How the Scots do it: Traditional Music for Children

Guest blog by Angharad Jenkins
Angharad Jenkins is a musician, and Project Officer of Trac, the Welsh traditional music development agency. This article first appeared in ‘On-Trac’, the agency’s quarterly magazine.

Guest blog by Angharad Jenkins

Angharad Jenkins is a musician, and Project Officer of Trac, the Welsh traditional music development agency.  This article first appeared in ‘On-Trac’, the agency’s quarterly magazine.

During the Easter holidays, in the small, snow-capped Highland town of Ullapool, 135 children aged 9-11 came together for a week-long course in traditional Scottish music and Gaelic arts. This was Fèis Rois’s annual Primary School course, and our Project Officer, Angharad Jenkins, went up to see how it works.

Fèis Rois is a small organization dedicated to the development and promotion of traditional Scottish music song and dance, as well as the development of the Gaelic language. They work with all ages, and all parts of the community, but I will concentrate on their Primary School course.

Over the course of the week, every child has the chance to learn a choice of three traditional instruments including pipes, fiddle, clarsach, whistle, guitar, bodhran, in addition to participating in Gaelic song and Highland dancing; and there are also art and drama classes on offer. The classes are taught by some of the stars of the Scottish traditional scene, many of whom, such as fiddler Ruaraidh MacMillan, have come up through the Fèis system themselves. The standard of teaching is high, and having professional musicians teaching the children is exciting and inspirational.

By the end of the week all the children learn and perfect one item on their first choice instrument, ready for the Friday night concert. Parents, grand-parents, brothers and sisters, friends and members of the community all gather to watch and listen to the youngsters perform a full evening of traditional Scottish music.

A lot of work goes in to running the course. In the run up to the Easter holidays, 109 schools around the Scottish Highlands benefit from twelve weeks of traditional music classes. Many of the children involved in the school projects, then decide to take up a place on the residential course. Fèis Rois, who have only 7 permanent members of staff, are lucky to attract a strong team of volunteers who help out throughout the week. They also offer placements for university students studying traditional music at the Scottish Conservatoire and Strathclyde University.

This course doesn’t come cheaply either, but Fèis Rois receive a large financial endorsement from the local authority, as well as organisations such as Fèisean nan Gàidheal (the Fèis movement’s umbrella body) and the Youth Music Initiative, as well as support from sponsors, trusts and foundations, and internal fundraising activities.  It’s encouraging to see how these organisations are prepared to invest in the next generation in order to secure the continuation of their traditional music.

However, even though the music classes were approached with energy, enthusiasm and excitement by the children, the Gaelic language classes, sadly, were very different. Despite the tutors’ best attempts, many of the children’s attitudes were negative; many couldn’t see why they should learn their native tongue, and only a small handful of children were fluent.

Of course, we face similar attitudes in Wales, but it seems we have a stronger grasp on the language. Whereas the Scots have their music, we have our language. Why not learn from each other, so that our cultures, both rooted in a similar Celtic background, can grown and develop together?

I came away from the course feeling inspired to run traditional music workshops for our young people. I’ve learnt a lot about how to pass on traditional music, but so can the Scots learn from us and our nurturing of the language. Why not set up exchanges for young people so that they can learn from each other?

But we can’t do it alone. We need the support of the local authorities, the educational establishments, organisations such as Mentrau Iaith, Y Comiswn Iaith and Urdd Gobaith Cymru, tin valuing and developing our traditional music and bringing it to the next generation.

The course has definitely been an eye-opener for me. With such skilled and charismatic musicians as tutors, it’s no wonder the Scottish music scene is so healthy. It can’t fail to go from strength to strength with courses such as this.

If you would like to find out more about Fèis Rois, visit their website. And if you are interested in setting up something similar in Wales for your children and young people, please get in touch with Angharad Jenkins 07805 219028 /