Village halls are still at the heart of our Highland communities
I love village halls. I mean, where else can you hear top-class folk music in a relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere, with tea and delicious home baking at the interval? And of course, the raffle, which no self-respecting ceilidh or village hall ‘do’ would be without!
I recently attended a concert at Croy Hall, which reminded me just how much I love these community gathering places. Whether a rusted corrugated iron shack, solid stone-built Carnegie donation or a shiny, modern breeze-block edifice of the kind constructed in many communities over the last 20 years, village halls are special places.
As venues where people have gathered over generations, halls witness our life events, our celebrations, artistic endeavours and so many of the smaller everyday aspects of our lives, including toddler playgroups, community meetings, Cubs and Brownies, pensioners’ clubs, book groups, indoor sports and so much more.
In enabling us to meet, mingle, chat, share, dance, perform, discuss and listen, halls have played a big part in maintaining and promoting our cultural traditions, as well as fostering and supporting a sense of belonging and community, which in turn contribute to elements of our wellbeing, identity and mental health.
We are fortunate in the Highlands to have had, for at least a century, halls in many of our tiniest rural communities. Prior to halls, and in villages without them, folk ‘ceilidhed’ (Gaelic meaning ‘social visit’) in each other’s homes, or, as my grandparents in Lewis did in the early decades of the 20th century, met at a crossroads for a ‘danns a rathaid’ (road dance). Someone would produce a fiddle or melodeon and the dancing would begin!
We might lament the passing of those traditions as the natural means of handing on our music and the largely oral tradition, but there’s no doubt halls have allowed other aspects of community life to flourish – in any weather.
Whether attending an event or playing in a hall, I relish soaking up the atmosphere, the history, thinking of all the tales they could tell. Friends of mine live in a converted hall and how wonderful, in the comfort of their beautiful family home, to be able to imagine all the fun, dances and romances enjoyed within those walls across a century.
When our band, Dorec-a-belle, played in Rosehall Hall as part of the excellent Sutherland Sessions music series last summer, I was fascinated by the posters covering the stage back wall. Decades of touring shows were there for posterity – some of which I recalled from years ago – a veritable history of music, comedy, drama, festivals, bands and performers. I was thrilled that our wee poster was added to that heritage wall and the hall’s musical lineage.
But let’s not take any of this for granted. A vast amount of work is done by dedicated volunteers to make events happen.
From all the behind-the-scenes liaison between organisers and artistes, bookings and arrangements to be thought through and finalised, funding applications, advertising and marketing, flyers to be printed and social media to be constantly updated, through worries about turnout (weather/other events clashing), to on-the-night overseeing of everything… it’s no small undertaking.
The dynamic and energetic lady behind the Croy Live series of concerts is Alison Mackenzie, whose retirement from secondary school music teaching has enabled her to initiate and run this fabulous programme. In the lovely old sandstone hall at the heart of the village, Alison is featuring superb trad artistes, while also giving youngsters supporting opportunities and fundraising for their trips.
So, with the old adage "use it or lose it" in mind, here are some recommendations of terrific shows coming up near you. If you’re reading this on Friday, May 3, you’re just in time to get out to Croy for a concert by Aizle, a young band featuring local acclaimed and award-winning fiddler, Graham Mackenzie.
A dear friend, Christine Hanson, brings her fabulous show, The Cremation of Sam McGee, to Highland venues in May. Based on the poem by Scots/Canadian writer Robert Service, this cross-artform concert includes narration of the tale of Sam’s fiery end in the snowy wastes of Canada’s frozen north, against a stunning backdrop of visual art and Christine’s eerily fitting, original live soundtrack performed by top-class musicians.
Their tour gets under way in Ullapool’s Macphail Centre on May 9, followed by Glenuig Hall, Skye’s Sabhal Mor Ostaig and Inverness’s Eden Court Theatre on May 12.
Musical diversity continues with a show by Dremmwel, in Evanton’s Diamond Jubilee Hall on Friday, May 17. Promoted by well-known local folk musician Rob Gibson and with support from Fèis Rois, Dremmwel offer a superb blend of traditional and innovative music from Brittany, with a rich, warm sound to delight any audience and get you on your feet!
And it’s not just music. Dotted across the Highlands are halls where local people are doing hugely innovative things, including Farr Conversations in the hall at Inverarnie, and the fascinating events at Abriachan Hall discussing architecture, land, community and belonging. With a host of other events for children, older folks, amateur drama etc, we are incredibly fortunate to have so much to enjoy.
So why not come off-screen, get out there, attend a concert, go to a ceilidh, be part of it, meet people and support those who are keeping our village halls alive and well?