October 08, 2019 News & Features » Cover Story

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Sweet Pipes 

The lovely singing of Julie Fowlis helps keep the Scottish Gaelic language alive.

click to enlarge julie_fowliss.jpg

Ask singer and piper Julie Fowlis how becoming a mother affected her musical career and she’s quick with a reply.

“It focused my mind like never before,” she recalls. “My voice also changed after having children, and for the better.”

For anyone who’s ever heard Fowlis’ otherworldly voice, it’s hard to imagine how it could have improved. Her earliest memory of singing was at home with her sister and in the back of the family car on long journeys to the mainland from North Uist, one of Outer Hebrides Islands in Scotland’s northwest.

Her family maintained a strong connection to the culture and language of the Outer Hebrides, ensuring that music, dance and learning traditional instruments became mainstays in her life. “I learned the pipes before any other instrument and I don’t remember even choosing them,” she says. “It was like they were always there.”

Known worldwide not just for singing in Gaelic, but for her commitment to keeping the endangered language alive, Fowlis can speak directly to an audience, whatever its language. Asked why it’s so important for her to expose listeners to songs sung in Gaelic, she’s emphatic: “It’s the music I love the most and these songs have so much to tell us.”

Fowlis shares her passion for the ancient language, as well as traditional music and culture, as a host and commentator on various BBC television and radio shows by speaking both English and Scottish Gaelic. And while it’s an official native language in Scotland, only 1% of the population speaks it, including her two young daughters, to whom she’s teaching it.

That devotion to her native language translates to the lullaby, “Cadal Ciarach Mo Luran,” which she sings to her children at night, which she also made the focal point of her 2014 album “Gach Sgeul/Every Story.”

Her linguistic talent has led her to scores of projects and collaborations, including singing two songs in English for the Pixar film, “Brave,” and working with James Taylor as well as Richmond Folk Fest favorites, the Quebecois group Vent du Nord.

Currently, Fowlis is involved in a project called “The Lost Words: Spell Songs,” a collaborative musical response to the award-winning book “The Lost Words” by Jackie Morris and Robert MacFarlane. “It’s simply been one of the most joyous and satisfying musical projects I’ve ever had the privilege of working on,” she says.

So, while many in the audience at her performances around the globe don’t understand the words she sings, Fowlis isn’t worried they’ll be bored.

“There’s something about the way the beautiful and powerful Gaelic melodies carry the stories that any audiences can understand.”

Julie Fowlis performs Friday, Oct. 11, on the Costar stage from 8:45 to 9:45 p.m. She performs on Saturday, Oct. 12, on the Costar Stage from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. and the Altria Stage from 7:15 to 8:15 p.m. She will also be a part of “In Good Hands: Keepers of Endangered Traditions” on Saturday at the Costar Stage from 3:15 to 4:15 p.m.

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