FOR a northerly region of Scotland with a relatively small population, Moray – which is wedged between the historic counties of Inverness-shire and Aberdeenshire – has a surprising amount going on in the cultural field. Much of that can be accounted for by the diverse programme staged throughout the year at the Universal Hall at the famous Findhorn Foundation.

However, as the excellent Findhorn Bay Festival attests, from Forres Town Hall to Kinloss Church Hall and glorious Brodie Castle, the region bristles with venues that can host all manner of cultural events. The Festival (which ends its fourth, biennial programme today) has, like so much of Scotland’s culture, made an extremely impressive return from the Covid pandemic.

Curated with tremendous care and passion by its director Kresanna Aigner, the hefty 2022 offering has been a remarkable coming together of the local, the national and the international. From award-winning Scottish folk musician Hamish Napier (creator of the acclaimed album The Woods), to Scottish Opera (presenting one of their delightful opera highlights programmes), to outdoor extravaganza specialists PyroCeltica, this year’s showcase has been notable for its sheer cultural breadth.

Karine Polwart and Dave Milligan (who played the Universal Hall at Findhorn on Wednesday evening) are a musical pairing who would light up any festival. Polwart is one of Scotland’s finest singer-songwriters and Milligan an acclaimed pianist and composer.

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Living, as they (and a surprising number of musicians) do in the Midlothian village of Pathhead, the pair found themselves collaborating during the periods of pandemic-related restrictions and lockdowns.

A notable work – which was given a touching outing towards the close of this lovely concert – was a recording of the legendary Scottish song The Parting Glass for BBC Radio Four (presented by the great Canadian writer Margaret Atwood in remembrance of her late husband).

POLWART’S shows are characterised by her tremendous modesty and generosity of spirit. As she comments herself, her concerts are almost as much occasions for storytelling as they are musical showcases.

The National: The visual art installation Cabrach ReconnectionsThe visual art installation Cabrach Reconnections

One of the singer’s tales was about the making and unveiling of a couple of carefully socially distanced park benches in Pathhead, which were installed at the height of the public health crisis. Symbolic, she says, of her village community’s need to find ways to connect, despite the necessary restrictions, the benches, needless to say, prompted her to write a lovely song for their inauguration.

Milligan – who is a top class musician who plays across genres, but has a particular penchant for jazz – is an ideal collaborator for Polwart. He accompanies her strong, mellifluous voice with a beautifully balanced combination of energy and nuance.

LIKE Polwart, Milligan is an innovator within his craft. During one piece, for instance, he dampens the resonance of the piano strings using the “flumper dumper” (an ingenious invention of his wife’s made up of two pence pieces sewn into a receptacle made of shaneel fabric).

Elsewhere in the concert, Milligan offers an intriguing, and surprisingly effective, jazz arrangement of the First World War piper’s tune that is better known as the music of Hamish Henderson’s great socialist anthem Freedom Come-All-Ye. The pianist is equally adept whether accompanying Polwart in songs by Michael Marra, Dick Gaughan, Robert Burns or, indeed, her good self.

A Karine Polwart concert isn’t complete without audience participation, and we are duly invited to sing along with a couple of tunes. The latter of the pair is the show’s closer, the songwriter’s “small act of resistance”, Come Away In.

A humanistic hymn to hospitality and to offering shelter to those fleeing war, persecution, climate chaos and poverty, it is, surely, a song unknown within the walls of 10 Downing Street and the British Home Office.

If Polwart and Milligan’s concert was a festival highlight, it was one of many. 365: Stories & Music (which ends at 4pm today) is a wonderful idea.

COMBINING the 365 short stories (each containing 365 words) written by James Robertson (for his book published by Penguin) with traditional music by fiddler and composer Aidan O’Rourke, it involves the listener sitting down at an ingeniously simple mixing desk in the beautiful environs of Brodie Castle. Using one sliding marker for the day and another for the month, one selects a story. A dial turns to create the preferred balance of music and spoken word (by such wonderful readers as Tam Dean Burn and Marianne Mitchelson).

What a joy it is to dip in and out of Robertson’s glorious cornucopia presented in such a fabulous blend of music and speech. In one moment one can find oneself laughing out loud (as I did at Census, a story about the discovery of the widespread speaking of “pish” by the Scottish populace) and, in another, deeply intrigued by the metaphysical tale of The Blue Plaque (which has three parts, or is it two?).

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There is equal ingenuity in the visual art exhibition Cabrach Reconnections (Edinkillie Community Hall, Dunphail, until 5pm today). The work of artists Mary Bourne and Lynne Strachan, this fascinating exhibition considers the largely depopulated Cabrach, a rural area on the northern fringe of the Cairngorms National Park, a part of Moray that borders Aberdeenshire.

Rusting metal sculptures of houses with trees growing through the roofs and chimneys represent an abandonment caused, not by the notorious Highland Clearances, but by the harshness of the farming environment and the effects of socio-economic change. Extraordinary miniature homes in metal and glass give a visual sense of the homes in dereliction and the relative few that are still inhabited.

Recovered objects speak to the Cabrach’s past, a lovely touch-and-hear installation (in which one hears, among many other sounds, the hum of the large local windfarm) attests to the present and future.

That one could encounter such excellent and diverse artistic fare in just two days of the Moray showcase’s 10-day programme is testament to the Findhorn Bay Festival’s success. It is a truly good deed in a naughty world. Here’s to its return in 2024.

The Findhorn Bay Festival ends today: