Uist nominees line up

Chaidh sgioba beòthail agus tàlantach ainmeachadh airson 21mh Duaisean Ceòl Traidiseanta na h-Alba aig MG ALBA a tha a’ taisbeanadh na tha de thàlant ann an saoghal ceòl traidiseanta na h-Alba.
Fans of the genre were able to vote for who they think deserves to take home each prestigious award, with the winners announced at the annual glittering awards ceremony at Caird Hall in Dundee on Saturday 2nd December 2023.

Le cànan is ceòl aig cridhe nan eilean, chan eil iongnadh ann gu bheil a leithid as na h-eileanan air an ainmeachadh airson na duaisean urramach a tha seo. Tha na duaisean seo a’ sealltainn an luach a thathar a cuir air na tha a h-uile duine air a’ gheàrr-liosta air a choileanadh fad bliadhna.
Le ath-bheothachadh drùidhteach air a’ ghnè, a’ ruighinn luchd-èisteachd nas fharsainge le fèisean is tachartasan ùra a’ tighinn am bàrr bliadhna às deidh bliadhna, tha na duaisean – air an cur air dòigh leis a’ bhuidheann ‘Hands Up For Trad ‘– a’ seasamh mar theisteanas air tarraingeachd leantainneach an t-saoghail.

From new events and festivals making history to the country’s best bands and composers, the successful nominees represent the past, present and future of a world traditional Scottish music and are located all over the country.

Uist man’s historic win at the Royal National Mòd

The very talented Ruairidh Gray from Daliburgh has achieved the rare and remarkable accolade of winning gold medals in both headline competitions at this year’s Royal National Mòd in Perth.

On Wednesday, Ruairidh claimed the men’s Bonn Òir a’ Chomuinn, winning through from what was described as an exceptionally strong field.

On Thursday evening, he shone, again beating off the strong and talented competition to take the Bonn Òir an t-Seann Nòis Gold Medal.

The two medals might sit side by side in the competition calendar, but they are each very different, as Ruairidh explains: “When the first Mòd Gold Medal competition was held in Oban in 1893 it was a small affair with just a handful of singers taking part. Many of the singers of that time would have received musical education and instruction. Some might have even received instruction in a semi-classical style. This meant that not only would they have learned the words for their songs, but also how to sing through long, difficult phrases and use correct control of breath and expression. This instruction would have left certain singers at quite an advantage and in 1971, a second medal competition was added to the listing; the traditional, or the Bonn Òir an t-Seann Nòis as it is known in Gaelic – literally, ‘gold medal of the old style’. This second competition judged performers in their own right, singing their own native Gaelic dialects in their own style with full use of vocal ornamentation.”.

“Although the competitions are quite different and each requires a particular set of skills, I believe them to be of equal importance to the Gaidhig culture”.

Ruairidh is currently the second-only person in the Mòd’s history to have won both the Bonn Òir a’ Chomuinn and the Bonn Òir an t-Seann Nòis in the same year. The only other person having done so is fellow Hebridean, Kenneth Nicholson. A native to the island of Lewis, Mr Nicholson won the double at the Stornoway Mòd in 2005 when Ruairidh was only 3 years old!

As well as the two gold medals, Ruairidh left Perth with no less than eight other prizes, including the Scotia Trophy, awarded for the highest overall mark in both the mens and ladies traditional medal competition, and the Islander Shield, awarded to the competitor with the highest overall mark within his and her own competition.

Ruairidh joins an esteemed list of Mòd gold medallists, and says he is honoured to be present amongst such important names: “I read through the long list of these great gold medallists, stretching back to 1893; people like Norman Maclean, Calum Kennedy, Archie Grant, Margaret Duncan, Kenna Campbell, Iseabail T. MacDonald – these are important and influential musicians who have helped keep Gaelic song alive and we still talk about them with reverence today. I feel very proud and deeply honoured to think my name shall sit alongside theirs.”

