An intimate setting in Stirling’s Tollbooth theatre was the location for a double bill featuring Cormac Cannon, a Uilleann piper from Galway and a performance of Jenna and Bethany Reid’s The Shetland Bus
Cormac Cannon is one of a talented group of young Uilleann pipers in Ireland today. Learning music from an early age, his influences include Galway pipers Eammon O’Broithe and Tommy Keane. He has avidly imbibed the techniques, styles and tune settings from recordings of the old masters Seamus Ennis and Willie Clancy.
At the Tollbooth on Friday we were treated not only to Cormac’s accomplished playing but a taste of his encyclopaedic knowledge of his instrument and the history of the music he plays. Highlights of the set included reels and jigs from piping greats of the early 20th Century, such as Seamus Ennis and Tom Ennis. Three Little Drummers (Tom Innes) and The Repeal Of The Union (Delaney) in particular had the audience enthralled, and there were tunes gleaned from wax cylinder recordings that would sound experimental even today. Cormac’s skills seemed all the more impressive when he confided that this was the first outing for a new set of pipes. Later in the set he was joined by Kathleen Loughnane, his mother, on harp. Kathleen is a renowned traditional musician and musical academic, with a particular interest in the music of the Irish harper composers of the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a wonderful experience, listening to this mother and son duo play together. To close the set, Cormac and Kathleen were joined by festival director Mick Crehan, on tin whistle, for a tragic tale composed by the Irish poet Raiftearaí. A pair of hornpipes from the three rounded off a highly enjoyable and educational set. Cormac’s interest in and knowledge of pipe music from the past and for the future is refreshing and inspiring.
Shetland fiddler Jenna Reid is one of the most accomplished young musicians on the traditional music scene. Best known for her solo work and as, along with her sister Bethany, part of Filska; Jenna has also performed with, to name but a few; Deaf Shepherd, Dochas, The Unusual Suspects and The Finlay MacDonald Band. Her music has also featured in the Gaelic feature film, Seachd and she’s enjoyed great success in the last two series of Transatlantic Sessions.
The Shetland Bus is a suite of music composed by Jenna and Bethany Reid to commemorate the story of the sole survivor of the Norwegian vessel, Braatholm. The Shetland Bus was the name given to a Shetland based boat operation to and from Norway that took place during the Second World War, supplying the Norwegian resistance with equipment and manpower. Jan Baalsrud was twenty-six when he and his crew of eleven men left Shetland aboard the Braatholm in 1943 on route to Norway, where they planned to join the fight for freedom in their Nazi occupied homeland. On landing in Norway they suffered betrayal. All were killed, save Jan, who then embarked an epic journey to save his life.
This compelling tale is skilfully narrated on stage in the beautiful Shetland dialect and interspersed with music that evokes the terror of his flight. The musicians, through their instruments, take on the roles of the individuals in the story with startling virtuosity and inventiveness. The physical and mental extremes and the unforgiving landscapes Jan struggled through are portrayed in music that is unmistakably Shetland in its influences and is performed in sympathy with the unfolding tale. The Reid sisters’ fiddles characterising the urgency of flight (with Bethany Reid switching between fiddle and piano), James Thomson’s flute evoking both breathless panic and the merciless arctic wind. James Lindsay’s double bass creates daunting, frozen landscapes while Iain Sandilands uses brushed snares and bowed vibes to memorable effect. The closing tune takes the form of a joyous New Nordic romp with two fiddles and small pipes bringing the tale to a dazzling finale.
This must be a difficult piece of work to present to a live audience. The timing between music and narration leaves no room for the audience to show their appreciation and the tale itself, although fascinating, is harrowing, thought provoking and vividly describes the unimaginable hardship endured by Jan Baalsrud. All the more reason to commend Jenna and Bethany Reid for developing this concept and creating this brave and unique piece of work.
To round the evening off, all tonight’s performers, and anyone else who happened to have an instrument, took to the stage for a rousing set of reels and a fine display of true sean-nós dancing by Brian Cunningham of Fuaim Chonamara.
In presenting this event tonight, the Stirling / Galway Sessions has succeeded in providing a fascinating and entertaining blend of Scottish and Irish music both ancient and modern. Jenna & Bethany Reid and Cormac Cannon have shown that while keeping their roots firmly in the past and by taking inspiration from events that are in the soul of these two nations, they can take their art into the future with authority and confidence.
Session held at Tollbooth Theatre, Stirling