A Gael force in any language

IT may be a while yet before a song from the Outer Hebrides is sashaying to the top of the download charts, but if anyone is in with a chance of introducing Scots Gaelic songs to a mainstream audience, then it is Julie Fowlis.

Until recently, it was her singing and musicianship with the sextet Dochas that had put her in the spotlight but, over the past couple of years, she has been winning solo acclaim for songs from her native North Uist. "A lot of people are really tired of hearing the same sort of pumped-out manufactured music on the radio," she says. "There's nothing wrong with it but a lot of people are looking for something else to listen to."

Fowlis has a few suggestions. In 2005, the same year she was voted Gaelic Singer of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards, she released her debut solo album, Mar A Tha Mo Chride, or As My Heart Is. A collection of traditional Gaelic songs harvested from both North Uist's more mature inhabitants and the field recordings of Edinburgh's School of Scottish Studies, the album led to Fowlis winning the Horizons Award at the 2006 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.

Its follow-up, Cuilidh, meaning treasury or secret hiding place, has the potential to take the 28-year-old further still. The buzz around Fowlis is growing... sometimes in the most unlikely of places. The Daily Telegraph proclaimed that she may be 'the first Scottish Gaelic crossover star in the making'. Word magazine is putting her music on its cover-mount CD and Mark Radcliffe, the Radio 2 DJ more often associated with Mancunian guitar slingers, has been mentioning Fowlis in the same breath as Bjork.

Fowlis' parents had run a hotel on North Uist but the family moved to the mainland when she was a teenager.

"Music was a regular part of life on the island," she says. "We were always encouraged to play various instruments. The radio was always on and there was always music in some form at school. We sang all the time but not necessarily Gaelic songs. We listened to Atlantic 252 just as much as Radio nan Gaidheal. ."

FOWLIS STILL CALLS North Uist home. Her Gaelic roots are a source of pride but she often feels both "excited and frustrated" at how the language is treated. She points out that it was only in 2005 that the Scottish Parliament formally recognised Scots Gaelic as an official language of Scotland. "People argue that only 1% of the population speak it. My point would be that there is that 1% and we haven't lost it yet. You can't put a value on a language and once it is gone it is gone forever. Languages are so precious and you can preserve them in books and tapes and in other ways, but unless it is a spoken, breathing language then it isn't a living language."

Field recordings made in the Fifties and Sixties have preserved many songs from the Highlands and Islands but the informal means of transmitting them from generation to generation is increasingly rare.

"People used to come together at someone's house to get all the news and that would be where songs and stories would be shared. That practice pretty much died out as community structures changed and television and the wireless also played a part. That oral tradition almost stopped. It was part of everyday life until so recently. It's not just on North Uist. Every single place in the Highlands and Islands had these amazing stores of music, so much of which was lost. It would break your heart if you thought about it too much."

Although Fowlis believes that what she does helps to keep the Gaelic culture alive, she is still a little uncertain that performing the songs to an audience is staying true to the songs' heritage. "So much of the time now, music is for the stage. I'm very aware that I make my living from that and am grateful for it, but it's a fine line between making it into something for the stage when traditionally that is not what it was about at all.

"I am singing really old songs but I'm presenting them in a more contemporary fashion. That doesn't mean that the songs themselves have changed. I'm still singing them in almost exactly the same style with the same words and melodies. All that has changed is that traditionally these songs would have been sung unaccompanied. We just provide a little sympathetic and appropriate accompaniment."

Some of the songs on Cuilidh date back hundreds of years and tell ageless tales of clandestine love affairs and the rivalry between the old men of North and South Uist. Others relate events which happened just on the fringes of living memory. 'Oran Nan' or 'Raiders', is a song by Finlay Morrison about a group of islanders who were promised land if they fought in the First World War. Those that came back were betrayed so they raided the land they had been promised. Fowlis learnt the song from Alick MacAulay, a descendant of one of the raiders.

"It was amazing to sit in his house on the croft that his father, who had been one of the raiders, had fought for. You can't get any closer to the song than that. It was amazing to talk to him about his own father's recollections of that time. I know that I will be able to pass that on to somebody else now when the time comes."

Well aware that most audiences outside the Gidhealtachd will miss the true meaning of the songs because they don't speak the language, Fowlis always likes to explain her songs. Even for the Gaelic speakers, some of the songs she sings are best appreciated with a little background knowledge.

"A lot of the songs I sing are very localised as opposed to the big songs which were passed from island to island and became like the pop songs of the day," she says. "A lot of the songs I am interested in are at a very local level. They are from specific townships and they are very people specific. Even to Gaelic speakers they wouldn't have the same impact if you didn't know the characters that were being talked about. You only get the real meaning of a song if you know the places and people that are being sung about. Or if I tell the audience about them."

While the details in her songs may be extremely site specific, the themes they cover are universal. "I always try to explain this to kids," says Fowlis. "If I am speaking to a classroom that perhaps isn't from a Gaelic community then the songs can seem very alien. But I'm always trying to make that bridge to them and explain that what people sing about today is essentially the same as what people sang about 100, 200, 500 years ago. We might have become very grown-up and modern and have a very technologically advanced society but we still sing about love, life and loss. The story is always just as relevant today."

• Cuilidh is released on Spit & Polish on March 5. A tour starts in Skye on March 8. www.myspace.com/juliefowlis, www.juliefowlis.com