Cliar - The History

Cliar were formed in 1999 by singers Mary Ann Kennedy and Arthur Cormack, but in truth the band’s roots go much further back than that.

During the tail-end of a pretty grim winter, in February 1992, Arthur and Mary Ann were joined by Arthur’s long-time musical partner, Blair Douglas, and Glasgow guitarist, Chaz Stewart, whom Blair had met while playing with the likes of the Zydeco Ceilidh Band.

The plan was to tour the West Highlands and Islands – gigging at night and touring schools during the day. The lack of a name for the four prompted Arthur’s wife, Shona, to suggest ‘Cliar’, after the itinerant bands of poets and musicians which used to roam the Highlands. This was all very fine, although Arthur felt compelled to translate the word as ‘wandering minstrels’ on the posters, which perhaps wasn’t quite the image they were hoping to create.

Despite cancelled ferries, charming landlords, catering to schoolchildren’s tastes in music – from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Psalm 23, and once even being mistaken for Runrig (don’t ask), the tour was a great success and all four agreed they should do it all again.

Seven years later……

…and with the assistance of the Scottish Arts Council, the four original Cliar-ites did get together again with the addition of two new members – Mary Ann’s cousin Maggie Macdonald and then-BBC-colleague Bruce MacGregor, who was later to make his name as the founder of the Highland fiddle showcase, Blazin Fiddles. An initial series of rehearsals led on to the very first gigs in Lochcarron, Ullapool and Inverness, as part of the Highland Festival.

The sound of the band was established right from the beginning with the three main singers leading individual songs and combining in spine-tingling close-harmony. Backed by harp, keys, guitar and a driving fiddle as the fourth ‘voice’, Cliar made an immediate impact with the live gigs.

The following summer, the band were involved in a major Highland Festival commission, ‘Lasair Dhè’, and it was at this point that the current pianist and harpist, Ingrid Henderson joined Cliar in something of a baptism of fire. Straight from university finals, she landed right in the middle of ‘Lasair Dhè’, a major celebration of contemporary Gaelic spiritual music, involving Cliar and choirs from all over the Highlands and Islands.

She - and the rest of the band - survived, picked up a Saltire Award for the project, and headed for Lochaber’s Watercolour studios to record the debut album. The eponymous ‘Cliar’ was released in 2000 on the Skye-based Macmeanmna label, another of Arthur Cormack’s projects.

It has since been voted the ‘All-Time’ Best Album at the inaugural Scots Trad Music Awards in Edinburgh 2003.

The second album, ‘Gun Tàmh’ was released in 2002, and a special live recording of ‘Lasair Dhè’ from Glasgow Cathedral and the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh was also released on Macmeanmna.

With a change in the band’s line-up, Chaz Stewart – having had to leave because of arthritis in his hands – was replaced by Arisaig guitarist, Ross Martin. Bruce MacGregor also moved on, but the band had two very happy years with Ingrid’s brother Allan Henderson on fiddle duties, and occasional guest appearances by Dàimh’s Gabe McVarish.

Ultimately though, and after much heart-searching, Cliar had a Damascene conversion and went the route of pipes and whistle, rather than fiddle, with the result that the newest member of the band is Hector Henderson, a piper from Portree on the Isle of Skye, and who has the dubious honour of being related to half of the rest of the band.

Touring has taken Cliar to Canada, Spain, England, Ireland, Slovenia and the USA, with the most recent major project being a tour of the Gaidhealtachd areas of Scotland and Ireland with Gaelic superstars, Altan.

With the new line-up, new representation from Donna Cunningham and Firefly Productions, and the new album, ‘Grinn Grinn’ – the band are looking forward to a whole new chapter in their adventures… and Maggie and Ingrid’s shopping itineraries.

 

 

MAGGIE MACDONALD

There are few voices in Scotland as distinctive and as versatile as that of Maggie MacDonald.

Although born in Glasgow she belongs to the Campbells of Greepe in the island of Skye - one of the most famous and accomplished families of traditional Gaelic singers in Scotland. Maggie’s many musical talents include the puirt-a-beul, or mouth music, for which the Campbells are renowned.

With this background her interest in music was nurtured from an early age.

“I remember being at a party in a totally different room from my mother and my father and I was apparently singing away quite happily when my mother came to find me because she had never heard me sing before. I was very shy then,” she says. Although she sang regularly as a youngster and joined the Islay Choir at the age of 17 it was a number of years before she realised her singing potential and her ability to fulfil it. She joined the Inverness Gaelic Choir and in 1991 attended a singing competition in Vancouver, Canada. “I started singing with the Inverness Gaelic Choir which was a good way for me to get back into singing because I didn’t stand out from everyone else. “Then I attended the Vancouver Mod and I won the competition and I suddenly thought to myself I can do this, this is where I belong” she says. With further performances Maggie continued to grow as a solo singer and in 1994 won the prestigious Gold Medal at the Royal National Mod. Many of the songs Cliar perform are sourced from the lengthy historical catalogue of Maggie and Mary Ann’s musical background. “A lot of the songs come from my family and from Mary Ann’s family. We ask my mother and her mother for material to perform and delve into the history behind the songs,” she says. For Maggie, the music of Cliar represents the fundamental elements about being from and living in the Highlands and Islands.

