By Eilidh Whiteford
Twenty years of promoting Gaelic culture and heritage from within the language’s heartland is being celebrated as community-managed project Ceòlas reaches this major milestone.
The brainchild of Hamish Moore, Daliburgh-based Ceòlas began as a week-long summer school in 1996. Mary Schmoller, Ceòlas Operations Manager, said: “Hamish had been to Cape Breton [in eastern Canada] and realised how similar parts of it were still to the culture of the islands.
“He discussed the idea with PnE [Pròiseact nan Ealan, the former national Gaelic Arts Agency] about where would be most suitable and it transpired that South Uist could be a candidate community.
“The project was first run by PnE with the support of the local Arts Development Officer ‘Ryno’ Morrison and, after observing the programme, several people became involved in a variety of roles over the coming years until it became a community-managed project in 2001.”
She continued: “For many of our directors, Ceòlas has given them the opportunity to contribute to the cultural and social development of the islands.
“The Summer School is a beacon of what is best about a Gaelic community, in song, music and dance in public and in private homes at house cèilidhs.”
Indeed, through the annual Summer School, Ceòlas has become one of Scotland’s leading Gaelic culture, heritage and arts organisations with participants joining from all over the world, many coming back year on year, for instruction in piping, fiddle, song, dance and the Gaelic language from both Scottish and Cape Breton tutors.
“The feedback from the participants is that the friendly community is the great attraction, and the quality of the tutors teaching in the school,” said Mary.
“The evening programme, which is well attended by everyone who enjoys traditional music and song, is an opportunity for both the students and community to interact.”
With the 2011 Census identifying South Uist as one of the strongholds of the Gaelic language, during its 20 years Ceòlas has built on its successful beginnings to expand and develop the further promotion of local culture and heritage.
As well as the Summer School the organisation holds an annual Symposium which celebrates significant local people, places, events or traditions.
And last year in both the Summer School and the Symposium, Gaelic Immersion Courses were offered and proved popular.
“The courses were targeted at those wanting to start teaching in Gaelic Medium Education and 16 people attended over the two community events, which was partly why they were so successful,” said Mary.
“It was the first time some of the teachers had heard Gaelic spoken as a community language and we are hopeful to continue this work in 2016 and onwards.”
This year has already continued a pace for Ceòlas with its third visit to the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, holding an event working in partnership with Lews Castle College UHI and Taigh Chearsabhagh museum and arts centre, North Uist.
And another recent success story for the community managed organisation has been the People’s Health Lottery funded Buttons and Bows project, which is set to run until February 2017.
“It’s our most recent project to ensure that our young people are schooled in traditional music,” Mary said. “Sessions take place in North Uist, Benbecula, Iochdar and Lochboisdale and Allan Henderson of Blazin’ Fiddles is the tutor, since he moved back to Benbecula last summer.
“Button Box Accordion was initially taught by Aonghas Alick MacDonald, until his untimely passing during August 2015 and since then Uilleam Morrison has taken on this role,” she continued, adding: “All classes are well attended and the feedback from people is great.”
Feedback from Ceòlas’ first Hogmanay School, held over last New Year in Grogarry Lodge, was also favourable to ensure that another session will take place at the turn of the year 2017. For further information about the work and Schools of Ceòlas, please visit www.Ceolas.co.uk