There’s been a seismic shift towards the online medium in 2020. From tastings to festivals, those brave enough, have ventured into this new format to mixed effect. One thing is for sure and that’s we won’t be going back to exclusively face-to-face events. Distilleries, ambassadors and organisers have realised the potential of taking things online. The ability to be more inclusive and broaden the scope of attendees; many of whom were geographically excluded previously.

Here on Malt, we’re acutely aware that we’ve brought you our opinions post-event on tastings and festivals such as the Belfast Whiskey Week and mid-stream with the Spirit of Toronto, where I’ve grabbed the opportunity to give you my thoughts on the Hiram Walker and Two Brewers tastings. The trend continues later this week when we’ll also provide our impressions of The Whisky Exchange Virtual Show.

Despite our best intentions, the horse has very much bolted with all of this coverage. We’ve underlined the positives and potential and in doing so, asked you to bookmark an organiser for a future date in 2021… I know things seem chaotic and it is hard to plan ahead – or at times – see the light leading us out of this tunnel. So, today, I wanted to highlight an event that is incoming and one that I’m personally excited about. And on a side note; the Belfast Whiskey Week is doing a seasonal tasting, which I’d also recommend.

The Isle of Skye is the centrepiece in Scotland’s crown jewels. An isle that is 5 hours’ drive north of Edinburgh, and in recent times, has become a worldwide destination for its beauty, food and culture. Personally, it has been a family retreat now for almost 2 decades. There’s something haunting beautiful and instantly Scottish about Skye. A melting point of new and old. The rigid sense of time and humanity’s place amongst nature with such a stunning backdrop. In effect, the Isle of Skye is a playground where you can appreciate the best of what Scotland has to offer; from cuisine to scenery, wildlife, hospitality and of course, whisky.

Ah yes, whisky. The water of life has a been part of the fabric of Skye since records began, as it has across the Scottish isles. Distilleries on Islay will paint a picture of their illegal endeavours before descending into legal distilling in the early 1800s. But on Skye things were more cavalier and beyond the reach of the law. Talisker once was a formidable distillery. You do get a sense of time and place if you venture along the winding roads towards its outpost location. Let’s not forget the new upstart in Torabhaig that is due to release its first whisky early in 2021. This will be heavily peated and having tasted their new make, I’m very intrigued.

Some of my fondest memories on Skye are simply being at a bar with a dram (most likely Talisker given the setting) and enjoying the company of locals and strangers. Times that seem so far removed from today’s reality of COVID-19. The comfort of a roaring fire and the sound of laughter reverberating off ancient stone walls. And if you’re lucky, very lucky… local musicians may congregate for an impromptu collaborative session that unites onlookers in their appreciation of living in the moment.

Such moments are a wonderful reward for visiting Skye and appreciating what it can offer. A well-established event on Skye is the Festival of Small Halls, where venues across Skye and nearby Raasay, welcome Scotland’s finest traditional musicians, writers and visual artists to the remote rural townships in celebration of St Andrew’s Day and highland culture.

Faced with the difficulties of COVID-19 that has ravaged tourism across the world and limited internal travel. Marie Lewis, creative director and her team, have decided to take the festival online for 2020. Teaming up with Aeneas O’Hara of Away from the Ordinary, they’ve brought together the unique Scottish marriage of music and whisky to create an unforgettable evening on 27th November entitled Whisky with Tunes. With the event and festival itself very much within touching distance, I caught up Marie and Aeneas, who are family friends, to talk about their plans and what’s in store.

MALT: Can you give us a background on the festival, what it represents and offers?
Marie: With its themes rooted in people, place and performance, the SEALL Festival of Small Halls began in 2018 and is traditionally an eight-day multi-artform winter festival bringing Scotland’s finest traditional musicians to remote village halls on the Isles of Skye and Raasay during the low tourism season.

The success of the festival led to sold-out performances last year and won SEALL the 2019 BBC Alba Scottish Traditional Music award for best community project.

