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Festival 2017

Home launch for Calum Alex’s album at Hebcelt

Calum Alex MacMillan

Growing up, Calum Alex Macmillan was immersed in the musical heritage of his home island of Lewis. As the latest in a long line of Gaelic singers and bards, he was therefore able to draw on a seemingly inexhaustible well of songs and tunes for his latest album which took him on a journey through family history and personal emotions.

‘Till’(Gaelic for return) was released this year following painstaking research on his traditional roots from a variety of sources, mainly his birthplace in Point.

The resulting album, produced by Capercaillie’s Donald Shaw, will be given its home launch at the award-winning Hebridean Celtic Festival this summer.

The Inverness-based singer and piper, a Royal National Mod double gold medal winner and one-time member of the Gaelic supergroups Dàimh and Na Seòid, will perform many of the unearthed songs at a show in An Lanntair arts centre during the festival.

His extensive search for material for the album had an obvious starting point. His father, John ‘Seonaidh Beag’ Macmillan, is a Harris Tweed weaver and celebrated singer, who was the co-founder of pioneering Gaelic group The Lochies. Twenty five years ago, at the age of seven, Calum Alex made his first public singing performance, alongside his father, at a senior citizens’ Christmas party in Point.

As well as sharing his own songs, his father played him old reel-to-reel tapes of ceilidhs and radio programmes featuring traditional Gaelic songs. Much time was also spent trawling through online archives, including Bliadhna nan Òran (BBC Song of the Year archive) and Tobar an Dualchais (Kist of Riches), as well as books and songs that have been passed down through the family.

It was really a fantastic experience, said Calum Alex. I started out researching and collecting the songs myself and I had an idea to have a lot of material from Lewis on it. As I went on, that focussed more on Point where I was born and brought up.

I was also very fortunate to be given access to recordings of Gaelic songs which were made by the late Jessie MacKenzie from the neighbouring village of Sheshader. Her niece, Mairi Macleod, who is a family friend, said I was welcome to use some of the songs she had collected.

I was blown away by the amount of recordings she had made of local singers and local songs, with some really fantastic material amongst the catalogue. It was a real privilege to hear these recordings and I was so grateful to have the opportunity to record some of the songs on ‘Till’.

A favourite song of Calum Alex’s is ‘Fàgail Shiadair’ (Leaving Shader), written by William Mackenzie, a Lewis bard and his great, great grandfather’s brother on his mother’s side of the family. It describes his decision to leave his home for Canada with his children after the death of his wife when he saw emigration as his only option.

The song speaks of his expectation of never returning to Lewis, all the precious things he had around him, the community, the land and how things wouldn’t be the same in Canada. He was devastated too to be leaving Màiri and that he would never get to lie beside her at the Bràighe (Eye Cemetery). Before he left for Canada he actually pulled a tooth from his mouth and left it at her graveside. It’s a really powerful song.

William’s nephew, Alexander, also wrote a song for after his uncle’s death. Like William, he had emigrated to Canada, and in the song ‘Nam Faighte Long Dhomh’ (If I Could Get a Sailing Boat) he talks of his wish to be able to take William back to Lewis after he had died so he could be beside Màiri.

It’s a very emotional song that talks of the love William had for Màiri and how cruel it was that they wouldn’t lie side by side again. I set the song to music myself and I was really moved by the emotion and the story behind it.

The album also features lighter songs, like Òran an Fheòir (The Song of the Hay), written by another nephew of William Mackenzie, John ‘Knox’ Mackenzie, and is a humorous account of haystack sabotage. ‘An Iarran Mònach’ (The Peat Iron), composed by Calum Alex’s father, is another light-hearted tale of a dream in which he has a conversation with a redundant peat iron.

While many of the songs are historical, they are still relevant today, Calum Alex asserts: A lot of the sentiment and emotions are still applicable. The subjects of love, loss, humour and longing are all conveyed with some really beautiful Gaelic and for me it’s a real pleasure to listen to the words.

The collaboration with Donald Shaw reunited the pair who worked together on the Dàimh album ‘Diversions’. On ‘Till’, Shaw not only produces but also plays piano, accordion and harmonium.

He instantly ‘got’ the songs and what I was trying to achieve with the album, said Calum Alex. He allowed the music and the words of the songs to be the main focus of the recording with some beautiful musical arrangements.

Shaw will also be on stage at An Lanntair, when he and Calum Alex will be joined by James Mackenzie (flutes and whistles) and former Dàimh bandmate Ross Martin (guitar).

It’s an absolute honour to play at HebCelt and especially at An Lanntair which is one of my favourite venues. he said. Growing up, HebCelt was always something to look forward to in the summer and I’ve been so fortunate to be part of some great shows over the years.

In August, Calum Alex will be among some of the leading Hebridean artists in the modern era helping to celebrate HebCelt, Gaelic music and the island traditions when he takes part in the annual Interceltique de Lorient in Brittany, Europe’s largest Celtic festival.

Scotland is this year’s Country of Focus at the gathering, and HebCelt is organising a concert on 5 August to kick-start a number of events featuring Scottish artists.

‘Blasta’ (Gaelic for tasty or delicious) is a specially-commissioned show for Lorient and also features Gaelic singers Anna Murray, Mischa Macpherson, Ceitlin Smith and Josie Duncan, from Lewis.

I’ve been at the festival twice before when I was with Dàimh and had enjoyed it immensely so I was really excited to be asked to take part with Blasta, said Calum Alex.

We will be showcasing songs from the rich Hebridean repertoire. In the next few months we will be getting together to put the songs together and it really is a fantastic opportunity for us to sing the songs that are such an important part of our heritage and culture to an international audience.

It’s a great honour to be able to represent Lewis and the Hebrides as part of the Scottish contingent at Lorient 2017.