The two gold medal competitions have very specific requirements, and demand excellence in both music and language. Competitors are asked to sing a mixture of set songs, and songs of their own choosing and deciding which songs to include is not an easy task. Ruairidh explained:
“Finding and then choosing the right songs is incredibly important. They must contrast and show that the singer is able to not only showcase his own vocal and technical ability but to show he has an understanding and appreciation of how the different song topics work together in a sort of concert programme. For example, my own song choice spanned four centuries, from the 1650s to 1923. Love songs, songs of war and songs that yearn for a place and way of life were all topics which I used. I think a good display of song choice and understanding of the language is very important when entering something such as the Mòd”.

Ruairidh is in his third year at the Royal Conservatoire Scotland where he is studying traditional music, with a principal study on Gaelic song. He is mentored within the Conservatoire by esteemed Gàidhlig scholar and folklorist Ms Iseabail T. MacDonald of South Uist and Glasgow. Ruairidh said: “It is a privilege for me to be mentored by someone who cares so deeply for my language and culture. I have been aware of Iseabail and her work my whole life and to now call her my mentor is truly an honour”.

While most in Uist would have been delighted to hear of Ruairidh’s success, there are a number of people who will be taking particular pride at his double medal win. The teachers, tutors, family, friends and neighbours who have supported Ruairidh’s musical career are too many to mention. Am Pàipear spoke to one person who has been a loyal supporter for many years, Ruairidh’s 93-year-old friend and neighbour, Mrs Elizabeth Thompson:

“Ruairidh lived across the road from me in Daliburgh from the age of ten. I don’t know how we came to strike up such a close friendship, given the very great difference in our age, but we certainly bonded over our mutual love of music. We sang together almost every day, at home and in the Choir at St Peter’s in Daliburgh, where I was the oldest member and he was the youngest. We sang all different kinds of songs and Ruairidh was forever trying to find a song I didn’t know. I remember he turned up one day singing the Polish national anthem, hoping to catch me out – but I knew that one too! Ruaridh is a very special person, not just for his rare musical talent but for his generosity and kindness. I am so very happy for him and just bursting with pride.”

This year the Mòd celebrated its 117th Gold Medal Competition, having held the event every year since 1893, world wars and international pandemics excepted. More than 7,500 people came to Perth to listen, watch or perform, with a huge army of volunteers giving up their time and devoting their energies to making sure the event was a success.

£1m festival boost for local economy

The team behind the hugely popular Eilean Dorcha Festival (EDF) has published the findings of an independent Visitor Survey and Economic Impact Report, showcasing the value of the three day event – not only in terms of the sheer fun it delivered, but the hard cash it injected into the local economy.

The Report, carried out by MKA Economics in Stirling details the facts and figures that evidence the impressive headline figure of a £1m boost to the local economy:

• EDF attracted 4999 festival goers – 29% more than the previous pre-Covid event

• 49% of festival goers were local (2,229 people) , with the remaining 51% (2,549 people) visiting from the Scottish mainland and beyond

• The total average spend per visitor during the festival weekend was estimated to be in the region of £384.37, a 22% uplift on 2019 figures – providing a total spend of £991,290

• 65% of visitors cited EDF as an important or very important reason for their trip

• The event was supported by around £70,000 of public funding, with every £1 of public support generating a further £14 of economic value

The Report also highlights the great feedback the event generated, with 53% of festival goers describing EDF as ‘Excellent’, and 33% (34% in 2019) saying it was ‘Very Good’, giving an 86% satisfaction rate overall.

The most frequent answers to the survey question: ‘What would have made your stay even more enjoyable?’ referenced ‘better weather’ and ‘more reliable ferrries’.

Festival organiser Roddy MacKay was delighted with the results, saying: “We could see during the weekend that the festival was a big success, but we have been blown away by the economic findings.

“The study demonstrates the power communities have when they pull together to organise an event that helps build a positive, ambitious future, and that was particularly relevant this year after a last-minute hitch when the tent suppliers pulled out.

Suddenly we had to rearrange the full event from indoor to outdoor at the last minute. A call went out for assistance, and the community came to the rescue in their droves. It meant a change of stage, sound, lighting, a new event safety plan, everything. It effectively meant a completely new event had to be drawn up in a week but, somehow, we managed to pull it off and people clearly enjoyed themselves.”

“We are very proud that, for just a £10 weekend ticket, children of primary school age can enjoy not just the music, but a variety of fun activities, while anyone under five years receives free admission. It lends to a great family-friendly atmosphere.”

