You know you’re in a unique place when you’re watching an exploration of gay experiences of spirituality told through the mediums of poetry and dance, and where one of the poems has the quite magnificent title of:
“The visit of the Queen of the Lesbians to the gay men’s prayer group in West Belfast”.
Not least when that’s followed up by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in full moderatorial garb, playing on-stage with his band.
I must add, though, that much as the poem title above is funny, the poet responsible, Pádraig Ó Tuama, told me when we spoke later that the story behind it is sad. The men involved have churches and often even close family members who do not know about, and would not approve of, their homosexuality. Thus they are forced as a result to live a lie and meet each other for fellowship in relative secrecy.
That’s a little snapshot of the sights, sounds and issues of Solas Festival, where I spent the past weekend.
It was a remarkable place and event: a small, family-friendly festival of arts, music, discussion, spirituality and not a little wind and rain in the south of Scotland. I’ve been to Glastonbury and T in the Park once each, and while they were fun neither of them come close to Solas for the atmosphere.
Set in a field next to the little village (and old YMCA lodge) of Wiston in South Lanarkshire, the festival has a laid back, inclusive feel to it, with all age ranges and a diverse calendar of activities. It’s been running three years now, and this is the first time I have gone, thanks to an invite to speak. It was, above all, a friendly place, and I met loads of interesting people, and rather delightfully bumped into around a dozen familiar faces.
The most remarkable thing about it, though, is its size. Just a few hundred people attending, Solas is mostly run by volunteers, with dedicated enthusiasts working hard throughout the year to create each festival. That dedication manifests itself in the atmosphere – it’s friendly, inclusive and really feels like a labour of love on the part of those who make it happen.
I took in quite a bit of music, the outstanding highlight by far being Wester Ross band Grousebeater Soundsystem who, besides having the best band name I’ve heard for a long time, purvey a terrifically catchy blend of Celtic and electronic sounds. Check out their music on SoundCloud.
But mostly – and this is maybe a sign of me getting old – I was into more of the talk stuff. There’s a strong ethos of generating debate around society and justice, and so there were quite a few well-kent faces there from the political world on top of various other talks about matters spiritual.
I saw an interesting talk with Gerry Hassan and Douglas Alexander MP, which was mostly notable for the amusing attempt by a certain SNP MSP in the audience to bite his tongue and sit on his hands at some of the bizarre things Douglas Alexander was saying on the independence issue.
I also really enjoyed two presentations from land reform campaigner and author Andy Wightman, whose clear presentations on the relationship between land, poverty and economic development persuaded me of a number of things, not least the need for a land tax.
I’d never really thought much about the politics of land a huge amount before, but came away really enlightened as to how it underpins so much of politics as a whole, both here in Scotland and elsewhere in the world, and how it is not just the concern or domain of those in rural areas who work on it.
Another highlight was the champion slam poet Harry Baker, whose geeky verse on maths, dinosaurs and all sorts of other random topics were hilarious and well worth looking up.
I was there principally, of course, for my own talk on the Sunday about travel. I think it went well, at least from the bits of feedback I got, and I enjoyed talking about various bits and pieces of travel and doing some readings from my first book and forthcoming sequel.
When there was nothing particular to take in, though, Solas was an easy place just to amble around. The atmosphere was friendly, relaxing, undemanding, and I felt quite comfortable wandering camera in hand, taking in the sights and sounds.
There was a particularly engaging and eerie atmosphere very early on the Saturday morning, when the rain had woken me in the wee small hours, and I explored the ghostly, empty site before anyone else was up. So while my experience of Solas was full of fun and colour, there might be a slight misrepresentation of the weekend in the more muted photos I’ve uploaded.
I’d love to go back to Solas next year. There was a real sense of the artistic, the spiritual and the political all coming together and shaping each other. It was quite a special place.