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 …


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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  1. Neil McRae says:

    Hmm … unimpressed. Surely just another self-regarding irrelevance “building on the cultural heritage” of Gaelic for a monoglot English-speaking audience – the usual suspects preaching to the converted, paid to tell ’em what they want to hear?

    “We wanted to show that, far from dying or being wistfully sepia-toned, Gaelic language and culture is relevant, vibrant and thriving …” Sorry, but your article lost any last shred of credibility at this point. Start telling the truth about Gaelic, and we might just still save her even yet

    1. Iain Ross says:

      Well I feel it is a positive step, another useful addition in bring the language away from the edge. Not the answer but a useful addition. There may be elements that are directed towards the English-speaking audience but this is in itself useful as it a. helps attract interest from this audience and b. helps remind young native speakers that their language does have value and should be celebrated and not forgotten.

      Please do not take this as a criticism but if you do not feel this concept has value then perhaps you could outline your thoughts in more detail? An article perhaps?



      1. Neil McRae says:

        It’s in the works – but not easy to find the time!

    2. bellacaledonia says:

      I’m not sure if you’ve read the article properly

      1. Neil McRae says:

        I read it carefully from end to end, Bella. With an increasingly sinking feeling!

        “… our finest bards …” (uh oh)
        “Aisling’s Children …” (Whoa!)
        “… whose more recent work includes contributing to Pixar’s oscar-winning Brave …”
        “The show is by turns beautiful, edgy, surprising, hypnotic, provocative and – always – emotionally engaging …” (Nothing like a bit of self-praise!).

        I know I’m coming from a different airt than most, Bella. My home is in an area of Skye where Gaelic was surprisingly recently spoken by, I would say, 99% of the population, but from where, like everywhere else, it is rapidly disappearing. Perhaps you have to love the language, and to live in a recently Gaelic-speaking area, to feel the scale of the loss. Cultural junkets like the one featured in this article simply have no point of contact with the dwindling number of native speakers who have kept the language alive for so long. And to read that “Gaelic language and culture is relevant, vibrant and thriving …” – it’s rubbing salt in the wounds of language-death.

        It would be interesting to find out how many of the weel-kent faces involved in this can actually speak the language. Subtle, nuanced, native-speaker Gaelic I mean, not the impoverished ‘basic variety’ spoken by most learners (including myself, I am sorry to say!).

    3. Tocasaid says:

      Not like Neil McRae to whinge about another Gaelic project. I never knew so that Daily Mail readers read Bella.

      Wonder what he is doing that is different?

      As to article, I find it positive. Especially this part:

      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.

      – Though I agree that Gaelic can be presented just for an ‘English’ audience and that we need to do things for ourselves more often, Struileag is just a small part of what’s happening. Personally, I don’t have much affinity with the ‘traditional’ side of things but if they help maintain Gàidhlig in some quarters and attract others to the cause then so be it. It’s also worth remembering that much of what Neil McRae disparages is what we’ve fought for over the past few decades and without it, our tongue would really be in uchd a’ bhàis.

      1. bellacaledonia says:

        Thanks, I think it’s an exciting project and to be honest was pretty dismayed at the response being so negative

  2. Hi Neil McRae, Interestingly negative response!

    Presumably you are yourself doing something positive that allows you to take this kind of standpoint or are you just afraid that others are trying to do something to build on our culture by commissioning new work and in some way undermining your own would be self fulfilling prophesies. I always expected some criticism of the sort that you spout and there is a real sense that people like you would rather be negative and see our identity disappear under the blizzard on corporate globalisation.

    At first I thought….” This guy is a internet troll out for an argument don’t bother to give him any time” Then I thought about it and…..I still pretty much think the same thing however I thought I should take a moment to make this response….. I myself, as you guessed Neil,am a Gaelic learner but ALL 20 of our writers are fluent native speakers and the range and breadth of the writing is remarkable. This is simply an arts project, I like your use of the word ‘junket’ which seems to suggest that we are jumping on some kind of funding bandwagon that allows us to party as the death knell of Gaelic rings out. I can asure you Niel that very little Gaelic funding has gone into this project and much of our time is given at seriously reduced rates of pay because we believe passionately that this project is worth doing. Not because , as you seem to be suggesting, that we are trying to save Gaelic, we’re not! We are simply creating new material that we hope will be relevant to those that see the show and we do intend to try our damnedest to reach as wide an audience as possible. This is a project that celebrates the diaspora of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland ( I’m from Thurso) we choose to do this through the medium of Gaelic. We could have done it in English or Scots I suppose and then you would have been much less likely to criticise it, ironically. However we chose quite deliberately to create a body of work in Gaelic that, rather than simply plundering the coffers of the tradition, will deliver new writing and we believe that this type of endeavor does build on the cultural heritage rather than simply relying on it.

