One of my favorite moments from the entire Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival was soaking in the music of Breabach inside Glenfiddich distillery’s Warehouse No. 1. The festival showcases Scottish folk music during a handful of Celtic Spirit shows throughout the festival, and when I saw that Breabach, who I had seen tear up the Shetland Folk Festival last year, was headlining one of these shows, I knew serendipity had intervened.
And I don’t get in serendipity’s way. Seeing my current favorite Scottish folk band inside one of the world’s greatest distilleries can only lead to one of those memories that will last forever. I had a feeling it’d be one of those nights.
As a steady sleet fell from low clouds over Balvenie Castle, my dad and I sped across the Glenfiddich grounds to Warehouse No. 1 where the long, narrow interior had been converted into an impromptu music venue. A series of small, round tables clustered around the rectangular stage, and a bar stuffed to the gills with Glenfiddich and Balvenie spirits stood at one end. Cozy. Nice.
I decided to order a dram of the Balvenie 17yo Peated Cask and found a table with a couple of extemely friendly Ottawans. Before long, opener Cherry Grove, with their monstrous electric harp, kicked off the night’s festivities and proved to be an adept band blending traditional and modern styles.
After a short break where the crowd chatted amiably and consumed copious amounts of the home team’s spirit, Breabach arrived to the stage. Breabach means “kicking” in Gaelic, and this five-piece band hailing from across Scotland pumped out tunes that had the audience doing just that throughout the night. One of my enduring memories from the Shetland Folk Festival was just how tight Breabach was as a band, so I was a little nervous to see a new fiddler in their ranks.
I needn’t have worried. Megan Henderson, who hails from Fort William, proved to be the equal of Breabach’s previous fiddler, and her clear vocals and highland dancing added welcome dimensions to the band. The ability to play several different instruments seems to be a hallmark of traditional Scottish folk music, and Breabach is no different. In fact, as somebody who never learned to play an instrument, they seem like musical freaks of nature. For example, Calum MacCrimmon, the piper with the amazing trews in these photos, played more pipe-like instruments than I can name in the course of their set, not to mention playing a bouzouki and singing.
During their 90-minute set, each of the band members took center stage introducing songs and telling little anecdotes to flesh out their backstories. Even though the band was literally only ten feet away from me, it was this interaction with the crowd that made the show feel so close.
Breabach dished out a mix of original tunes and traditional reels, airs, and pibrochs. One of my favorite aspects of the band is their dual-piper assault, so when both Calum and James Duncan Mackenzie of the Isle of Lewis unleashed their highland bagpipes I thought – just for a moment – that Glenfiddich’s historic Warehouse No. 1 might come crashing down. Thankfully, we were not buried in a heap of rubble though my ears paid the price the following day. The synchronicity of their musicianship was astonishing.
Ewan Robertson and James Lindsay held down the rhythm end of the stage. Ewan, who also does the majority of the singing and uses a hybrid, seemingly homemade kick drum/stool, is a local lad from just down the road in Carrbridge and is the band’s acoustic guitarist. James Lindsay, on the other hand, comes from the heart of Aberdeenshire wielding a wicked stand-up double bass that adds a nice low end to the band’s music.
Eager for a taste of Breabach yet? Check out this snippet of video I took to get a sense of their energy.
Breabach delivers everything you could want in a modern Scottish folk band. They’re impeccable musicians with the creativity to write their own compositions and the ability to resurrect classic folk tunes for new audiences. I can’t claim to be an authority on Scottish folk music, but I challenge you to find a group with better piping. By the end of their set, the warehouse windows had been thrown open and the space echoed with the rhythmic stomping of feet along with the music. The band couldn’t even get off the stage before the crowd demanded an encore.
It was one of those nights.
Disclosure: The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival provided me and my dad with complimentary access to Celtic Spirit at Glenfiddich distillery. All thoughts and opinions expressed here, as always, are my own.