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Festival marks full circle moment for trad girl band

Catrina Hawkesworth can pinpoint the exact moment her band Heisk began.

"We were at the Celtic Connections Festival Club," she recalls, "having a dance and a good time, but realising that the folk we were listening to were all men."

So she and harpist Becca Skeoch decided to do something about it.

Six years ago, they formed the all-female band Heisk. The name means "nervous, excitable or flurried" in Orcadian dialect and their mission as well as making energetic Scottish roots music was to promote gender diversity.

In 2021 they released their self-titled debut album, which was entirely created, produced and promoted by women. But having struggled to find engineers, producers and videographers, they decided to set up their own mentoring programme ahead of their second album.

Between March and November last year, they offered six female or non binary applicants the chance to be mentored in studio recording, marketing, sound production, business and instrumental. The scheme has the support of Creative Scotland.

Music student Amber Blake was one of their first mentees.

"I saw them at the Skye Live festival a couple of years ago and thought they were just so amazing," she says.

"And the energy that they have on stage is unreal."

She's been working with Heisk's newest member Isla Callister, a fiddle player from the Isle of Man.

"We've covered, so much and I've learned so much" says Amber.

"We've done composition. I've written a few tunes and we wrote a wee tune together which was so amazing, to be working with Isla Callister."

Heisk at Celtic Connections
Six years on from forming there, the traditional band Heisk was back at Celtic Connections.

Isla, who came to Scotland to study at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, plays in another band in which she's the only woman but she says it's her role in the all woman line-up which attracts most attention.

"We're not alone on the scene", she says.

"There's the fantastic Kinnaris Quintet, the Shee, and of course the Poozies, who have always been an inspiration."

"But you do get people coming up to us after gigs and saying they've never seen a band that big - six piece and all of them women."

"It's not just about female empowerment. Gender diversity is important to us and that can look like many different things."

Catrina was involved in establishing the Bit Collective, a campaign and support group addressing inequality in the traditional music sector.

According to research carried out last year, only 33% of performers at folk festivals in Scotland last year were women.

"It's not just the traditional music scene which has these issues," she says.

"It's right across the music industry. So I think it's possible that some of our mentees will go on to work across the music industry in Scotland which is exciting."

"We're really lucky in that the traditional music scene is so small and quite supportive so we are really able to make big changes in a reasonable timeframe. In the six years we've been together as a band, there's been a real change. There have been so many more women in line-ups and on the scene."

For a band born out of this festival, it's always going to be an important place. This year, as well as launching their new album, Heisk are performing a number of gigs including an education concert for hundreds of nursery and primary school children.

"I think the thought of two thousand young people being able to just come and see folk having fun on stage will hopefully be a big inspiration," says Catriona.

"It may encourage them to get into music but might also just normalise the idea of having women having a nice time on stage playing loud music with sequins and glitter."

"And everyone's welcome. You don't have to be a woman to come along and enjoy our music."

Headstrong, the new album by Heisk is out now via The Bothy Society.