HebCelt’s welcome boost to Lewis economy

Heb Celt has developed into a major event from modest beginnings. Photo credit: Paul McGinley.

For those of us who have witnessed at first hand the growth of the Hebridean Celtic Festival over the last 24 years, its arrival every July comes with a dual sense of satisfaction: one that it has developed into such a major event from such modest beginnings and, second, that it hardly ever fails to deliver on leaving you with a sense of joy.

It’s like the warm embrace of a friend you only ever see once a year.

A festival which centres on Celtic-infused music will never be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s been absolutely intrinsic to its success. Other events of similar size — even in less challenging locations than Lewis — have come and gone. But the HebCelt remains, steadfast and loyal in the face of changing fashions and changing economic demands.

Without the Celtic element, it’s doubtful it would have been able to survive, but as it is it offers something unique in the Scottish music events calendar — both in the kind of acts on show and the setting, with a floodlit Lews Castle over-looking the main site, giving it an ambience all of its own.

KT Tunstall performed as the headline act. Photo credit: Colin Cameron.

With up to 30 acts on show, performing from early afternoon to late at night, it once again provided a veritable feast of Celtic and traditional music. Now some may quibble that the music of KT Tunstall, the headline act, is not Celtic in nature – more pop-rock maybe – but the LA-based singer-songwriter is most certainly Scottish. And she got married in Skye, so that’s enough.

Maybe the biggest testament to this year’s festival is that the internationally-renown performer, with a string of hits and albums to her name, did not steal the show as you might expect.

Instead the talk of the tent was on the performances from the likes of Elephant Sessions; the country and western outfit of The Shires – always likely to prove a hit at an island event – and west coast favourites Manran and Tide Lines.

Peat & Diesel were given a last-minute billing on the main stage due to popular demand. Photo credit: Colin Cameron.

And, of course, there’s the strange phenomenon that is Peat n Diesel, three unassuming local characters whose tongue-in-cheek lyrics – like “Calum Dan and his Transit van” – have captured a mass following, particularly among the youth.

They were first scheduled to play in the small acoustics before the hordes of disappointed followers, who were simply unable to get near, persuaded the festival organisers to give them a last-minute billing on the main stage. It was again a hoot, and maybe it’s true after all that “that’s the way we do it in the Western Isles”.

The Mackenzie clan ceilidh. Photo credit: Sean Purser.

But perhaps the real beauty of the HebCelt is that it is about far more than what happens at the main site. From Wednesday to Saturday the town was alive every night into the small hours of the morning. No doubt bar and hotel staff were exhausted in the aftermath, but rather delighted in the sharp spike in takings.

The truth is that, while tourist numbers coming to the island are on the rise, the local economy is not performing great. Jobs are scarce, depopulation of the more rural communities rife.

So the estimated £1 million that the HebCelt generates is more than welcome, as well as providing a brief respite from reality and a sense of something major happening on the doorstep. But just like the visit of old friends tends to be too brief, so there is already a longing for next July.

Article by Murray MacLeod