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.

The Scottish Schools Pipes and Drums Trust (SSPDT) annual schools’ championship is being held this year as an online event and for the first time ever, this freestyle competition is open to primary schools.  

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar Instrumental Music Service Piping teacher Esther MacDonald recently encouraged pupils at Balivanich Primary to form a small band and to submit an entry. 

As the timescale has been very short, and with Covid restrictions on singing, and the playing of wind instruments in schools, combined with all instrumental music tuition being delivered online since Christmas, it has been an extra challenge to get a performance together. 

Fiona MacInnes, Principal Teacher at Balivanich School said: “We would firstly like to thank Mrs Esther MacDonald (Piping teacher) for instilling her vision and encouraging self-belief in our pupils. During what has been a difficult time for many, our ABC Band have been motivated and encouraged to excel themselves in their chosen discipline. 

They have willingly rehearsed together during play and lunch times and have also convened through Teams in the evenings for some extra practices. This was made possible by the fact that all members of the band are part of the same school ‘bubble’.” 

A setlist of three songs has been recorded, The Dark Island, Kalabaken, and Donald MacLean’s Farewell to Oban. The performance is called “An t-Eilean Dorcha”

Fiona MacInnes said: “We feel that our ABC Band’s competition entry conveys the resilience, teamwork and perseverance which our pupils have shown throughout the past few weeks, whilst celebrating our unique cultural heritage. 

Judging will commence on Saturday 27th March at 7pm and we hope that our School Community – near and far – will support our band by taking part in the People’s Choice vote on Sunday 28th March.”

Pupils in the primary school have been described as having ‘a great buzz out of it all, it has certainly brightened up the school day a touch over the last few weeks.’ 

One band member said: “It’s the first time I’ve done anything like this – I have been playing the chanter for two and a half years but I have never joined with other instruments”

After a tough year of restrictions and being in and out of school, the band say they “Feel amazing to be in the band – it’s good to play music with my classmates and I’m excited about it all”

Balivanich School and Parent Council have been very supportive, and local businesses have assisted with the purchase of e-Chanters for tuition in Western Isles schools during Covid restrictions. 

MacInnes Bros. Builders assisted with the purchase of t-shirts for the new band and its members.

Balivanich Primary School wants to give special thanks to Culla Creations for the fabulous job they made of filming the entry.

The pupils in the band have benefitted from tuition provided by the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar Instrumental Music Service through the Youth Music Initiative (YMI). 

This funding is awarded annually to local authorities across Scotland with one of the main aims being to allow all school pupils access to a year’s free music tuition before the end of primary school.

Shortlisted films will be broadcast on the Pipe Bands for Schools Facebook page, with the Sgoil Baile a’ Mhanaich ABC band performance scheduled for 7pm on Saturday 27th March. 

Voting for the people’s choice section takes place on Sunday 28th March between 12 noon and 5pm, again via the Pipe Bands for Schools Facebook page, with the full results being announced at 7pm the same day.

The band performance can be viewed here –

Balivanich Primary are the only school in the Western Isles entered this year.

Best of luck to all who participated.

A concert hosted by Taigh Chearsabhagh at the beginning of February is now available to view for free on its website.

Abigail Taylor

A concert featuring leading musicians Julie Fowlis and Ellen MacDonald with appearances from The Band from Rockall was live streamed on Monday 1st February 2021.

Up and coming talents Eilidh Lamb and Robert John MacInnes, and the Taigh Chearsabhagh House Band, featuring Padruig Morrison , Anna Black and James Stewart, also performed, along with the legendary Duncan MacKinnon from Berneray.

More than 3000 people tuned in online to watch the show with some describing the experience as ‘fantastic’.

‘Music of North Uist’ was organised by Taigh Chearsabhagh’s Gaelic Officer, Kathleen MacInnes, the well-known singer, actress and television presenter, originally from South Uist.

Simon Hart, Director of business and development for Taigh Chearsabhagh, said: “We were really pleased to be able to present an event at Celtic Connections. The audience response was really good, both on the night and in the days after.

We hope to use this live performing and online presentation model to bring back later this year Taigh Ciuil, Taigh Chearsabhagh’s highly popular music sessions.”

Videos of all the performances from the Celtic Connections evening can be found at