Tragedy and Triumph II

​So today we start with the funny stories, then anyone who wants can take in our reviewer’s report on An Treas Suaile - as promised yesterday - at the end.
So you’re chatting away around 4am, in La Bonne Auberge, to a fellow festival diehard who you’ve recognised/known for ages, but never had a proper blether with. (A whistle player, they’re chatting between tunes with a few diehard members of Danú – that just-one-more session which always seems to starts up at this point, just as the ever-patient staff are trying to clear out the long evening’s last debris – human and otherwise - so they can get the place hosed down and set up for normal people’s breakfast.) You’re sharing an actually-aren’t-we-lucky bemoan about the travails of juggling Celtic nights with the day job – you in the assumption that they’re likewise crazy busy, but working at least to the festival’s schedule, and then they say – referring also to their likewise diehard sibling – “The thing is, we’re both dentists. . .”
Then they further reveal – even in addition to the exigencies of wielding drills and conducting root-canal treatment when you’re in the thick of Celtic – that they really have no place to hide during surgery hours, as many of the patients currently turning up are the self-same Irish musicians they’ve been jamming with by night: apparently dental treatment in Ireland is whole orders of magnitude costlier than here, and so – until B-Day arrives, anyway – they may as well take advantage of being in Scotland for a few days. We hasten to add, however, that the conversation made it crystal-clear that neither dentists’ professional standards were being compromised in any way: they were simply venting on the willpower this demanded, given that their ultimate first love is music – and revelling in the fact that it was Friday night at last.
Regular readers may recall recent mention of another Celtic regular dispensing their aromatherapy wake-up potion around festival hotspots late at night. Snippets were overheard of an enjoyable verbal joust last night, after said potion had revived one weary soldier, when a gentleman in the vicinity correctly identified lavender among its ingredients, before remarking that his problem with lavender was that it reminded him of old ladies’ pants. All was with him as far as “old ladies”, but – where we expected him then to say “perfume” or “talcum powder” – his chosen association marked the first hefty shovelful in a hole that just kept getting deeper. . . Making the whole thing even more entertaining, part of him clearly realised his error from the outset, but good-humoured thrawn-ness kept him battling/digging manfully to defend his position, even long after it was lost.
Also last night, we had this year’s first sighting of a thoroughly bemused/bored/boggled new security guard at the Holiday Inn Theatreland, after last weekend’s team of well-kent faces from years past. Bored, because he had absolutely nothing to do, despite a bar/building packed with bibulous revellers; bemused/boggled by the combination of equally comprehensive uproariousness and easygoing-ness, and its accompanying dearth of bad behaviour, and probably - given that his habitual work soundtrack presumably consists of banging electronic beats - by the thicket of fiddles and other strange folky paraphernalia making the music here. He proved both a quick and enthusiastic study, though, and was smiling, nattering and generally getting the craic by close of play.
As that same loyal readership will also be aware, we make no apology for catching up on older news in these pages – most good stories stay good, even after time has passed since they happened. It’s not often, though, that we go back as far as last year’s festival, but the following tale seemed worth revisiting. Among 2018’s Celtic programme was the launch gig for Donegal-Glaswegian trio The Friel Sisters’ second album, in the Strathclyde Suite. Roughly a month beforehand, one of the sorority had a message from a friend, saying they’d tried to buy tickets, but the website wasn’t working. Said sister left a message in turn for someone at Celtic HQ – only to receive one back from Donald Shaw, saying, “There’s nothing wrong with the website: you’ve sold out.” Even right from the horse’s mouth (as it were) this still seemed so implausible to said charmingly modest sister, that she phoned the festival box office number and asked to buy tickets herself: only upon actually hearing that none were left did she finally believe it. The only downside was that a good many other pals and close family members remained ticketless, including the sisters’ own mother – so they decided to organise a whole other show for them, also in Glasgow but a few months later, and everyone was happy in the end.