The festival is a civic celebration of the music and living traditions of a unique Highland culture, connecting our remote rural communities to themselves, to the musicians, to visitors and to the outside world. The festival has revived the historical use of the rural village hall as an important gathering place for communities (the ceilidh); encourages a strong and positive community spirit; gives visitors a unique and memorable cultural experience; provides live performance opportunities for rising local talent; nurtures and inspires Scotland’s traditional musicians; and gives everyone an opportunity to celebrate Scotland’s National Day together.

We have also added a Whisky and Tunes event this year, which is a first for Small Halls. We have partnered up with luxury travel company Away from the Ordinary who will host the evening of music and whisky tasting on 27 November. We wanted to provide an ultimate cultural experience and showcase Scotland’s traditional heritage through music and one of the most popular exports on the planet.

For Small Halls 2020, we have reimagined and adapted the festival through innovation and digital technology without the necessity of physical gathering and within Government safety guidelines.

This year between the 26-28 November Scottish music giants Hamish Napier, Inge Thomson, Su-a Lee, Rachel Newton, Lauren MacColl, Megan Henderson, Seàn Gray, Angus MacKenzie and Ewan Robertson will perform three live-streamed concerts; one from the small and charming Braes hall and one from the magnificent drawing room of Dunvegan Castle on the 26 and 27 November. On the 28 November, the festival will present its popular St Andrew’s Night Cèilidh online. The musicians will also deliver a number of digital workshops to schools and vulnerable groups during their time on the island.

MALT: From my time earlier this year on the Isle of Skye, everyone was following the COVID-19 rules extremely vigilantly, which put some parts of the mainland to shame and even more so south of border. What has been the impact on Skye – a tourist destination – due to the pandemic?
Marie: As one of Scotland’s most popular tourist destinations, Skye’s economy is largely at the mercy of visitor numbers. Last year, visitors brought in £211 million to the local economy and supported 2,850 full-time equivalent jobs.

This year has seen our tourism industry collapse which has led to a 421% rise in unemployment on the Island and a sharp increase in food and fuel poverty across the townships, well above the national average.

Skye is usually very busy, especially from Easter to November, and it was so sad to see empty restaurants and hotels, quiet roads and an absence of excited holidaymakers over the summer months.

Although the pandemic has decimated our tourism industry as well as one of our care homes, Skye has a very strong community spirit and people generally look out for each other. Ironically, Covid-19 has helped to reinforce bonds between neighbours, forged an island-wide resilience and reminded us all that we live in a very unique and beautiful place which needs to be cherished.

MALT: We’ve seen many festivals defer until 2021, yet you’ve decided to forge ahead and take the event online. How much of a challenge has this been and how has the response been? How important is the Festival to the population on Skye?
Marie: People need performance, in all its forms, to connect together. This pandemic has taught us it is performance that has helped people to process the collapse of their world as they know it. People who have felt disconnected, anxious, remote and isolated when the world locked down have found solace and meaning in performance and this is evident in the way individuals from across the world have used performance to connect socially, co-operate and feel empowered. So, we decided that rather than cancel the festival for this year, this very special cultural showcase will be made readily available to the world online.

As promoters of live events, taking this online has been slightly nerve-wracking and a huge steep learning curve, but we have a fantastic team and an amazing professional film and live-stream crew working with us to translate the atmosphere and pleasure of Small Halls into immersive virtual events. We are excited and feel that we have added many new strings to our bow!

The response has been heart-warming, we have had so many lovely comments from our festival audiences, both local and visitors, and from the musicians. It feels very much like the right thing to be doing right now, on so many levels.

MALT: Part of the appeal of the small halls are the venues. There’s a wonderful atmosphere from my time on Orkney and live music in such environments. You’ve invested in a professional film crew to capture these broadcasts from Braes Hall, Dunvegan Castle and the Sligachan hotel. What are your plans for these shows and why these particular venues?
Marie: Each concert will be unique and the different settings will help to convey that. I don’t want to give away too much now and spoil the surprise! The musicians will be on Skye for 5 days prior to the concerts to make new arrangements and music for each event, so the work is carefully curated to reflect each venue.

We chose Braes hall because this is one of our most popular venues and well-supported by its communities. This charming wee hall is in an area of historical importance to Skye and was once a schoolhouse built-in 1862. It has a wonderful atmosphere and a perfect example of a small hall on Skye.

