Miorbhail Nam Beann
Great Glen House, Inverness
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by Margaret Chrystall
THANKS to the stunning visuals that go with Miorbhail Nam Beann (Wonder of the Mountains), the scene is set to sit back and enjoy the music and stories in praise of 18th century bard Duncan Ban MacIntyre and his natural world.
For the opening night, Scottish Natural Heritage’s Great Glen House with its high windows and hilltop outlook made a great setting for the premiere of Iain MacFarlane’s production – this year’s Blas commission – which celebrates nature, the hill of Ben Dorain and the bard who praised it in the poem that inspired the show.
Alongside Iain’s specially-composed music – including a jewel of a lament, named like the show Miorbhail Nam Beann – Duncan Ban’s own songs were mixed with a well-chosen selection of other people’s music praising Scotland’s landscape.
But there was also great music including reels and jigs on fiddle, guitar, squezebox, whistles and Hamish Napier's haunting flute, plus banter, the chance to join in and sing along plus stories that take the audience all the way through time from Duncan Ban’s story to a memory of Iain’s of playing out on the West coast.
And that same skill in linking us to distant worlds came no better than at the start of the show Iain and his three musicians – as The Donnachadh Ban Boys – dressed in their tweeds playing the opening tune on stage.
Almost magically they also appear on screen at the same time in the same outfits, sat down to play the tune in a tumbledown cottage on a green Highland hill.
But it wasn’t just any old place. Or any old tune – but Iain’s Druim Liaghart, named after Duncan Ban’s birthplace.
Iain explained: "That is his house we were sitting in, having tea and a scone – he wasn’t in himself that day!"
Introducing the bard’s own Oran do Ghleann-Urchaidh (Song To Glen Orchy), sung by Ewen Henderson, Iain wanted to be sure credit for shining a light on Duncan Ban’s work went to one major player.
"The songs of Duncan Ban MacIntyre are not secrets, they have been very well-researched over the years by the Scottish Gaelic Texts Society, they did an amazing amount of work for all of his poetry."
And equally generous with the limelight, his show makes sure that Hamish Napier, Ewan Robertson and Ewen Henderson – all talented musicians in their own right – play major roles in the tunes and songs included.
A CD that was made as a side project to the show features the group playing seven of the bard’s songs – five celebrating the landscape, one – waulking song Oran Luaidh in celebration of tweed giving us the chance to join in at the end of the first half.
And something of the bard’s own humour was present too. For the on-screen presentation of Oran Seachran Seilge (A Hunting Fiasco), Iain MacFarlane joked that for the viusal representation they had "hired a fellow called Speilberg". But the multi-talented band were then seen acting out the scene on the hill of ‘the one that got away’ complete with vintage gun.
There are many highspots in the show. One is Iain’s own lament, another is Ewen Henderson’s performance of Final Farewell To The Bens/Cead Deireannach nam Beann, complete with some extracts from the lyrics dancing across the screen, also Ewan Robertson and the others joining in with Jim Malcolm’s song Lochanside.
But as memorable as the music and the light-hearted story-telling was the sonorous, rich voice of Brigadier Iain MacFarlane – whose 26-minute recording of Duncan Ban’s Moladh Beinn Dobhrain (In Praise of Ben Dorain) has been part of the project – heard in a couple of extracts.
His namesake explained at the end among all the thanks: "At first I thought of a few people who could do it, but it soon boiled down to just one man."
Iain – dubbed "Donnachadh Daddy" by his fellow band compadres – had a final list of thanks that also included SNH’s Alastair MacGugan, also Pete Moore – responsible with film-maker Terry Abraham for the visuals.
It was also lovely to see a special poster made of Duncan Ban’s poem – and its close observations of life with the deer on the hill – complete with Iain Crichton Smith’s English translation under each verse: "Bright-hooved in the weather as light as a feather/among moreland and heather/exploring the corrie/he saunters forever/through bracken and story."
After the show, walking away from the the SNH building, a quote carved beside the path caught the eye – ‘Do something for the wilderness and make the mountains glad’, a John Muir phrase publicised since 2002 as inspiration for the trust set up in 1983 and named after him.
Miorbhail nam Beann is a show the Scottish conservation champion, now a global inspiration, would probably have liked.
In praise of nature, Ben Dorain and the bard that captured it in words, Miorbhail nam Beann is a show that feeds the eyes, ears, heart and soul.
The show can still be seen at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, Skye on Thursday, Sept 11; the MacPhail Centre, Ullapool on Friday Sept 12; Taynuilt Village Hall on Saturday September 13. For details: www.blas-festival.com find Blas also on Facebook: www.facebook.com/blasfestival and on Twitter: @blasfestival