References to the Isle of Skye, just off the west coast of mainland Scotland, permeate Alasdair Fraser's work: Skyedance, his first duo album with Paul Machlis, the band Skyedance and many tunes named for people, places, or events on Skye. In July 1987, the internationally acclaimed Scots fiddler taught the first summer fiddle course at Sabhal Mor Ostaig Gaelic College on Skye. Fifteen years later he wrote to us from the island and reflected on the changes he's witnessed since his fiddle course began.
I was keen to bring home to Scotland some of the ideas I'd been working on since starting the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School, three years previously, in California. That first magic week was an intensive exploration of Scottish music and the Scottish condition, filled with a sense of discovery and rebirth and (not insignificantly) glorious, sunnyweather.
It lead to an annual tradition. Sabhal Mor Ostaig Gaelic College (the name means "the big barn at Ostaig") was conceived as a place where Gaelic speakers could receive further education in their native tongue, and more broadly, as a beacon for the pursuit of things Gaelic at a time when the viability of the language was severely threatened.
Its atmospheric old stone buildings, and stunningly beautiful location, on Skye's Sleat peninsula, provided a great setting for exploring the rich traditions of Scottish fiddle and dance. Over the years, this corner of Skye has become a touchstone for me -- a place for checking in and taking the pulse, and a place of inspiration and renewed commitment.
In 1987 there were very few fiddlers on Skye -- in fact there were many parts of the Gaidhealtachd (Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland) where the once-prevalent fiddle had become hard to find, especially in the hands of someone who was fluent in Scottish musical idioms. Throughout Scotland there was a kind of "cultural cringe" as Scots struggled to make sense of their threatened identity in the dying days of British imperialism.
There was a dependency on written music among fiddle players, a debilitating concern that there was a "correct way" to play a tune (i.e., the way the tune was transcribed on a page) -- reflecting the loss of a formerly rich aural tradition. I wanted to set the fiddle back on the musical map of Scotland -- squarely in the centre -- as an instrument of personal expression with a wealth of incredibly good tunes associated with it (as shown by the numerous manuscripts and published collections going back to the early 18th century).
I also wanted to call attention to the many social dances which had fallen into disuse in Scotland, in particular the old form of step-dancing once enjoyed throughout the western isles and which had faded almost entirely from folk memory.
The third aspect to the teaching would be to make the correlation between instrumental music and language and song. Singers such as Christine Primrose, wonderful Gaelic singer from Lewis, would help put the language back into the music. Early on I realised I had to reach out to Canada's Cape Breton Island where there was, at that time, a greater awareness and fluency in the traditional music and dance of Highland Scotland.
So in 1992, I invited Buddy MacMaster and Harvey Beaton -- great custodians of the Cape Breton tradition -- to Skye to teach fiddle and dance respectively. Buddy and Harvey were delighted to come back to teach in the birthplace of many of their tunes and dances. It was a homecoming for them, and for the tradition, and all were embraced!
Many changes have taken place in Scotland since then. There's an increased flow of Cape Bretoners coming to Scotland, and a corresponding stream of Scots going to Cape Breton to discover it for themselves. The college itself has expanded to include two new accommodation blocks, so that the original barn, the talla mhor, seems dwarfed and slightly abandoned, even though it still represents the heart and soul of what has gone on here.
A once-typical student on the course was shy and hesitant and awkward, regardless of age; now the students arrive at the college with fiddle or feet ready to engage, to creatively explore old and new tunes, and investigate the rhythmic potential of the music and dances. There is now a willingnessand hunger to learn by ear, and to find and enjoy the myriad possibilities arising from individual interpretations of the material.
There is a new confidence in the air that comes from a people who feel a fluency and pride in their music, song and dance. There are now waiting lists for people trying to obtain lessons in step dancing. The local primary school kids on Skye are speaking Gaelic.
Scotland has its own Parliament, giving Scots a sense of possibly being able to shape their own destiny as a country for the first time in centuries. Glasgow now hosts the world's biggest Celtic music festival, Celtic Connections. Edinburgh hosts the wonderful Adult Learning Project, which encourages people of all ages to go back and learn about our own culture -- something that was sadly lacking in the Scottish education syllabus for many years.
There are a bunch of young fiddlers here from Tayside this week. They learn tunes voraciously and when they play them they include much of the language and idiomatic knowledge that was missing 15 years ago. The interesting thing is they think it's always been this way, and know nothing of the sanitizing effects of the older ways.
I go into the talla mhor and I hear the tunes being belted out by a 12 year old and I think what a great gift it is to be able to see the next generation seize their culture and joyously share it with each other.
(Alasdair Fraser wrote this letter from Skye. 30 July 2002. For information on Alasdair's recordings and schedule, contact www.culburnie.com or www.alasdairfraser.com; or phone Culburnie Records, 800/830-6296.Sabhal Mor Ostaig Gaelic College (ph:01471 844 373) Teanga, Sleat, Isle of Skye, Scotland, IV44 8RQ.)