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STUDYING LANGUAGES THROUGH THE LANGUAGE OF SONG – by Katie Macfarlane

STUDYING LANGUAGES THROUGH THE LANGUAGE OF SONG – by Katie Macfarlane

Singing has always been my biggest passion in life and at the forefront of my growth as a human being. Anything that I do, the career choices that I make, always has my desire to sing at its root. In my very early years, I was always, almost subconsciously, exposed to Gaelic song in many of its divine forms, the Gaelic language and traditional Scottish music was very much ingrained in my upbringing. Like a budding plant, I drank this in and it infused my blood, becoming a warmth that has filled my heart each and every single day since.

Aside from nursery rhymes at Cròileagan, I remember learning my first Gaelic song from my mum on the landing at the top of our stairs – ‘S Truagh Nach Rugadh Dall Mi – at around the age of four. I learned the chorus and first verse and enjoyed singing these around the house, whilst appreciating the sadness of its story. I was also accustomed to hearing my Papa’s melodic voice, singing Gaelic songs he knew from his youth, listening to his various tapes and CD’s, and going to Aly & Phil and Duncan Chisolm concerts with him. I was hooked from the get-go.

Being an Airdrie lass, my family connection to North Uist has always provided an accompanying yet alternative identity to me which essentially is the basis of my immersion in Gaelic music and culture. It was not until I attended Fèis Tìr an Eòrna on Eilean Uibhist Mo Rùin (‘My Beloved Island of Uist’) at the age of seven, that I realised suddenly that Gaelic singing was what I wanted to do. Not only did I get immense enjoyment out of singing the songs, but I wanted to shape my life and future around Gaelic song and made a secret agreement with my young self not to stray from this aim.

Of course, things happen in life that take you away from the path that you think you should be on and I am definitely one for doubting that what I am doing at that particular time is the right thing. But by the same token, I will say that everything I have done in my ‘career’, professionally and as a student, has been decided with the heart and in every decision, I have given my all.

So somehow, I have ended up following a degree plan that is far from what I had expected and on the whole would seem relatively unrelated to what young Katie thought was in store. However, as I delved deeper into it and after many wonderful coincidences and experiences, it became clear to me just how relevant my studies were and currently still are to my dream of pursuing Gaelic and folk song in general. And so, I have always made an effort to maintain a strong link between my life as a student and my life as a singer.

After becoming very tired of rigid and restricting school ways at the age of sixteen, and feeling that there was nothing further that I could gain from the experience that would contribute to my future career, I made a snap decision to apply for university a year early. My plan had always been to study music, but after figuring that I was too late to go through auditions and such like, I applied to study Gaelic at the University of Glasgow. After an epiphany, I realised that this would help fulfill an accompanying aim, which was to learn Gaelic, and eventually, identify myself as a ‘Gaelic speaker’. Also, in turn, this was going to enhance my proficiency in Gaelic song. I was excited about this journey and also made sure to keep an open mind; I was extremely young and did not want to rush to my graduation as quickly as I could. Instead, I decided to take each year as it came, each as its own beneficial experience, and get out of it what I could without dwelling too much on the end result of an official degree.

In my first year, I was learning Gaelic from the beginning, filling in all of the grammar gaps and trying to string sentences together in conversation. I was also studying Spanish and Celtic Civilisation as my two electives. Spanish was a struggle as I felt quite out of my depth in a class of confident speakers who would push past the barrier that was the fear of making mistakes, however, I had completed the Higher in school and really enjoyed the language. On the other hand, I found Celtic Civ to be an absolute joy and very fitting of my degree. Yet, close to the time of deciding which course to drop for the following year, I had a holiday to Barcelona and another to Aix-en-Provence, France – the area in which my sister, a language guru, had completed her Erasmus year abroad. And so occurred another twist in the plot – I discovered a burning desire to be competent in more languages and a particular affinity with the city of Barcelona. With a view to doing a year abroad in a couple of years, the odd and unlikely combination of a Gaelic/Spanish degree plan materialised for me.

By my second year, I was studying these two distinct courses, alongside my elective course of ‘Beginners’ French’ and gradually becoming very much a ‘language person’. And all the while, I had singing on my mind, making sure to keep learning new songs, writing songs and maintaining contact and meeting with other musicians and singers on the Glasgow Trad Scene. I had some gigs here and there and made sure to give time to song, even though I was trying to do the best I could in a full-time degree. However, I would question my direction after being being frequently asked “So is it a high-school teacher you want to be, then?” As much as I would like to have the desire to do so, I just do not feel that I would be passionate enough in such a career and passion is important when finding your profession. It also did not help that from my perspective at that time, all the people who were doing well in music either studied it or worked in it full-time – I am of course aware now that that is not the case and put it down to naïvety.

