Blue skies and Big Blue mean summer is here!

Hello sunshine… and hello HebCelt 2017! After some soggy conditions at first, festival organisers have had a good few days to set up for one of the highlights of our year.

We all cheer up when the sun comes out but, whether it’s rain, hail or shine, there’s always a good vibe in Stornoway for the festival.

There’s a buzz about the place and, whether you’re into music or not, it’s a great time to be around. Of course, if you are into music, then it’s completely fantastic.

It’s such a massive deal for the island. For those who don’t know, this is easily the biggest event that takes place in the Outer Hebrides during the year and it’s a huge draw.

People come from all over the world to attend HebCelt — check out this picture of festival director Caroline Maclennan welcoming a group of Canadians off the ferry — but it’s a big draw for people from here as well.

Canadian visitors with HebCelt director Caroline Maclennan
Here come the Canadians! Pic by Fiona Rennie courtesy of HebCelt
The HebCelt main tent being set up
Back in its rightful place

When I lived away, I noticed that the main question among expats was, “are you going home for the festival?” It used to be all about going home for Christmas or New Year.

Of course, you don’t have to live away to go to the festival! Obviously not everybody goes and not everybody goes every year. For some, it will depend entirely on how is playing.

You can always rely on Runrig, for example, to be massive and the nights they play are some of the record breakers for the festival. Van Morrison and the Waterboys are others – and it’s a welcome return this year for Mike Scott and his band, who’re headlining on Saturday night.

I remember when they played the festival back in 2003. It was the first time the festival had sold out a gig and the show was incredible.

At the time, I was working for the festival, writing up live reviews on their website, and I got to interview Mike Scott afterwards, alongside the one-and-only Jori who was writing about it for the Gazette. It was the latest interview I’d ever done — 2am — but was quite a thrill as I was a fan.

Since that time, life took me and the festival down different paths and I managed to completely miss six years, despite having moved home from the mainland. Having babies will do that to a person. But I made it back to the festival again last year and wrote several blogs about it, including a piece about the main bands and my experience of how the event has changed over the years.

Now I’m back in the official festival fold as a blogger-at-large and it’s good to be back.

Setting up the festival village for HebCelt
Setting the scene. Pics by Fiona Rennie courtesy of HebCelt

Tonight, it all begins with the Between Islands show in the Lanntair. A fiddle extravaganza, it features performances from three incredible young female musicians, who are coming together to share the musical traditions of the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland.

Our own Jane Hepburn is playing and will be joined by Orkney’s Louise Bichan and Maggie Adamson from Shetland. Programmed by Alex Macdonald from An Lanntair, it is the latest i her series of Between Islands events. I’m looking forward and will give you the verdict tomorrow.

Officially, HebCelt2017 begins for me at 7.30pm but unofficially it began when I took the kids out for a cuairt on their bikes in the Castle Grounds on Monday. We pedalled past the festival site where the tents were being set up on the green and had a sit down at Cuddy Point, where we watched the dinghies pootle around in the harbour.

The boats were part of Sail Stornoway – previously the Hebridean Maritime Festival, which usually coincides with HebCelt — and it was a perfect moment. The sun was sparkling on the water and the tents were standing proudly, back in their rightful place overlooking the town. Even James, three, sat still long enough to take it in.

Blogger's son overlooking Stornoway harbour and HebCelt site
James taking it all in (briefly)

This was Stornoway at its best and reminded me of something festival director Caroline Maclennan had said to me earlier that day over coffee in the Woodlands.

“Apart from the amazing music it’s the place and the people,” she said. “I firmly believe that’s true. If you’re travelling (to it) and you have no connection to the place then it’s a hell of a journey. It’s a long way to come but you find people will make the most of their trip up to the islands.

“What we always hear back is — the warmth of the community and the fabulous beaches, the hills, the places to go and see.”

It also works so well with the town. “It fits really well,” she said. “When we’re here, everybody knows we’re here. Everybody knows it’s festival week.”

HebCelt is completely of the place and the place is part of what makes it so special. It’s a feeling that’s been remarked on by pretty much all those who’ve ever played it.

In that spirit — and with the carpe diem philosophy that you have to take to living in Lewis — I took my kids to the Traigh Mhòr at Tolsta yesterday.

Kids playing on the beach

Kids playing on the beach

Kids playing on the beach
Seizing the day on the Traigh Mhòr

When you get good weather so rarely, you have to make the most of it — so make the most of it we did. Michael, now seven, and James had a ball and I was struck by a feeling of complete awe.