    Our international outreach on facebook is being done largely in English because we do not want to merely ‘preach to the converted’ as you put it. We would like to attract new eyes and ears to our work and I suppose in some way also to the language and culture that we celebrate. We are working in cooperation with An Comunn Gàidhealach to put our show on as part of the opening night of the MOD in 2014, and with Comunn na Gàidhlig and the AROS centre in your own island of Skye to put on a Youth event for young Gaelic speakers in October this year (you can read more about this initiative here ).

    I’m sure you will find something to snipe at in my response and bring it on is what I say! 😉

    1. Neil McRae says:

      Jim Sutherland

      “Presumably you are yourself doing something positive that allows you to take this kind of standpoint …” you say.

      Just trying to use Gaelic as often as I can, AND get some debate going about the true state of the language, which at present is being deliberately obscured in many (most) quarters. In doing so, I’m on the receiving end of much abuse from anonymous trolls, presumably feart to use their own names. (I mean, how would you like being called a Daily Mail reader?).

      You suggest that I am a troll. But look, here I am writing under my own name. A bit about me: I’m from the Borders but now my home is in the Strath, Isle of Skye. I am a full-time locum vet, working in mixed practices throughout the North of Scotland (currently in Shetland). I started learning Gaelic 15 years ago out of casual interest and became completely smitten by the language. By ‘the language’ I mean as it is still spoken in the remnants of the traditional language community, NOT as it is spoken nowadays by a would-be academic elite which appears to be taking ownership of what’s left. My politics are unreconstructed socialist. I am middle-aged and not married, because I was born with Asperger’s and my life has been difficult at times. But because I have Asperger’s, I’m a persistent bugger and I will keep speaking out whenever language death is misrepresented, in press releases by people who have a vested interest, as a “vibrant, thriving” culture because it seems to me that this is designed to lull us into a false sense of cosy security. My opinions are those of many native speakers, but they have no voice or choose not to get involved in controversy.

      To address a problem, you first have to acknowledge that there is a problem, AND how bad the problem is – perhaps that’s an overly veterinary approach but it’s served me well!

      “I can assure you Niel that very little Gaelic funding has gone into this project and much of our time is given at seriously reduced rates of pay because we believe passionately that this project is worth doing”

      – Point taken, I apologise unreservedly for use of the word.

  3. As someone who only just began learning Gàidhlig as a “child of the diaspora” here on the west coast of Canada, I’m privileged to meet anyone with even a little of the language and culture to share, and I’m always trying to be aware of the sensitivity of the subject for native speakers. In Canada there are dozens of native languages struggling for survival, some with only a few speakers left, all of whom have faced the harshest oppression through the government. It often seems that the generation gap is one of the greatest hurdles, as elders are often reluctant to pass on the stewardship of language and culture to a younger generation they feel estranged from. The fact is, what we have is all we have, and I appreciate your comments Neil McRae because someone will always take this position in the conversation, which helps get all our blood boiling! I for one have a hundred reasons to be passionate about Gàidhlig, and with the small share of it I have already, I know that this conversation would be far different in Gaelic!!! English will never do justice to my inner thoughts and feelings, period.

  4. Trish MacNeil says:

    As a Canadian who “Liked” the Struileag Facebook page and subscribed to the email list, I wanted to make a comment to this topic, from a different perspective. I apologize in advance because I know this will not be a short post.

    I’m one of those “impoverished basic speakers” of Gaelic. I’m in Ontario, Canada. My family is from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and even further back from Barra and South Uist and my family tree contains MacNeil, MacDougall, MacLean, MacKinnon and O’Handley among others, down my paternal side. (My maternal side is Currie/MacMhuirich.) A number of my ancestors ended up in Cape Breton all through the 1800’s and settled there. I was raised with a strong Scottish heritage and it was just a given that we were Pipers, Highland dancers and so on, summers were Highland Games and our heritage in various forms was an integral part of our day to day, not all that strange for MacNeils with strong Cape Breton roots.