My Gaelic learning contributed to a better understanding of the songs I was singing and heightened my awareness and appreciation of their poetry, without having to always rely on English translation. I was also at an advantage of having a strong grasp of pronunciation, something that most learners struggle with, due to being adept to singing in Gaelic. By the end of second year, I felt that my proficiency in the language had developed to a level where I could converse relatively well with other speakers and definitely felt that my reading and writing skills were at an even higher level. A great pro was that the Gaelic department at my university is very supportive of Gaelic and traditional music, and so I was encouraged to sing at the Mòd and also would sing at some of their events, another example of my two lives intertwining.

In my third year, I was required to carry out my year abroad as part of the Spanish course and inevitably I chose to study in Barcelona – exactly what I said I would do almost two years before. It felt so meant to be, as this city was allocated to me after giving my uni three options of places I would like to go – Barcelona being my first. Before I even left Scotland, I had decided that I would get the most that I could out of these ten months ahead, not just educationally and linguistically, but also musically. I set out to establish a life that I could live outside of student life when not at a weekday class, and to find a balance that would allow me to separate myself when in my living space in the evening or at the weekend. I had been assured by my boyfriend and others before leaving that they had heard of a thriving folk music scene in Barcelona, so I just had to find it.

Whilst there, I lived in a beautiful and visually authentic area of Barcelona, with quaint streets, vibrant plaças and traditional buildings; a stark contrast to some of the more cosmopolitan, modern and industrial areas of the city. I fell in love with Gràcia very quickly and enjoyed that it was accessible by metro, yet enough distance away from the uni that I could live my own little life. Through some research at the beginning of my stay, I came across a centre for traditional arts – Centre Artesà Tradicionarius – and inquired about interest in an exchange of Gaelic and Catalan song. And I was soon to find out that their building was just a six-minute walk away from my flat! Through this inquiry, I was invited to attend a weekly class of Catalan folk song and was immediately welcomed with open arms by some of the most genuine and interesting folk I had met whilst in Catalonia. I felt a great comfort in seeing a parallel between the hospitality of these new friends, and the members of my Gaelic choir back at home. It was a dream.

Whilst attending, I learned a wealth of Catalan songs, which felt notably similar and connected in ways to Gaelic song style. I was very much in the midst of a strong Catalan environment and the exclusive use of the language at these classes lent itself to the Beginners’ Catalan module I was studying at the uni and vice-versa. It all felt very natural to me and I was so fond of the time we would spend together in the bar after class, drinking, eating delicious food and experiencing some great live Catalan folk music. I was even given the opportunity to perform my own gig at this venue, allowing me to deliver Gaelic and Scots song to some who may never have heard it before and having two of my various worlds merge.

A few times in the year, we performed end-of-term concerts in the centre, where all of the classes of various instruments and dance would come together to showcase their repertoire and a big fiesta was had. My most treasured memory from these experiences would have to be our group’s performance of the beautiful well-known Gaelic song Fear a Bhàta, followed by a haunting rendition of Occitan song Lo Printemps Que ‘Ei Arribat at my final concert with them. These singers had no previous exposure to the learning of Gaelic song, but as a result of our friendship and the similitude of our musical cultures, it was sung with an accomplished understanding and respect and the two songs seemed to merge seamlessly one after the other. Now a musical bond, and also one of friendship, is held between myself and these singers in another part of the world – something that would not have existed had I not been on the university course that I am.

Since then, I have recorded my debut EP which displays a very generalised yet accurate mix of my influences and includes self-penned, Gaelic and Catalan song. I have also had the opportunity to study at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in contribution to my degree where alongside core classes, I was part of the music course and received invaluable tuition from Gaelic singing legends such as Christine Primrose and Griogair Labhruidh, all through the medium of Gaelic. I am currently now in my Junior Honours year of Gaelic and Spanish and one of my classes is all about Gaelic song. Never did I expect that for part of my credits at Glasgow University I would be getting to learn new songs each week!

Now, after a full four years at university and another two still to go, I feel that my studies and my music go hand-in-hand. Despite it being a long process, I see my degree as more of a journey of several surprising and transformative experiences and even though at times I felt that the course was veering me far from a singing career, at another glance it has brought me closer to my musical self than I think I would have been without it. Most of the singing that I do now is influenced, even if indirectly, by my studies and it will naturally continue to be, as long as I dedicate myself to the remainder of my degree, the Gaelic language, Gaelic song and maintain an open mind.

https://katiemacfarlane.bandcamp.com