"This year was gonna be a full bells' n' whistles, like we've done in previous years, with an extra marquee and stuff," explains Johnny Lynch, Grand Master of Howlin' Fling festival on the Hebridean island of Eigg. "In the end we had to make it smaller and more manageable." Johnny, aka subversive folk pop activist Pictish Trail, is a busy man. Chieftain of Lost Map, he rules his rebel clan from Eigg and somehow manages to fit touring, releasing a new album, label affairs and building a house on the island into his life all at the same time. Oh, and last autumn he became a father. Taking all this into consideration, you start to wonder how on earth he finds time to organise any festival at all.

Born out of the ashes of Fence Records' Away Game, Howlin' Fling is a biennial event that is both a Lost Map AGM and a party for all their friends. It is a festival in a more ancient, entirely uncommercial sense of the word. With capacity of only a few hundred, it has no security, no police, no sponsorship and no backstage area. On the other hand, there is a campfire just outside of the Ceilidh hall, the hub of all social and music activities. Local and visiting hounds are wandering through the crowds. Food is provided by Glasgow's Where the Monkey Sleeps - possibly the most polite and generous caterers bravely keeping the festival nourished till the wee hours.

Previous island gathering include big names like British Sea Power, Steve Mason, Beth Orton, Jon Hopkins and Cate Le Bon, and this year's bill is an equally impressive selection: in addition to the full set of Lost Mappers, Blanck Mass, Jane Weaver, Bill Ryder-Jones and Slow Club are all among our fellow Hebridean adventurers.


It quickly becomes apparent that many of the people on stage and in the audience already know each other. To be fair, communal nature of the whole experience starts to unfold when we board a ferry from Mallaig. Looking around the decks we realise we are sharing space with Gwenno, Trash Kit and some of the Lost Map personnel. And before too long whisky and conversation are flowing, and island welcome spreads to all new arrivals.

With some of the artists and festival guests arriving a day earlier, we are part of the final group emerging at the Ceilidh Hall on Friday afternoon for the start of our musical odyssey. Delicate elegance of Rozi Plain's vocals cast a woozy spell over the crowd. Next up are Slow Club, veterans of Eigg festivals, who bring together a sizeable, eager crowd witnessing the unveiling of songs from their latest album. Gentle, dazed country twang of the recent single 'Ancient Rolling Sea' taps perfectly into the homely mood of the early party. Our host Pictish Trail follows their example premiering his new material. Dressed in a silk tropical, brightly-coloured tunic he cuts a wild Scottish Demis Roussos figure. Couple of songs into the set he announces: "So pals, it's been a difficult couple of weeks. It's fucked things up really, really badly. Except for Scotland. If we manage to break free and re-join the EU, then maybe we can enter the Eurovision song contest." Screams of pure joy erupt from the audience. "If we do, I'd like to enter this song as a song for Scotland." And with this he leaps into 'Half Life', a song about "the death of a friendship" from his new death-pop LP Future Echoes. By the time stuttering guitars of Trash Kit hit the stage, things move into a more raucous direction. All hell breaks loose. It's a party riot!


The following day we are impressed to see that even an early afternoon start doesn't stop Lost Mappers and their guests from getting to the Ceilidh Hall to hear the willowy hypnotic voice of Victoria Hume. Campfire smoke drifting through the misty air gives a special poignance and heartbreaking resonance. Once again, Johnny is back on duty introducing every act and talking to what appears to be each and every guest. Jane Weaver's cosmic siren vocals lead everyone into a dance. Having seen her festival performances on many occasions over the past 12 months, it's startling to see how a different setting can suddenly give a new meaning to songs you're so familiar with. Jane's synthy psych parables acquire a new mysterious quality; organic tones of "Your time in this life" bring her set to a rapturous and emotive finale.


However, the real testimony to the confidence and range of Howlin' Fling's musical tastes comes later in the night. Glaswegians Bossy Love turn the party engine up to 11 with a glamorous and utterly ballsy, messy R&B that gets everyone bouncing. We step outside to join the crowd by the fire when someone asks whether we have any petroleum gel or vaselin. By now it somehow doesn't feel like an odd question. Later schedule is going somewhat off-piste but nobody seems to mind. At around 2.30am drone maestro Blanck Mass unleashes a fearsome noise that reverberates through the entire building. Everyone still able to stand hits the dance floor. The following morning I hear that the party climaxed somewhere around 5.30am with a techno viking invasion of Operator. Not the set times you're likely to witness at many UK festivals!

Music is, of course, what initially brings people to the island but once you set foot on Eigg there is no escaping the fact that the real headliner is the island itself. With a population of less than a hundred, Eigg's sweeping nordic landscape feels a lifetime away from the horrors of Brexit and the cheerless passive aggression seeping through every pore of many English towns. Despite changeable weather, it is possible to see plenty of what the island has to offer: the caves, the beaches, the peculiar Earth Connections mansion surrounded by palm trees and the most bewildering array of sea birds. Quite literally, it feels like a different, better world.


Another way to judge a festival is to find out how artists feel about the event and whether many of them stay after playing their set. And here Howlin' Fling scores a perfect 10/10. On Friday I get talking to Slow Club's Rebecca Taylor. Together with her bandmate Charles Watson, she has a long history of Lost Map/Fence events on the island. When I ask her about Eigg, she immediate replies: "We don't stay at festivals but we would always stay here. I watch more music at Lost Map things than I do anywhere else. There is a really lovely vibe. Good people." She pauses and starts laughing: "Well, it cost us a lot of money to get here so it's not like a money-maker. It's for the love of it." Which pretty much sums up the attitude of all involved in this venture. At the end of the day, even the day-and-a-half journey from England through the Highlands to the port of Mallaig and the ferry crossing are all part of the wild charm of this unique festival.


By Sunday morning we want this to last forever. The only thing that's keeping us going is the rumour that the festival might return next year. Could this be true? "It might still be every two years but we might do a bigger one next year," says Johnny, adding more cautiously. "With Lost Map things change." But all is not lost. Howlin' Fling might be a strictly Eigg thing but Johnny Pictish is on the look out for exporting his brand of Lost Map musical chaos to other unusual locations. Just before we part he says, "I'd like to do something in England 'cos we've not really done as much stuff there." He smiles conspiratorially, adding: "If people read this and think, 'Wow! Would be amazing to have a weekend like this in our town, in these venues,' then get in touch 'cos we're all up for a jolly." So, c'mon England, you heard the man!

Tickets to Howlin' Fling normally sell out within 5 minutes of going on sale. The best way to get your hands on those precious wristbands is to sign up to the Lost Map mailing list here.


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