“The culture, history and language behind what we do is very important. The songs can be very personal and contain a lot of emotion. The music is in our blood and this is evident in the way we perform.”

 

 

MARY ANN KENNEDY

From the moment she was born Mary Ann Kennedy was destined for a life in music. “Music is my earliest memory,” she says. “I remember lying in bed at the family home in Glasgow listening to my mum, her sister and brother all singing together in the front room. For me, singing has always been part of my life.” Born and brought up in a Gaelic-speaking household in Glasgow, Mary Ann is the daughter of renowned singer Kenna Campbell.

Her development as a performer started at the tender age of six when she received her first piano lesson and a few years later, the opportunity arose to take up the harp – at the time a very unusual instrument in the traditional music world. The ease with which she performs and the professionalism she brings to the stage stem from years of experience across the musical spectrum, from performing within family circles to the rigorous training of a classical musician.

She studied piano at the Royal Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow and continued postgraduate stu dies at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester where she majored on concert harp, while researching Gaelic mouth music – a unique combination. But despite her classical training her real musical passion remains forever the traditional music of her upbringing. She is one of a handful of singers to win both Gold Medals at the Royal National Mod – Gaeldom’s premier cultural festival - and has also twice won the International Celtic Harp competition in Lorient, Brittany. She also received a Saltire Award for Lasair Dhe, a musical collaboration between Cliar and Gaelic choirs from across the Highlands and Islands which was commissioned as the finale of the 1999 Highland Festival. As well as performing music, Mary Ann is also a catalyst for other music and musicians to reach the masses through her broadcasting career. This includes presenting the popular BBC Radio Scotland show Global Gathering, where much of the show’s success stems from her passion as a musician.

“I’m discovering new stuff that’s really exciting all the time, and I think the reason I can be good at what I do in terms of broadcasting is because I can be passionate about what I’m playing,” she says. “On Global Gathering we play everything - from the most hardcore of Scottish seann-nòs song to Puerto Rican reggaeton to brassy Balkan club grooves. “The enthusiasm I have is that of a musician responding to other musicians’ work.”

For Mary Ann, Cliar represents a culmination of centuries of Gaelic tradition – the language, the culture, the tunes, the songs and the stories. Crucially though, it’s not just about looking back – for her, the songs have a contemporary relevance and the band’s approach to the music is firmly rooted in the present day. The depth of musical talent in the band, both vocal and instrumental, is unsurpassed within the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and is equally awe-inspiring whether Cliar are playing within the UK or internationally.

The band use their musical talents to bring the Gaelic tradition to all audiences – young, old, Gaelic and non-Gaelic speaking. And while performing songs passed from generation to generation has a timeless quality, Cliar bring their own unique musical inspiration and energy to each piece, transporting songs and tunes from annals of history and establishing them in the present.

“It’s also important to me that several of the group are Gaelic speakers,” says Mary Ann. “The language is not just for singing songs, it is part of what we do. It is a very important part of the band. It’s not a fad or a fashion, it’s part of us. “We sometimes deal with old songs that might not be in everyone’s repertoire but we are not backward-looking. “We look for tunes that contain a story or something about them that grabs us – that way we know we’re going to be able to put that across to a modern audience.” She continues: “During every gig that I play there is some moment, somewhere, when I think to myself I am so lucky to get to do this for a living. And it matters so much that we, the band, have all chosen to live up here in the Highlands and Islands. The place, the music and the people are all inseparable.”

 

 

ARTHUR CORMACK

Arthur Cormack is widely recognised as one of the finest Gaelic singers of his generation. A winner of the National Mod Gold Medal he has performed as a versatile and highly skilled singer at locations throughout the world.

Arthur’s love of and devotion to Gaelic – the language, culture, heritage and song – has led to the title of the busiest man in Skye.

When he is not performing with Cliar he divides his time between running Macmeanmna, a record label he co-founded, carrying out his duties as a director of the Aros Centre in Portree, a tourist centre, theatre and restaurant, and running Fèisean nan Gàidheal, an organisation providing youngsters with Gaelic arts tuition and the opportunity to take part in festivals across Scotland. He is also a board member of Bòrd na Gàidhlig and the Scottish Arts Council.

