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TRADFEST - Edinburgh / Dun Eideann - 26 April - 6 May 2018

Any enthusiastic response to the announcement of the mouth-watering programme for the sixth staging of Edinburgh's Tradfest was tempered by the warning from promoters TRACS (Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland) that cuts of funding from Creative Scotland might mean that this would be the last festival in its current shape and format. The showcase for Scotland's traditional arts which has become a significant place in Edinburgh's festival calendar would be a sad loss to bear. However the continued success of the festival shown by the number of sell-outs and near sell-outs throughout the participating venues and the determination expressed by the co-curators to provide, in some form, the music, song, dance, storytelling and film that have been part of the festival brought some hope for the future of this event.

As in previous years, the Scottish Storytelling Centre was the main hub for most activities, but musical performances also continued to be held at the Pleasance and the Traverse Theatre, with many concerts being curated by the Soundhouse organisation, two by Edinburgh Folk Club and a couple staged at the Queens Hall. Filmhouse continued to host most of the showings in the ever-expanding Folk Film Gathering run by Transgressive North.

The opening night's concert, Passing It On, celebrating Scotland's Year of Young People and showcasing the tradition of handing down tunes, songs, stories and dances to the next generation, splendidly entertained a full house at the Centre with the pairings of four young talents with older performers who have influenced them. Thus virtuoso fiddler Ryan Young, who, with Jen Butterworth, had thrilled a packed Edinburgh Folk Club audience at the Pleasance the previous night, played with Marie Fielding. Brighde Chaimbeul, BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award winner in 2016, played the smallpipes alongside Fin Moore. The young Gaelic singing trio SIAN (Ellen Macdonald, Eilish Cormack and Caitlin Smith) joined Gaelic singing legend Christine Primrose who, as I write, has just been awarded an MBE in a year which has seen her first album for decades. These fascinating musical and vocal combinations were supplemented by stepdancing from Dannsa featuring Jo De Geer, accompanied by Fin Moore's smallpipes.

This was a wonderful start to almost two weeks of many memorable concerts throughout the city, the choice of the different venues each night meaning inevitably missing some exciting sounding events. At the Storytelling Centre itself, I would go on to enjoy another evening featuring the prodigious talent of Brighde Chaimbeul, whose smallpipes gelled remarkably well after little rehearsal with Lau's maestro fiddler, Aidan O'Rourke. Another highlight at the Centre was the presentation of Kirsty Law's ambitious audiovisual project, Young Night Thought. Her album's original compositions influenced by her background of Border traditional songs were deftly complemented by film in collaboration with filmmaker Daniel Warren and painter Kirsty Warren. Images in this short film include, amongst others, primary school children in the village of Heriot and glimpses of Hamish Henderson!

Another of the concerts curated by Soundhouse at the Storytelling Centre was that of Sheesham And Lotus & Son from Canada, bringing their own brand of old-time Americana to Tradfest, featuring instruments of their own devising such as the Contrabass HarmoniPhoneum alongside fiddle, banjo, sousaphone and others. Further acts from over the pond that I caught at Soundhouse's regular home in the Traverse Bar included Canadian instrumental supergroup, The Fretless, following up an impressive appearance at Celtic Connections with a well received display of musical virtuosity. There was further, more quirky, Americana at the Travers Bar from Woody Pines.

With the choice of concerts competing for attention in the evening, and a range of films on offer as well as story sessions in the Centre, I decided to concentrate in the main on acts I had not seen previously, rather than those who appear regularly at concerts or folk clubs - thus I missed Rant, Mary Ann Kennedy, Väsen and Martin Simpson. One big decision I made was to forego Duncan Chisholm's The Gathering concert at the Queens Hall to attend Shooglenifty's exhilarating performance at a packed Pleasance Theatre. This marked Eilidh Shaw's first performance with the band, taking the place on fiddle of the much missed Angus Grant - she seemed truly inspired. Kaela Rowan's multi-lingual vocals (in Gaelic, Galician and an Indic language) also added to the irresistible Shooglenifty sound, their set giving a taste of their forthcoming Indian-based album.

Amongst all the other non-musical elements on offer as part of Tradfest, such as walks and bookshop events, I was also able to attend talks at the National Library of Scotland and the Storytelling Centre, notably those by the redoubtable Professor Fred Freeman on Robert Tannahill and Hamish Henderson. One highlight of the latter talk was listening to a recording of Pete Seeger singing Hamish's Freedom Come All Ye! I also made an 'out of town' visit to a new location for Tradfest - Leith Dockers Club - which held a very well attended event, Thrawn Tales And Stubborn Songs From Norway And Newhaven, which featured the local Newhaven Community Choir with the visiting Trass Male Voice Choir, alongside storytellers Hilde Eskild and Jan Bee Brown.

This year's Folk Film Gathering focussed on the theme of A Sense Of Place, exploring connections between the experience of communities and the landscapes they live in. As in previous years, most films were preceded by live traditional music. The range of the films covered Italy, France, Alaska and Scandinavia as well as Scotland and England. The 12 films and two special events continued several days after the official end of Tradfest and continued to pull the crowds into Filmhouse. Of the two special events, A Flyting Of Screen And Sang featured short archival films from the National Library of Scotland featuring crofting in townships, Eriskay and Glasgow in the fifties accompanied by Rachel Newton on harp and Arthur Johnstone and Brian Miller on vocals. A Sense Of Place: a Film Ceilidh hosted by the Storytelling Centre's Donald Smith, set out to explore the poetic, political and spiritual approaches to how places are shown in Scottish cinema, and mixed short experimental documentaries with songs from Jess Smith, the Traveller storyteller, and discussions with a writer and a filmmaker.

The other musicians playing before the films included Alasdair Roberts, who gave a 30 minute set before the showing of 70s folk horror film, Penda's Fen, set among the Malvern Hills. Marit Fält played before the Norwegian film, Pathfinder, and with Rona Wilkie preceding Ill Fares The Land, the 1983 film about the evacuation of St. Kilda directed by Bill Bryden, with music by John Tams. From the same year came Newcastle-based Amber Films' Byker, a documentary by photographer Sirkka-Liisa Kontinnen, who returned to Byker in 2010 to shoot a follow-up documentary, shown with the original at the Gathering. Talking with one of the team behind the Film Gathering afterwards, I was assured that he would be inviting Amber Films back next year; clearly confident that whatever happens with the rest of Tradfest, the Gathering will be returning.

The final film of the Gathering, as with previous years, was in the Scottish Storytelling Centre with the return of Timothy Neat and his documentary, Hallaig: The Poetry And Landscape Of Sorley Maclean, introduced by Gaelic specialist John Stuart Murray and followed by a discussion with Timothy. This celebration of one of Scotland's most important cultural figures and the landscape that shaped him provided a fitting end to the Folk Gathering and this year's Tradfest, which hopefully won't be the last. During the last six years Tradfest has become a treasured part of Edinburgh's year of festivals, attracting visitors and participants from all over Scotland and beyond, and it will be sorely missed if it is the end of the road.

Neil Hedgeland