In 2001 Liza and husband, Radio Scotland Producer Bruce MacGregor, embarked on a new creative project. As a member of the band Blazin’ Fiddles, Bruce, as well as gigging, was regularly asked to teach at workshops and classes, so why not, he suggested, start a Blazin’ Fiddles music school? Liza agreed this was a terrific idea. In the summer of 1997 the couple had attended Alastair Fraser's Valley Of The Moon Scottish Fiddle School in California, and came away not only hugely inspired but lamenting that there was nothing quite like it in Scotland. And so they set to work!
After several research trips around Inverness-shire, Beauly was settled on as the ideal location. The picturesque village had everything needed; sufficient and varied accommodation, three hotels, a pub, cafes, a concert hall in the shape of the splendid and historic Phipps Hall, an old school with original classrooms extant, and a wonderful range of distinctive shops and family-run businesses. Beauly is full of character, still centred around its original village square, bordered on one side by the resplendent ruins of a 13th-century Priory, where once Mary Queen of Scots overnighted. Being only twelve miles from Inverness, it is also convenient for all the Highland capital’s transport links.
Venues were booked, timetables drawn up, classes scheduled, budgets drafted, and together every aspect of how the whole thing would work was discussed, right down to the provision of the all-important rejuvenating cups of tea and coffee for thirsty fiddlers at morning break. The aim was that Blazin’ In Beauly would be more than just another fiddle school; participants would be immersed for the week in traditional music and Highland culture, and so alongside regular classes across all levels of ability, were scheduled a range of additional talks, masterclasses, slow jams, concerts, meet-the-tutor sessions, ‘living history’ presentations. In addition top international guest tutors were invited from diverse fiddle traditions.
With the internet in its infancy, email still a novelty, and long before social media emerged to make event promotion so easy with the ability to reach thousands of people in just a couple of clicks, Bruce and Liza knew they needed quality publicity materials to attract sufficient numbers of musicians, and so recruited the design talents of fellow-fiddler, Ronan Martin. Ronan’s classy and attractive artwork became the trademark design and style of Blazin’ In Beauly fliers and posters for many years, proving immediately effective in helping draw a full house from year one.
Liza's production company, Metagama Productions, was brought in to make a promotional video, to facilitate publicity and potential business sponsorship. VHS - before the days of smart phones!
From the start Liza and Bruce recognised the importance of having the people of Beauly on board, for what would be an invasion of their community for a week by over one hundred fiddlers. Advertising a public meeting in the Lovat Arms Hotel for 11th September, at which they would share their vision and answer any queries or questions, the tragic events of that day in New York foreshadowed everything. Without the benefits of social media with which to cancel at short notice, the couple arrived as scheduled and of course, as suspected, no-one turned up. However this inauspicious start was no indicator of local feeling towards the fiddle school; the community could not have been more supportive. Donating raffle prizes by the box load, helping out, turning up in droves to all the concerts and events, offering premises – it was simply fantastic, and thus the tone of relations, and indeed lasting friendships, between Blazin’ In Beauly and local folk, was set.
Rehearsal for Friday night concert in Phipps Hall, Beauly.
The 2001 inaugural Blazin’ In Beauly was a quite incredible experience. One hundred and twenty musicians descended on the village, classes were full, and concerts sold out. Participants had travelled from all over Europe, Ireland and the USA, and with Blazin’ Fiddles and guest tutors in sparkling form, everyone had a ball. By the end of the week, folk emerged blinking into the light, from a wonderful bubble of music, craic and fun, exhausted but very happy.
Delighted with how smoothly the week had gone, and by the effusive feedback, the basic formula was retained for years to come, during which Blazin’ In Beauly developed into a staple of the trad music calendar. The inimitable Blazers were of course at the centre of activities, top class guest tutors including renowned international players, masterclasses on all aspects of technique, repertoire, style, instrument care etc, final night ceilidh dance with the best dance bands, acclaimed writer and actor Hamish MacDonald’s unique and hilarious dramatic and theatrical presentations. And of course enough slow jams and late night sessions to sate the appetite of even the most zealous fiddler!
Bruce and Liza get in some practice.
Their son, Roddy, however is mostly interested in the Lovat Arms Hotel dessert trolley!
Blazin’ In Beauly ran so successfully for many years largely thanks to the many volunteers who helped out year after year, manning the reception desk, stewarding concerts, and dealing with the multitude of little tasks inherent in such events, from photocopying to kettle-filling. When, three years later in 2004 Liza and Bruce started their new business at Bogbain Farm and were suddenly busier than ever, they recruited experienced arts administrator, Lara MacDonald, to help manage and run the event, and knew at once they had landed a gem. Lara quickly became the calm, hard-working and indispensable figure at the heart of Blazin’ In Beauly.
Winning the Best Community Event Award at the Scots Trad Awards in Edinburgh in 2005 was a momentous and heart-warming occasion for all involved. Blazin’ In Beauly had indeed become a community event, enthusiastically contributed to and supported by local folk. When Bruce and Liza sat alone in the function room of the Lovat Arms on that evening of 9/11, wondering if anyone would come, they did not imagine that their little project would lead to thousands of people enjoying concerts, classes and all the numerous events over many years, let alone win awards. One of the early ideas of taking the Blazin’ In.. brand abroad to somewhere like Boston, where there is a vibrant Scottish and Irish trad music scene and where the couple already had a number of contacts from their visit to Valley Of The Moon, was also realised some years later.
With all but Bruce having now left the band, Blazin' In Beauly has of course changed along with the line-up. It is lovely indeed for those who were there at the start to see how some of the wee 'uns who came along to Beauly in the early years - and stayed up very late playing in sessions despite being just in primary school - have blossomed into stunning, sought-after players. Two young lads perhaps deserve particular mention; Graham Mackenzie has a string of achievements to his name, including finalist in the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award , and the other, Liza's cousin Rua Macmillan, winner of the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician Of The Year, now plays in Blazin' Fiddles and has in turn become one of the Beauly tutors.
Text and images Copyright 2018