Arthur’s love of Gaelic music began at an early age. His brothers and sister would spend their formative years listening to pop music but Arthur’s interests lay on a different part of the musical spectrum.

“I was a wee bit of an oddball as a kid,” he says. “My brothers were always listening to pop music but I liked Gaelic music. Looking back, I don’t really know what it was – I just really liked the singing.”

His love of Gaelic song quickly translated itself into an ability, as a youngster, to stand up and sing in front of a crowd of people.

“My earliest singing memory is singing at the local Mod in Portree when I was seven years old.

“There is an old hall – the Black Memorial Hall – and I remember being nervous. It was very nerve-wracking.”

His confidence and inspiration as a young singer stemmed from his parents’ enthusiasm for music.

“My parents used to drag me out to local cèilidhs all the time.”

“My mother’s family were Mod singers – they took part in the Mod competitions regularly and my mother was also in a Gaelic choir.”

He was also influenced by the emergence of Gaelic groups and singers such as Runrig who raised the profile of Gaelic song and music among a wider audience.

After winning the Gold Medal at the Royal National Mod in 1983 Arthur spent much of his time touring the world with accordionist, keyboard player and composer Blair Douglas and with the band Mactalla.

The musical momentum continued and he and fellow Cliar member Mary Ann Kennedy established an early incarnation of Cliar with Blair and acclaimed electric and acoustic guitarist Chaz Stewart.

Nowadays the line-up has changed slightly but the musical skills are still as highly tuned as ever.

For Arthur Cliar represents an opportunity to take the best in Gaelic song and music to people throughout Scotland and beyond. As a singer it is also an opportunity to enjoy performing with other skilled vocalists.

“I enjoy it musically because while I always enjoyed singing solo or with Blair, it is good to get two or three singers together. The band has fantastic instrumentalists but there is so much strength in the singers. I really enjoy singing with Mary Ann, Maggie and Ingrid.

“In the wider sense Gaelic does need bands like Cliar, where Gaelic singing is such a prominent feature. It encourages people to participate and engage with Gaelic through song.

“It is also important that a band does not only do traditional stu ff or only do new stu ff. Cliar tries to do a mixture of both – new and old. Some of the songs and tunes we do go as far back as the 1600s and 1700s, while some are considerably newer.”

 

 

INGRID HENDERSON

Ingrid Henderson joined Cliar in 1999 to play piano, clarsach and backing vocals. The diverse talents of the Mallaig-born musician stem from a solid grounding in traditional music stretching back to early childhood. “Music has always been in my family so the interest was sparked there. My parents have always loved music and have always encouraged their children to play and perform.”

At the age of six Ingrid started taking piano lessons with her Grandmother and began learning the clarsach a year later. With guidance from music tutors such as Savourna Stevenson and Angus Grant, her skills as a musician continued to grow and she competed at various music festivals and Mod events. At the age of 14 she recorded her first album with her brother Allan (of Blazin’ Fiddles) and then a second album with a band they had formed, Train Journey North.

It was also during her early teenage years that she won the highly prestigious BBC Radio 2 Young Traditional award, an accomplishment which gave her musical career a major boost. “It was a major achievement at the time and was a great launch pad for getting gigs at major festivals such as Sidmouth, Vancouver Folk Festival and Dranouter, Belgium”

After the award Ingrid focused on solo performances, touring and working closely with her brother to produce a number of albums. This has since developed into more collaborative work and as well as being a member of Cliar, Ingrid performs regularly in a duo with Skye-based singer Anne Martin.

Ingrid is also involved in different elements of work relating to the Gaelic arts field. This includes media work as a performer, musical director and composer, performances, touring and recording work and teaching stints at the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music and the Irish World Music Centre. Her musical sensibility means she is much in demand as a session musician too and her name appears on many traditional recordings as a result. Ingrid’s first solo release “The Little Beauty”, co-produced with Donald Shaw (Capercaillie) was released in September 2005 on her and partner Iain MacFarlane’s own music label, Old Laundry Productions.

Ingrid’s musical inspiration is as diverse as her playing and includes local tradition bearers in her native Lochaber and various traditional, pop and rock musicians. “I listen to all types of music to broaden my range,” she says. “But I always come back to the traditional material as my passion. There is so much positive stu ff happening in our tradition today and I believe that with the Gaelic tradition and Highland music there is still a huge treasure chest to be delved into.”

“Each of us in the band has such a huge respect for this tradition we’ve been lucky enough to be born into but at the same time we are not afraid to make it current and appealing to audiences today”

 

 

ROSS MARTIN

Cliar guitarist Ross Martin is man of great musical talents who is in constant demand as a session player. He joined the band three years ago but has worked for many years on musical projects with band member Ingrid Henderson and her brother Alan. He has featured on numerous albums including Julie Fowlis’s solo work mar a tha mo chridhe, is the guitarist for Harum Scarum and is also part of the instrumental group Daimh. Ross first picked up the instrument as a 10-year old schoolboy in Arisaig.