The magnificent drawing room of Dunvegan Castle is a place of splendour, ancient history and beauty. Dunvegan Castle is one of Skye’s top visitor attractions and one of the greatest castles in the Hebrides and is the ancestral home of Clan MacLeod. Formerly the great hall, the castle’s drawing room dates from the latter part of the 14th century and provides a unique and stunning setting for our festival concert on 27 November.

The iconic Sligachan Hotel has been hosting the Small Halls Big Ceilidh since the festival started in 2018. Situated at the foot of the Sligachan Glen and surrounded by possibly the most dramatic scenery in Scotland, the atmosphere is warm, welcoming and relaxed. The hotel’s Seumas’ Bar is the ideal venue for a huge celebration.

MALT: Most of the musicians will be unknown to our readers although I recognise Rachel Newton, can you give us some insight into what they each bring?
Marie: Each year we invite eight or nine musicians to participate in the festival, who have not necessarily made music together before. They are all at the top of their game, based in Scotland and have toured and worked worldwide. We offer them a residency in the run-up to the festival, where they create new arrangements and music for the festival. They are tradition bearers and innovators; storytellers and singers in Scots, Gaelic and English; Step dancers; multi-instrumentalists; theatre-makers; performers and torchbearers; they all have an innate sense of place.

Inge Thomson is a composer, producer, lyricist and multi-instrumentalist working across genres and bringing an edge to performance with her innovative approaches.

Flautist and pianist Hamish Napier is renowned for his rich tone, expressive variations and pioneering approach to traditional music.

Highly celebrated cellist Su-a Lee stands out for her versatility and appetite for musical adventure! She is Assistant Principal Cello with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Seán Gray sings, plays flute, whistle and guitar touring throughout the world, writing commissions for Celtic Connections and in high demand as a session musician.

Singer and harpist Rachel Newton specialises in interpreting traditional folk songs in Gaelic and English and writes and arranges her own music.

Guitarist and singer Ewan Robertson is a member of renowned trad band Breabach and captivates with his stagecraft and dynamic playing.

Skye based Angus Mackenzie is a celebrated piper and member of Gaelic supergroup Dàimh and an integral part of the West Highland music scene.

Megan Henderson hails from a Highland musical dynasty and plays fiddle and piano, stepdances and sings. She is also a member of Breabach and Salsa Celtica.

Lauren MacColl is considered one of Scotland’s most expressive fiddle players whose performances are emotive and engaging.

MALT: Personally, whisky and music are intertwined, especially live music. Both represent Scotland and its universal appeal. You’ve brought both together for the Whisky & Tunes event. It seems a perfect marriage – can you outline what the event will offer? I see you are encouraging questions how to you plan to encourage online interaction and what format will it take?
Aeneas: Some of our earliest childhood memories of growing up in the highlands involve music and whisky. Whether it was at a ceilidh in the local village hall on the mesmeric peninsula of Ardnamurchan, or my dad playing the guitar and drinking Lagavulin in the house with friends or legends like Farquhar MacRae, Fergie MacDonald and Charlie MacFarlane playing at local events. Nowadays I am blessed to be the uncle of the incredibly talented musician and bagpipe maker Malin Lewis (nominated for the award of best young Traditional Musician in Scotland 2020). I should also mention that at my wedding where there was lots of whisky (and 6 bottles of Widow Jane Bourbon) and we had the fantastic Glenfinnan Ceilidh band playing doing the ceilidh calling. So to my mind, music and whisky go together like October and rainbows do in the Highlands.

Virtual music events and virtual whisky tastings have blossomed separately during this pandemic, as far as I am aware though this is the first iteration of them blending together. This is one of the events, I am most excited about hosting (ever!).

As to what people can expect; it is 5 whiskies and 5 tunes and as the incredible musicians will be drinking the same whiskies as the lucky attendees, in true Highland style there might just be an extra tune at the end. The idea is to be introduced to the first dram, then enjoy it with the music and then we all drink, listen and repeat 4 more times.

I find that the more interactive sessions are and the more involved the guests are and therefore the better the tastings are. So folk can type questions about whisky, music or Scotland into the chat and while the musicians play I will read these and we can answer them after each song.

