COME January and the post-festive gloom, Glasgow, in any normal year, comes alive with Europe’s biggest winter music festival. Every year Celtic Connections welcomes music lovers in their droves to its showcase of folk and roots music from throughout Scotland and the world.

However, 2021, needless to say, is not a “normal” year. With coronavirus cases on the rise, and with mass immunisation a future promise rather than a present reality, the festival’s creative producer Donald Shaw and his team had to make the painful decision to shift their great live music programme online.

They “left it as long as possible”, Shaw says, before finally conceding that a live festival wasn’t going to happen. It was in October, he explains, that they concluded that the Covid omens were not good.

By November, thanks to impressively rapid work on the part of Celtic ­Connections and its partner organisation Glasgow Life (the people who manage arts and culture on behalf of Glasgow City Council), the festival was recording concerts in venues across the city. A fabulous array of musicians, ranging from Blazin’ Fiddles and Shooglenifty to James Grant and the Hallelujah String Quartet, responded enthusiastically to Shaw’s invitation.

In addition to the festival’s famous home, the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, this year’s concerts are recorded in such venues as Glasgow City Chambers and Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Shaw is delighted to have been able to stage shows in some of the city’s “iconic spaces”.

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Acclaimed singer-songwriter Karine Polwart is among those who performed her work in the impressive surroundings of the City Chambers. “I loved it,” she says. “It was just lovely to be in a room with people.”

The people in the concert with Polwart include Eddi Reader, Rab Noakes, Siobhan Miller and Findlay Napier. The show is entitled Come Away In, after one of the songs Polwart sings in the concert.

Polwart is accompanied by her “friend and neighbour”, pianist Dave Milligan. It’s a collaboration that the singer is ­deeply grateful for,” she says.

“Most of us have been unable to ­collaborate with anyone since the last Celtic Connections festival at the ­beginning of last year. It was ­brilliant just to be able to sing with other people.

“We were all carefully socially distanced, but it was great to just to be in a room, responding to what you’re hearing, making stuff up, collaborating on the spot. You can’t do that at a distance.”

Providing musicians with that kind of morale-boosting experience was very much part of Shaw’s thinking in developing the online programme. Within the constraints created by the loss of box ­office revenue, the producer says he wanted to “try and support the Scottish music industry as much as possible”.

His invitations to film concerts in Glasgow were warmly received by Scotland’s musicians. “I’m really happy that we managed to get so much content that’s completely unique to Celtic Connections,” Shaw says.

“We got a brilliant response from musicians. There was a real sense of them wanting to get back on a stage.”

Musicians adapted to the conditions of the pandemic early on, he believes. It was, he says, “almost as a necessity” for them to connect with their fans over Zoom and other internet platforms.

However, by October, when the festival contacted them about the proposed recordings, many performers were itching to get out of their houses and on to a stage, even if there was no live audience. “A lot of musicians were tired of [performing online from home],” Shaw says, “so we had to try to push the energy and use the venues as an enticement.”

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Polwart believes the importance of Celtic Connections getting musicians together to record concerts shouldn’t be underestimated. Many musical artists have felt “quite lost” during the period of the pandemic, she says.

“I think a lot of musicians have struggled with their wellbeing, and they’ve also struggled financially. Some people have to had to give up being musicians for now and take on other work.”

Given the struggles that musicians have faced, “like everyone else”, the singer says, the promise of an online Celtic Connections has been a “wee beacon”. It is, she continues: “Brilliant that Donald and the team have been thoughtful about how to offer something to musicians.”

Celtic Connections is famous for its ­international programme, bringing ­together artists from every corner of the globe. Even in these Covid-scarred times, Shaw has been able to ­maintain an ­international dimension in the ­programme.

“We were up against it with the travel ban,” he says. “We couldn’t even bring in musicians from Ireland or Celtic regions like Brittany and Galicia because they would have had to isolate.”

NEEDLESS to say, inviting artists from further afield was out of the question. However, ever internationalist in its outlook, the festival arranged for a number of musicians around the world to be filmed playing live in their respective countries.

READ MORE: Celtic Connections: How the show goes on despite the Covid-19 pandemic

For instance, Xabier Diaz recorded his set in his home town, the famous, ­Galician pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela. Nordic folk group Dreamers’ Circus sent their set from Denmark, while the Quebecfest concert celebrates the traditional music of the North American territory.

Polwart is glad to see that there is an international dimension to the 2021 programme. Celtic Connections is usually, adding: “The one time of year when there’s this huge concentration of musicians, not just from around Scotland and the UK, but internationally.

“Things happen at Celtic Connections. Projects are formed, friendships are made.

“It’s a really big deal, not just professionally and musically. It’s about connecting with people.”

This time next year we will, hopefully, be looking forward to Celtic Connections packing Glasgow’s music venues once again. For now, however, there is a fabulous array of recorded concerts awaiting music lovers online.

The Celtic Connections online programme runs from January 15 to February 2. For full details, visit: