Photo of Niall Keegan and Sandra JoyceIn what is seen as a seminal advance for Highland higher education, an Irish couple on sabbatical from the University of Limerick are completing their PhD theses at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in Skye.

Niall Keegan and Sandra Joyce arrived at Sabhal Mòr in January. They have been made Honorary Research Fellows of the federal UHI Millennium Institute, of which Sabhal Mòr Ostaig is a founder academic partner. They are both course leaders at Limerick University's Irish World Music Centre. Niall is completing his PhD in traditional Irish music and dance, while his partner Sandra's doctorate subject is the music of the 17th and 18th century Irish harper Turlough Carolan.

Sandra and Niall first visited Skye in 2003, when they provided a musical guard of honour to the visit to Sabhal Mòr of Irish President Mary MacAleese - Niall is an accomplished flautist, while Sandra sings and plays the bodhran. The two had been made familiar with recent developments in Highland further education, and its links with Ireland, through their tutor, the visionary founder of the Irish World Music Centre, Professor Michael O Suilleabhain. "We had heard of the programme of Scottish and Irish exchanges, and of the work being done by Iomairt Cholm Cille," says Niall. "We liked the idea of doing something similar, so we applied to be based here while we concluded our theses."

Iomairt Cholm Cille, the Columba Initiative, was launched following the visit of Mary MacAleese's predecessor as Irish President, Mary Robinson to Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in 1997. This tripartite project, which has offices in Galway, Belfast and Skye, aims to revive and develop the links between Gaelic Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Neither Sandra nor Niall are native speakers of Irish Gaelic, but their seven-year-old daughter is enrolled in the celebrated Gaelic Medium Unit at Sleat Primary School - and is thoroughly enjoying it. "We would like to come back and do a short Gaelic course at Sabhal Mòr," says Sandra, "or enrol in the Cùrsa Inntrigidh, the distance learning programme."

When it comes to their PhD subjects, Niall and Sandra have discovered many connections between Ireland and the Highlands. "My thesis is about the way that traditional musicians have developed their own musical vocabularies," says Niall, "and it's interesting to see how Scots musicians have framed their expressions differently." And Sandra points out that the Irish harp is "essentially the same instrument as the clarsach. Although no-one now plays as Turlough Carolan and the old harpers did, the modern clarsach is the same as the neo-Irish harp."

Norman Gillies, Director of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig said: "It has been good for us to strengthen our links with the University of Limerick through the hosting of Sandra and Niall at Sabhal Mòr during their sabbaticals.

"Since I first met their department head, Michael O Suilleabhain, through a mutual friend I have been impressed by his creative and enthusiastic approach to placing Irish music on a world stage. We are sometimes too constrained in our thinking, and Michael and his colleagues are a good antidote to that.

"When we launch our Degree in Gaelic Traditional Music next year we shall certainly build on our links with Michael and his team, and upon the PhDs that Iomairt Cholm Chille has set up between Limerick and Sabhal Mòr, to foster and stimulate cross-cultural thinking on the role of language in the disciplines of music and dance."