This year’s 20th Celtic Connections is a double celebration, marking the 40th year of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the renowned centre for Gaelic culture that began as a simple farm steading
FORTY YEARS ago, in what seemed to many at the time to be an act of madness, the merchant banker, entrepreneur and Gaelic enthusiast Sir Iain Noble established an embryonic Gaelic college in a converted 19th-century farm steading – the “Great Steading of Ostaig” – which he had bought from former MacDonald estates on the Sleat peninsula in south-west Skye. Today Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the striking contemporary architecture of its campus overlooking the Sound of Sleat, has become not just a college, but a nationally and internationally respected centre for Gaelic culture, catering – directly, or through distance learning – for more than 1,100 students.
That 40th anniversary will be celebrated in no small way at a concert this Saturday, at Glasgow City Halls, under the umbrella of the city’s Celtic Connections festival (itself celebrating its 20th anniversary). So amid the heady, fusion-fuelled global ceilidhing of the festival’s wider programme, SMO@40 focuses attention on an institution that has played a crucial part not only in the increasingly vigorous Gaelic music element of the Scottish folk revival, but in the wider resurgence of national culture over the past few decades.
Compered by Mary Ann Kennedy and Kirsteen MacDonald, and launching a year-long programme of celebratory events, the concert features some of the best-known names in Gaelic music who have graduated from or been associated with the college, including Julie Fowlis, singers Margaret Stewart and Christine Primrose, pipers Allan MacDonald and Decker Forrest, the band Daimh and fiddlers including Alasdair Whyte, Alasdair Fraser and the show’s musical director, Allan Henderson.
A high-profile Irish guest is the pianist and composer Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, director of the Irish World Music Centre at Limerick University, with which the college has a longstanding relationship.
Allan Henderson, a scion of the well-known Highland musical family, is a former musician-in-residence at SMO, as well as currently teaching on its traditional music degree course. In arranging Saturday’s concert, he says, his most difficult job has been to try and whittle down the wealth of contenders to fit the two-and-a-half-hour concert: “An incredible number of musicians have passed through Sabhal Mòr in the last 40 years, both as staff and as students, so it has been a challenge selecting a representative sample.”
The college has long cultivated connections throughout the wider Gàidhealtachd of Scotland and Gaeltacht of Ireland, so it’s no great surprise that the concert should end with cross-cultural flourishes including an orchestral setting (involving the strings of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), of the old Irish Jacobite anthem Mo Ghile Mear. As Súilleabháin puts it, this unites performers “from both nodes of ‘the sea-divided Gaels’”. The pianist – who brings with him Irish singer Sandra Joyce, flautist Niall Keegan and saxophonist Kenneth Edge – regards Sabhal Mòr as “one of the great exemplars of local vision in a global context” and regards Saturday’s event as “one of the most important concerts of my time”.
Music has been a vital strand throughout the 40 years of Sabhal Mòr, as Donnie Munro, the college’s director of development, fundraising and the arts, points out. Munro, better known as a singer and former frontman of Runrig, recalls that when Iain Noble and his fellow trustees made their visionary acquisition of the old steading at Ostaig, “it was at a time when there was no supporting framework, no Gaelic-medium education, very little Gaelic in schools, and here they were, creating a tertiary level education centre for Gaelic.
“So to see it in its current position as a national and international centre is a great cause for celebration.”
Munro (who plays a Celtic Connections gig of his own at the Mitchell Theatre on 23 January with guitarist Eric Cloughley, fiddler Maggie Adamson and singer Joyce Dunlop) adds that he had a strong personal sense of the role that music has played within the Sabhal Mòr story.
“One reason why Mícheál was considered early on was the very strong relationship that exists between Sabhal Mòr and Limerick University’s Irish World Music Centre. Some SMO music course staff, such as Christine Primrose, have taught at Limerick, using videoconferencing, and there have been exchanges of both students and staff.”
Munro adds that it is also significant that the concert features a string section from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland: “We have a memorandum of understanding with the conservatoire, so there’s a nice tripartite link in the concert itself.”
As well as celebrating the past 40 years, the anniversary will also look forward, explains college principal Boyd Robertson, not least with the cutting, later this year, of the first turf of what will eventually be the first planned new village in the west Highlands for more than a century, Kilbeg village.
To be created over the next two decades on a 40-acre site owned by the Clan Donald Trust, adjacent to Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’s main Columba Campus, the new community will involve 70 houses, business units, a conference and performance centre and recreational facilities – a unique complex boasting an academic institution at its very heart.
As it is, the college has had a major economic impact on south Skye, which was Iain Noble’s plan, having seen how linguistic revival had powered economic regeneration in the Faeroes.
“In 1971 the population of the Sleat peninsula was 450; now it has doubled,” says Robertson. “A recent economic impact study showed that, with 155 full-time posts, we’re the third largest employer on Skye after the local council and the health board, and we generate almost £4 million annually for the local economy.”
Forty years on from what must have seemed an improbably rash venture on the part of Noble and his trustees, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’s buzzing and scenically magnificent campus has prompted at least one visiting academic to describe it as “the Princeton of the Hebrides”. Expect Saturday night’s concert to be suitably triumphal.
• For further information of the year’s SMO@40 events, see www.smo.uhi.ac.uk
• For full details of Celtic Connections, see www.celticconnections.com
20th Celebration Concert
A star-studded bill of artists who have “grown up” with Celtic Connections includes Sheena Wellington, Eddi Reader, below, Julie Fowlis, Capercaillie, Chris Stout, Finlay MacDonald and the Scottish Power Pipe band, as well as a specially formed festival string orchestra.
• Tonight, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
The flamboyant Galician piping star joins forces with the RSNO, combining pan-Celtic traditional material with some of his own writing for film.
• 19 January, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Carlos Núñez with the Royal
Scottish National Orchestra
Hosted by Shetland fiddler Aly Bain and American dobro wizard Jerry Douglas, the Sessions have become an institution in themselves, with this year’s US guests include singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, left, and Crooked Still singer Aiofe O’Donovan, while from nearer home come Teddy Thompson and Emily Smith.
• 1 and 3 February, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Heritage Blues Orchestra with Eric Bibb
The nine-piece “ orchestra”, whose debut album And Still I Rise was widely acclaimed, bring a contemporary sensibility to the whole gamut of traditional blues, plus the irresistibly laid-back Bibb.
• 31 January, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Burns and Beyond
Celebrate Burns night with this wonderfully eclectic programme with reggae from Clinton Fearon, beatboxer Jason Sing, sarod player Soumik Datta, far left, and fusion quartet India-Alba, while Malinky touch base with Scots tradition.
• 25 January, Old Fruitmarket