The internationally acclaimed winter festival, Celtic Connections, starts today in Glasgow. It is *the* only way to start the year in Scotland, I can’t imagine a January without it. I am delighted to be performing at several events throughout the festival, including the opening concert tonight, which will premiere a collaboration I have been working on with the renowned violinist Nicola Bendetti, plus our own show on Wednesday 22nd January; the performance of which will be centred around the material on our new album.
It’s called ‘Gach sgeul’ or ‘Every story’ in English. I have been fascinated with song and story for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is sitting in my grandparents’ house in North Uist, sitting beside the stove watching and listening to the adults telling and listening to stories, often for hours on end. My great uncle in particular was a source of many a tale, which was always delivered with comedy timing, a wry smile or a serious tone – whichever emotion the story demanded. How I wish we had recorded his stories, many now lost with his passing.
The essential mix of a good song, for me, is the potent mix of melody and story. When I learn a song, whether it’s from another singer or from an old archive recording, it’s never enough to know just the words and the melody. Being able to simply sing the song just doesn’t seem to satisfy me. I long to know the roots of the song, the reasons for its existence. It’s not always possible either, as many of our songs date back several hundred years.
So what’s the use of traditional song and story in a modern day setting? Songs have the power to reach out to people, to heal, to change politics. To connect people. To celebrate community, to educate our children. To show us what went before – our history, our culture, our mistakes, our battles – lost and won.
There is a well-known Gaelic phrase -
Gheibhear deireadh gach sgeoil an asgaidh
Literally this means ‘the end of a tale is got for nothing’, but its actual meaning is more complex – it tells us that patience brings rewards, that there is no hurry, no rush. To me, it says – each story will be fulfilled. The story stands alone and makes its own way in the world, with or without our help.
Traditional songs, words and stories are what inspired the music our new record contains. I am fortunate to come from a place where telling tales, sharing stories and singing songs are not only a national pastime, but rather signposts showing us where, and who, we have come from. They help shape our identity and give us a sense of belonging. They make us laugh, move us to tears and give us moral guidance.
A few of these newly recorded songs come from childhood days, some arrived at my door more recently. Some I learned whilst soothing small babies to sleep. Some I learned whilst failing to soothe small babies to sleep. All of them have a reason to be on this new album. Each song has its own story, and now in addition, I too have my own personal story for each one.
I’m sure that after during this year’s Celtic Connections there will be many hundred stories told and shared, and many more created too!
Julie Fowlis, University of the Highlands and Islands Alumnus of the Year 2013
Brought up on North Uist, Julie has been a proud standard bearer for Gaelic music and culture over the course of a solo career which has included numerous awards, performances worldwide and three highly acclaimed studio albums. Professional highlights include being appointed as ambassador for Gaelic by the Scottish Government, winning the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award for Music in 2012, regular presenting roles on BBC radio and television and featuring on the soundtrack of the Disney Pixar film ‘Brave’. She received an Honorary Doctorate of music in 2013 in recognition of her contribution to Gaelic and Scottish culture worldwide.
Julie graduated from the University of the Highlands and Islands with an MA in ‘Cultar Dùthchasach agus an Àrainneachd’ (material culture and the environment) in October 2011. She was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the university in 2009 and named as its Alumnus of the Year in 2013.