Tom Johnstone: Lorient mornings … and evenings!

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By Tom Johnstone

The Festival Interceltique Lorient – ‘Interceltic Festival of Lorient’ in English – takes place next month from August 2-11 in the Breton town of that name. It is 10 days and 10 nights of wonderful Celtic music, shows and events. I have been the Scottish Delegate for the festival since 2008. Before me Lez Sang had the honour and before him, Dougie Alexander. There is a Muirhead & Sons connection here as both Dougie and I played in the Muirhead band, albeit at a different time from me, and the band attended the festival on a few occasions although, unlike Dougie, I was not a member of the band during those times.

My first visit was in 1976 as the young Pipe Major of Rolls Royce Pipe Band, a Grade 2 outfit. I took over from Jim Henderson who left suddenly for family reasons. Dougie had invited our band over and we had a great time. My second visit was in 1982 with the Clutha Folk Group, the first folk group to include a piper. I took over from Jimmy Anderson – another ex-Muirhead & Sons piper – in 1977.

I had a gap until 2001 when Lez was assisting Dougie and I came along to help with the piping contests. That year I judged the pipe band contest which I still do each year.

At the conclusion of the 2016 festival, Australia handed over to Scotland as the featured Celtic nation for the following year's festival.
At the conclusion of the 2016 festival, Australia handed over to Scotland as the featured Celtic nation for the following year’s festival.

At Lorient, a different Celtic nation is featured. 2007 and 2017 were the Year of Scotland. Australia featured in 2016, Wales in 2018 and this year it is the turn of Galicia

Audience numbers at the festival peaked at 850,000 visitors but I believe it would have topped 1,000,000 had the recession not hit. The festival continually evolves and improves, and a new area was formed recently where all the various Celtic nations’ pavilions are located.

From the Scottish viewpoint the festival has been famous for its very high profile McCrimmon Contest (formerly known as the Macallan Contest) together with a prestigious piobaireachd competition. Usually, we invite three leading pipers each from Scotland, Ireland, Brittany and Australia/New Zealand plus one, sometimes two, from North America

In previous years, winners have included the likes of Gordon Duncan, Fred Morrison, Roddy MacLeod, Stuart Liddell, Cameron Drummond, Willie McCallum, Mike Cusack, Stuart Easton, Robert Watt, Andy Wilson, Hervé Le Floch, James McHattie and Mark McKenzie.

This year Scotland has a great line-up in Stuart Liddell (present holder), Willie McCallum and Fred Morrison. The Scottish judges are Ian Duncan and Roddy S. McDonald.

There is also a kitchen piping competition that is held in a boxing ring and is very popular. The audience gets to vote for the most entertaining player.

Then, on the last Saturday, we have a pipe band contest comprised of three categories: an MSR, a Medley and a drum corps contest. This is quite a laid back affair and although there are similarities to RSPBA events, it is a bit more audience-friendly with bands playing up to the line and playing off again when finished. Previous bands competing have included Isle of Cumbrae, Jersey, Winnipeg Police, Prince Charles [San Francisco], City of Auckland, Ulster Scots, De Lasalle Scouts, Brieg, Cap Caval, Queensland Irish, Methil and District, Ullapool & District.

Methil Pipe Band taking part in the Grande Parade last year.
Methil Pipe Band taking part in the Grande Parade last year.

As well as organising pipe bands, solo pipers and judges, I have to recruit an artist, a highland dance group and various folk bands. Attending this year are Keltika Dancers (together with piper Andy Gibbs of Scottish Power), Skipinnish, Helen McDonald and Heron Valley.

We have financial assistance from Creative Scotland and Feis Rois who fund the Scottish Pavilion where there will be live music there every day from early evening through to very late.

In 2017 – the last year of Scotland – we had a great array of bands such as: Runrig, Tide Lines, Breabach, Blazin’ Fiddles, Capercaillie, Ho-Ro, Talisk, Tannara. This year we have Ceilidh Trail and Heisk among others.

The first major event that takes place is the ‘Bagadou’ contest which is almost like the World Championship of bagads, i.e. Breton band comprising pipes, bombardes and drums. This is a fantastic event and the bands are set up in an arc formation facing the audience. Last year’s winners were Cap Caval.

On the Sunday of the Festival the Grande Parade is held with all bands, dance groups parading through the town to a crowd about 10 deep on both sides of the roads. It finishes in the Lorient Stadium where another large audience cheers them on.

City of Adelaide Pipe Band.
City of Adelaide Pipe Band.

‘Nuits Interceltique’ are held on five evenings in the stadium. This is like a Tattoo and features bands, singers and dancers from each Celtic nation. This year Scotland will have Keltika Dancers with Piper Andy Gibbs, Glencorse Pipe Band and the City of Adelaide Pipe Band.

By coincidence, the festival will be 50 years old next year, the same year that the Scottish Pipers’ Association, of which I am honoured to be President, will be 100 years old. It’s been a busy year!

If you’ve never been to Lorient, now is the time. You’ll love it. I do.