Northings - Highlands & Arts Journal


Alison Crowe
Allison Crowe

02 October 2007

BARRY GORDON dips into the inaugural John Lennon Northern Lights Festival in the ex-Beatleís one-time holiday spot

TO PARAPHRASE a famous Beatlesí lyric: itís a long and winding road to Durness. Driving up the north-west coastline, the mountainous terrain is not unlike a backdrop from the Lord of the Rings movies. The sense of isolation welcome, if a little overwhelming.

When I eventually arrive into town, a blanket of haze can be seen hovering above the Atlantic Ocean, a gentle, warm wind blowing white-coloured sand across the deserted road. It could be New Zealand or St Lucia in mid-July. Instead itís almost October in the Highlands. Or, as the organisers of the John Lennon Northern Lights Festival might say, Day Two of the three-day bash.

Unlike any other festival in Scotland, The John Lennon Northern Lights Festival takes place within the town - not in some random farmerís field [Loopallu does as well Ė Ed.]. No gutters, no hazardous portaloos, and no rip-off burger vans, either. The only risks you face is sunburn (hard to believe but true), a little sand in your shoes, and the prospect of discovering the only bank machine cash dispenser is out of order.

Better yet, the place doesnít feel overcrowded. Sure, thereís a few more tents than usual and little room at the Inn, but with the three main venues (Sandgo Sands Oasis, Smoo Cave and the Village Hall) a comfortable distance between one another (a ten minute walk to each), thereís little chance of being elbowed in the ribs as drunkards obscure your view of the performers. T in the Park this most certainly isnít.

Surrounded by caves and knolls, you get the feeling a fairytale lies beneath every rock and along every path around Durness. In other words, itís the kind of place that captivates your imagination. I first discovered the magical beauty of this place when I was 9-years-old, as did John Lennon, when he was a nipper back in 1949.

Between the ages of 9 and 13, Lennon spent his childhood holidays in Durness - returning with son, Julian, wife Yoko Ono, and her daughter, Kyoko, in 1969. His song ĎIn My Lifeí is inspired by the town; a book has been written about his visits to the area; thereís even a memorial garden dedicated to his memory beside the Village Hall.

Indeed, itís Lennonís spirit and inspiring influence on people of all ages, sexes, races and religions that has brought about this three-day arts festival. His sister, Julia Baird, is here to give a talk about her famous brotherís life, and even the festivalís shuttle bus is driven by Iris Mackay, one of Johnís Durness play pals, ever-willing to tell her passengers about her time spent playing in the sand with the former Beatle.

My experience of the festival, however, begins in the Sango Sands Oasis, and Johnís first-ever band, The Quarrymen. The Scousersí sound hasnít improved much since 1955 but thatís all part of the appeal.

Anecdotes about John - and Paul - punctuate their rock Ďní roll covers set, as one by one, people in the audience are encouraged to pick up a thimble and play the washboard alongside the band. The chance to play with the band that evolved into the greatest pop group of all time is too much for most to resist, myself included.

Meanwhile, over at Smoo Cave, Mr. Boom is entertaining the kids. As I walk down the steps towards the limestone cavern and the entrance to the otherworld, I canít help think Iím entering the fairy realm.

Boomís one-man-band is in full flow, and the laughter of children soars up through the holes in the roof: holes, local folklore tells us, that were blasted out by the Devil. Itís a surreal experience, and one that makes you wonder how many other John Lennon songs were inspired by the immediate landscape.

Over at the Village Hall, though, itís time for a cup of tea and a scone, as poet Carol Ann Duffy delivered readings from some of her popular books. Just like Lennonís lyrics, her poems are accessible and entertaining yet full of venom and razor-sharp wit. The applause she received for her hour-long reading, it must be said, would not have sounded out of place at a rock concert.

Soulful Canadian songstress Allison Crowe followed next, managing to cajole a standing ovation from farmers more used to clapping for their sheepdogs than songwriters. Her rendition of Lennonís ĎIn My Lifeí (almost literally) brought the house down, so it was up to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies - making his first public performance [other than as a conductor] in 15 years - to bring Saturday nightís entertainment to a fitting close.

And he did. With a little help from his friends - students from the Royal Academy of Music. New string arrangements of Lennonís ĎNorwegian Woodí and ĎImagineí sent a collective shiver down the audienceís spine, a fresh angle on famous works an absolute joy to watch.

However, it was Daviesí little piano ditty ĎCloudsí Ė which he managed to sell to the BBC after writing it as an 11-year-old Ė that conjured up images of Lennon looking down on Durness from his own little cloud in Heaven.

Next yearís festival simply canít come soon enough.

© Barry Gordon, 2007