Cliar - The History (Courtesy of the Artist's site, 2007)
Cliar were formed in 1999 by singers Mary Ann Kennedy and Arthur Cormack, but in truth the band’s roots go much further back than that.
During the tail-end of a pretty grim winter, in February 1992, Arthur and Mary Ann were joined by Arthur’s long-time musical partner, Blair Douglas, and Glasgow guitarist, Chaz Stewart, whom Blair had met while playing with the likes of the Zydeco Ceilidh Band.
The plan was to tour the West Highlands and Islands – gigging at night and touring schools during the day. The lack of a name for the four prompted Arthur’s wife, Shona, to suggest ‘Cliar’, after the itinerant bands of poets and musicians which used to roam the Highlands. This was all very fine, although Arthur felt compelled to translate the word as ‘wandering minstrels’ on the posters, which perhaps wasn’t quite the image they were hoping to create.
Despite cancelled ferries, charming landlords, catering to schoolchildren’s tastes in music – from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Psalm 23, and once even being mistaken for Runrig (don’t ask), the tour was a great success and all four agreed they should do it all again.
Seven years later……
…and with the assistance of the Scottish Arts Council, the four original Cliar-ites did get together again with the addition of two new members – Mary Ann’s cousin Maggie Macdonald and then-BBC-colleague Bruce MacGregor, who was later to make his name as the founder of the Highland fiddle showcase, Blazin Fiddles. An initial series of rehearsals led on to the very first gigs in Lochcarron, Ullapool and Inverness, as part of the Highland Festival.
The sound of the band was established right from the beginning with the three main singers leading individual songs and combining in spine-tingling close-harmony. Backed by harp, keys, guitar and a driving fiddle as the fourth ‘voice’, Cliar made an immediate impact with the live gigs.
The following summer, the band were involved in a major Highland Festival commission, ‘Lasair Dhč’, and it was at this point that the current pianist and harpist, Ingrid Henderson joined Cliar in something of a baptism of fire. Straight from university finals, she landed right in the middle of ‘Lasair Dhč’, a major celebration of contemporary Gaelic spiritual music, involving Cliar and choirs from all over the Highlands and Islands.
She - and the rest of the band - survived, picked up a Saltire Award for the project, and headed for Lochaber’s Watercolour studios to record the debut album. The eponymous ‘Cliar’ was released in 2000 on the Skye-based Macmeanmna label, another of Arthur Cormack’s projects.
It has since been voted the ‘All-Time’ Best Album at the inaugural Scots Trad Music Awards in Edinburgh 2003.
The second album, ‘Gun Tŕmh’ was released in 2002, and a special live recording of ‘Lasair Dhč’ from Glasgow Cathedral and the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh was also released on Macmeanmna.
With a change in the band’s line-up, Chaz Stewart – having had to leave because of arthritis in his hands – was replaced by Arisaig guitarist, Ross Martin. Bruce MacGregor also moved on, but the band had two very happy years with Ingrid’s brother Allan Henderson on fiddle duties, and occasional guest appearances by Dŕimh’s Gabe McVarish.
Ultimately though, and after much heart-searching, Cliar had a Damascene conversion and went the route of pipes and whistle, rather than fiddle, with the result that the newest member of the band is Hector Henderson, a piper from Portree on the Isle of Skye, and who has the dubious honour of being related to half of the rest of the band.
Touring has taken Cliar to Canada, Spain, England, Ireland, Slovenia and the USA, with the most recent major project being a tour of the Gaidhealtachd areas of Scotland and Ireland with Gaelic superstars, Altan.
With the new line-up, new representation from Donna Cunningham and Firefly Productions, and the new album, ‘Grinn Grinn’ – the band are looking forward to a whole new chapter in their adventures… and Maggie and Ingrid’s shopping itineraries.