At last! It finally happened – Between Islands musicians performed together, live and in person, on An Lanntair’s stage as Western Isles artists Willie Campbell, Kathleen Macinnes, Jane Hepburn Macmillan, and Neil Johnstone were joined by Arthur Nicolson, Maggie Adamson and Jenny Keldie from Shetland, with Orkney’s Kris Drever and Saltfishforty completing the line-up for the opening performance of the 2021 HebCelt Survival Sessions.
“This is just phenomenal,” said Maggie Adamson. “To be able to get to do a gig after so long and to play with other people on a stage, it takes a tear to the eye actually.”
Jenny Keldie agreed: “It’s very special, particularly as we are getting to meet people that we have been working with during lockdown but have never met in person.”
And Willie Campbell added: “After all this time it’s amazing to get together, and especially because so much work has gone on behind the scenes to make it happen. The feeling of having everyone on the stage together made it really special for me and I think it’s something that we are all going to remember for a very long time.”
Devised by An Lanntair arts centre in 2015 with the aim of encouraging collaboration between the arts communities of the Western and Northern Isles, the Between Islands project has since been bringing together musicians, creatives, and academics from Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles.
A book of short stories by writers from the three island groups was published in 2017 and in 2018, for the Year of Young People, the project brought four textile students from Shetland UHI to Lewis to study the Harris Tweed industry. In return, two film students from Lewis then travelled to Shetland to record their first experiences of the islands.
During that time three different Between Islands music projects – focused on new song writing, fiddle music, and traditional song respectively – also took place, bringing together musicians from all three areas in collaboration.
Having gathered pace since its beginnings six years ago, the project secured LEADER funding in 2019, and 2020 was meant to bring big things for Between Islands, with plans to undertake a broader range of activities, including a performance by musicians from all three projects for what was to be the Hebridean Celtic Festival’s 25th anniversary.
Between Islands had also expanded to bring in Museum & Tasglann nan Eilean, Shetland Museum & Archives, and The Orkney Museum to curate and present three individual exhibitions, while a series of lectures on a variety of related subjects were taking place in conjunction with the Islands UHI network.
Then coronavirus and a global pandemic struck.
“2020 presented a serious situation for us, not least as all our work was based on inter-island travel, live events and physical exhibitions, which of course the pandemic had brought to an abrupt halt,” said Between Islands Project Coordinator and An Lanntair Head of Performing Arts, Alex Macdonald.
“But despite what had initially appeared to be an impossible situation, and having to overcome some challenging circumstances, by the end of the year we discovered there had been some very positive results, and even some benefits.”
As with much of life during 2020, as many activities as possible were moved online – including the museum exhibitions – with curators sharing text and images of artefacts that had originally intended to be a physical lend.
Alex expanded: “We were aware the museum collaboration was to have been the first of its kind in terms of involving all three areas, but it also became the museum teams first experience of preparing a large-scale online display. It was a process which proved valuable to all, and not least as the online presence opened up the work to new world-wide audiences.”
The exhibitions are available to access through the Between Islands website; which also hosts the associated free-to-download Between Islands’ Children’s Resource Pack, created by Island artists Alice Macmillan (Western Isles) and Helen Laurenson (Shetland).
A dedicated Between Islands You Tube channel was also established to release a series of short films created throughout lockdown and beyond, and most recently the project launched a new podcast series which will feature a broad variety of island related topics over the coming months.
“We were able to expand the range of films originally planned to include lectures, musical performances, and short talks on a wide variety of arts and heritage subjects,” Alex continued. “Most important of all were the interviews with people in our communities who have a working knowledge of our traditional arts – both the Fair Isle hand knitting film and the talk on the Hattersley loom in Lewis proved particularly popular, and we hope the podcast series will continue to add to these resources.
“We can also see that the films have already been accessed not only by audiences throughout the UK, but also in the USA, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia. Whilst the interest in our arts and heritage from international audiences came as no surprise, the ability to promote them collectively has undoubtedly been furthered by the online presence necessitated by lockdown.”
Lockdown proved a tough time for those working in the arts and music industries, but Between Islands helped provide work for around 40 individuals and companies during the past year through taking part in all these initiatives.
In addition to the release of a CD featuring the Between Islands musicians, a book was published at the end of 2020 featuring essays by the museum curators and UHI lecturers involved in the project, both of which are available to buy in and online at An Lanntair’s Shop.
Already a huge success, the Between Islands Project hopes to continue to deliver a wealth of new musical, cultural, artistic, and heritage inspired collaborations into 2022 and beyond.
Alex concluded: “It was particularly gratifying to finally see all the musicians on our stage for the HebCelt hybrid event as a year ago we thought it would never happen. We are also very grateful to LEADER for their support of the project to this stage and I look forward to continuing to work with all our partners across the islands for some time to come.”