When the call of the black crow - and the clanging of Sunderland's shipyards - go still
Celtic Connections: Transatlantic Sessions on the road again

Celtic Connections: Duncan Chisholm gives musical life to Scottish hills


Andrew Curry is a neglectful music website editor's dream. He comes up with ideas for which gigs he should review, pays his own way there and into the venue and files his articles as promptly, cleanly and engagingly as if he were being paid a decent fee (*no one around here, sadly, fits the last part of the description.


There were obstacles to finding ways of illustrating his admiring thoughts on Duncan Chisholm's concert Glasgow's Celtic Connections festival, an annual event I remember with great fondness from when I had a newspaper platform for musings of this sort. The 'press assets' gallery of Duncan's own website tempts journalists with a gallery of excellent images to download. For whatever reason - my technological incompetence or otherwise - I failed repeatedly to capture any of them. Another regular source of photos also led me nowhere. The festival press office has been approached but for now, we'll have to settled for an embedded Celtic Connections tweet. Read on: there is more to come from Andrew's visit to Scotland



Duncan Chisholm’s concert at Celtic Connections was billed as a “presentation” of his 2022 record Black Cuillin, a celebration of Skye’s famous mountain range. It was inspired initially by a walk he’d had in the Cuillins with several other musicians, some of who were playing with him on stage.




The concert started in the dark with the first track from the record, in which the swirling electronic effects give way to Chisholm’s solo violin. As he started to play, a single spotlight picked him out on stage.


This was, all the same, a concert with a large band on stage in the Main Auditorium of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.


Depending on the particular songs, a front line of Hamish Napier on piano, Ross Ainslie on low whistle, Jarlath Henderson on pipes, Innes Watson on acoustic guitar and Sorren Maclean on electric, with Ross Hamilton on bass and Donald Hay on drums, was supported by an impressive string section. Greg Lawson had done the arrangements, and the other violin players included Megan Henderson, Patsy Reid, Graham Mackenzie, and Catriona Price, with Georgia Boyd on viola and Su-a Lee and Alice Allen on cellos.




Black Cuillin is the seventh of Duncan Chisholm’s solo records, and like all of the later ones—Farrar, Canaidh, Affric, and Sandwood, certainly—it takes its inspiration from somewhere in the Scottish Highlands or islands.


Although the focus here was on the songs from Black Cuillin, he also drew quite strongly on Sandwood, including a memorable encore of Dizzy Blue.


(If you want more detail on the setlist, I recommend  Dave McNally’s review at Folk Radio UK : his notes from the evening are clearly more detailed than mine).


The only other time I’d seen Chisholm play was with a small acoustic group in the Stornaway Arts Centre. This, in contrast, was a big sound with electric backing when he felt it was needed, which was a reminder of a couple of things.


Chisholm is now in his 50s, but he has been influential in Scottish folk music since his early 20s. He was a co-founder in the early 1990s of Wolfstone, which opened up Scottish traditional music to electric instruments, and Wolfstone had played the very first gig at the first Celtic Connections festival 30 years ago. He’s played at every Celtic Connections since then.


(Chisholm doesn’t talk that much from the stage, but he told a longish and self-deprecating story about going into a Glasgow hair salon for the first time before that Wolfstone gig to try to look better on stage.)


Since then he played from time to time with Runrig, the only Gaelic-speaking band to cross over into the rock mainstream. And these days, as well as his solo career, he also works with the leading Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis as her musical director.


There was something apt about seeing Chisholm at Celtic Connections, because it was an  enthusiastic review of his set there in 2013 – still the  best single introduction to his work—that first introduced me to his music.


What’s distinctive about it is that he has taken the airs, jigs, and reels that he grew up with, and which make up so much of Scottish traditional music, and has transformed them into a modern sound that works for a 21st century audience, without losing the thread to the music’s traditional roots. Black Cuillin, which Chisholm describes as his “most ambitious” work yet, does this through a combination of a big cinematic sound, electric reinforcement on some tracks, and some subtle electronic effects.


His set was, for me, one of the highlights of the festival, and my impression was shared. He received a standing ovation which was entirely deserved. Indeed, I heard a couple of people raving about it in the interval of a different concert several days later.




The support for Duncan Chisholm was the Gaelic singer Kim Carnie, who I had seen a few days earlier fronting Staran in a smaller hall in the Royal Concert Hall complex. With a decent size band, and sharing the string section that was also playing with Chisholm, she seemed to fill the larger space more comfortably than the smaller one. But she might need to work on her stagecraft if she’s going to hit the big time: it’s not all about her.



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