In 2001 Liza Mulholland, and husband, Radio Scotland Producer Bruce MacGregor, embarked on an additional creative project. As a member of the band Blazin’ Fiddles, Bruce, as well as gigging, was regularly asked to teach at workshops, classes and Feisean, so why not, he suggested, start a Blazin’ Fiddles fiddle school? Liza, who had also taught at numerous Feisean and attended many workshops and classes with Bruce, both home and abroad, agreed this was a great idea and so the couple set to work!
After several research trips around Inverness-shire, they settled on Beauly as the ideal location. The picturesque village had everything they needed; sufficient and varied accommodation, three hotels, a pub, cafes, a concert 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, wide village square, bordered on one side by the resplendent ruins of a 13th-century Priory where once Mary Queen of Scots overnighted, and being only twelve miles from Inverness, is also convenient for all the Highland Capital’s transport links.
Bruce and Liza booked venues, drew up timetables, scheduled classes, drafted budgets, and together talked through every aspect of how the whole thing would work, right down to the provision of the all-important rejuvenating cups of tea and coffee for thirsty fiddlers at morning break. Their aim was that Blazin’ In Beauly would be more than just another fiddle school. They wanted participants to be immersed for the week in traditional music and Highland culture, and so scheduled alongside regular classes across all levels of ability, a range of additional talks, masterclasses, slow jams, concerts, meet-the-tutor sessions, ‘living history’ presentations, and top international guest tutors from diverse fiddle traditions.
With email still in its infancy, and long before social media emerged to make event promotion child’s play with the ability to reach thousands of people in just a couple of clicks, Liza and Bruce 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 ideas became the trademark design and style of Blazin’ In Beauly flyers and posters for many years, proving immediately effective in helping draw a full house from year one. Metagama Productions was also brought on board and commissioned to make a promotional video, to further facilitate publicity as well as garner potential business sponsorship.
From the start Bruce and Liza recognised the importance of having the people of Beauly on board for what would be an invasion of their community for a week by around 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 today’s social media with which to cancel at short notice, Bruce and Liza 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, and 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 diplomatic relations, and indeed lasting friendships, between Blazin’ In Beauly and the local folk, was set.
The 2001 inaugural Blazin’ In Beauly was an incredible experience. One hundred and twenty musicians descended on the village, classes were full, concerts sold out, participants had travelled from all over Europe, Ireland and the USA, and with Blazin’ Fiddles and the 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, Bruce and Liza retained the basic formula for years to come, during which Blazin’ In Beauly developed into a staple of the trad music calendar; the inimitable original Blazers 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 enough slow jams and late night sessions to sate the appetite of even the most zealous fiddler!
Over the years new innovative items and opportunities were added to the timetable, including a full-scale banquet, bus tours, Loch Ness cruises, folk music quiz night, whisky-tasting, visits to local wineries etc. But possibly the highlight for many will remain the Blazers’ infamous cabaret act, where cross-dressing tutors threw inhibitions to the wind and indulged their feminine sides with ball-gowns and make-up, or enacted, with great aplomb and hitherto unguessed-at acting skills, the lives of fiddle greats such as William Marshall or the Strathspey King himself, Scott Skinner, and folk music icons including BBC Radio Scotland‘s own Robbie Shepherd. Once seen, never forgotten!
Blazin’ In Beauly ran so smoothly 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, Liza and Bruce started their new business at Bogbain Farm and were suddenly busier than ever, they brought in 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. For Bruce, Liza and the Blazers, winning the Best Community Event Award at the Scottish Trad Awards in Edinburgh in 2005 was a wonderful moment. 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 hugely active Scottish and Irish trad music scene and where Bruce and Liza already had a number of contacts, was also realised some years later.
With all but one of the original Blazers now having left the band, and both Liza and Lara no longer involved, Blazin’ In Beauly is much-changed, requiring the new band line-up to re-invent this long-established music school in their own guise.