There’s something miraculous about a living, breathing folk tradition. You wonder how it can possibly survive in a world where so many settled communities are disintegrating, and the endless wave of Anglo-American pop is carried by the internet to every last corner of the world.
The Scots Gaelic folk tradition seems especially miraculous because, as well as surviving the modern world, it has had to contend with the baleful effects of the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, which led so many Gaelic speakers to emigrate. Yet, despite that, it survived and is now thriving, thanks to a new generation of Scottish musicians.
Julie Fowlis, a 43-year-old singer, composer and band leader, is one of them. A multiple winner at the Radio 2 Folk Awards, her voice is familiar to millions from the theme song to Brave, the Golden Globe-winning 2012 Disney animation, and millions more who watched her perform at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
But her real fan base is in folk clubs around the world, and increasingly in mainstream concert halls – including New York’s Carnegie Hall and London’s Kings Place, where she begins a four-concert residency next week as part of the year-long “Voices Unwrapped” season.
It’s an astonishing outcome for someone who never had any intention of becoming a performer. “I always loved the tradition, but I could never see myself performing. In many ways, I’m quite a shy person,” she tells me from her home in the Scottish Highlands, where she lives with her husband, the musician Éamon Doorley, and their two daughters. “I did a music performance degree with the intention of working with Gaelic folksong in the community. I actually did that, and performing was something I did on the side with friends. Then my mother became very ill and I had to give that up to be at home with her. So doing the odd gig and even a few festivals was a very handy way of scraping a living while my mother recovered. One thing very quickly led to another, and suddenly I found I was into a career.”
Being able to mature slowly out of the limelight was one factor in Fowlis’s success. Another was being born and raised right at the heart of the tradition, in North Uist. “It’s one of the Hebridean islands, which is the last place left in the world where you will hear Gaelic spoken more often than English. My schoolteacher was a Gaelic speaker, and when I was older she became a mentor and a very close friend and gave me many songs. I use the word advisedly because one receives the songs like a gift from the tradition.”
Later on came hard study; listening to ancient recordings, and learning from other singers. What were these old songs about? “Oh, everything that you can sing about: love, loss, war, funny anecdotes, community squabbles. Some of the lays, which go back hundreds of years, are long stories, which are very austere, just one melodic line. There are also work songs, sung by women who made cloth, and there are praise songs written in a very strict poetic meter, sung by the official bard of the clan.”
Most people think of bagpipes when they think of Scottish traditional music; are they important in her own music making? “Oh, they are hugely important. For me the line between vocal music and pipe music is very blurred. In the Gaelic language we don’t play the pipes, we ‘sing’ them. Also, many songs have been transferred to the pipes, and if you listen to a really good piper playing a song melody you can actually hear the words.”
Nevertheless, it’s a big ask for modern audiences to listen to long histories of the clans, in a language few can understand. Fowlis admits there is a tension between communicating with audiences around the world, and preserving the tradition. “There’s a huge weight of tradition lying behind us and one of the temptations when we listen to recordings of nearly a century ago, or look at old song collections, is to preserve them exactly, like an endangered species. But it’s important to remember that it is constantly evolving.”
To this end, in her third Kings Place concert later this year, she will co-star with the Irish singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, who has collaborated with bands who fuse Gaelic songs with electronic music or West African song.
Does she sometimes annoy the purists? “Yes, but my question to them would always be: ‘That version or recording of a song which you think is definitive and can never be changed – what went before that? Something must have come before your version, so something can come after as well.’
“The tradition survived for well over 1,000 years here, and will survive much longer, too. It’s not going to fall apart because some people like me decide to experiment.”
Julie Fowlis’s four-concert series at Kings Place, London N1, begins on Jan 14 with her quartet, Allt. For more details go to kingsplace.co.uk