“In addition to the overall family experience, it is important that EDF delivers a substantial economic benefit for local businesses,” he added, “but to achieve an economic boost of £1m for the area in our first festival post-Covid is something we are incredibly proud of and a return of 14:1 for every pound received in public funding is particularly pleasing.

“It is our ambition to keep building on our success, to enhance the festival experience even further, and to make Eilean Dorcha Festival an unmissable occasion as part of a must-visit destination.”

After a hiatus of three years, there was a lot of excitement about the return of a ‘live’ Ceòlas Summer School! As well as the classes and concerts, there were a variety of other events throughout the week including walks, a boat trip, a square dance and Georgian harmonic singing workshops led by Nana Mzhavanadze. Most of the classes were held in the fantastic new building ‘Cnoc Soilleir’ with all the Ceòlas ‘regulars’ delighted to see this long-held aspiration being realised.

The classes were all well attended, as were the nightly concerts, which were hugely enjoyed by all. Artistic Director Iain MacDonald said: “We were absolutely delighted to be back and making use of our new premises. The new space worked well and the two teams of ladies who organised the hospitality did a brilliant job keeping everyone fed – and in good time and with good humour. A very successful Summer School in all and we look forward to the next one.”

The feedback from Ceòlas students and guests says it all: “I can probably never repay the kindness I’ve been shown by both Ceolas Uist and the Uibhistich as a whole. Please just know that I’m deeply, deeply grateful.” “…but the beautiful, impromptu, Gaidhlig singing session as we overlooked South Lochboisdale… just sublime!’ “Thank you Ceolas Uist for the best week of step dancing, singing, Gaelic learning, music and cake.” “Just about recovered from my first ever Ceòlas! Supportive and patient tutors and staff at the fabulous new base Cnoc Soilleir made it a fun and interesting week of Gaelic immersion. The sessions, events and concerts throughout the week kept everyone mingling and by Friday, I’m fairly certain everyone just about knew everyone else! Taing mhòr dhuibh uile.”

A song will be sung

The weather in Daliburgh didn’t quite live up to the name of ‘bright hill’ on Friday 13th May, when the team behind Cnoc Soilleir gathered to celebrate another important milestone in the project’s history: the formal handing over of the keys of its state the art community building

The rain did hold off however, as Board members past and present, along with contractors Neil MacInnes and David MacInnes, were piped into the building by Ceòlas Tutor Allan Henderson.

Sue Macfarlane, Principal of UHI Outer Hebrides, and Chair of the Cnoc Soilleir Board, was delighted to formally take ownership of the keys on behalf of the community: “Today is the culmination of our shared ambition and the collective efforts of everyone involved – not just UHI Outer Hebrides and Ceòlas, but the contractors, the funders and the local people who have supported us over the years. We have all put our hearts and souls into this project and I’m just delighted this breathtaking building is now the community’s to enjoy.” The formal handover will be followed by a community open day on June 13th, when everyone will be welcome to share in the celebrations with the Cnoc Soilleir team.

Ceòlas Chair and Cnoc Soilleir Board Director Mairi MacInnes, who was unfortunately unable to attend the event, encouraged people to come along to see the building for themselves when it opens to the public on June 13th: “A warm welcome awaits everyone who drops in on the open day and perhaps a song will be sung and a reel or two will be danced!”

Mairi continued: “Getting Cnoc Soilleir Phase 1 built during lockdown has been a tremendous achievement and this has been possible because we contracted a local construction company. Great credit is due to our staff , the design team and MacInnes Bros for rising to the unprecedented challenges of Covid.

“Ceòlas is excited about holding the July Summer School in CS – the first since 2019.”

Work at the Cnoc Soilleir site started in February 2020, and continued through lockdown despite the many difficulties that the pandemic presented. This current phase of the build has delivered world-class facilities to meet the needs of both the college’s educational programmes, and Ceòlas’ community-led activities. A bespoke recording studio, a library, an exhibition space, and a flexible communal space for gatherings of up to 60 people, will transform the experience of Ceòlas summer school tutors and students this July and the college students who study here in the years to come.

