Monday, January 25, 2021

Celtic Connections Begins: Music, Heart, and Hope from Scotland

When Celtic Connections began in 1994, there were those who thought organizers were more than a bit cracked in the head to stage a music festival in January, in Glasgow, in the midst of Scotland’s winter.

What began as a rather small event has grown over the years to a 19 day festival, attracting performers and visitors from across the world to celebrate roots music in all its varied forms. From a specially created folk big band concert at Glasgow’s SSE Hydro to intimate one and two person gigs at the recital rooms at City Halls, Celtic Connections has become one of the UK’s and Europe’s top winter festivals, traditionally welcoming more than100,000 attendees and 300 artists to Glasgow.

Celtic Connections has weathered many changes over its more than two decades. With ongoing uncertainty in all areas of life caused by a global pandemic, though, should there be a festival come winter 2021? Could that work?

Digital first Celtic Connections is working brilliantly (the festival is ongoing at this writing; tickets and information at Also note that performances were all recorded under Scotland’s strict health and safety guidelines for film production).

There are things that are different and things that remain the same from the in person festival.

One thing that is the same: Celtic Connections is a festival of hope, and of heart.

The festival was piped into its start as notes skirled from pipes played of members of TRYST as they walked through unusually quiet streets in Glasgow’s city centre to the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. There they met up with the Celtic Connections Big Band 2021 a gathering of Scotland’s top folk musicians who drew them into a lively set.

As the first evening progressed there was a quiet fiddle tune from Duncan Chisholm, an original song based on a Robert Burns poem from Karine Polwart, along with a fast paced wave of welcoming music from across the water from Le Vent du Nord in Quebec. Artists sent in songs from Gambia and Spain, and across Scotland. Fiona Hunter added in Aye Waulkin O in Scots. Karen Matheson stood in the midst of the Big Band to offer O Nach Eiśdeadh in Gaelic. The Big Band closed things out in tribute to the late trad-fusion composer Martyn Bennett with his tune Karabach.


During the 19 nights of the festival’s scheduled run, one or two concerts are offered. Most follow the Celtic Colours example of making each night a sort of ambassador event, with each night including sets from three to five acts.

Several highlights of what has happened thus far:

Duncan Chisholm filled the great hall of Kelvingrove Art Gallery with tunes both reflective and lively. Vibrant backing from musical friends Innes Watson on guitar, Hamish Napier on keys, Jarlath Henderson on pipes, and the string players of The Scottish Ensemble added to the evening as did thoughtful interview segments in which Chisholm chatted with musician and broadcaster Joy Dunlop about creativity and landscape.

New Scots in Concert saw musicians with backgrounds fromAfrica to India to the Caribbean to Roma culture sharing their talents. It was a indeed a varied program. Singer Brina from Jamaica and Ando Glaso Collective with polkas were two very different acts on the gig.

Acid croft masters Shooglenifty added high energy to an evening which included top class playing from the Highlands and Islands fiddle quartet RANT, blues infused singing from the Sudan from Amira Kheir, Scots song from Fiona Hunter, and creative singing and songwriting from Paul McKenna.

New Voices, an hour of new music from a rising composers or songwriters, is a popular strand at Celtic Connections, happening every Sunday afternoon of the festival; Josie Duncan, known for Gaelic song, offered song in English for the first New Voices of 2021. In addition to her creative music, it was touching to see how delighted Duncan was to be able to share her music with listeners, even though she couldn’t see us...

Song was the focus of the concert called Come Away In: Karine Polwart, Eddi Reader, Siobhan Miller, Rab Noakes, and Findlay Napier, backed by Aaron Jones and Dave Milligan, made a songwriters’ circle, sharing songs and stories from Glasgow’s City Chambers. Music they explored included The King’s Shilling from Miller, There’s More to Building Ships from Napier, Come Away In from Polwart, and Maid o’ the Loch from Reader.

Karen Matheson shared the title song from her forthcoming album Still Time along with other songs in English and Gaelic, well supported in creative backing from her band members including Donald Shaw, Fraser Fifield, Hannah Fisher, and Sorren MacLean. Those sharing the evening with Matheson included the recently formed group Lyre, which proved to be an innovative joining of talents from string players and composers Patsy Reid, Alice Allen, and Marit Fält.

Watching the six members of Blazin’ Fiddles play is always a treat. In this Celtic Connections concert in addition to the top class music they always offer, it was an added benefit to see the joy they took in being able to get together to make and share music after a year of rarely being able to do so.

The folk of Beezer Stdios, who have been handling the production of all the Celtic Connection concerts, well know how to shoot and edit live music. Thanks to their work such subtle aspects of muscial creativity are there to enjoy.

There is more to Celtic Connections, as it’s on going at this writing

Once you have purchased a ticket, each concert is available to watch for seven days after first broadcast, and there all access passes as well as individual tickets available.

Individually ticketed workshops are available too, as are no cost events for small children, and those living with dementia, and several radio broadcasts which you can also enjoy online. Visit the Celtic Connections website for information on all this, and to book tickets. Photographs by Gaelle Beri and Kerry Dexter

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