traditional Scottish song, pipes, and whistles
North Uist, Scotland
Scottish singer and piper Julie Fowlis has been called “the new face of Gaelic song.” For all her undeniable star power, this singer with an otherworldly voice is known for not only singing in Scots Gaelic but also for her commitment to keeping this endangered language alive. Beloved for her ability to speak directly to the audience, whatever their language, Fowlis creates what The Times of London has described as “a masterclass in intimacy” in her haunting Scots Gaelic.
Julie Fowlis spent her early years on North Uist, which at just over 100 square miles and just under 1,500 inhabitants is one of the larger of the Outer Hebrides islands in Scotland’s northwest. Her great-great grandmother came from the tiny, outlying island of Heisgeir, and the family maintained a strong connection to the land, culture, and language of the Outer Hebrides. Music and dance were, as Julie says, “a regular part of life” on North Uist, and her talent and enthusiasm were spotted early by Isa MacKillop the only teacher at the 12-student school where Julie was first enrolled. “I feel very lucky,” she recalls, “to have had input and encouragement from an early age from a real tradition bearer [like Isa].”
By the time she left for university in Glasgow, Fowlis was already an accomplished Gaelic singer, dancer, and instrumentalist, playing Highland bagpipes and whistles, and a long list of other traditional instruments. A professional career blossomed in Glasgow when she joined forces with five other young women to form the award-winning traditional ensemble Dòchas. Fowlis launched her solo career in 2005, which was also the year she won the first of her two Gaelic Singer of the Year awards, subsequently adding numerous other best performer and best album awards from BBC Radio 2 and the Scots Trad Music Awards. Her international stature is significant, with invited performances everywhere from Royal Albert Hall to the Festival of Sacred Music in Fez, Morocco. So is her popular and crossover appeal: that was Julie Fowlis’s voice you thrilled to in the theme for Pixar’s Brave, and her collaborations range from Quebecois supergroup Le Vent du Nord to James Taylor.
But it’s Julie’s dedication to Gaelic singing and language, and to the cultural traditions of Scotland that define her legacy, writ large and small. She is beloved across Scotland and beyond for her numerous BBC television and radio appearances as a host and commentator (in English and Gaelic) on traditional music and culture. Her continuing work to gather, preserve, and present Gaelic song has earned her accolades such as an Honorary Doctorate in Music from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. Even at home she’s made her dedication to Scots Gaelic—an official national language in Scotland, but spoken by only 1 percent of the population—a daily reality, bringing her two daughters up as native speakers. Their nighttime lullaby, “Cadal Ciarach Mo Luran” (“Sleep Well My Beloved”), is the centerpiece to her 2014 album, Gach Sgeul/Every Story. For Fowlis, Scots Gaelic is the instrument for expressing a universally relevant human narrative; as she told The Irish News, “Whether you're singing in English or singing in Galician or Gaelic, the older I get, I see we’re all singing the same song really.”