SO it is over for another year. The 25th edition of Celtic Connections provided some memorable experiences, introduced some new acts to follow and, perhaps most importantly, showed just how full of vitality the traditional music scene is in Scotland.

It is hard to imagine following this year’s festival just how humbly it started back in 1994.

Originally the brainchild of Colin Hynd who was seeking a way to fill the then fairly new Glasgow Royal Concert Hall during the traditionally quiet post-festive period, the timing and nature of the festival drew criticism early on. Many believed that attempting to entice punters out into the cold, dark January nights to listen to folk music was an enterprise doomed to failure.

However, despite the naysayers, a few hundred people packed into the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall for the inaugural staging.

That first festival was confined to one venue in which 66 events were staged, drawing in 27,000 customers. This year’s festival, in contrast, took place over 28 stages, included more than 350 events and drew crowds of more than 130,000.

In 1994, folk music itself was enjoying something of a quiet revival. Unbeknown to many, a scene was developing, centred chiefly on Edinburgh, and the Tron Bar in particular, where a new generation of traditional musicians were taking the beats of house and techno music, the rhythms of the subcontinent and fusing it all with elements of jazz to reinvent Scottish folk music. That this sea-change should occur just as Celtic Connections was being launched can, with hindsight, appear to be a fortuitous slice of synchronicity.

Not that the festival was without its troubles during the early years. A Herald article from as late as 2006 laments the cancellation of a raft of concerts, by Isla St Clair, Barbara Dickson and Deacon Blue. That year even the opening concert had to be cancelled, something that is unthinkable today.

The Herald article did, however, note that the festival had “despite its problems, still attracted more than 100,000 people. More than 1500 artists played at more than 300 events in the eight venues across Glasgow”.

Standing in the SSE Hydro on Saturday January 27, it is hard to believe how far the festival, and the music has come. Almost 13,000 people came together that night to celebrate the work of a man who was at the forefront of the new Scottish folk music and whose influence still resonates today, 13 years after his death.

The GRIT Orchestra’s Bothy Culture and Beyond, a celebration of Martyn Bennett’s Bothy Culture album, was the centrepiece of this year’s festival and truly marked the distance travelled in the intervening years.

With a Cuillins-inspired backdrop, the evening began with a Skye band who one would imagine Bennett would have thoroughly approved of.

Niteworks have been creating their distinctive brand of electro-trad for several years now but this was their true coming of age. Following on from their truly unique and accomplished debut album NW, their set quickly had the audience dancing as they mixed old tunes with new, accompanied at times by Julie Fowlis and new Gaelic singing trio Sian. It certainly whetted the appetite for what was to follow, not to mention the band’s eagerly anticipated second album.

Standing in front of a full orchestra, including classical violinists and cellists, some of Scotland’s finest fiddlers, pipers and percussionists, conductor Greg Lawson reminded the audience that this unique gathering of musicians was there to play the music created by just one man. As a tribute to Bennett’s genius and scope it was perfect.

The classical musicians created the backdrop that allowed the music to soar just as Bennett managed, while the fiddlers and pipers concentrated on the traditional melodies which underpinned Bennett’s work.

To the side of the stage, trapeze artists brought the fluidity and grace of the music to life visually. An injured Danny MacAskill gently brought his stunning traverse of the Cuillins, The Ridge, to life on the Hydro’s specially constructed track, as Fiona Hunter sang Bennett’s Blackbird, the accompaniment to the stunt cyclist’s YouTube hit.

The evening finished with a rapturously received rendition of Bennett’s Chanter, from his final album GRIT. It felt important to be there. It was a joyous celebration of our culture and it felt like a landmark moment. As National columnist Lesley Riddoch said afterwards on Twitter: “Surely largest ever indoor Scots/Gaelic gig. Huge demand for our own culture only waiting for auditorium big enough.”

THE following evening saw a celebration of a different kind as Scotland’s most important community buyout was the focus at the Drygate.

Last June saw the 20th anniversary of the Eigg buyout, an event that is marked annually with a huge ceilidh on the island. The line-up from June was brought back together in Glasgow as Ja Ma Tha, Daimh, Pictish Trail, Massacre Cave and Dolphin Boy brought some typically Eigg-like chaos to the city.

All the bands on the bill had members who live on the island and it says a lot to the vitality of the community post-buyout that the performers ranged in age from the teenaged to the, well, let’s just say older generation.

As has been the case since the very first buyout celebration, Ja Ma Tha kicked things off with a traditional ceilidh. Featuring Eigg’s own Eddie Scott on spoons, the strip the willow was soon in full swing as the music, and perhaps the beer – a special collaborative brew made by Eigg’s Laig Bay Brewing Company and Drygate – loosened limbs and inhibitions.

Next up were Daimh, featuring Eigg’s Gabe McVarish on fiddle, whose raucous take on traditional music took the audience to the next level. They were soon joined by a couple of more special guests from the island, Damian Helliwell on banjo and the teenage Niamh Jobson on bass guitar.

Eigg music mogul and Lost Map supremo Johnny Lynch was up next as Pictish Trail took to the stage with an eclectic set of electro-folk before Eigg brothers Ben and Joe Cormack and their band Massacre Cave took over with what must be Celtic Connections’ first thrash metal gig.

DJ Dolphin Boy then finished things off with his unique fusion of trad melodies and hip-hop beats.

It was another celebratory occasion but as compere and Isle of Eigg Trust secretary Maggie Fyffe pointed out, while Eigg has been a success, with the population growing from the mid-60s in 1997 at the time of the buyout to 106 today, there is work to be done elsewhere.

While the people of Ulva begin their fundraising campaign to purchase their own island, the experience of Eigg can hopefully act as an inspiration and in 20 years Celtic Connections can host a similar anniversary celebration for that island and its community.

This year’s festival will be the last with artistic director Donald Shaw at the helm.

SHAW’S drive and vision has helped grow the festival from its early roots and his influence in making it one of the key dates on the calendar cannot be overemphasised. He has recently managed to secure Scottish Government funding worth around £100,000 a year for the festival which should ensure it continues to grow in the years to come.

He will remain part of the Celtic Connections team but with

a narrower remit.

“This is an exciting moment for the festival,” Shaw said. “Now that the Scottish Government Expo Fund has been opened up to us it is important that we make the most of this opportunity to develop more of the unique collaborations and one-off shows that the festival has become so well known for.

“Strengthening and expanding the festival’s programming team will support further growth, and enable us to continue to develop the festival to its fullest potential as we look forward to the next 25 years; ensuring the longevity and musical integrity of Celtic Connections.”

It has been quite a journey for Shaw. And for Celtic Connections. The wee January music festival that everyone thought would fail has grown to showcase a traditional music scene that is vibrant, exciting and vital. From 1994 to 2018, Celtic Connections has been at the heart of the Scottish folk revival. So now it seems perfectly normal for 13,000 to cram the Hydro to listen to the music of Martyn Bennett, for Elephant Sessions to sell out the Fruitmarket, Skipinnish to play to a packed Pavilion and Gaelic singers to ram the Concert Hall night after night.

How far we’ve come …