set and I was then raring to go for the rest of the weekend.
The early evening concert was by Donald MacNeill & Friends and Donald (hereafter known as Pedie) put on an excellent show. With Jen on fiddle and vocals, Rory on drums and trumpet (yes, really), Susan on cello and bass and Roberto on guitars, Pedie’s heartfelt songs were given a new and very interesting twist. “The Journey” is epic and “The Hall in 59” is already a Colonsay classic and both were given a new and vibrant feel. “Half Hebridean”, backed with just the guitar was also the perfect encore.
Next it was time for an old Ceol Cholasa friend to make a triumphant return. Mischa wowed us a few years ago with 75% There and has gone from strength to strength since then. The Mischa MacPherson Trio are multi award winners and they showed us just how much these awards were deserved with a truly sumptuous concert. Mischa’s voice is a joy to hear and the sensitive guitar work of Innes White and whistle of Ali Levack compliment her perfectly. It was set full of beautifully performed songs and the tune set with Ali on the pipes was brilliant. Again, it is hard to pick one moment from such a set but “Leonabh an Oir” was just perfect.
Another returning act for the final concert of the day but Breabach have gone through a few line-up changes since their last visit. The overall sound has probably moved towards the more experimental side but to me, that is no bad thing. James on Pipes and whistles, Calum on Pipes, whistles bouzouki and vocals and Megan on fiddle and vocals are all driven along by the guitar work of Ewen and bass of James L. This was a varied and very enjoyable set and they were joined onstage by Mischa and Kim Carnie for a song. The highlights for me were “Hi Ho Ro Tha Mi Duilich” and the absolutely cracking final set. Not forgetting (and how could we?) Megan’s step-dancing!
It was then that time again when the chairs get cleared away and the Ceilidh can begin. The Jen MacNeill Ceilidh Band once again provided the music and, judging by the dancers’ reaction, they made a very good job of it too. Jen on fiddle, Andrew on accordion, Pedie on Banjo and Seumas on bodhran picked some really cracking tunes to get the feet tapping and the dancers flying.
When we got up to the Festival Club the “real musicians” were already well into what looked like a cracking session. After listening for a while we retired to the old fogies room for what turned out to be the greatest song session in Ceol Cholasa history. It was immense. Niall and Pedie were in cracking form and lots of others joined in with a wide variety of songs old, new and long forgotten. I don’t usually pick highlights from the sessions but singing “Sine Bhan” with Niall and Seumas and then having Jan round off the night (well, morning) with “The Parting Glass” will stay with me for a long time to come. By this stage we were well into the large hours of the morning so you would think it would be time to head home. Of course, this is Ceol Cholasa so we instead headed back to the cottage to see what happens when you mix crisps with raspberry vodka (they effervesce, don’t you know?) and to sing a few more songs. After all, that’s why I was there! Another great day and night ending with another daylight walk home.
So, (sorry Pedie) after an all too short sleep, it was time for the final day. The first event was the eagerly anticipated second concert by Jenn Butterworth & Laura-Beth Salter and boy did they deliver! Like most of us, the girls had been affected by the strains of the weekend but their grace and charm shone through on another cracking set. There were great, foot-tapping tunes and songs like “The Great Divide” had the audience singing along. This was another top set from the undoubted stars of Ceol Cholasa 2015. Their final rendition of “Come to Jesus” (featured above – Ed) was the perfect end to a beautiful concert.
After a quick break to grab one of Gavin and Morag’s delicious venison pies, it was time for the next act. Breabach were in fine form and produced a storming second set. The tune sets crackled along, the Gaelic songs were beautifully sung and “The Orangedale Whistle” is a lovely song. It was also great to hear Ewen sing “The Rolling Hills of the Borders” which has remained a Colonsay favourite since Breabach’s Ceol Cholasa debut. The highlight for me was the stunning interpretation of the pibroch “Proud to Play a Pipe”. It was simply a thing of magic and beauty.
It was then time for the final act of the year. Blazin’ Fiddles’ first set was the only (very slight) disappointment of the event but this time, they got it spectacularly right! The sound was perfect, the energy was incredible, the craic was good and the solo sets from Rua and Kristan were beautiful. Hop-along Bruce was up and down from his chair throughout what was a terrific set of tunes and Angus and Anna powered the whole thing along with their keyboard and guitar backing (Anna even found time for a fiddle-plucking masterclass). The standard of fiddle playing was just amazing and this was a great final concert for a great festival.
That meant it was time for the Grand Finale and this year it was a cracker. Blazin’ Fiddles, Breabach, Kris & Ian, Jenn & LB and Innes produced a great set of tunes. Then Mischa, Megan and Kim sang “Reul Alainn a Chuain” for Keith with the audience singing along heartily. That left time for one final raucous set by the assembled cast to bring down the curtain on Ceol Cholasa 2015.
The final glorious stramash. It has hard to compare with other festivals this close to the event but the phrase “best one ever” was heard more than once as we left the hall. Personally I still find I have to pinch myself to believe that we are sitting in the Colonsay Hall watching the cream of Scotland’s folk talent perform. For that, and much more, Keith and Pedie deserve huge praise.
I will leave the final word this year to a young lady I love dearly. She said as she was waiting to board the boat “I don’t mind going home, my heart has been re-filled with joy”. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what Ceol Cholasa can do for you. Roll on 2016.
As always, thank you to Hughie for his unrivalled commitment to documenting every moment of the music festival no matter how late. Or early.