Sabhal Mòr Ostaig Celebrate at Celtic Connections
RISING star of Gaelic song Julie Fowlis has one overriding memory of her time as a student at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic-language college at Sleat on the Isle of Skye whose contribution to the cultural life of the Highlands and Islands is celebrated with a concert featuring celebrated alumni and tutors at this year’s Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow.
“ONE thing about the college I always remember is playing music week in and week out,” says the North Uist-raised singer, who recently sang on the soundtrack of the Disney film Brave, “singing at sessions, playing at sessions, late night ceilidhs. There was always music on the go, that was very much part of my life as a student.”
YET Sabhal Mòr Ostaig has never completely left Fowlis behind, nor her it. After first studying there a decade ago, she recently returned for a Master’s degree in Material Culture and the Environment, and this year is artist with the Tobar an Dualchais/Kist O Riches national conservation, sound archiving and digitisation project, which is based at Sabhal Mòr. “I still feel like Sabhal Mòr Ostaig is very much part of my life in lots of ways,” she says with obvious affection.
Initially established in old steadings at Ostaig Farm in 1973 (the name translates as “the great barn of Ostaig”), the initial aim for Sabhal Mòr Ostaig was to build a Gaelic library and eventually to create an educational establishment which would allow both Gaelic speakers and Gaelic learners to be educated using the language and within the environment in which it flourished. The man behind it was Sir Iain Noble – founder of merchant bank Noble Grossart, holder of the first Gaelic cheque book and campaigner for Gaelic road signs, amongst many other things – and one of his original board members was Sorley MacLean.
Since then the college has expanded to become a modern degree-level educational establishment, albeit with surely one of the most distinctive settings in Europe, and yet its strong and deeply-rooted links to and development of the cultural life of the Scots Gaelic community is such that a concert like this doesn’t seem out of place.
“The whole purpose of the college is the furtherance of the Gaelic language and culture,” says Allan Henderson, music tutor and recording studio manager at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, musical director of the 40th anniversary concert and a member of Blazin’ Fiddles, “and of course music and the arts are a huge part of that, you can’t have one without the other. The language can’t survive without music, and there are very good historical reasons for that within Gaelic culture as a whole.”
Henderson explains that the language’s profile has really grown since Sabhal Mòr Ostaig was established, that it was given no real status or prominence back in the early days when the college was established and that now it’s almost an affirmation for speakers that they can come to a place of learning whose selling point is that the first language is Gaelic. “You only have to look at what’s happened on the mainland,” he says. “There are now very few Gaelic speakers in Mallaig or Arisaig, but there are still significant numbers in the south of Skye. There’s no doubt that Sabhal Mòr has played a big part in that.”
Fowlis agrees. “I’m lucky enough to come from a Gaelic family,” she says, “but I didn’t have that much confidence to speak it, so it was a great boost to spend time where I could study the language in depth and study the culture and the history. Certainly I didn’t get the opportunity to study these at school level, the exploration into identity and culture and belonging. It formed a great part of the course (at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig) and it was a very enjoyable.”
Henderson notes that although the music course at Sabhal Mòr has only relatively recently been established, the musical heritage of the college is written into its DNA. “One of the things about the Gaels is that we’ve always made time for music,” he says. “We’re very appreciative of it, whether it’s part of our working life or our social life, it’s always there, it’s always key. It doesn’t matter whether we’re at a low ebb or things are going well, music is how we express ourselves.
“The college reflects that. Our music degree has been up and running for only five years or so, but music has always played a huge part in college life here. It’s incredible how many of our students and staff are actually musicians themselves.”
This month’s concert in Glasgow will reflect that breadth and richness of talent. Henderson picks out Fowlis herself as one of the artists of most widespread repute who will be appearing, while he also names house bandmember Iain MacDonald, up-and-comers the Angus Nicolson Trio, and fiddler and longtime Sabhal Mòr summer school tutor Alasdair Fraser as among the highlights.
Fowlis also names Fraser, as well as Margaret Stewart and singer Christine Primrose, while both are of course hearty in their praise for Irish concert pianist Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, from Limerick University. “He’s been a longtime friend of ours here,” says Henderson, “and very supportive of what we’re trying to do.”
For Fowlis it will be just like her good old student days, which really weren’t so long ago. “There’s been a wealth of talent through the college,” she says, “so I think it’ll be a really nice atmosphere at the concert, just lots of friends getting together and playing music. It should feel like a very natural and organic thing to take to the stage together, it’s not going to feel forced at all, even though there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily play together that often. The type of music it is and the backgrounds we all come from, though, we’ll all have shared a lot of the music over the years at Sabhal Mor. So it’ll be a lovely gathering to put on stage.”
The Sabhal Mòr Ostaig 40th Anniversary Concert is at Celtic Connections at the City Halls, Glasgow, on Saturday 19th January.
© David Pollock, 2013