The work was delivered by local contractor MacInnes Brothers (MIB), represented on the day by Project Manager David MacInnes, and Contracts Manager Neil MacInnes. Neil told Am Pàipear: “We are delighted to be handing over the keys to this fantastic building. All of us who have worked on the project are immensely proud of what we have delivered, both in terms of the high standard of the build itself, and in terms of the jobs we have created and maintained as a result. Over the course of the build, we have employed 14 local tradesmen, with one joiner moving his family home to Uist as a result of this opportunity.”

“The project was a complex one, and it’s success evidences that local firms are not only well able to deliver the highest possible technical requirements but can also bring the local knowledge required to manage the challenges that working on a remote island can present.” Funds are already part-secured for the next phase of the project, which will extend the building to the west to include a performance hall, with acoustics suitable for performance and seating for audiences of up to 200 people, a small dance studio with sprung floor, and additional teaching spaces.

Beinn Lee spent the last two years crafting their second album which was released before Christmas

Abigail Taylor

Beinn Lee members Pàdruig Morrison, Micheal Steele, Mairi Thérèse Gilfedder, James Stewart, Anna Black and Seoras Lewis were keen to follow up on their first album, Osgarra, soon after it was released in 2018. New tunes and songs were penned and the six-piece were back in the recording studio towards the end of 2019.

However, then came what no-one expected…lockdown and months of isolation as the world tried to deal with COVID-19.

“It was all going well, with just a few finishing touches that were needed, but unfortunately, COVID-19 struck,” recalled Pàdruig.

“Like many musicians, we were stuck without playing, feeling a bit low, but eventually we were able to get back to do another spell of recording and then we finally got the album out in December.

Deò is a mix of self-penned tunes and some favourites that regularly make the setlist for Beinn Lee. Recorded at Black Bay Studio in Great Bernera, with the help of Ross B Wilson, the album is available now as a CD or on streaming services and iTunes.

Beinn Lee members had hoped to promote the album at a series of gigs soon after the album was released in December. However, once more, their plans were scuppered as restrictions tightened to control the spread of COVID-19.

“It has been a really positive reaction so far, but it has been strange as we haven’t had any gigs to play, which has been a bit gutting. But from the online response and with family and friends being in touch to say that the album is being enjoyed, we are happy so far. Social media has been great, to see the reaction on Instagram and Facebook. I don’t think we will know ourselves until we play it live, and hopefully it will be really well received,” explained Mairi Thérèse.

Several planned shows for the Celtic Connections festival were also cancelled due to coronavirus measures, but now the rules are being relaxed, band members are feeling more optimistic and pencilling in some gigs for later in 2022.

“We have to try to make the most of releasing a physical album, because we literally make nothing from the streaming services, so we really want to sell them and something that has been really great, is the folk on the islands, of all ages, supporting us and going into local shops here and buying the CD. Normally we would anticipate having a whole run of gigs in line with the release so we are looking hopefully to have something coming up within a couple of months, both a launch event in Glasgow and a big event at home,” continued Pàdruig.

While the delay in finishing the album was a disappointment at first, it has turned out that having a break created more opportunities for Beinn Lee.

“We had a bit more time to develop our sounds,” said Mairi Thérèse.

“I think the first album that a band releases is often an accumulation of stuff that they have been playing since they started and in some ways that makes it a bit easier. But when the second one comes it’s time to get the thinking cap on to decide how you want to develop,” added Pàdruig.

“We have a bigger sound in our sets now for festivals and gigs and, during COVID-19, when we were just playing ourselves, it was stripped back, so we felt we had to include that as well. I’m glad we had the opportunity to record more to add these changes to the album.”

Beinn Lee remain true to their roots, having included samples from past generations on Deò.

Mairi Thérèse explained: “I was researching for my masters degree and came across a recording on Tobar an Dualchais, which included my grandfather, Donald ‘Sunndachan’ MacPhee, who was a well-known whisky and coal merchant but he also played the fiddle, and on the recording he is singing. I had discussed it before with the band and we had put it to the side, but after we had finished the first recording of the opening track we knew it just wasn’t working and then Pàdruig remembered about this recording. I am not sure where the tune came from, but we think it’s an old traditional one that worked really well and so we took a sample of his voice and it’s on the track. I think it’s so important to us to give a nod to these characters as we are influenced by them all.”