He immediately fell in love with it and managed to acquire his own guitar which he played at home, at school and in the local church. Although he did not grow up in a musical family Ross’s love of music and passion to play the guitar was instinctive. “Only my grandfather was musical - he played the fiddle but I never heard him play,” he says. “For some reason, and I don’t really know why, I always wanted to play the guitar. “We got guitar in a music lesson at school one day and that was it.” The inner drive he possessed made Ross work hard in his own time to improve his guitar playing. “Once I got my own guitar I taught myself from there,” he says. “It tended to be pop and rock and roll stu ff - The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, that kind of thing.” It was while visiting a second-hand sale in a local hall that he realised his skills as a guitarist could be applied to other string instruments. “I  started playing the mandolin after managing to get one at a jumble sale for only 50p,” he says. “I found strings for it and then I got somebody in a local band to tune it up for me.” Although his first and favourite instrument is guitar, it was with the mandolin that he played his first gig. “I learned a few tunes on the mandolin and I played my first gig with a local band A Scatter of Halves in the Arisaig Bar when I was 14.”

The first experience of live performance was also the beginning of Ross’s journey as a traditional musician. “It was at that time that I first started playing traditional music. I had always enjoyed traditional music but I didn’t associate it with the guitar. I thought of it as more to do with fiddle and pipes.” As his skills as a guitarist and mandolin-player continued to grow new musical opportunities appeared from unexpected places.

“I was in a music class with the boys from another band and their guitarist managed to chop the top of his finger off so they asked me to play for them.” When he was not playing in a band or teaching himself new guitar skills, Ross would listen to existing tunes and arrange them, immersing himself in the process. “I really enjoy sitting and arranging music,” he says. “I might take a jazz tune and try to arrange the melody and if I could I would spend days on end doing that because I enjoy arranging music so much.” Although he spent time as a teenager playing rock and pop music Ross’s main passions are traditional music and Gaelic songs. “I have always loved Gaelic music,” he says. “I love hearing a Gaelic song whether it is being performed by a band or a solo artist. “The voice in Gaelic song is so much more like an instrument than other forms of singing.” For Ross being part of Cliar is about using music to tell people about the traditions, culture and history of Gaelic and the Highlands and Islands. “We have fantastic singers and musicians in the band and Cliar has a confidence and a natural way to what it does. “Cliar takes songs and shows them in a new light, performs them in a new way, a way that can stand up to absolutely any other form of music from anywhere. “I want traditional music as a whole to be more broadly recognised and Cliar is making a stand on that. “We are being proud about what we have in terms of the heritage, the culture and the music of who we are and where we are from.”

 

 

HECTOR HENDERSON

Hector Henderson is an accomplished and versatile piper and whistle-player from Portree in the island of Skye. Born and bought up in a well known musical family. The son of renowned Skye boxplayer Alistair Henderson he took up the pipes when he was only nine years old, continuing a family tradition stretching back many generations. “My family has been my musical inspiration - I remember listening to my uncle playing the pipes and hearing him gave me the encouragement to play,” he says.

“The pipes I play now originally belonged to my great granddad, then they were my granddad’s and I got them from my dad.” As his playing developed he joined the local pipe band and army cadet band. When he left school he briefly worked as a boat builder before attending the Royal Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow to study piping, the whistle and also the accordion. When he graduated his musical skills enabled him to build up a successful career as a musician. He formed joined the band The Harris Tweed Brogues, began teaching at the Feisean - a Gaelic music festival - and also works with children in schools throughout the Highlands and Islands as part of the Scottish Executive’s Youth Music Initiative. He finds his musical inspiration and passion in many different ways - from his family and from the established musical traditions of Ireland and the west of Scotland. “In terms of piping I get inspiration from the three brothers Iain, Allan and Angus Macdonald,” he says.

“As you become more involved in music the inspiration comes from a lot of different places. “I like to try to keep to the west coast piping traditions but when I play the whistle I try to change and use some of the Irish traditions. I like to try to keep it Gaelic.” For Hector Cliar represents the very best of Gaelic musical traditions - the stories behind the songs, the history and the emotions. The band take these fundamental elements and recreate them on stage and in the studio with energy, vigour and musical inspiration. “The Gaelic tradition is very important to me,” he says. “I very much enjoy the Gaelic tradition. “I have been brought up within Gaelic culture but in Cliar it’s about trying to take a bit of the Gaelic tradition away from it and jazzing it up a bit. “There is always a story behind every song being sung and they are usually completely captivating.”

[Gàidhlig]