An Lanntair’s Head of Performing Arts and Cultural Projects Alex Macdonald tells us about the history and development of the Hebridean Women project at An Lanntair.
To celebrate the opening of An Lanntairs new building in 2005, we were given the opportunity to devise new projects which would also form part of our opening programme of events. This was both a challenge and a pleasure, as personally I am never happier than when creating productions to go onto our stage – as opposed to booking them in. It also gives us the opportunity to work directly with artists and for a longer period of time, and I knew exactly what we should do.
The Hebrides seem to have produced the highest concentration of world class traditional singers per square mile. Every island has its gems, but in the first instance I decided to focus on Lewis, and on the females, as we have many of note. It also presented the opportunity to research songs about women as a theme, the material selected by the artists reflecting all aspects of the Gaelic tradition. Importantly, the project was also intended to be a workshop, ‘master and apprentice’ style of learning, or a method of sharing of knowledge that would be just sheer fun.
And so “Lewis Women” was born – becoming our first ever sold out show in the new premises.
It had come as a surprise to me that at the time I contacted the first group of ladies – Mary Smith, Christine Primrose, Anna Murray, Eilidh, Gillian and Fiona Mackenzie – that although they all knew each other, some had never worked together before. It was an assumption I had made, so enabling these connections has become the heart of this project, where the younger singers can collaborate with their elders, the older singers encourage the young, and there is a selfless sharing of material. In particular, Mary Smith is a powerhouse of musical knowledge and has always assisted the singers whether she is taking part that year or not.
Lewis Women then naturally extended to become Hebridean Women and over the years has had an impressive list of participants including Isobel Ann Martin, Fiona Mackenzie, Catriona Watt, Linda Macleod, Jenna Cumming, Julie Fowlis and the late Ishbel Macaskill. In addition, Jane Hepburn has provided musical accompaniment and Jayne Macleod, some lively stepdance to compliment Anna Murrays piping. We have, of course, also invited the men to play a part, with Andy Yearly and Alex Tearse amongst the accompanying musicians who have been “honorary Hebridean Women” during that time. (Norrie Maciver went so far as to wear a blonde wig for the occasion).
It is also a genuinely satisfying project to work on, with some of the artists known to me from their school days, so seeing them on our stage for the first time is always a special moment. As are the specific collaborations, or the times everyone works together on the “Island medley”. But most of all it’s the times when you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium as each singer took their solo slot. It’s a true measure of a project when you can’t honestly say one performance has outstripped another, as all of our Hebridean Women singers have been world class, and it’s a project that An Lanntair are very proud of.
Lastly, I should give special mention to the Hebridean Celtic Festival, who have supported the project on many occasions and this year is no different. As part of July’s festival programme in An Lanntair, we will see Lewis singers Ceitlin Lilidh and Josie Duncan join the ranks, with Cathy Ann Macphee and Kathleen Macinnes representing Barra and Uist respectively. I am sure it will be another great evening, not least because it’s a wonderful way of showcasing our local artists, celebrating our culture, and enabling a very special type of collaboration to occur.
You can buy your tickets for this year’s Heb Women event at Heb Celt’s website – https://www.hebceltfest.com/booking/