“We are all Uist musicians and we think a lot about how that manifests itself in our style and our tunes, even in our newer tunes we have written ourselves, they have connections to places or people in and then other traditional choices tie in, that are popular here. We definitely feel it is important to reflect upon and have a nod to our roots in Uist.”

MSP visits site of new educational and cultural centre on South Uist

Alasdair Allan MSP called on the site of Cnoc Soilleir this week (19th July 2021) and observed the rapid progress being made on the construction of the new education and culture centre on South Uist.

Catherine Yeatman, Project Manager for Cnoc Soilleir, guided Dr Allan around the building along with Sue MacFarlane, Principal of Lews Castle College, and Shaun MacIsaac from contractor MacInnes Bros Ltd.

Cnoc Soilleir will be a state-of-the-art institution for education, music, dance, culture and Gaelic and is being developed through a partnership between Lews Castle College and Ceòlas. Lews Castle College will deliver courses from the centre during the week in term time, while outwith core college hours Cnoc Soilleir will become the base for events and activities with Ceòlas.

Earlier this year the Scottish Government committed £3 million towards the second phase of the Cnoc Soilleir centre development, with the first now under construction at Daliburgh.

Local contractors, MacInnes Bros Ltd, started work on construction of the first phase of the new centre early in 2020. Phase one will see the construction of teaching and office spaces, while the second stage will comprise a bespoke auditorium and dance facilities. It is estimated the second phase will cost around £5 million to develop, with £3 million now secured from the Scottish Government.

Cnoc Soilleir has received funding from numerous individual donors, Scottish Government, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.

Beinn Lee elated to be back on stage at Ceòlas.

Abigail Taylor

Beinn Lee delighted the socially-distanced audience in Southend Hall on Wednesday night (7th July 2021) in what is believed to be one of the first live music events in the islands, with an audience, since the onset of COVID-19.

Ceòlas was forced to cancel its annual summer school and associated events last summer, but has delivered a week of virtual tuition and concerts, plus two live events, a piping recital and the show with Beinn Lee.

Close to 100 students have signed up for online classes this year in song, fiddle, piping, dance and Gaelic.

South Uist singer and special guest, Mairi MacMillan, performed first with the musicians from Beinn Lee to launch her debut album, ‘Gu Deas’.

Beinn Lee is a six-piece band featuring Micheal Steele, Pàdruig Morrison, Mairi Therese Gilfedder, James Stewart, Anna Black, and Seoras Lewis.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, there was limited capacity and physical distancing was observed by the audience.

Speaking with Am Paipear after the show, accordionist Pàdruig said: “It was great, it was really nice actually. Especially when we were playing with Mairi at the start, it was so good to just enjoy it with the audience. Nothing beats being back and playing in front of a local crowd.”

“Playing live just gives a different perspective to the music,” continued Pàdruig.

“We get so much more response from an audience, for example when playing ceilidhs or weddings and having people up dancing and singing along is so much better than playing online or virtually.”

Dancing was not allowed at the event which was “really missed” by the musicians.

Pàdruig said: “I know there were dancers in the audience and they would have been up on their feet from start to finish and it’s a shame to miss that but hopefully it’s not too much longer until we are back to our best.”

As restrictions are easing more events are expected to be going ahead although some gigs are still being cancelled for the band.

Micheal Steele, who plays the pipes and flute, explained: “Unfortunately some gigs are still being cancelled for us. We’ve just had a festival cancelled in Dunnet which was meant to be in September.

“It’s hard as there are still those barriers being put in front of us and disappointments are still coming up in the road but we are glad to be playing weddings and small gigs like this to be back in front of people again.”

Rescheduled weddings are providing the upcoming gigs that the band have booked in, and those are coming in thick and fast.

Some of the band members appreciated having time off during lockdown to spend at home and on the croft, although, Pàdruig said: “Playing live again really shows you how much you miss it, especially playing at home.”

“We just want to say a massive thank you to Ceòlas for pulling this off, for asking us and for organising this event given the circumstances, so a big well done to them for making the opportunity happen.”