After the first festival weekend’s sad news for Orkney fiddler extraordinaire Douglas Montgomery, when a family bereavement enforced his sorest of sharp exits from the islands’ mass Celtic Connections delegation, we’re delighted to announce that his fabulous duo Saltfishforty’s gig, with singer and multi-instrumentalist Brian Cromarty, has been rescheduled for next Saturday (2nd Feb), when they’ll be opening for Oran Bagraidh in the Mitchell Theatre. We cannae wait to welcome them back with open arms.
And so onto An Treas Suaile (The Third Wave), the magnificent second of this year’s two festival performances commemorating a century since the Iolaire’s tragic sinking off Stornoway, with the loss of over 200 Lewis menfolk, as they returned from World War I. “Bring tissues,” was its sound engineer’s advice, upon hearing that we planned to attend – and sage counsel it proved indeed.
A full year in the making, Julie Fowlis and Duncan Chisholm’s lovingly constructed multi-media monument began with a brief introduction from Fowlis, outlining its background and creative process, centred on the overriding response from advisors they consulted: “Let the men tell the story.” As was also made clear, the full tale actually constitutes 280 stories – the number of newly-demobbed ‘liberty men’ who set sail from Kyle of Lochalsh on Hogmanay 1918.
Through a painstakingly researched, curated and edited textual/audio collage of survivors’ accounts, wartime letters home, newspaper reports and evidence given to the official Iolaire enquiry, this collective story was grippingly encapsulated in a careful selection of its protagonists’ own voices. The strings-based music and specially written Gaelic song, exquisite though they were – with Fowlis and Chisholm flanked by Su-a Lee, Megan Henderson, Hamish Napier, Donald Grant and Felix Tanner – clearly and consistently took an underscoring role, firmly foregrounding the narrative, audio and illustrative elements; the latter including archive film footage, photography and maps, original graphics and Lewis artist Margaret Ferguson’s new portraits of all 201 men who died.
One of the hardest parts to watch – even with recourse to those tissues – was an excerpt from Home At Last, a 1989 TV documentary about the disaster, featuring the first-hand testimony of Dòmhnall ‘Am Patch’ Moireasdan, the only Iolaire survivor to come ashore at Stornoway pier.
After it had grounded on the Beasts of Holm, Am Patch somehow clung on to the stricken ship’s mast, just clear of the raging sea, for nine hours, until rescued come dawn by a boat from a nearby whaler. In the course of this longest, darkest night, he found himself repeating two Gaelic lines from Psalm 37 – where it’s stated that “the meek shall inherit the earth”. He recited the couplet in the TV clip, but without translation: a wee bespoke production touch for the Gaels who’re the piece’s core audience - and who on Thursday included Am Patch’s great-grandson, John MacLeod, proud proprietor of Glasgow’s Crabshakk.
For us non-Gaels, though, the likeliest lines are surely the psalm’s closing affirmation: “But the salvation of the righteous is of the Lord: he is their strength in the time of trouble./And the Lord shall help them, and deliver them: he shall deliver them from the wicked, and save them, because they trust in him.” And yet Am Patch was not a religious man. Even 70 years on, however, he was still a man palpably, heartbreakingly haunted and scarred forever by the events he was reliving in such searingly undimmed detail.
Yet while fully comprehending and expressing all the tragedy’s hellishness, and its multi-dimensional, multi-generational impact to this day, ultimate Ann Treas Suaile achieved the same cathartic alchemy for which Gaelic and Highland music are so justly renowned: that of wringing transcendent healing beauty out of utmost sorrow and pain, implicitly but inspirationally affirming that humans’ life-force always wins.
And also on a brighter note, as the same aforementioned sound engineer had observed the night before (with a levity earned by virtue of his linchpin role throughout the production), “Everyone’s been having far too good a time at this festival. It’s down to us Gaels and Highlanders to restore things to their proper state of misery.”