Musical tradition in a thoroughly modern way

By Katie Macleod

When it comes to “doing something different” at university, as the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) prospectus advertises, you’d be hard-pressed to find somewhere more unique to study traditional music than at the Lews Castle College campus on the Isle of Benbecula.

The highly respected HNC Music course is based in Benbecula, and it’s from here that the networked BA Applied Music degree – which can be studied remotely from any UHI campus – is run.

Students can also enrol in the MA in Music and the Environment, which helps musicians learn how to work in creative, entrepreneurial, and environmentally responsible ways within their communities.

“The traditional music courses based in Uist are now in their 18th year,” explains Programme Leader Anna-Wendy Stevenson. “We are very proud of all the hundreds of students that have gone through our courses, and many of our students have gone on to pursue careers in traditional music, performance, teaching, recording, and writing.”

Read more: Musical tradition in a thoroughly modern way

Island music…half a world away

From Katie Macleod in New York

It’s not often I encounter a fellow Leodhasach (native of Lewis) in a New York City bar, let alone six of them at once – but that’s exactly the situation I found myself in March 2018 at Rockwood Music Hall, located in Manhattan’s trendy Lower East Side.

The tiny bar of Stage 1 was buzzing under dim red lights, the densely-packed crowd dancing, cheering, and filming the performance on their phones. Leodhasaich and New Yorkers alike were there to listen to Colin Macleod, the singer-songwriter from Point on the Isle of Lewis who, with his first gig in the Big Apple, was winding up his mini-USA tour after a string of performances at SXSW festival in Texas.

With his band – younger brother Callum on bass, Gordon Skene from Fort William on piano, and fellow islanders Scott Macleod on guitar and Murdo Mackenzie on drums – Colin opened the show with Kicks In, his most recent single. The song is an ode to the gap between childhood and adulthood, and the upbeat sound perfectly captures the bittersweet feeling of possibility that teenagers can feel as their school days come to a close.

“Kicks In is about us growing up,” Colin tells me over coffee the next day. “We were all at the end of school, and we had this choice: are you staying on the island, or are you going to go?” Colin chose to stay, and pursue a music career, which left him wondering at the time when ‘real life’ would arrive while he was living at home, and his friends had moved to the mainland. “I don’t know if kids go through that now as much, but definitely for people my age it was a real conflict.”

Read more: Island music…half a world away

Music students forging many exciting paths 

The music courses have been in existence now for 16 years at the Benbecula campus of Lews Castle College UHI.   

As programme leaders for the University of the Highlands and Islands BA (Hons) Applied Music degree Lews Castle College UHI had their first cohort of graduates  in 2016.  They also offer a masters degree - MA Music and the Environment. 

They are educational leaders in the use of blended learning to teach – allowing students flexibility to build their music studies around their lives – enabling them to study from home or indeed to move to a beautiful and culturally rich location such as Uist to study.  The degree is multi-genre and develops skills in a range of areas relative to music and the creative industries.  Uist attracts students with an interest in traditional and Gaelic music. 

The 16 years of music courses have been celebrated in a new composition ‘Suite Uist’ by Anna-Wendy Stevenson, recorded by the Far Flung Collective and released at Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow in January this year. 

Read more: Music students forging many exciting paths 

Success story of a reluctant performer

Islanders in the USA…writer Katie Macleod, left, and singer Julie Fowlis

By Katie Macleod

The last rays of the day’s sun stream through the window, and notes of fiddle music float through the air from the adjoining room, where the sound check is taking place. Julie Fowlis, the award-winning Gaelic singer and musician from North Uist, looks refreshed and relaxed despite a four-hour drive to Pennsylvania for the fourth stop on a US tour.

Her presence on this side of the Atlantic is even more impressive given that she is terrified of flying. “So I sort of dread the tour every single time it comes along,” she admits with a laugh, “but as soon as I get my feet onto terra firma I’m so glad to be here.”

“I love the experience of touring in America, it’s very different to touring anywhere else. The audiences are different, even the practicalities are different, like the big highways and the enormous hotels, everything’s to the max, supersize... The whole experience is just the volume turned up, you know.”

Read more: Success story of a reluctant performer

20 years of cèolas…and many more to come

By Eilidh Whiteford

Twenty years of promoting Gaelic culture and heritage from within the language’s heartland is being celebrated as community-managed project Ceòlas reaches this major milestone.

The brainchild of Hamish Moore, Daliburgh-based Ceòlas began as a week-long summer school in 1996. Mary Schmoller, Ceòlas Operations Manager, said: “Hamish had been to Cape Breton [in eastern Canada] and realised how similar parts of it were still to the culture of the islands.

“He discussed the idea with PnE [Pròiseact nan Ealan, the former national Gaelic Arts Agency] about where would be most suitable and it transpired that South Uist could be a candidate community.

“The project was first run by PnE with the support of the local Arts Development Officer ‘Ryno’ Morrison and, after observing the programme, several people became involved in a variety of roles over the coming years until it became a community-managed project in 2001.”

She continued: “For many of our directors, Ceòlas has given them the opportunity to contribute to the cultural and social development of the islands.

“The Summer School is a beacon of what is best about a Gaelic community, in song, music and dance in public and in private homes at house cèilidhs.”

Read more: 20 years of cèolas…and many more to come