Published: 13/06/2014 09:10 - Updated: 13/06/2014 09:27

School band's 20 year history lesson: from Holyrood to Runrig

Gizzen Briggs performing at the Eastgate Centre in Inverness.
Gizzen Briggs performing at the Eastgate Centre in Inverness.

GIZZEN Briggs have 20 eventful years to celebrate at Eden Court Theatre this weekend.

What began life as a Friday lunchtime get together at Tain Royal Academy has gone on to play for The Queen at the official opening of Parliament, support one of Scotland’s biggest rock bands and play from the back of a trailer at a 4th of July shindig in the US wild west.

The band was created by Train Royal Academy head of music Kathryn Wilkie, but the weekly session also brought another staff member to the band in Jimmy McLean, head of the technical department just along the corridor.

"Kathryn got us off to a good start," McLean, now the group’s bass guitarist, recalled.

"She got us out playing to the community and in care homes just before Christmas. Then our strings tutor, Debbie Ross from the band Rhythm ’n’ Reel, proposed that we push ourselves to see how we got on. We had one Fiddlers’ Rally, then we had two and now it’s become an annual community event."

Gizzen Briggs did more than just play to the local community.

Thanks to links established by one vacationing Tain deputy rector, the band made three trips to Montana in their first decade and also made history by appearing at Holyrood.

"We were the first group of musicians to play at the Parliament, full stop, thanks to Jaime Stone, our local MSP," McLean said.

"Then, when it came to the opening, we got the invitation from George Reid, the presiding officer at the time. Again the kids played brilliantly and a good number of people stopped to see them — including The Queen, who was getting shown around at the time and stopped to have a wee chat."

The band has also been a starting point for musical careers for some of its members, including 2004 BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award winner and 2009 Scots Trad Instrumentalist of the Year Lauren MacColl, BBC Scotland Young Trad Award winner Rona Wilkie (Kathryn’s daughter), Katie Rush from Glasgow’s Cairn String Quartet, and Laurie Wilkie (no relation) a member of Carrbridge singer Rachel Sermanni’s backing band.

Debbie Ross and Jimmy McLean collect the band's Scots Trad Award.
Debbie Ross and Jimmy McLean collect the band's Scots Trad Award.

To mark the 20th anniversary, some 120 of these past and present players will be on stage at Eden Court’s Empire Theatre on Saturday.

"We reckon if we got everyone who ever played with Gizzen Briggs, there would be in excess of 200," McLean added.

"It’s very easy to knock teenagers, but to perform at the level these guys perform at, you can’t do it without dedication and tenacity. We give them the experience of performance so if they perform at any other time, they’re not phased at all. At Eden Court there will be 860 people, but they’ll take it in their stride."

Gizzen Briggs appeared in front of even bigger numbers last year when they supported Runrig at theit 40th anniversary Party On The Moor.

The band have also played at Jools Holland’s Jam House venue in Edinburgh and the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow and were among the winners at last year’s MG Alba Scots Trad Awards when they picked up the trophy for best community project.

McLean reckons that at 20 years of age, the band have never sounded better.

"The ones who are currently in fifth and six year have really stepped up," McLean said.

"They have allowed us to do great things. We hadn’t had Border pipes before, so they’ve added them to the sound, and we also have an excellent clarsach player. But we never put pressure on them. In S5 and S6 in particular, we know it’s not always possible for them to come to every rehearsal, but they do their best."

• Gizzen Briggs and special guests Saltfishforty are at the Empire Theatre, Eden Court, at 7.30pm on Saturday 14th June.

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