When young Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis found a fragment of a beautiful song from North Uist in an Edinburgh archive, she was stumped. So she returned to her remote island home in the Outer Hebrides to see if anyone there knew the rest: “The fragment started on the second line. But it’s that key first line that triggers everyone’s memory,” Fowlis explains, “so nobody could remember.”
She turned to her neighbor Hugh Matheson, a reserved but warm and gentlemanly local expert known for his mastery of the island’s wealth of songs and tales. Suffering from a lung ailment, Hugh couldn’t get out more than a few lines for Fowlis’ tape recorder. They chatted for a while afterward, and when Julie had packed her equipment and was halfway out the door, Hugh suddenly burst into verse after verse. “That was the only time he sang me the whole song,” Fowlis smiles, and she learned it on the spot.
By cultivating ancient roots and an overlooked language, Julie Fowlis has moved Gaelic song from the edge of the world (her home island North Uist is one of the Westernmost points in Europe) to center stage. Her latest album, Cuilidh, (Shoeshine Records/Cadiz Music)—which means “treasury” or “secret hiding place” in Gaelic—is a trove of everything from lighthearted mouth music to serious ballads chronicling life and loss on the rugged island and its rough seas. And now Cadiz releases a special edition box set of Cuilidh, which includes a bonus CD of Fowlis' Gaelic cover of The Beatles' "Blackbird," five live tracks from the highly respected Celtic Connections festival, and a DVD documentary with live footage and interviews. This repertoire will be featured in her new North American tour February-April 2009.
Fowlis’ delicate, heartfelt renditions have moved major British celebrities, from Radiohead drummer Phil Selway to British comedian Ricky Gervais, and won Fowlis a spate of important U.K. music awards. Her album appeals to audiences across the musical spectrum. Her label, Shoeshine, is run by Francis Macdonald from Teenage Fanclub, well-loved by indie/Nirvana generation music fans.
Growing up, Fowlis was surrounded by song and traditional music, and even at her tiny local school with only twelve students, music was a vital part of the curriculum: “We had only one teacher but were lucky to have a tutor visit for lessons on the pipes,” Fowlis remembers. “Also, we would learn a little Gaelic song or a wee poem or wee rhyme,” which youngsters were expected to perform for adults at community gatherings.
At these events or at home, friends and family members told the stories and sang the songs that recounted shipwrecks, past scandals, and great-great-grandmothers’ affairs of the heart. This song lineage is a key part of Gaelic traditional life: “People know your exact genealogy. If you translate from Gaelic into English, the question ‘Where are you from?’ changes to ‘Who are you from?’ You get that feeling from the songs. If you know somebody’s full name, you know exactly who their ancestors were. We can date our family to 1500 and before, just from that oral tradition.”
North Uist is one of the few places in Scotland where this age-old song line has not been broken and where the majority of people still speak Gaelic as a first language. Long denigrated by Scotland’s overlords and neglected by modern cultural authorities, Scottish Gaelic was not recognized as an official language in Scotland until 2005, several years after the region gained an autonomous parliament. As late as the 1950s and 1960s, children were forbidden to use the language at school. Only one percent of the population can speak the language of the vast store of songs tucked away by past generations in the voices and memories of their descendants. Songs often sway with the rhythm of daily life, rowing, hay making, butter churning, or waulking, the arduous final stage in making the world renowned much sought-after Harris Tweed.
“Looking back, these people had a really hard life. They were on the edge of the world, and the weather was extreme, the conditions were hard. Through music and song, they were very expressive people, though they were rarely formally educated,” Fowlis muses. “They were always singing and writing poetry. It could be something light hearted, talking about the food on the table or the cow outside, or something that washed up on beach. Or it could be something completely beautiful.”
Many of these songs are so enmeshed with the sound and rhythm of the Gaelic language that faithful translation is out of the question. “Don’t get the wrong impression about us,” Fowlis laughs. Cryptic-sounding songs like “Celebrate the Great Bonnet!” are examples of mouth music, coherent yet nonsensical tongue-twisting lyrics woven from alliteration and linguistic flourishes to seamlessly match a dance tune. This centuries-old tradition flourished after the 18th-century prohibition of Scottish instruments, tartans, language, and other vital aspects of traditional culture, when people needed something to dance to. Other mouth music songs on Cuilidh (pronounced KOOL-ee ) give silly, earthy snapshots of everything from feisty geezers and potatoes to manure piles.
Yet perhaps the richest vein of song Fowlis draws on is the ballads recounting major events in her small community, heart-wrenching tragedies and gossip-worthy scandals. “Some of these songs are ten years old, and some are five hundred,” she notes. They tell the tale of an uprising of World War I veterans cheated out of their promised land, of headstrong young women refusing to marry anyone but their true love, of high-born beauties fleeing their lavish weddings. This last event, the shocking elopement of Jesse of Balranald with a man from a nearby island, inspired so many songs that “I had to whittle it down to two from seven or eight,” Fowlis giggles. “I couldn’t do a whole album of songs about Jesse.”
And in a fascinating twist of fate, these stories, sung in a language spoken by only 60,000 people, have captured the imagination of British listeners, including various stars and indie rockers. After Fowlis began winning a streak of UK awards for best folk singer and most promising emerging artist several years ago, she caught the ears of a rapidly growing number of mainstream music fans, something unprecedented for a Scottish Gaelic singer. Most attribute it to her voice, the pure, precise, lilting tone that reflects Fowlis’ passion for the songs and conveys absolute confidence born of living with these songs for a lifetime.
Hailed as the first Gaelic crossover artist, Fowlis exhibits this confidence most brightly when she cheerfully brushes aside suggestions she sing in English or change her approach to making music. “It's a glass-half-empty or half-full situation, and it is difficult to know whether the language barrier is a positive or negative thing. I've always seen it as a positive thing, though it does seem to be becoming a big deal for everyone but me,” Fowlis told Glasgow’s The Herald in a recent interview. “I'm more than happy to sing in English…but Gaelic is what I know and what I love.”