Ceòlas hosted the first live music event since the onset of COVID-19

Abigail Taylor

Monday night (5th July 2021) saw some 50 people attend what is believed to be the first live music event with an audience to be held in the Western Isles since the onset of COVID-19.

Ceòlas hosted a piping recital in Southend Hall featuring musicians all aged under 30.

Last year the annual summer school and all associated events were cancelled because of COVID-19.

“It is fantastic to hear live music again as it really makes the blood pump through your veins,” said Mary Schmoller, Development Manager for Ceòlas.

“It was really interesting to see how subdued the audience was. It has been such a long time since people have been out and they are not normally as quiet, but I think it is because everything is low key and people were really paying attention and listening to the music.”

Performers included Ryan MacIntyre, Chloe Steele, Calum MacMillan, Joseph Nicholson and Seonaidh MacIntyre from South Uist. Mairead and Eòsaph Galbraith travelled to the event from Barra and Seonaidh Forrest and Gilleasbuig MacVicar from Skye. Finlay MacVicar from Grimsay also performed along with Kevin Beaton from Benbecula.

“I am glad that we had pipers come from Barra and Skye as well as it is so important for us to maintain that relationship across the islands. Everyone that played was brilliant, some regular performers and some new faces, but it was great to have them all here,” continued Mary.

Members of the audience were seated in ‘bubbles’ at safe distances within the hall, in line with restrictions on events to contain the spread of COVID-19.

“We have missed these events terribly,” added Mary.

“Normally we have the place covered in bunting and there is so much excitement but this year we have done our best and long may it last.

“Local pipers know that this is their training ground and that if they can get the audience to respond then they are doing well. Some of the players tonight we first watched when they were ten years old, so they have really grown as performers over the years. We knew then that they were good and tonight has demonstrated their talent.”

For the first time ever the annual Ceòlas summer school is being held online, with almost 100 students enrolled for classes offered in song, clarsach, step-dancing, piping, fiddle and Gaelic.

Tutors delivering virtual classes include Màiri MacInnes, Ailean Dòmhnallach, Fin Moore, Sophie Stephenson, Melody Cameron, Alasdair White, Troy MacGillivray, Ingrid Henderson and Eilidh Cormack.

“It has been received so well, much better than we expected. Classes have been booked in advance and we have not had to cancel any due to lack of interest,” added Mary.

“We have seen one or two broadband issues pop up but that cannot be helped. Everything else has gone like clockwork.”

Ceòlas is to host a second live music event, a concert with local band Beinn Lee, on 7th July 2021.

Ceòlas to host first live music events since onset of COVID-19

Iain Stephen Morrison

South Uist will next month host what is believed to be the first live music events in the Western Isles since the onset of COVID-19.

Ceòlas hopes to welcome people to two live events during the week of its summer school, which is set to run from 5th July 2021 to 9th July 2021.

Last year the annual summer school and all associated events were cancelled because of COVID-19.

However, with the gradual relaxation of coronavirus restrictions, more people can now gather together, with precautions in place, and live music events are restarting in other parts of the country, giving hope to Ceòlas.

Plans are therefore being finalised to allow live audiences to attend a piping recital, featuring more than 10 local pipers, and a concert with local band and multiple festival headliners, Beinn Lee.

Both the live events will happen during the week of the upcoming summer school, in between a series of online concerts, including a virtual iteration of the traditional, week-closing Cèilidh Mhòr.

“We are going to have a piping recital and a concert with Beinn Lee,” explained Mary Schmoller, Development Manager for Ceòlas.

“We have permissions in place but are still working on the final details, which we will announce as soon as possible. It could be the events will happen inside or outdoors.

“We cannot wait, after the difficult times of the past year and more, to welcome back audiences to our events.”

For the first time ever the annual Ceòlas summer school will run online, with classes offered in song, clarsach, step-dancing, piping, fiddle and Gaelic.

Tutors lined up to deliver virtual classes include Màiri MacInnes, Ailean Dòmhnallach, Fin Moore, Sophie Stephenson, Melody Cameron, Alasdair White, Troy MacGillivray, Ingrid Henderson and Eilidh Cormack.

Ceòlas hopes to run a series of outdoor events along with the two live music performances on South Uist.