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The Highland Line: a Celtic connection for Skye's Gaelic college

A university is not a likely addition to a folk festival’s line up.

Julie Fowlis
Julie Fowlis

But Glasgow’s annual folk, roots and world music festival this month is not your run of the mill gathering and the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) certainly is a bit different.

So staff and students from Scotland’s newest university will be taking to the stage at Celtic Connections this month. Featuring a mix of music, language, history and archaeology, UHI sees it as a chance to showcase its students and academics to audiences gathered in Glasgow from all over the world.

But crucially it will represent part of the 40th anniversary celebrations for Skye’s Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig (SMO), one of the cornerstones of UHI.

There will be a special concert for SMO on Saturday January 19 at 7.30pm in City Halls in Glasgow. The impressive line-up includes Julie Fowlis, Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas, Dàimh, Christine Primrose, Mary Ann Kennedy, Fergie MacDonald, Margaret Stewart, Alan MacDonald, James Graham, Decker Forrest and Mìcheal O Suilleabhain.

Also taking place at Celtic Connections on the same day is a special afternoon concert in the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland at 2.00pm featuring the best of SMO’s current BA (Hons) Gaelic & Traditional.

But 40 years ago, SMO was just what its Gaelic name says: the big barn of Ostaig; a farm steading set on the Sleat Peninsula in the MacDonald country of south Skye.
Few of those who visited then, when hens mingled with a handful of Gaelic students, would have anticipated the extraordinary progress of SMO to the multi-million pound campus that it is today.

With more than 100 full-time students, 160 distance-learning students and up to 900 attending short summer courses, SMO is the main economic driver of South Skye.

The more so with the announcement of an award of £3 million from the Scottish Government to secure a long term future for the college and surrounding area. The funding will help develop the new village of Kilbeg near the Skye campus to provide more education, residential and business accommodation to ensure the long-term regeneration of the area.

The symbolism of all this activity in Sleat is powerful. It was while in Sleat in 1773 that Samuel Johnson and James Boswell witnessed A Dance Called America which more than 200 years later was to inspire the great Runrig song and Jim Hunter's subsequent acclaimed history of Highland emigration.

On October 2, Boswell, staying at the minister's house at Ostaig, recorded: "In the evening the company danced as usual. We performed with much activity, a dance which, I suppose, the emigration from Sky (sic) has occasioned.

They call it 'America'. Each of the couples, after the common involutions and evolutions, successively whirls round in a circle, till all are in motion; and the dance seems intended to shew (correct shew) how emigration catches, till a whole neighbourhood is set afloat. Mrs M'kinnon told me, that last year when a ship sailed from Portree for America, the people on the shore were almost distracted when they saw their relations go off; they lay down on the ground, tumbled, and tore the grass with their teeth. This year there was not a tear shed. The people on the shore seemed to think that they would soon follow. This indifference is a mortal sign for the country."

Those were, indeed, hard times for the people of Skye and Sleat. However, one chief of the clan MacDonald, persuaded by Adam Smith that a man's wealth and power could be judged by his architecture, built an Italianate tower at the Ostaig steading. That this extravagant provision for livestock was not extended to the tenants of the Sleat MacDonalds, has long been noted. But the eventual decline of the MacDonalds proved critical to SMO’s genesis. It began when the late Sir Iain Noble, founding partner in Noble Grossart merchant bank, arrived in Skye in 1972 having bought more than half the MacDonald lands. A Gaelic enthusiast, he and local language campaigners launched the idea of a Gaelic college at Ostaig to a mixture of bewilderment and derision.

Sir Iain remembered powerful opposition and once told the Herald: "I find it extraordinary that the college has come so far when I think back to the struggle we had in the early days. It was 10 years before we got our first full-time student. I also remember receiving a letter from the chairman of a distilling company I had known through the bank. He turned down our request for financial support on the grounds that his board believed no advantage would come to the people of Skye from a project designed to resuscitate the Gaelic tongue. He said it was well known that the education of the people of Ireland was greatly held back by a similar policy there."

Others feared more sinister Irish parallels, but Scottish Gaelic's great strength was that it never became the preserve of one faith or one political movement. This was something Scottish Gaels could teach Ireland, said Mary Robinson, the Irish president, when she came to Scotland in 1997 to celebrate the 1400th anniversary of St Columba's death and to deliver the now prestigious annual SMO Lecture, having first visited Iona.

There she had said the identification of Irish Gaelic Catholicism and nationalism “has had the effect of inhibiting those of the Protestant and Unionist tradition from claiming part of their inheritance.”

Out of that visit Brian Wilson, then Scottish Office minister in charge of Gaelic, launched Iomairt Chaluim Chille, the Columba Initiative. It was to build on the shared Gaelic heritage of Scotland and Ireland, in the arts, in educational initiatives, and through programmes of exchanges between the two Gaelic speaking communities.

The Columba Initiative was succeeded by Colmcille, a partnership programme between Gaelic language bodies in Ireland and Scotland Foras na Gaeilge and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.

Under its banner a shinty/hurling international series between Gaelic speakers from Scotland and Ireland, has developed. Last year’s event, the fifth in the series, took place on Skye where four teams played with one drawn from across Ulster, despite hurling’s close historical association with Irish nationalism.

The occasion has one cardinal rule and that is that players speak Gaelic, Scottish or Irish, whilst training and playing.

Now that’s a Celtic Connection for you!

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