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Julie Fowlis considers language, music and the landscape in the SMO lecture

This year’s Sabhal Mòr Ostaig Lecture was given by internationally-renowned Gaelic singer and musician Julie Fowlis from North Uist.

Julie, an Honorary Fellow and Alumni of the University of the Highlands and Islands, delivered the 21st SMO Lecture, titled ‘Playing the Skyline’, on Thursday 14 September at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the National Centre for Gaelic Language and Culture on Skye, where she spoke of how music, story and poetry can strengthen people’s sense of connection with, or at times separation from, the landscape. Her exploration of the relationship between people and their environment has led to new collaborative explorations, including one composition-led project and Julie was joined by the three other musicians involved for a musical performance which formed part of her lecture. 

Speaking afterwards, Julie said: “In 2015 I was invited by BBC Radio 4, along with five other composers from Scotland, England and Wales, to compose a new piece of music which was inspired by a landscape and its skyline. The musicians involved were asked to take one landscape local to them and examine how the land meets the air and imagine how this might sound musically. This project opened my eyes to the mainland Highland skylines around me and forced me to consider my own relationship with the landscape in which I now live, and how music, story and poetry can reinforce one’s sense of connection to – or indeed disconnect from – a physical landscape.

“This has led me to further musical exploration, including a multi-faceted project investigating local stories, song and cultural mapping around Loch Ness and to this new collaborative project, with Éamon Doorley, Zoë Conway and John McIntyre, aimed at creating new music for existing Gaelic poetry, old and new.”

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’s Principal, Professor Boyd Robertson, said: “I am delighted that this year’s lecture was delivered by a former Sabhal Mòr student. Julie Fowlis has won acclaim as a singer and musician par excellence and has showcased her Gaelic heritage to audiences worldwide. We are proud of her and of the sterling work she does as a representative of, and ambassador for, our language and culture. Julie’s lecture was rather different from previous lectures in that, not only did it focus on music and song, but also involved Julie and friends playing and singing by way of illustrating her talk. Julie has followed in the footsteps of two celebrated women, Nicola Sturgeon and Rita Izsák, in delivering the SMO lecture and it is a particular delight for me that such a talented native of Uist has joined their number.”

Julie Fowlis is a multi-award winning singer who is deeply influenced by her early upbringing in North Uist. Nominated as ‘Folk Singer of the Year’ at the 2015 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, and ‘Best Artist’ at the Songlines World Music Awards 2015, Julie has graced stages around the world: from village halls in the Highlands to stages in New York, The Philharmonie de Paris and Shakespeare’s Globe in London. Recent performances have included the world-class Festival of Voice in Cardiff and the World Festival of Sacred Music in Fez, Morocco.

The Sabhal Mòr Ostaig Lecture began in 1990 when Dr James Hunter gave the inaugural talk. Since then a string of high-profile guests have travelled to SMO to deliver the lecture, including Irish President Mary Robinson, Donald Dewar MSP, First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond MSP, First Minister of Scotland, Gordon Brown MP (the then-Chancellor), Jack McConnell MSP, First Minister of Scotland and Nicola Sturgeon MSP, First Minister of Scotland.

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