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2004 Festival Review

On Friday, 16 July 2004 the Hebridean Celtic Festival came of age.

When this music festival began in 1996, around 800 people turned up in the Lews Castle Grounds in Stornoway to hear popular band Wolfstone. Then, that was considered a big success.

Irish rock n' roll band Saw Doctors headlined the 2004 festival and they played a gig that will have people saying, in years to come: "I was there".

Saw Doctors

Records had already been broken the previous year, when Mike Scott and the Waterboys sold out the festival tent for the first time. Then, tickets were changing hands in bars in Stornoway for more than three times their value and security guards had a battle on their hands trying to keep ticketless but enterprising Waterboys fans out as they tried to sneak their way in.

That year the festival was bigger than it had ever been before, but in 2004 it was fundamentally different, one of the grown ups.

Peat Bog Faeries

Supported by the Peatbog Faeries, the Saw Doctors put Stornoway on the music map once and for all. A staggering 5000 people were at their show - equivalent to one quarter of the population of the islands of Lewis and Harris and one tenth the size of that big festival beast, T in the Park. When you consider location - the Isle of Lewis is three hours on a ferry from the mainland - plus the fact T in the Park attracts THE very biggest names in music, what happened in Stornoway was remarkable.


Part of that was due to a new tent. Instead of the old white marquee, organisers had hired what is probably the most famous tent in the UK. The blue tent, topped with six pennants, was instantly recognisable as the Slam tent from T in the Park and definitely helped turn up the volume at the Heb Celtic, particularly as it created a blackout inside.

It was hired because of its greater capacity but this tent too sold out and the sea of people inside was an incredible sight.


The bands themselves were blown away. Davy Carton, lead singer with the Saw Doctors, said: "It was amazing. To have that amount of people singing our songs in one place - particularly an island off the west coast of Scotland - is incredible. If somebody had told me that would happen 20 years ago, I would have said 'no way'. It's probably the best thing that could happen to a band."

For the Peatbog Faeries, the gig rivalled Glastonbury, where they had played four years earlier.

One of the many other musicians taking part last year, Donald Shaw of Capercaillie, saw a big change in the festival since he was last there in 2001. He predicted: "If it carries on like this, it will be a Hebridean Woodstock in 10 years. We'll need to get rid of the tent and have 50,000 people in the open air. Caledonian MacBrayne will have to put on more ferries."

Session A9

Other performers last year included Gaelic singer Maggie MacInnes, local girl band Teine, Irish band Kíla and Session A9.

A distinctive feature of the Hebridean Celtic Festival is the unknown foreign bands it brings to Stornoway. For many, it is their first appearance in Scotland. Instinkt - Denmark's folk band of the year - were supporting Capercaillie and went down a storm with the crowd despite being virtually unheard of. Their groovy, theatric style - particularly the Troy soundtrack-style eerie Tibetan throat singing - was one of the definite highlights. They were brilliant.


There is something special about this festival that can take the smallest-billed bands and make them the stars of the show. Without doubt, that is largely due to the crowds (and the good judgement of the organisers), who always listen with open ears and open minds, and are always determined to have a good time.

The obvious question is, with 2005 the 10th anniversary of the Hebridean Celtic Festival, how will it top this fantastic year? Don't know yet, but it will.

Year after year, this gig just keeps on getting better. Watch this space.

Katie Smith