Colin Irwin 

Monday 25 January 2016

It sounds like an Alan Partridge pitch for a new reality show. “Take 10 female folk musicians – say five English and five Scots – stick ’em on an island in the Hebrides, one instrument each, fight to the death, last one standing is the winner …”  

Jenny Hill, an imaginative double-bass player well versed in a variety of musical idioms, is also a woman not only of vision, but with the organisational skills to assemble 10 of Brit folk’s finest on the island of Eigg (population 96), charge them with the theme of separation and see what song-making prevailed. Six days later they’d recorded a deeply affecting album rich in range, content and artistic endeavour.  

In front of an adoring full house at Celtic Connections festival, they brought the project vividly to life in a set laced with anecdotes, background stories, enlightened arrangements and lively banter that generally debunked the title’s inference that we were in for an evening of weeping and wailing.  

“It’s not really about separation, it’s about connection,” said harpist Mary Macmaster at one point, alluding to material that applied as much to culture, linguistics, nature and geography as personal heartbreak with a broad range of musical references underlining the wider reaches of the theme.   

FacebookTwitterPinterest Songs of Separation’s top 10: Karine Polwart, Rowan Rheingans, Kate Young, Hannah Read, Eliza Carthy, Jenny Hill, Jenn Butterworth, Hannah James, Hazel Askew and Mary Macmaster Photograph: Ross Gilmore/Redferns  

While Macmaster led the line on a couple of Scots Gaelic songs, the invitingly idiosyncratic Kate Young all but stopped the show with something Bulgarian, Hannah James played a startling melodeon instrumental, Hazel Askew gave us a taste of music hall and there was yearning Americana from New York-based fiddle player/singer Hannah Reed, who was brought up partly on Eigg.  

The trick with any collaborative project is to create the illusion at least of a unified ensemble rather than a collection of talented individuals, but the empathetic chemistry here was genuine. Karine Polwart, Eliza Carthy and Mary Macmaster may be the leading lights in terms of experience and public profile (and each had their moments in the spotlight) but they blended easily into the spirit of unison, and the most telling contributions came when the group worked as a complete unit, either in graceful 10-piece choir-mode or as a band of interacting fiddles, harps, banjo, guitar, bass and improvised percussion.  

It was joyous, thought-provoking, passionate, stirring, charming and beauteous; but it had edge too, which hardened and accelerated towards the end. Rowan Rheingans delivered a killer ecology lament, Soil and Soul (“What will we leave when we leave?”), while Carthy and Polwart duetted poignantly on The Flowers o’ the Forest before launching into the urgently anthemic chorus of Over the Border, aimed pointedly at the migration crisis (“Pull down the walls the gates and their borders / And the states and their orders will all fade away”).  

A night of many emotions.