Colonsay - trip to the Folk Festival

Photo: kiloran. Colonsay

September, 2008.

The Isle of Colonsay, located in the Inner Hebrides off the West Coast of Scotland, was our destination for a long week-end with the aim of catching their very first Colonsay Folk Festival. Jim and I set off from Glasgow at the crack of dawn, picking up our friends Issi and Davie Wilson along the way - heading for Oban to catch the Ferry to Colonsay.

The journey was no trouble with a very pleasant sail and when we arrived at Scalasaig we had only a short run in the car to the cottage that we were staying in. It was fairly functional but we city dwellers were pretty taken by the country location.

There was also a certain charm about having a little stream run through the garden and several different types of birds chirping outside the window. The other main attraction was the coal fire, which we were all falling over each other to kindle. Davie, in particular, sprang into boy scout mode and before we knew it we had a large supply of logs to burn and endless roaring fires. Extremely cosy.

Photo: iss i fire. Another benefit of our abode was that it was located only a ten minute drive away from the beautiful beach at Kiloran Bay - a spot we visited quite a few times over the week-end. It is gorgeous with its lovely golden sands and Atlantic breakers rolling in. In fact, we managed to see more or less the whole of the island and had we had a four wheel drive we would have driven across The Strand to Oransay, Colonsay's sem-detached neighbour.

Although the island is tiny, just two miles wide and around ten miles long, the scenery offers considerable diversity. The views out towards the Atlantic to Mull in the north and Jura and islay to the south west present very dramatic panoramas. In contrast, when driving around the island you come across many quaint and pretty pastoral scenes.

Photo: pier. The coastline is very varied and the golden sands of Kiloran are very different from the shingle beach at Uragaig. Scalasaig is the main settlement and also the only port on Colonsay. Apart from being home to the Post Office, the Hotel, a brilliant tea room,'The Pantry', a wee gallery and Scalasaig Hall, it's a lovely place to wander around. The rocky shoreline is unusually picturesque with clumps of rich, green moss interspersed with little pools.

The skies are vast, magical and everchanging with sensational pink clouds and bright, bright stars. Little wonder Davie forfeited car rides to walk home from concerts and ceilidhs over the hills.

The Folk Festival

Photo: sheep. Of course, apart from the charms of the island itself, there was much on offer in the way of entertainment. We knew that we were in for a treat at performances by some great bands including Rallion, Anna Massie Band and Karine Polwart, however, in addition there was an abundance of local talent.

The Machrin MacNeills, with Daddy Seamus, Uncle Hugh, fifteen year old Caitlin and 12 year old Liam, provided great entertainment and Caitlin's lovely voice was also to be heard in her solo performances. The Donald (Pedie) MacNeill Clan also lay claim to a few stars with Donald himself a regular performer and his daughters Jen and Morna contributing to the show.

Jen paired up with other local lassies to play their fiddles and sing lovely, traditional Scottish airs as well as some of their own (at times very comical) compositions. Jen's friend Anna MacDonald of Skye was another popular performer. Keir Johnson excelled himself not only showing off his skills as a musician but in his capacity as Sound Engineer for the Festival.

Photo: caitlin. Visitors to the island sang their socks off at the Sessions in the Hotel and some travelling musicians added variety and enjoyment to the festival. Nick's citar playing was a pleasure and Jim made quite an impact with his songs. I was particularly tickled to hear him play 'Come Dance With Me', as I contributed quite a bit to the composition.

One of the most enjoyable sessions was 'Teuchters do Dylan'. Keir proved to be quite a Dylan fan and excelled himself with his renditions of some well known tunes and Jim's 'Lay Lady Lay' proved quite a hit.

Because the island is so small we tended to run into the same people over and over and it was quite strange to be stopped by someone on top of a remote hillside so that they could compliment the performance the night before. This was something we got used to and it added an extra dimension of pleasure to the day.

Photo: jim colonsay. Although we were only there for the week-end we felt as though we made lots of friends. Gill Saunderson from Crail and the 'Saga Lout' ladies were so enthusiastic and cheerful that their presence brightened up every event. Deterred by nothing these 60 plus lassies thought nothing of cycling home three miles in the dark after a night out at a concert in Scalasaig Hall.

The ceilidh was great craic and Scalsaig Hall, which is absolutely lovely, provided a great setting for Donald MacAllister and The Colonsay Ceilidh Band. Issi and Davie joined in most of the dances including The Dashing White Sergeant and Strip the Willow but Jim and I were less adventurous. Some of the dances have their very own Colonsay rules applied and the 'Palais Glide' had some spectacular sound effects as well. Intriguing stuff.

Photo: ceilidh. The main acts were all fantastic, Rallion's great double fiddle sound was breathtaking and lively numbers were interspersed by some beautiful melodies. My favourite was the tune that Fiona Cuthill wrote for her Grannie. The band, Fiona, Stevie Lawrence, Drew Lyons and Marieke McBean, were a great success and received rapturous applause. They were also extremely friendly and we enjoyed a few good chats with them - learning all the lowdown about the folk festival lifestyle.

The Anna Massie Band, Anna Massie, Jenn Butterworth and Mairearad Green, have a distinct Scottish sound that keeps the feet tapping and, although it would be a sad thing, if Anna ever tires of her music she could have a whole other career as a stand up comedienne.

Photo: finale. The other big name at the Festival was Karine Polwart, who performed with her brother Steven on guitar and the bewitching Inge Thomson. Karine has some great songs including Rivers Run and Sorry. She also played a key role in composing a nifty little number about Colonsay, which raised the rafters when performed with members of the other two bands for the grand finale.

We missed a few of the acts because we could just not fit everything in but by all reports Iain MacDonald, Kathleen MacInnes, Iain MacFarlane and Ross Martin all provided great entertainment.

Photo: with rallion guys. Definitely, a great week-end and good excuse to visit Colonsay. I'm hoping that this will just be the first of many more Colonsay Festivals - if the amazing two man committee, that comprises Keith Johnson and Donald MacNeill, has anything to do with it it's bound to be a regular annual event from now on in.

Read the review of Colonsay's First Folk Festival