The Pictish Trail
Welcome to Eigg. They do things differently here.

This year, the islanders celebrate 20 years of the buy-out which saw the island return to their care.

To commemorate this momentous occasion, Lost Map (the record label run by Johnny Lynch, otherwise known as the Pictish Trail) brought the usually biennial Howlin’ Fling forward a year. It’s their fifth event on the isle, and they’re intending to go out with a bang.

Community is a big – and meaningful – word in Eigg. Whilst the islanders run the place with gentleness and respect for the land (all of their energy, for example, comes from a community-owned company and is sourced from water, sun and wind), they’re approaching the three-day party with a winning sense of debauchery.

As we arrive at the pier, fresh from the Sheerwater Ferry, Johnny Lynch comes down to greet the boat. Together, an assembly line of festival-goers load the tents, rucksacks and sleeping bags onto the farmer’s trailers that will transport the luggage onto the campsite. With a smile. Howlin’ Fling is a festival like no other.

And then to the music.

As surprised as I am by the inclusion of KT Tunstall on the line-up (must be those Fence Collective connections), she’s the first act we see. She does a raucous, respectable turn and, joined by the Pictish Trail, belts out a stirring duet of Erasure’s ‘A Little Respect’ that sets the tone of the festival. The outlandishly handsome Francois and the Atlas Mountains follow, limbering up the crowd for the night ahead with lithe, Gallic grooves.

Jon Hopkins delivers a blistering set – his eyes streaked with the orange Stargazer eyeshadow that’s been doing the rounds. (There’s hardly an artist, nor a punter, on the island without facepaint). He eschews the heart-wrenching ambient that we’ve come to love from his records for a hard, screwy, techno set that sees the place thumping. Limbs are snaking everywhere, bodies bouncing off the speaker stacks. We’re raving in the Hebrides. And it feels fucking brilliant.

Archipel play us out – bringing arty, seductive, avant-pop back to the early-hours crowd, as we dance the Hopkins set out of our bones. Stumbling on something so unexpected on this little island is part of this festival’s charm – it’s been curated with such care and commitment.

We retire to the ceilidh hall to dance until dawn, as Andy Wake from the Phantom Band spins disco mash-ups whilst mud-splattered boots collide with the floorboards and the partied-out nap on the communal couch. They like to party on Eigg, and a wee bottle of Jura (or three) is on seemingly constant rotation.

Our tent floods on Saturday. It feels like the end of the world. For a couple of hours, it is.

Damp spirits are later lifted by the mercurial delights of Alabaster dePlume – swirling saxophones and polemic poetry as steam rises from the anoraks drying indoors. In the teatime slot, Kid Carnveral charm with their melodic, ramshackle riot. Over at the marquee tent, Withered Hand brings his wrenching, storytelling folk to a rapt audience (read: mouthing the words), with songs like the Neil Young-flecked 'California' – which, for almost a second there, brings a little sunlight to our bones.

In spite of constant downpours and howlin’ gales, spirits are high. People sit happily in the ceilidh hall terrace, listening to the rain bounce off the corrugated roof as they balance paper plates full of astoundingly good festival food (venison burgers and beef stews and vegan options) and warm their blood with pints of wine.

Then, at ten, comes the man behind it all, the patron saint of Lost Map – the Pictish Trail. Emerging in a spectacular kaftan, he takes to his keyboard to play out the music he’s devoted himself to since parting ways with Fence Records and moving to the island several years ago. There’s something very special about catching these off-kilter, earnest songs in their natural environment. And as 'Half-Life' soars above us, just as the sky gets dark, the lyrics catch me. What a treat to hear it.

We’re too cold to last the night, so bow out for bed and an early ferry.

I can’t lie. Logistically – it’s a bit of a nightmare. They could do with some signs. And some lights. Navigating your way around an unknown rural landscape in the pitch black isn’t the safest, and we get into some scrapes. Maybe some people might think that that’s an affront to what the festival is all about but hey ho. Ever fallen in a burn on your way back home at six in the morning?

But the spirit of kindness here – that’s something you can’t pin on a map or pencil into a risk assessment.

People guide you through the forest back to your tent. Help each other. Strike up conversations in the queue for chips. And as the world outside grows increasingly unfeeling, the few days we spend here, dancing and laughing and sharing stories with strangers, feel tinged with real magic.

Howlin’ Fling may have left us soaked, but as we set sail on the Sheerwater on our way back to the mainland, serenaded by a female piper and the howl of the skipper’s dog, I miss the place already.

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Words: Marianne Gallagher

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