    My great-grandparents spoke Gaelic but the Gaelic seemed to be left behind in Cape Breton when my grandparents moved to Ontario when my father was seven…so it never made it’s way to me. I don’t know what triggers such things in people but in recent years, I decided this was only lost to me if I allowed it to be and I made efforts to find out how I could learn Gaelic. What I found is a small but passionate group of like-minded folk here in Ontario who have Gaelic culture and language in their ancestry either very recent or further back but all with an interest in reclaiming the language and preserving it for ourselves, our families and others in our part of the world who share our heritage. We get together weekly, have workshops a couple times a year and most recently for the first time, we had a week of full time instruction and it was very well received with potential to grow. Fourteen of our group went off to South Uist this past June for a week of Gaelic language instruction and cultural activities. We have native speakers among us, not many but more than you might think. Our native Gaelic speakers are an important part of our effort to ensure that our growing Gaelic abilities are as true as we can make them to be, taking into account differences of dialect and so on.

    While I share some of the concerns of Neil MacRae, I also take hope from what I see occurring in both Scotland and Canada in regards to the language – efforts to bring Gaelic into preschool and primary schools and so on. It may take awhile to turn the ship, but I do believe it’s turning. There is a very healthy Gàidhealtachd in Cape Breton. Gaelic is an official language in the province of Nova Scotia and there are increasing efforts to ensure that Gaelic is brought to the young. The generation prior was not encouraged to speak Gaelic and indeed many told not to. It will take some effort to reverse that kind of damage but it’s happening. Our numbers are increasing here in Ontario and we get increasing support from our Cape Breton counterparts. There are Gaelic organizations in other parts of Canada also, a healthy group on the West coast from what I can see. My reason for mentioning these things is because I feel there is more reason to be hopeful than there is to despair and I believe that will only continue to trend upwards.

    We face the same challenge here in Canada as you do in Scotland, I believe, in that we are trying to navigate our way from Gaelic being the language of our heritage and traditions and respecting that foundation to also bringing Gaelic into the present and keeping it vibrant, relevant and current so that it will make it’s way into the future and not only endure but increasingly flourish. I do and will always cherish the traditional connection but I’m also aware that Gaelic has to move beyond that to remain healthy. I’m quite sure I’m not alone in that perception.

    When on Barra last August, I asked a native Gaelic speaker if there was any benefit from the efforts of us “across the pond” to be learning and maintaining the language where we’re at. His response was that it helped for Gaelic communities in Scotland to see that we find the language to be important and worthwhile in other parts of the world and especially when we use the language when we come to visit. He advised to use the language regardless of ability so that Gaels would use their language with us.

    From my particular point of view, efforts like Struileag contribute to building bridges between Gaels and ancestors of Gaels all around the globe. There are actually quite a few of us and I believe we share similar concerns and desires for the survival of the language. Seems to me that we are stronger together, that we can learn from and support each other’s efforts rather than each toiling away in isolation. Struileag has the potential to spotlight the breadth of the global Gaelic community, allowing us to find each other so that we can connect and build together.

  5. George Gunn says:

    Jim Sutherland’s contribution to Scottish music is second to none and I wish him well with Struileag. It’s easy to snipe and perhaps those who struggle to keep the Gaelic language alive do get weary, and that’s understandable. But there is a big wide world out there and Gaelic has a lot of support and many people are looking for new ways to engage and this project has that at its core, its base, its reason for being. Anyone who can raise funding to do anything in this climate gets my respect. Coming from Thurso as Jim does I know how difficult it is to reconnect with your cultural heritage when that very thing has been denied to you by the educational system you have passed through. So keep at it, Jim Sutherland, there are lots of people in the North who are proud of you.

  6. Katie Wood says:

    As a non-gaelic-speaking (with a mother who is a native speaker), city dwelling, proud Scot I am on dubious territory entering into this debate – and don’t I know it! However, as a person with maternal experience, it strikes me that you two boys need to speak to each other and be kinder to each other! You may be coming at this from different perspectives and life experiences, but it strikes me (naively?) that you both have common ground, in that you both want the gaelic language and culture to thrive. From the outside it strikes me that Jim’s (and other’s) project helps to raise the profile of gaelic amongst relatively ignorant but interested people like me, who recognise that we contribute little but support with our hearts – and if that means using whatever influence we can, with votes or lobbying politically, or just sharing interest through social networking, then surely no-one loses through that support? And Neil I’m not sure how that detracts from those who live and speak the language and culture? So, let’s not “divide and conquer” but share a common interest from different perspectives, but with a common goal? Just saying …… 🙂

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