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What is Struileag? It’s a good question to kick-off discussion with Jim Sutherland, the giant and genial bubbling hulk behind the project as we meet in a cafe in Edinburgh to try and figure it out. ‘It’s somewhere between a boat and a conch’ he suggests before outlining a multi-media idea that engages across language and arts to try and capture, re-live and bring together our diaspora.

Whatever it is I realise quickly it’s very rangey vagueness is a huge asset rather than a problem, it has real ambition, describing itself as a ‘massive outreach project.’ It’s revitalising to encounter something that has genuine scale, isn’t frightened of it’s own self but also seems to be alive to a sort of undetermined anarchy, a wild searching quest-like entity. A massive floppy Gàidhlig jellyfish of a project that seems to defy all the everyday tropes of ‘outputs’ and ‘outcomes’ and tick-box cultural funding, and art-by-functionaries.

Culminating in an international large scale event next year, Struileag is reaching out around the world to the people of the Gaelic Diaspora. In fact the Struileag finale hopes to be a significant highlight of the Scottish year of Homecoming 2014, and will in fact open the Mod 2014 (at which point Jim beams with the prospect of ‘unlocking the international block on the iPlayer’).

So it’s a vast effort to use social media to connect people through song, poetry and recollection. It’s also an effort to reconcile a problem for gaelic culture which sometimes stands accused of relying too heavily on the past. If gaelic revival is to be meaningful and credible it must have resonance and practical use today, whatever that means. Too often gaelic activism have been stuck in ‘heritage-mode’. Struileag, Sutherland hopes, will shift this from a defensive stance to a more contemporary one, or “Building upon the cultural heritage rather than simply relying upon it” as their saying goes.

What, I asked were the projects origins? How did it come about?

The project grew arms and legs from my original idea to follow up some work that I did with the True North Orchestra and Kathleen MacInnes and that the original idea was to create a performance/show in collaboration with a number of Gaelic writers on the theme of how indigenous language and culture relate to the concept of identity and belonging. I am also in discussion with indigenous writers groups around the world in order to get contributions in other languages on the theme. We hope to be able to bring the final touring show out to the diaspora that we celebrate and are in early discussions about bringing it to Russia, USA, Canada and New Zealand …

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Redpoint in the West Highlands

So the project is very much about collective memory, drawing on all these strands to bring together commissioned Gaelic poetry of our finest bards, live music, dance and visuals to create a performance that will have wide international appeal to anybody that has left home to look for work, to flee famine and war… to find a new home, to search for family.

Sutherland’s work is impossible to collect. He’s an old-school generalist, a multi-talented polymath who’s roll-call of musical collaboration sis just ridiculous: he’s played Edinburgh Castle with Van Morrison and The Chieftains, and played with The McGarrigles, John Martyn & Cathy Matea on the Transatlantic Sessions TV series, percussion on Billy Bragg’s album, ‘The Internationale’, and has preformed live and recorded with The Bundhu Boys.

In theatre he’s composed the music for Boilerhouse on ‘Sister Sister’ (2003) and ‘The Bridge’ (2004) – ‘Aisling’s Children’, performed by the specially created True North Orchestra (2009) and ‘Cargo’, a multi-ethnic, large scale, open air performance on the theme of migration, premiered at the Edinburgh Mela 2010 and went on to enjoy critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Recent performance and recording includes percussion work with Mumford and Sons and Lau.

The whole approach for Struileag is clearly influenced by the work of La Banda Europa – an orchestra of 35 virtuoso musicians who play ethnic instruments indigenous to their own European country of origin.  This unique ensemble performs original compositions that both celebrate their cultural diversity and serve as a fanfare for a dynamic, modern Europe.

But Jim, who’s more recent work includes contributing to Pixar’s Oscar-winning Brave is not alone on Struileag – and music and image is only part of the story. He’s aided and abetted by Kevin MacNeil (who’s first book, Love and Zen in the Outer Hebrides (Canongate), won the Tivoli Europa Giovani International Poetry Prize). MacNeil is Director of Poetry, for Struileag. To try and get our heads round this we asked him what his understanding of the project was and what his role was to be?

I have conceived and shaped the performance’s storyline and written the linking dialogue. I’ve also commissioned all the poetry content. I had sure ideas from the outset about which poets would contribute strong material to the project, and we are featuring a wide-ranging blend of Gaelic voices – award-winning, new, multinational, inspired, unexpected. It’s exciting to open people’s eyes and minds to the diversity and quality of Gaelic work going on at this point in the language’s history. We have a dramatic monologue, a modern waulking song, a rap, a secular psalm, a prayer, and more. The show is by turns beautiful, edgy, surprising, hypnotic, provocative and – always – emotionally engaging.

Why do you think Struileag is important? Where are we at in creating a different relationship to Gaelic culture, highland art and situating it within wider Scottish culture?

We wanted to show that, far from dying or being wistfully sepia-toned, Gaelic language and culture is relevant, vibrant and thriving – all around the world! Struileag reflects the Gaelic diaspora – past, present and future – in a timely manner that has nothing to do with tokenism and everything to do with artistic merit.

Do you think attitudes are changing and are more positive about gaelic’s role and place in wider Scottish culture?

Yes, attitudes are changing for the better. Languages are just so very human: ever-changing, ever-seeking, ever-fallible. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to do all we can to preserve their uniquenesses. After all, to harbour simmering prejudices against a people or against a language is as absurd as it is sad. Ignorance does exist, though, and anti-Gaelic bigotry hasn’t yet been rendered extinct. I’ve yet to meet a genuinely intelligent human being who expresses an aversion to Gaelic with anything like a cogent argument, though some might feel indifferent towards it. Maybe Struileag will sway them! Plus I believe two main areas that have the power to right a few wrongs – education and the media – are indeed helping, at last, to bring about a general resurgence of appreciation of Gaelic.

How do you reconcile the issue of gaelic culture always being farmed in traditional arts/heritage? Is there scope for a more contemporary expression of gaelic today?

While traditional arts and heritage are enriching and valuable, there is a danger that if Gaelic is only ever tied in with the traditional, it will not seem part of the modern world. Yet Gaelic self-evidently is part of the modern world; it is a language people use on an everyday basis. So, with Struileag we’re marrying the Gaelic language with both the traditional and the modern; we’re respecting our heritage, but in a manner that is dynamic and energising. Above all, we’re creating a show that people will enjoy watching and hearing and later thinking about, in any language.

What an inspiring project. What a beautiful idea.

“There are so many people in the world that the chances of someone breathing in absolute unison with you right now are very high indeed. Feel synchronised.”- Kevin MacNeil

Connect with Struileag on Facebook here.
Come hear Jim Sutherland discuss the independence reference at the Assembly Rooms, Monday 12 August 2.30 pm
Buy your tickets for ‘5 Artists in Search of a Country’ here.
This article is Copyright Mike Small, all rights reserved.
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