MALT: Will there be an audience as such? What has been the response from the musicians to the format and the lack of a crowd in such intimate venues?
Marie: Sadly, there will be no audience this year, but we have engaged two well-loved broadcasters, Gary Innes and Eilidh Cormack to introduce and MC the live-streamed events. They will be the connection between the live stream, performers and audience. Gary will even be drawing a raffle on Saturday night at the Ceilidh!

MALT: You have a variety of ticket options available, even for those that god forbid, don’t like whisky! If successful, which we all hope it is, do you anticipate the online aspect become a feature of future festivals?
Marie: In an uncertain future, it is important to adapt and to continue delivering a programme of performing arts while supporting Scotland’s artists; showcase Skye’s unique rural communities, and keep Scotland’s cultural heritage alive and relevant. We must find new ways of engaging and working with new and existing audiences.

We do not want our new methods of delivering performing arts to audiences to be a mere crisis response but an ongoing strategy for change and adaptation towards building audience confidence, community and organisational sustainability. We see this greater online presence as an opportunity to be fully inclusive in our programming and reach a targeted and limitless worldwide audience. We wish to continue to deliver exciting events both on and offline into the future.

MALT: Apart from UK tickets, you’ve also managed to include a Stateside option for those wanting to participate from the other side of the Atlantic was that a logistical nightmare?
Aeneas: When we first realised that we could no longer bring international clients to Scotland, we quickly decided to bring Scotland to the people. In the Spring we had some logistical headaches in bringing whisky to our international clients (not at all apparent to them I hasten to add!). Through that we have built up a network of passionate whisky partners and new friends, so now things are pretty seamless. In 2020 we have been on a virtual whisky journey bringing over 50 different Scottish distilleries to over 500 enthusiasts all across the globe. During a time when travel stopped, we were able to increase the love for Scotland via Scotch and stories and now we are adding music into the mix.

MALT: Any clues as to what whiskies will be on offer? Will Aeneas O’Hara finally open that Daftmill? There must be a Talisker on the menu?
Aeneas: I promise Jason that the inaugural Daftmill you mention, will be opened when the Kingdom of Fife is an independent principality again and either you or Francis Cuthbert are proclaimed its rightful King. As for Talisker, it has rightfully featured a lot in my tastings this year, however, I felt for this one that it would be a little too easy. So once travel opens up again people will just have to taste it for themselves on Skye, since as you know yourself, it tastes better on the island. I can tell you that there will be a Deanston 18 which was proclaimed on one of my previous tastings as being like the whisky equivalent of drinking butter (this was meant in a complementary way rather than inferring an immediate cardiac arrest). We will also feature Glenlossie a distillery close to my heart, a red wine cask finish which is another favourite whisky expression of mine and a fantastic distillery which has a connection to the ancient kings of Scotland.

MALT: Finally, what would you say to those that don’t like traditional music or expect it involves lots of swords and choreographed kilt dancing?

Aeneas: We have moved on a lot from the days of Brigadoon Jason, but regardless… tell me who doesn’t love a sword and a kilt?

The Scottish Trad music scene is so vibrant, and fully embraces the 21st century with lots of musicians bringing their own unique take to the tradition. Added to this is the guaranteed great craic and banter you will always get from these performers. There are great tunes and there are also great stories to accompany them!

My thanks to Marie and Aeneas for their time and efforts to deliver this memorable event and festival. For more information please visit SEALL Small Halls, or for festival tickets here and hopefully I’ll see you there with a dram, or at least on Isle of Skye, one day.

Images kindly provided by SEALL Festival of Small Halls and Away From the Ordinary.

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  1. Graham
    Graham says:

    Really interesting to find out more about this festival. Hopefully we can get over to Skye to experience it IRL in 2021. Good luck to all of those involved and thanks to Malt for highlighting there is more to life than shoving our nostrils in a Glencairn.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Thanks, Graham.

      Good to mix things up, which we’ll be doing more of in 2021. After all, it is becoming impossible to purchase some new releases!

      Skye is wonderful and some good nights guaranteed at this festival for sure.

      Cheers, Jason.

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