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A festival for Celtic eclectics

The fourth annual Celtic Connections extravaganza begins next week - and it's the biggest yet. Raymond Ross picks out some of the programme's highlights.

Once again Glasgow is about to declare itself City of Celtic Culture as the Royal Concert Hall prepares to host the fourth annual Celtic Connections festival - the biggest to date - which runs from January 15 to February 2.

As the festival's central venue, the Royal Concert Hall's main auditorium boasts a line-up as eclectic as it is impressive. Political singer-songwriters Billy Bragg and Dick Gaughan appear in concert with Eddi Reader, the inimitable Michael Marra (often dubbed Scotland's Randy Newman), plus a Scottish-Irish double bill featuring Altan and The Poozies, and with a whole host of other acts from The Chieftains and Donal Lunny to Paul Brady, Mary Coughlan and Carol Laula.

The Strathclyde Suite offers space to rising star Tony McManus, the superb Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell, The Barra MacNeils, the recently-regrouped Jock Tamson's Bairns, the great Irish singer Rita Connolly and the master of the uillean pipes himself, Liam Og O'Flynn.

On the educational front, Monday January 20 kicks off a series of Celtic Conversation Pieces featuring such luminaries as singer-songwriter and broadcaster Jimmie Macgregor, Burns expert Dr Fred Freeman, novelist Eric Lomax and man o'pairts Tom Weir offering a photographic tour of Scotland.

With the University of Strathclyde, the festival is also staging what the Concert Hall's director Louise Mitchell describes as "an impressive series of high-profile debates featuring a veritable who's who of Scottish political, educational and cultural life".

The debates cover everything from why opera attracts so much more funding than folk music, through what impact blockbuster films have on the Scottish image and "The Tongues of Scotland", to the perennial question of a National Theatre for Scotland. Those taking part include Scottish Television's Gus MacDonald, broadcasters Billy Kay and Kenneth Roy, writers William McIlvanney and Iain Crichton Smith, actor and director David Hayman and playwright John McGrath.

The series also includes masterclasses and lectures, as does a complementary programmes of events organised by the Inverness cultural centre Balnain House, which is spreading its influence not only to the Royal Concert Hall but throughout the festival's other city venues, including The Piping Centre, Adelaides and the Central Hotel.

This is education with a practical side. You can learn not only how to play the harp but how to build your own harp in a day. There are voice classes led by Christine Kydd of Chantan, fiddle classes led by the likes of Tim O'Leary and Iain Fraser, a beginner's guide to step dance and ceilidh dancing and musical workshops from the button box to the guitar and from the chanter to the didgeridoo. Balnain House will also be holding a series of traditional workshops in schools in the Strathclyde area.

The Fruitmarket in Edinburgh is the main satellite venue, boasting such varied talents as the capital's own bluesman Tam White, multi-instrumentalist Martyn Bennett, The Battlefield Band, Davy Spillane, Shane McGowan, Salsa Celtica and champion Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon.

There is a celebration Burns Supper on January 25 and the Bard pops up again in Adelaides, where Rod Paterson, famed for his rendition of Burns' songs, invites you to an evening of Burnsiana with friends, including Gordeanna McCulloch and Jack Evans.

Full programme and details from the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 2 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow G2 3NY. General show information line, tel: 0141 353 4137; credit card booking line, tel: 0141 287 5511

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