Celebrating Celtic Connections: A Very Short History

The musical feast which is Celtic Connections is starting this week, running from 19th January to 5th February 2023 in Glasgow, and welcoming acts from all over the ‘Celtic’ world.  Soundyngs is taking a few minutes to think about this fabulous festival, and its place in Scottish musical life.

  • “Celtic Music” Time

In 1990, Glasgow enjoyed a fresh injection of funding, and international promotion as the European Union ‘City of Culture’, and this was a year which in many ways transformed how the city was seen both by its own people and further afield.  Many decades of struggling with the legacy of heavy industry decline and slum clearances had given Glasgow a reputation as a rough and poor place, albeit one with warm and friendly people; a city culturally lagging behind the capital Edinburgh and its international summer festivals.  1990 gave the city and its people an opportunity to rebrand and remake itself as a more confident modern city, and Celtic Connections is one sign of the success of this.  Glasgow’s stride into more confident modernity drew on the deep resources of tradition.

Founded in 1994, Celtic Connections is a winter rather than a summer festival; not quite happening at the winter solstice, but still in the dark time of the year when ancient fires needed to be stoked and relit.  That January is also, for Scots, the month when ‘Burns Night’ is annually celebrated in poetry, music and feasting was no doubt also a factor; as was the search, in 1994, for new audiences in a month that is usually a low point for commercial live-music venue ticket sales post-Christmas.  The festival lasts for just under 3 weeks, and celebrates not only Scottish folk and ‘roots’ (traditional) music, but also welcomes in musicians from other fellow roots/folk/trad cultures from around the world.  Concerts are augmented by a busy education programme, which encourages young people from surrounding schools to experience live music.  The Festival looks to build new as well as to maintain and attract existing and related music event audiences.  All streams meet in Glasgow, under the banner ‘Celtic’.

  • “Celtic Music”?

The sobriquet ‘Celtic’ doesn’t fully describe ALL the music programmed at the festival, but it does capture a core identity and a recognisable brand.  ‘Celtic’ is both an historically reconstructed identity, and an aspiration.  As an historical identity, it might embrace peoples scattered across Europe from ancient migrations through eastern Europe, Germany, Breton France and Galicia in Spain, Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, before branching out over the oceans to all points west and south whence settlers emigrated as a Celtic diaspora.  ‘Celtic’ languages broadly include Scots and Irish Gaelic, Manx, Cornish, Welsh and Breton; but the regions with ‘Celtic’ pasts extend beyond these linguistic heartlands, and affectively extend into many non-Celtic regions.  The festival attracts an international audience; even in 2022, a year when live attendance was still well down because of COVID-19, Creative Scotland (Scotland’s main creative arts funding body) found that online performances reached viewers in 31 countries (Creative Scotland, 2022) including places with no clear ‘Celtic connection’ such as Japan.  What is it that attracts so many people to a festival of ‘Celtic’-tinged music?

According to Catherine Matheson (2008), the idea, and experience, of a ‘Celtic’ festival can both engage local festival-goers, who share Scotland’s particular identity within its devolved UK context, and also speak to a global touristic appetite for “rooted” identity: both local and more mobile outsider identities can be enjoyed and strengthened through ritual sharing of accessible, popular, live music, whose informal and often intimate style of performance invoke a sense of shared community. ‘Celtic’ music can paradoxically be simultaneously new and old.  The term ‘Celtic’, she suggests, provides a convenient, internationally-recognisable short-hand for a musical experience that is deep rooted, long-lasting, and affectively ‘authentic’.  In short, ‘Celtic’ music for festival-goers signifies a common idealisation of ‘roots’.  This makes “Celtic” branded music a succesful touristic commodity, aligning it with the tastes and aspirations of people, internationally, who might be looking for such ‘rootedness’ (Matheson is writing for a journal interested in tourism).  This is not to say that this isn’t fabulous music – or even, that to many, it isn’t really and truly their own ancestral ‘root music’.  But it does suggest that the festival-making process can super-concentrate this affective outreach to those whose real connection with this tradition may be more affective than factual.  Beyond this, the lived experience of festival-going in itself also creates a new kind of authenticity, with live-music experience of ‘Celtic’ music (augmented online only in years of global pandemic) at its emotional heart.

But ‘Celtic’ music isn’t one singular sound; it’s a constantly evolving practice, and the Festival encourages new forms of creativity which expand the repertoire.  While famous names such as Ally Bain from the world of Scottish folk and traditional music have always featured strongly, Celtic Connections has also taken an interest in exploring how ‘Celtic’ music interacts with other traditions of ‘world’ musics to renew and reinvent itself.  Music listening and creativity flows across boundaries.  The electronic rock-bagpiping creativity of Martyn Bennett, for example, who performed at the festival in its early years before his tragically early death at the age of 33 in 2005, showed that Scottish music might be mixed with rhythms and sounds from around the world to generate new forms of contemporary dance music.  Celtic Connections celebrated Bennetts life and work in its opening gala concert of 2014.  His music was both Scottish AND international – rather like Celtic Connections itself.

  • “Celtic Music” Spaces

Culture happens in times and spaces where people meet, and Celtic Connections is blessed with some fabulous spaces for live music.  Glasgow still brands itself as a ‘City of Music’ and enjoys a UNESCO ‘Creative City’ flag; one factor that contributes to this status is the variety and number of its music venues.  For traditional and folk music performances, alongside smaller clubs and pubs, Celtic Connections’ flagship venue has been the Royal Concert Hall, opened and run currently by Glasgow Life, a publicly funded offshoot of Glasgow City Council.  Opened in 1990, the RCH replaced the cavernous St Andrews Hall, which burnt down in 1962.  A multipurpose modern venue situated in the heart of Glasgow’s commercial space, it has a range of spaces, ranging from the main auditorium – which seats just under 2500 people – to more intimate areas that seat between 120 and 500. And, of course, a foyer where merchandise and mingling can happen.  The RCH does a remarkable job of combining the capacious with the intimate: a place to meet, talk, listen, buy, share.  From this hub other events spin out across the city, into the Tramway, the National Piping Centre, pubs, churches extant and converted (Òran Mór, for example), clubs, the City Halls, the Barrowlands, the Theatre Royal, the Old Fruitmarket, the Centre for Contemporary Arts, even Glasgow Cathedral, and – despite this being winter – encouraging festival-goers to explore the soundscapes and musical associations of the city’s streets.  Those wanting to read more about some of these spaces should have a look at the picture book Dear Green Sounds, listed below.  The one venue that is conspicuously not involved in Celtic Connections, so far, is the SEC (Scottish Events Campus including the OVO Hydro stadium).  There is something about folk and trad which resists (currently) the superheated commericalism of the mass stadium.  Folk and trad is affectively mobilised – rooted – within particular spaces and places.

There is room for a more complete history of Celtic Connections in print – featuring voices of audience, performers and organisers.  If anyone knows of one – please tell me!

Further Reading

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