The West Highlands of Scotland may well be one of the most beautiful places on the planet and there’s been no shortage of music emanating from the area over the years, most of it in the traditional vein and reflecting the rich culture of this historical landscape. Now, an enterprising musician, Mairi Orr, wants to see the West Highlands, or, more specifically, the village of Arisaig, on the romantically named “road to the Isles” to become a beacon for Americana music in Scotland complementing the sterling work carried out by the likes of Celtic Connections in Glasgow and Perth’s Southern Fried Festival. Orr (whose music we’ve discussed here) recently moved to Arisaig after living in Edinburgh and she’s decided to use her contacts to set up a festival which she hopes will grow into a popular attraction. Obviously that’s a long term goal and on the understanding that great oaks from little acorns grow this year’s inaugural Arisaig Festival is a small (but perfectly formed) affair. Intrigued as to why and how Ms. Orr set about this Blabber’n’Smoke spoke to her and we started off by asking her why she decided to have a go at setting up the festival in the first place.
I moved back here three years ago, not long after I released my album. It’s a lovely place but I found that I was kind of missing the music scene I’d been around in the big city. There are some amazing musicians up here but it tends to be mostly Scottish and traditional music and while the musicianship is second to none I felt that there was room for more Americana type music and importantly, that there is an audience for it, so I decided to see if I could kind of kick-start that, get it off the ground. I’ve always loved being up here. Before we moved here permanently I visited a lot because I’ve got family here and I always thought it would be great to have some sort of event here. It’s a popular tourist destination, absolutely mobbed in the summer and there’s a great appetite for cultural events, music and such. When we got here I had my baby girl and that obviously took up my time but I started thinking seriously about setting up an event at the beginning of this year. In reality I’ve set up this first festival in a ridiculously short time but I’ve got a three year plan where I want to build the festival up, hold it over a couple of days and hopefully get some American musicians to come up and join in. So this year is really just to get it off the ground, put the word out and gauge the reaction.
So this year is pretty much dipping a toe in the water and seeing how it goes?
As I said it’s really just a launch pad for what I hope will be a bigger festival next year. We’re holding what is the main event on the Saturday night but before that we will be having musical workshops for guitar, fiddle, banjo, and mandolin, on the Saturday afternoon. There’s also going to be what I’m describing as a big pub session on the Sunday and I know there’s going to be a lot of musicians turning up for that, a good mix of people I hope. A lot of local people have expressed their interest since we announced it and we’ve received some funding from a local trust fund and it’s great to get their support. There will be tourists around looking for something to attend and then folk I know in the music scene have also said they’re coming up, they’ll join in the session so that should be good fun.
Tell us who you’ve got lined up to play
Well I’m really pleased to have The Wynntown Marshals as our headliners as they are one of Scotland’s best known “Americana” bands. They’ll be playing here as an acoustic trio which suits the hall we’re holding the concert in although I’ve asked Iain Sloan to be sure to bring his pedal steel with him. We also have The Jellyman’s Daughter, an excellent duo who have just released their second album and for this they’re bringing some friends with them to add bass and banjo on stage so that should sound great. Then there’s The Daddy Naggins who will be rounding off Saturday night with some good old foot stomping bluegrass. They’ll also be around earlier in the day as they are going to be helping out on the afternoon workshops.
You’ve missed out an act, the Crow County Pickers, which, after some extensive research, turns out to be yourself and some chums!
OK, that’s me with David Currie, Craig McKinney and Alan Finn. David is a fantastic Dobro player who did several shows with me when I was out playing my album. We hadn’t played for sometime after I had my daughter but we got back together a little while ago and started working on this and Craig is bringing along his mandolin while we’ve got Alan on bass
It seem to me that aside from the concert you’re trying to inject an awareness of roots type music, folk, Americana and such in a place that’s probably more used to trad fiddle sessions and pipers galore.
Well there’s a lot of music students up here who are learning trad music along with a lot of “closet” players out there who would probably love to have a go on the banjo or mandolin. We’re just trying to expand the idea of folk music to encompass more than trad so the workshops are aimed at them. One of things I like about Americana music is that it’s really open and friendly and inclusive, I’m hoping that if you play guitar or banjo or mandolin or anything really you can come along and join in. The workshops will be free as will the session on Sunday, bring an instrument or just come along to hear the music. The Sunday session is being held in a great bar where they’re really encouraging to musicians and I’m getting feedback that a lot of folk will be coming to that.
It is a small festival, we don’t have a great capacity in terms of the venues but I really want to grow it over a couple of days and bring artists up here who probably don’t come to this part of the world that often. Really we just want this year to put us on the map, there are musicians who come to the West Highlands but not often enough. I’ve been talking to some other promoters to see if can start to join the dots as it were for American acts coming over here so that they don’t just play the cities, to see if we can make it attractive enough for them to play a bit further afield.
Which bring us to my final question. A lot of folk will thing that Arisaig is out in the sticks, cut off from the mainstream as it were. If we were to go would we have to hike there or get a helicopter?
Although we look as if we’re out in the wilds there are good transport links. There’s a steam train that comes from Fort William, it’s actually the one you see in the Harry Potter films which goes over the Glenfinnan viaduct. That’s the tourist way of getting here but you can get the train from Glasgow while buses run from Glasgow and Inverness. I think most people will drive and we’re only about three to four hours away from most cities in Scotland. It is a bit of an effort to get here but it’s such a beautiful part of the world it’s well worth the effort. We’ve already got a successful trad festival here, Feis Na Mara, which is held in October and it always sells out and that’s in the off season so there’s no reason not to come.
And here’s some video of Mairi in action. She’s sure to give The Marshals’ a run for their money.