Scots Gaelic setting for a linguistic dual

IF GAELIC, as we are assured, was the language of Eden, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on Skye's lush Sleat peninsula, can fairly claim to be a paradise of its own – certainly on a fine June day, with breathtaking views across the Sound of Sleat from the college's architecturally striking Àrainn Chaluim Chille complex, its great, lantern-like tower providing both a landmark and a metaphorical beacon of learning.

It made an inspirational setting, therefore, for last week's ground-breaking international conference on Gaelic and Lowland Scots song, ran 2010 Sang, hosted by the college in conjunction with the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, with whom it has signed a "memorandum of understanding".

This first joint event took up the challenge of a statement made in 1966 by the late Frances Collinson in his book The Traditional and National Music of Scotland, that "one cannot proceed very far in Scots music without reference to the major division arising from Scotland's two languages, Gaelic and Lowland Scots". Musicologist and broadcaster Dr John Purser, noting the presence of "an alarming number of experts", opened with an expansive overview of music publication in Scotland, suggesting some early cross-cultural links with reference to the 18th-century Fife-born composer and music publisher James Oswald who showed considerable sympathy for Gaelic music, and whose collections suggest he may have taken advice from a Gaelic musician.

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Purser was followed over the ensuing two days by more speakers than can be dealt with here and a diversity of topics ranging from the universality of lullabies to the influence of bagpipe music on Gaelic song.

Some songs can carry a health warning, according to Dr Ian Russell, of Aberdeen University's Elphinstone Institute, in his discussion of Green the Ganger, about the infamous "Glasgow railway murder" in which a navvy killed an unpopular gaffer. The song was not, Russell had been told, a song for public performance, for fear of being "lifted by the hornies", as its traveller singer referred to the police.

Talitha Mackenzie, from the RSAMD, ranged from 1930s documentary film to contemporary recordings to show how rhythmic Gaelic waulking songs, once performed solely by women while "waulking" or fulling home-made cloth, had changed in style and speed through their adoption for stage and studio performance.

Dr Gary West, head of Celtic and Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, celebrated the songs of the late Davey Steele, an ebullient singer-songwriter, who had the knack of deftly capturing time and place in his native East Lothian, while Gaelic singer and broadcaster Mary Ann Kennedy described how the recent recovery of old recordings helped fill in stylistic and other music links in two generations of her mother's musical family, the Campbells of Greepe in Skye.

Dr Katherine Campbell of Edinburgh University examined how the 18th-century artist David Allan captured songs when illustrating collections, while Dr Joshua Dickson of the RSAMD came out with the intriguing tale of an Oban woman who, banned by her father from learning the pipes as a girl, nevertheless absorbed so much of the music that she not only sang pipe tunes in her own personalised canntaireachd, the vocables used to transmit pipe music orally, but composed melodies in the idiom. "Music, like the truth, will out," Dickson observed.

It did indeed, not least when Dr Ruth Perry demonstrated that academics (she's from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US) can sing too, with a show-stopping rendition of the ballad Child Waters, which she had just discussed. And there were riveting performances from two acknowledged doyennes of their genres, with Burns songs and powerful Lowland balladry from Gordeanna McCulloch and beautifully poised Gaelic singing from Christine Primrose.

Further evidence of fruitful collaboration emerged in Steve Byrne's paper on the Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches project, placing online thousands of hours of archive material in English, Gaelic and Scots – in the process questioning assumptions on "traditional" repertoire as recordings revealed revered tradition-bearers singing Harry Lauder songs and even the great Jeannie Robertson singing an old Jimmie Rodgers number – dust bowl hobos riding a freight train into Scots traveller territory.

The Tobar an Dualchais project was commended as "invaluable" by Boyd Robertson, director of Sabhal Mr Ostaig, who hoped for further cross-cultural collaborations such as the conference. For his part, John Wallace, principal of the RSAMD (and trumpet virtuoso), described the Glasgow institution's partnership with Sabhal Mr as "a marriage made in heaven".

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"I think this collaboration could go a very long way in the future to help regenerate both Scots and Gaelic culture, and take it further," said Wallace.

It couldn't all be all positive, however. In a plenary lecture, Morag MacLeod, an authority on Gaelic song and folklore, stressed the importance of language patterns in song styles and warned about forcing Gaelic songs into inappropriate musical formats. This was echoed, with intense zeal, by Aindrias Hiort of the University of Otago, New Zealand, who lamented the decline of narrative singing, unshackled to repetitive metres associated with western art music, and referred to field recordings of elderly Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia intoning ancient Fingalian lays, now all but lost in Scotland.

It fell to folklorist and singer Dr Margaret Bennett to close the conference, expounding enthusiastically on the Ochertyre Song Sessions, at which Gaels and Lowlanders sing, discuss and exchange songs in a colloquy of two cultures. She responded to Collinson's assessment with Hugh MacDiarmid's comment on the need to "transcend the largely false divisions of Highland and Lowland, Scots and Scottish Gaelic, if … our national genius is to refresh itself".

However, Bennett also had a cautionary rider. "If there's one thing that's guaranteed to keep these divisions, indeed to widen them, is to fund one and not the other," she said, hinting at current concerns that Lowland traditional music has become something of a Cinderella in terms of official funding – at least partly due to the Scots language's lack of the subsidy-attracting official status accorded to Gaelic.

Among her listeners was Andrew Dixon, the recently appointed chief executive of the emergent Creative Scotland agency, who waxed lyrically about the conference and its location: "I've never been anywhere in the world as inspirational as this campus."

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