Dougie MacLean is not a household name in the UK, or even in many parts of Scotland, but he is big in the rest of the world. The Scottish diaspora in Canada and America love him, and it’s easy to see why. His songs are romantic and sentimental love letters to the Auld Country. MacLean’s style is timeless enough that his song The Gael fit perfectly into soundtrack to Michael Mann’s 1992 blockbuster Last Of The Mohicans (set in 1757) and introduced his simple heartfelt songs to an international audience. Cannily he capitalised on this and his modest yet ambitious family business has made use of technology to self-publish and distribute his music, and even offers subscriber-only narrowcast concerts for his international fan-base, shot and broadcast from his home studio, Butterstone. And then there is Caledonia. His 1977 classic has become an exile’s hymn, growing in statue over forty years, and is now a strong candidate for national anthem should Scotland gain independence. Yes, really.
A local hero in Perthshire, Dougie has been giving back to the community since 2004, with his annual Perthshire Amber Festival, designed to ‘celebrate the history and culture of his home and showcase its beautiful scenery’. After 12 successful years, the 2016 festival was distilled from 10 days to four and it makes for a packed programme. The original format remains the same, with venues throughout the county (including village halls, country houses and Dunkeld Cathedral) hosting a variety of family-friendly events encompassing craft fairs, nature and archaeology walks and, of course, music. The festival is admirably varied and seems to take great advantage of Dougie’s phone book: artists, domestic and international, are all ‘acoustic’ acts and this year included duo The Coaltown Daisies, Glaswegian singer Katee Kross (18 years old, this is her seventh festival year), the Perthshire Ensemble (strings) and Alabama songwriter Wilder Adkins. It’s not all folk music but the Celtic DNA of Americana is clear to see. The festival culminates in two concerts at the Perth Concert Hall.
The final show was something of variety performance, with a house band, and Dougie acting as compere. Each act played a couple of songs then one or two with Dougie – we were encouraged to singalong, with Dougie teaching us the words to his choruses for each song. He has a charming, slightly absent-minded stage presence and his low-fi charisma inflects the night. Folk-superstar Julie Fowlis sang and joked flawlessly in Gaelic and English. Sexy piper Ross Ainslie teased us with a taste of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck before twisting it into a classic reel. The atmosphere was safe and warm and often sentimental but there were still moments of real power and surprise: Tim Edey’s version of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s Music For A Found Harmonium was unexpected and extraordinary. Ingenue singer-songwriter Siobhan Wilson sang alone with exquisite clarity – she’s a bit good by the way. Even the presence of The Singing Kettle duo Cilla and Artie offered something (mainly an acknowledgement that asking this largely ‘mature’ audience to sing nursery rhymes was all a bit silly) but we still sang. Special mention goes to Stuart Nisbet’s house band of crack sessioneers – discretely rock solid for the entire night. There was only ever going to be one choice to end the night – the entire gangshow came on stage to perform Caledonia. The night, and the festival, ended as warmly as an amber glass of single malt.
The format of the The Fountain requires me to give this festival a percentage grade. Without going to every event (impossible, given the spread of venues) I will cop out: for sheer goodwill and positive vibes it deserves full marks, but I need to retain some street cred, so I’ve knocked a point off. Perthshire Amber is not the most cutting edge of festivals, but it is one of the most authentic. A cozy Autumn antidote to the plethora of louder, less sophisticated Summer festivals.
Perthshire Amber Festival takes place annually over the first weekend of November.
Photo courtesy of Rob McDougall