Ceolas: A sort of homecoming

While interest in Gaelic flags in Scotland, people from across the globe flock to South Uist to learn, writes Joan McAlpine

• Michael Klevenhaus, Thomas Kostler and Senta Schoene are on South Uist for Ceolas.

THE scene is one of old-fashioned Highland hospitality. Whisky and claret flow, peat glows and half-a-dozen fiddlers around a sturdy oak table play reels at a frenetic pace.

We are in the elegant drawing room of the 18th-century Boisdale House, a home still owned by the Clanranald branch of the MacDonalds. There is plenty of craic in Gaelic and every so often a guest rises to sing. They include Paul MacCallum, a former Mod gold medallist who runs a bunkhouse a couple of miles down the single-track road that twists along the shore of Loch Boisdale. Paul is known as a "tradition bearer" - he carries in his head hundreds of songs from this small but culturally rich corner of South Uist.

But not everyone here has a granny who carried peat in a creel or a great uncle who followed the herring. The revelers include near-fluent Gaelic enthusiasts from New Zealand, Switzerland, Germany and even Japan. While the language struggles to survive in Scotland, the rest of world is embracing it. The growth of online learning, the popularity of Celtic music and the yearning for authenticity all play their part.

Alison Ross stands in front of the baronial fireplace to sing a "waulking song" taught to her by another local tradition bearer, the celebrated Gaelic singer Mairi MacInnes. Waulking songs were created by women while they worked together softening tweed.

Alison - who was adopted at birth and has no strong Scottish connections - spent most of her adult life raising five children on a remote sheep farm in Waikato, New Zealand, before taking a degree in linguistics. In her university library she came across a book by Margaret Fay Shaw, the American folklorist who spent her life collecting the songs and stories from this particular area of Uist, North Glendale. Alison was captivated. When she finally got to visit Uist in 1998 she met Paul, who learned from the same crofters as Shaw, and asked him to teach her.

Alison says: "One of the older tradition bearers here, Rona Lightfoot, rose every morning to milk cows before school as a child. That was me too, raising the children, making, mending, cooking and bottling."

Only 3,000 people live on South Uist, but it was described by American folklorist Alan Lomax, who visited in 1951, as having the richest oral tradition in the world. Alison is on the island this year to attend Ceolas, a community-run Gaelic language and music summer school. Now in its 15th year, it offers classes in fiddle, pipes, step dance and singing, as well as Gaelic.

Michael Klevenhaus, 49, from Bonn agrees.

He runs his own Gaelic school in Germany, published the first German-Gaelic textbook and runs FilmAlba, the world's only film festival devoted to Scots Gaelic works. The former actor became interested in the language through a good friend who was a native speaker. He attended Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college on Skye, and in 2006 became one of its first two students to graduate with a masters degree.

He says of Gaelic: "It is such a beautiful language and it is under threat. It would be an absolute tragedy if it was allowed to disappear."

Germans are among the largest and most enthusiastic group of learners. In part this is historical, as Celts once inhabited much of continental Europe. Goethe, the father of German Romanticism, translated the works of Ossian, which caused a sensation in the 19th century with tales - albeit concocted - of Gaelic heroics.

However, rock band Runrig are more of an inspiration to Michael's countrymen today: "They are huge in Germany, along with other Scottish and Irish bands. We call it 'Celtomania'." Many of Michael's own students come to his classes to understand song lyrics, he says. Around three in ten are hooked by the end of the course and want to take things further.

Frankfurt now has its own piping school, and several of its musicians accompanied Michael to Ceolas last week. Senta Schoene, 30, from Leipzig and Thomas Kostler, 39, from Frankfurt, have a very specific reason to learn the language.

"We want to learn canntaireach, which is the ancient Scottish way of learning notes on the pipes," says Senta.

This is the way that the legendary MacCrimmons of Skye would have learned their tunes, and it requires an understanding of Gaelic phonetics. Each vowel represents a note while consonants are the embellishments - in order to play, you also need to be able to sing the tune.

Next door to the pipers, Takuko Miyazawa, a young office worker from Tokyo, is learning fiddle with the veteran Cape Breton musician, Joe Peter MacLean. She says: "When I was a little girl my father took me to see a Highland band visiting my country. I knew then I wanted to do the same, I loved the sound."

She has attended the Gaelic College in Skye, and visited Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where many Uist families emigrated to in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Takuko returns to Ceolas every year. It is particularly attractive to foreigners because it is rooted in a community were Gaelic predominates and every township is home to a renowned singer, piper or storyteller. Locals also participate in the summer school and take students into their homes.

"There is seldom any need to bring in entertainment, there is already so much talent in South Uist and its diaspora," says Mary Schmoller, the co-ordinator, a local woman who married a German.

They have expanded beyond the summer school to bring out their own CDs and hold winter programmes.

Next week they stage a symposium on the crofting township of Eochar, which was never cleared and operated the communal Gaelic system of runrig agriculture well into the 20th century.

One of the most appealing aspects of life on Uist is the strong sense of community that has disappeared in much of the urbanised world. Everyone's contribution is valued here and social class counts for nothing. The latest Ceolas welcome ceilidh was devoted to remembering Donald John MacKinnon, the festival's bus driver, who died of cancer earlier this year. In between the dances, the biggest stars in traditional music stood up to praise Donald John's dedication, enthusiasm and larger-than-life personality.

It is this sort of event which has entranced Loriana Pauli, 68, a biologist from Switzerland. She says her country has lost the sense of place that is preserved here: "When I am here, I feel I am home. Here the music, the landscape and the language all seem to have the same soul."

Loriana, 68, first visited the islands to observe the rare birds that nest on the rolling machair. She was so captivated that she began to learn the language - along with the tin whistle - at Lews Castle College on Benbecula, part of the network that forms the University of the Highlands and Islands.

The music and language course on Benbecula grew out of the success of Ceolas, and the demand for year-round tuition - it is so popular now that there's a waiting list. Graduates this year include an Austrian couple and a Tasmanian, as well as Loriana. Next year they are preparing to welcome a Russian, and a Belgian woman who has sold her home to fund the course.

"I am constantly impressed with the dedication of people who are prepared to sacrifice everything to move across the world and learn Gaelic," says Anna Wendy Stevenson, one of the course tutors. An accomplished fiddler from Edinburgh, she has picked up Gaelic through living here, but is awed by the persistence of the foreign learners.

"I met the Belgian woman just two years ago at a Feis in Ullapool when she was still a novice fiddler. Since then she has thrown herself into the music and the movement. That is typical. We gave our award to the most improved Gaelic speaker this year to an Austrian girl. She and her boyfriend came together. They delight in the place."

She describes Loriana as one of their best students: "She has an extraordinary talent ... I predict we will hear her in film scores soon." The Swiss woman composes for tin whistle, and her music was played at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow this year.

The pull of these islands is so strong, many students want to stay. Alison Ross does not plan to return to New Zealand after Ceolas. She has applied for a job as school bus driver and already has her eye on a derelict blackhouse in South Lochboisdale which was the last home of a local bard called Donald MacDonald who worked the four-acre croft alone for more than 40 years.

Enormous rocks erupt through the thin soil and much of the ground is wet, strewn with rushes and bog cotton. There is no path to the door; much of the thatch has rotted, and weeds thrive in the roof.

All of this appeals to Alison. "I don't have a lot of resources. But living a hard and simple life gives me a connection to the values of the songs I am privileged to carry."

She worries whether she has a "right" to settle in Uist. "But the songs are often about loss. So I say to myself, 'Why shouldn't one person come back for the millions that went the other way?' "

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