North Uist is a small island in the Western Isles of Scotland. The Atlantic Ocean crashes to the west and the waters of the Minch, which lies between the Hebrides and mainland Scotland, defines the other. The land between is one of loch, moor, hill, and sense of connection to the past. It is also connected to the present. “We knew all the music on the charts,” Julie Fowlis says, pointing out that her upbringing was anything but quaint, “but we heard all the old songs, too, right beside them, as a matter of course.” That’s how she learned many of the songs she sings now, and where she began to develop her taste for songs of handed down through history.
Fowlis sings in Scottish Gaelic. That is still a day to day language in the Western Isles. People in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland speak it, as do those in places where they settled, such as Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, but even in Scotland itself fewer than one percent of people know it well. It is the language of home for Fowlis, though, and one she has carried across the world. Her third solo album is called Uam,which means from me in Scottish Gaelic.
On it, you can hear the sounds of the sea, both in story songs connected with people who make their living from the sea, and in the rhythm of work songs and tales told at home by those who waited for them to come home across sometimes uncertain waters. For this project, music that Fowlis has heard on her travels made its way in, too. There’s a song from the Breton tradition of France with a title anyone from the Isles would understand: its title translates as I was born in the midst of the sea. Top Scottish singer Eddi Reader, known for her work in pop and in folk music, comes along to sing English verses while Fowlis does the Gaelic for a version of the Appalachian folk song from America, Wind and Rain. An Irish influence comes in when a song from Barra in the Hebrides is paired with a tune called Trip to Galway, composed by Fowlis’s husband Eamon Doorley, who is from Ireland. There are stories of love gone right and love gone wrong, tunes both lively and reflective, and through it all a a flavour of the Western Isles and western oceans, of history, of family, and of connection to the present.
Creating that connection is something Fowlis does well. So well, in fact, that she was named the first recipient of the Scottish Government’s Gaelic Ambassador of the Year(Tosgaire Gàidhlig na Bliadhna) award, established several years ago to recognize a person who has done the most to raise the status and profile of Gaelic in Scotland and and abroad. “I asked them, what are my responsibilities?” Fowlis said. “They told me, just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Uam is a fine chance to hear just that. Fowlis is well supported by her usual band mates Doorley, who plays bouzouki, Tony Byrne on guitar, Martin O’Neill on bodhran, and Duncan Chisholm on fiddle, along with guests including Reader, Mary Smith, and Jerry Douglas. Don’t understand Scottish Gaelic? No worries. There are English lyrics and comments from Fowlis on the music, in both English and Gaelic, in the liner notes. Listen first, though, and hear the sounds of the Western Isles.
Update: Fowlis has released several more recordings — and won more awards — since this article was first published. Learn about her album Alterum.
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