It was really busy and it was so warm that it felt like being abroad — only better, because the excellent visibility meant we could see clearly across to the mountains of Scotland. There was An Teallach and Stac Pollaidh too, plus all the others. We also saw a whale. What a moment to appreciate the beauty of where we live.

I had an interesting conversation, too, as we passed a young woman coming up the hill as we headed down the road to the beach. Turned out she was a festival volunteer and came every year.

She had a couple of hours to kill till her bus so was going to walk round to Garry and was loving exploring the island beaches while she was here. She also remember that, her first year, it was chucking it down. Sounds about right.

I forgot to ask her her name but hope she has a good festival week. I’m sure she will.

An introductory event was held for volunteers last night and Fiona Rennie, who has taken over from Leila as lead photographer for the festival this year, took some excellent shots of it and I’m including some of them here so you can get the vibe.

There are certainly a lot of volunteers who help out at the festival! It couldn’t manage without them and Caroline said: “I love it when everybody comes together. People come from away and people are living here that get involved in the festival. That’s my favourite thing, getting everybody together and working with all these amazing people that help put it together.”

HebCelt volunteers meeting

HebCelt volunteers talking

Gaelic speaking HebCelt volunteers
HebCelt volunteers. Pics by Fiona Rennie courtesy of HebCelt. Pics elsewhere by me unless otherwise stated

It’s not just the volunteering on the ground but the general goodwill that Caroline appreciates. The comments of “it’s a really good thing you’re doing” and “good luck for the week” from the cailleachs in the Co-op.

This is the 22nd year of the festival and it has completely changed since then. The arrival of ‘big blue’, the main tent, in 2004 doubled the crowd capacity, from 2,500 to 5,000. Something like 18,000 people went through the festival last year and it was a record breaker, the most successful in the event’s history, generating an estimated £2.2million for the local economy.

It’s estimated to have generated more than £20million for the local economy over two decades.

“It’s completely changed,” said Caroline. “It’s a really hungry beast to keep satisfied. It’s very difficult to continually attract acts that will sell out year after year.”

She also insists that it still has to be actively promoted, despite its size. “There are people who still don’t know where Stornoway is,” she said, “never mind the festival. And although 70 per cent of our visitors are return visitors, they won’t all return every year so you have to fill the gaps.”

The creation of the other stages have helped it to carry on growing, plus the earlier openings and the daytime events.

“I absolutely love programming the acoustic stage and the island stage,” said Caroline. “I love programming it all but it’s quite special what you can do with the smaller spaces. It’s about different shades.”

That all creates more of a festival atmosphere, as opposed to a series of gigs, and the kid-friendly shows in the wee Magpie tent help too.

Caroline Maclennan and daughter Eileen
Festival mammy. Caroline and daughter Eileen. Pic by Leila Angus courtesy of HebCelt

Musically, there is a great line-up again this year.

What to look forward to? Caroline is particularly looking forward to Lucy Spraggan. “I loved her when I saw her at Loopallu. I loved her songs and she’s great at interacting with the crowd.”

I’m looking forward to Dougie Maclean — the first person I ever interviewed as a baby reporter with the West Highland Free Press — and the Peatbog Faeries, who were a festival ‘find’ years ago.

Finding new bands is a great feature of the HebCelt experience. As Carline said, “people come for the headline acts and discover all this fabulous other music that they wouldn’t have the chance to see or have their minds opened to”. I can’t think of a year I’ve been where that hasn’t happened.

There’s the Waterboys, of course, but there’s also Friday headliner Imelda May — check out her amazing album, Life Love Flesh Blood — and Colin Macleod.

Of all those artists taking part in HebCelt 2017, though, it will possibly be the most significant for Colin, who has just signed to BMG, in a three-record deal.

He has a great sound and an amazing voice — singer Kathleen MacInnes described Colin’s version of Dancing in the Dark as someone “singing a Bruce Springsteen song better than Bruce Springsteen”. I’m a big fan and so is Caroline.

“I’ve always loved what Colin does,” she said. “I’ve always loved all his material, even The Boy Who Trapped The Sun and now this musical evolution. It’ll be fabulous to see him on the main stage with his full band and since then he’s been signed to BMG which is amazing news.

“A three-album deal is a bit of pressure but I’m sure he’ll relish the challenge. It’s great to provide a platform like this for our local talent. There’s also loads of great stuff on the acoustic stage.”

A quick word about sponsors. The acoustic stage is sponsored by Lews Castle College UHI and the islands stage is supported by Lewis Wind Power.

And without the support of Creative Scotland, the Comhairle, HIE and the many local businesses, the festival wouldn’t happen at all.

“There’s just so much good stuff on,” said Caroline.

There is indeed. Bring it on.


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