RSAMD Making Connections in the North

1 Jul 2011 in Dance & Drama, Gaelic, Music, Showcase

EVER since it earned its own degree-awarding powers in 1994, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow has borne in mind its Gaelic-speaking constituency of students.

THAT was the year they first offered the choice of writing a dissertation in Gaelic, for example, and since then their course in Scottish traditional music has meant they’ve become an institution which also teaches elements of Gaelic.

Recently, though, the RSAMD (soon to be renamed the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) has been actively accentuating their links to the Highlands and Islands in more tangible ways, most notably through a teaching link-up with the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig campus of the University of the Highland & Islands on Skye.

The Sabhal Mòr Ostaig campus at Sleat on the Isle of Skye

The Sabhal Mòr Ostaig campus at Sleat on the Isle of Skye

This has led to the creation of summer schools in acting in Gaelic and teaching acting in Gaelic, both of which start at the RSAMD this August. The RSAMD has also become separately involved in sending music students to give performances at the North Highland Connections series of concerts across Caithness, Sutherland and Ross-shire, and in the Open Book series of plays touring the same area.

Both the RSAMD and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig are two of twenty-five further and higher education institutions in the Scottish Drama Training Network, which allows staff and students increased opportunities for collaboration and exchange between colleges.

Distinguished trumpet player and RSAMD principal John Wallace

Distinguished trumpet player and RSAMD principal John Wallace

Despite the fact that it is based in Glasgow, the RSAMD’s principal John Wallace sees this nationwide outlook as being essential.

“Scotland is a large and diverse country,” he says, “but we tend to get locked into what you could call ‘Central Belt-icity’. We have to look outwards because we’re a resource for the whole of Scotland and we have to share what we’ve got with the rest of the country.

“How many Gaelic speakers are there in Glasgow alone, around six thousand? Scotland’s only a country of five million people, so it can’t afford very many places with our sort of resources. We’ve got to mobilise them and make them available to everyone.”

Although the RSAMD is making links across Scotland, it is the ones with Sabhal Mòr Ostaig which seem to be bearing the most fruit at the moment.

“We did a joint Scots and Gaelic song conference (Oran 2010 Sang) in Skye last year,” says Wallace, “which was put together through the Scottish Drama Training Network, which is run by Alison Forsyth who’s based here at the Academy. We have a good relationship with Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, and we tend to exchange staff with them. Members of staff on their music course were formerly staff members and students at our place, for example.

“The Gaelic acting classes we’re running here have been planned with them for a while, we’ve just been taking a bit of time and working at a steady pace so we can do it properly.

“One of the best things about the Drama Training Network is that it’s provided communication. Going up to Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and back is a couple of days out of everybody’s life and it really has to be programmed to do it properly, so we’ve been able to video conference with each other to get things happening quickly.

“Using smart tactics like that means we can interact with the rest of Scotland a lot more than before, it makes ongoing contact easy rather than the odd ad hoc communication.”

For Wallace, the provision of these classes and external links isn’t just in order to service a magnanimous urge on behalf of the RSAMD, it’s nothing short of a mission to provide added richness and buoyancy to an entire culture.

“Gaelic speakers and Highland communities definitely have something special to say,” he says, “and they need media through which to say it. The more powerful the instruments they use the better they can do this, and trained actors are some of the best communicators just because they’re professional – they do it every day of their lives, which leads them to a deeper understanding of themselves.

“Then this professionalism spills off into other areas like work in the community, into education. It also makes people feel there’s more point to their language, that it’s living and evolving and that it’s speaking about things which are relevant to the here and now.

“The other thing is building up an economy for the creative industries in Gaelic society. It’s one thing to see the language written in a book, but it’s so much more powerful to have somebody act it out or sing it out or play it out.

“That’s why the Gaelic language is still surviving, its because of its song and its music, and we need to add to that with plays and literature in the contemporary way. This won’t be proscenium arch stuff, but it’ll include films and different sorts of context like this.”


The Maxwell Quartet performed for North Highland Connections

The Maxwell Quartet performed for North Highland Connections

Wallace speaks just as excitedly of the RSAMD’s other projects around Scotland, of sending groups of three or four students at a time to play sets of traditional and chamber music with Thurso’s North Highland Connections, or of postgraduate students performing Shakespeare onstage at the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool. In the immediate term, the plan is to firm up these links and have such arrangements running regularly and fluidly.

“Scotland’s always been a little bit on the edge of the known world,” concludes Wallace, “which makes it a fantastic viewpoint to look at the rest of the world. There’s a hell of a lot I’ve learned by going up to Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and just sitting there and listening, just the whole wisdom of sitting round a table at night, especially if there’s song.

“That whole feeling of community, albeit a dispersed community, and the generosity and sensitivity of spirit you get there is something that I think is quite rare in the contemporary world. Every time I’ve been to Skye I come back feeling energised by this spirit and wanting to share it with more and more people.”

© David Pollock, 2011



Sabhal Mòr Ostaig

Scottish Drama Training Network

North Highland Connections

Open Book