The Hebridean Celtic Festival is a lot of things. It’s nostalgia, remembering revelry with friends throughout the years. It’s an excuse for islanders to have a great big party – you’ll always find a familiar face, whether squashed in front of the stage or in the queue for a cider. It’s a showcase of local hospitality to visitors from around the world, who return year after year. It’s tradition: ceilidh dancing on the street, tapping toes to Gaelic tunes, appreciating island culture.
Even if I’m not always enamoured with every musical act, the atmosphere that invades the streets of Stornoway at festival time is infectious. You don’t even need to trek to the tent to find yourself in the thick of it. People stop to gawp at circus acts, smile at the strains of fiddle tunes filtering out of pub doors, embrace the slight chaos that comes with this four-day festival every July.
When the sun comes out, as it did on Friday this year, it’s even better. People are eating, drinking, and dancing outside. Everyone smiles. It really does feel as if there’s a ‘buzz’ in the air. I chilled out over coffee with a friend on the pier by the pontoons, and watched a clown cause ripples of laughter through a crowd.
Scottish singer-songwriter Norrie ‘Tago’ Maciver launched his debut solo album in the festival office on Cromwell Street, and I stopped by to see his set – as did a whole host of others. My evening was spent sitting on a yacht moored at the new pontoons in the harbour, soaking up the sun and listening to round-the-world sailing stories from the most inspiring couple I’ve ever met.
The next day I wound my way through the Castle Grounds to the main festival arena, where the signature yellow and blue striped big top tent preens on the Castle Green. HebCelt has gone up in the world since I first sneaked off to it one Saturday night as a 16 year old: then it resembled an overly large garden party, with two white marquees, and people sitting and standing around, laughing, chatting, and sipping drinks.
Now there are various music tents – the main stage, the islands stage, and the acoustic stage – as well as stalls selling official merchandise, Harris Tweed crafts and locally made unique children’s clothes. For refreshments you can choose between cocktails or churros, Thai noodles or Hebridean tea. Young fans are kept busy by circus acts, face painting, and bouncy castles, while hay bales are strategically placed to provide a soft seat for those tired out by dancing (or drinking!).
I was mesmerised by the melodic voice of local solo artist Eleanor Nicolson (as well as shocked to discover she’s only 16), and watched as Scottish indie folk band Dante jumped energetically around the stage. The rain arrived then, but it failed to dampen the festival spirit.
For me, HebCelt 14 was split between the ‘fringe’ and the main tent – and at the former, you don’t even need a ticket to experience the festival fun on the streets of Stornoway!