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New voices: Rona Wilkie

The final weekend of last year's Celtic Connections proved pretty momentous for the Argyll-born fiddler and Gaelic singer Rona Wilkie.

First, on the Saturday, she and her Norwegian duo partner Marit Fält were named among the six winners of a Danny Kyle Open Stage Award, previously a launch-pad for such now-leading acts as Malinky, Breabach and The Chair.

The following night, she was crowned Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year – despite having lost her voice to a throat infection. Twelve months on, with her New Voices performance next Sunday to be followed in March by the release of Turas, her debut album with Fält, 2013 looks like it is going to be another big year for the 23-year-old.

Even at such a tender age, the range and depth of Wilkie's experience is mighty impressive. Growing up in Oban amid a musical family, immersed from babyhood in Scottish traditional sounds, she was schooled in Highland fiddle styles and classical violin, later becoming one of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland's youngest members, and winning scholarships to study with celebrated violinist Angus Ramsay at Edinburgh's Fettes College. She began singing while attending a Gaelic-medium primary school, and at 14 led the fiddle group Gizzen Briggs when they performed in front of the Queen at the opening of the Holyrood Parliament. Subsequent strings to her bow have included a history degree at Edinburgh University and a Masters exploring links between Highland and North American fiddle styles.

Aptly for the festival that commissioned it, Wilkie's New Voices composition is called Ceangailte (Connected), and draws on all aspects of her diverse expertise, charting some of the key influences that have shaped Highland music down the ages, from the Viking invasions to New World emigration. It's a fully scored, five-part work for a seven-piece ensemble, also including Fält on Låtmandola (a Norwegian octave mandolin), together with Patsy Reid (fiddle/viola/vocals), Rachel Newton (clarsach/vocals), Hayden Powell (trumpet), Colin Nicolson (accordion) and Allan MacDonald Jr (percussion/vocals).

Wilkie explains: "Although the piece brings out all these outside influences, the key point is that they're approached from a Highlander's perspective, interpreted through my eye.

"I listened to lots of different kinds of music when I was working on it, but I didn't want just to imitate them and end up with some kind of pastiche.: I had to find some way of incorporating them while writing something that was true to myself, as a musician in the 21st century.

"My main interest as a historian is how we interpret history, what sources we learn it from, and although there's a lot of research behind the composition, I'm not trying to pretend I know how things sounded several hundred years ago: it's about my interaction with the music and its history."

For the vocal elements, Wilkie has written melodies to existing Gaelic texts, from the variously ancient hymns and incantations collected in Alexander Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica to poems by Sorley MacLean and Iain Crichton Smith, while the instrumental passages weave in allusions including a belligerent Norwegian halling dance and an old-time US hoedown. "The final section, though, doesn't reflect any one particular influence," Wilkie says. "It's basically a celebration of being connected through music."

Rona Wilkie's Ceangailte is at the Mitchell Theatre, January 27, 1pm. New Voices is supported by the Sunday Herald

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