With St Andrew’s Day just around the corner, we caught up with SEALL Creative Director Marie Lewis to get a wonderful insight into Skye’s award-winning, community-focused, multi-arts event Festival of Small Halls and how it’s been adapted and reimagined for 2020.
The festival is supported through Scotland’s Events Recovery Fund and is supported by this year’s Blas Festival, Creative Scotland, the PRS Foundation's The Open Fund for Organisations and a host of local businesses and communities.
Festival of Small Halls 2019. Image credit: Sandy Butler
Can you tell us a bit about the history and aims of the Festival of Small Halls?
With its themes rooted in people, place and performance, the SEALL Festival of Small Halls began in 2018 and is traditionally an eight-day multi-artform winter festival bringing Scotland’s finest traditional musicians to remote village halls on the Isles of Skye and Raasay during the low tourism season.
The success of the festival led to sold-out performances last year and won SEALL the 2019 BBC Alba Scottish Traditional Music award for best community project.
The festival is a civic celebration of the music and living traditions of a unique Highland culture, connecting our remote rural communities to themselves, to the musicians, to visitors and to the outside world. The festival has revived the historical use of the rural village hall as an important gathering place for communities (the cèilidh); encourages a strong and positive community spirit; gives visitors a unique and memorable cultural experience; provides live performance opportunities for rising local talent; nurtures and inspires Scotland’s traditional musicians; and gives everyone an opportunity to celebrate Scotland’s National Day together.
The Festival is set to take place online from 26-28 November, can you tell us about what audiences can expect from this year’s event?
For Small Halls 2020, we have reimagined and adapted the festival through innovation and digital technology without the necessity of physical gathering and within Government safety guidelines.
This year Scottish music giants Hamish Napier, Inge Thomson, Su-a Lee, Rachel Newton, Lauren MacColl, Megan Henderson, Seàn Gray, Angus MacKenzie and Ewan Robertson will perform three live-streamed concerts; one from the small and charming Braes hall and one from the magnificent drawing room of Dunvegan Castle on the 26 and 27 November. On the 28 November the festival will present its popular St Andrew’s Night Cèilidh online. The musicians will also deliver a number of digital workshops to schools and vulnerable groups during their time on the island.
We will engage two well-loved broadcasters, Gary Innes and Eilidh Cormack to introduce and MC the live-streamed events. They will be the connection between the live stream, pre-recorded content, performers and audience.
The Small Halls Big Cèilidh, celebrating St Andrew’s Night, is part of St Andrew’s Fair Saturday and will be raising money for the SEALL@Home project, which uses performance art to tackle loneliness and isolation.
We have also added a Whisky and Tunes event this year, which is a first for Small Halls. We have partnered up with luxury travel company Away from the Ordinary who will host the evening of music and whisky tasting on 27 November.
The concerts are being hosted at three very different venues on Skye – Braes Hall, Dunvegan Castle and the Sligachan Hotel. Why did you choose these venues and are you excited to be sharing them with a global audience?
While we are unable to gather safely, our livestreamed concerts have to deliver the same unique cultural experience to online audiences as they do to live audiences. We knew we had to find new ways of engaging and working with new and existing audiences, while continuing to meet their expectations and aesthetic values without dropping our high standards.
We chose Braes hall because this is one of our most popular venues and well-supported by its communities. This charming wee hall is in an area of historical importance to Skye and was once a schoolhouse built in 1862 a perfect example of a small hall on Skye.
The magnificent drawing room of Dunvegan Castle is a place of splendour, ancient history and beauty. Dunvegan Castle is one of Skye’s top visitor attractions and one of the greatest castles in the Hebrides and is the ancestral home of Clan MacLeod. Formerly the great hall, the castle’s drawing room dates from the latter part of the 14th century and provides a unique and stunning setting for our festival concert on 27 November.
The iconic Sligachan Hotel has been hosting the Small Halls Big Cèilidh since the festival started in 2018. Situated at the foot of the Sligachan Glen and surrounded by possibly the most dramatic scenery in Scotland, the atmosphere is warm, welcoming and relaxed. The hotel’s Seumas’ Bar is the ideal venue for a huge celebration.
Dunvegan Castle, Isle of Skye
What have been the biggest challenges and opportunities faced when putting this year’s festival together during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Uncertainty has been the biggest challenge SEALL has faced this year. In an indefinite future, we feel it is important to maintain adaptable strategies to continue delivering a programme of high quality performing arts while supporting Scotland’s artists; showcase Skye’s communities; and keep Scotland's cultural heritage alive and relevant.
People need performance, in all its forms, to connect together.
This pandemic has taught us it is performance that has helped people to process the collapse of their world as they know it and to grieve during and after this virus outbreak. People who have felt disconnected, anxious, remote and isolated when the world locked down have found solace and meaning in performance and this is evident in the way individuals from across the world have used music, literature, drama and dance to connect socially, co-operate, reinforce their cultural identity and feel empowered.
These phenomena strongly demonstrate that the arts have a wonderful capacity to connect and adapt even in the most extreme circumstances. Moreover, art can help people to overcome adversity together, maintain social cohesion, build community resilience, inspire and lift spirits.
With social distancing and hygiene restrictions currently imposed on large gatherings, the live concert experience is forced to go online, but is proving successful throughout the industry sector. There is no reason why the Small Halls experience cannot be emulated virtually by careful planning and professional production methods.
Skye, the Island, is a strong brand on the international tourism platform and SEALL is garnering an increased interest as an important national cultural organisation with a clear vision and direction. Small Halls is viewed by the Scottish traditional music community as a prestigious event to be involved with. Great music, a positive authentic cultural experience, the warmest of welcomes and the beauty of Skye’s remote landscapes and seascapes are an irresistible lure for all participants.
Can you tell us more about this ongoing outreach project?
SEALL is fundraising to provide free online (at present) performing arts sessions, concerts and workshops to vulnerable people on Skye. There are unfortunately many people in our very rural communities who are in danger of losing touch with their world. The Covid 19 global pandemic has worsened their feelings of isolation, compromising any positive physical and mental states of their wellbeing.
These can be lonely and depressing times for many and it is so important that our most isolated residents remain connected to their communities, share their lives with others and even make a few new friends through music, song and laughter.
The SEALL@Home (or SEALL aig an Taigh in Gaelic) outreach programme is making a real and positive difference to the emotional and physical wellbeing of our communities' vulnerable people and those who have become socially isolated from their networks and friends.
And lastly, do you have any practical tips or advice you’d like to share with organisers looking to deliver hybrid or digital events in the current climate?
Translating the atmosphere and pleasure of Small Halls to a digital audience requires careful planning and the adoption of technology and procedures that are new to us.
We feel there is no reason why an online audience cannot have all the benefits of a live and immersive concert experience without having to physically gather.
After safety first, the emphasis should always be on quality of the audience experience: quality and high professionalism of artists, presentation, content, delivery, production teams, equipment, connection and audience engagement.
There is a massive choice of live content available on social media and the internet at the moment and it is important to think ahead of the competition and produce an immersive, joyous and highly entertaining livestream that is TV quality at least.
The beauty of an online event is that there are no limitations of access to a live event. Online events naturally embrace equality, diversity, inclusion and transcend geographical boundaries.
SEALL Festival of Small Halls is supported through Scotland’s Events Recovery Fund, designed to help Scotland’s events sector plan and deliver events through to the end of 2021. To find out more on how to apply visit: https://www.visitscotland.org/events/funding/recovery-fund
Find out more about St Andrew’s Day and Scotland’s Winter Festivals activity and virtual events at https://www.scotland.org/events/st-andrews-day