THE Blas festival returned for another successful year, showcasing a richness and diversity of Gaelic-speaking talent, throughout the Highlands and Islands.

Some twenty-five events have gone out live, in community halls throughout the region, as well as a health only offer, including workshops and live streams, which can be watched from home. Ahead of the festival, I got in touch with Arthur Cormack, director of Fèisean nan Gàidheal – the Gaelic arts organisation that got the whole thing going.


Fèisean nan Gàidheal was established in 1988 to support local groups, throughout Scotland, in creating and maintaining Fèisean in their local area. There are now over forty Fèisean in operation, delivering music and creative arts education, largely through Gaelic but also in English, giving young people in Gaelic-medium Education the opportunity to develop and use their skills, outwith the school-room.

The Fèisean give similar opportunities to other children, whether they are from Gaelic-speaking families or experiencing the language and its culture for the first time. Some of the groups like Fèis Rois have built up an undisputed reputation for their creativity, down the years, alongside others, like Fèis Innis an Uillt (Meadowburn) and Fèis Dhùn Èideann (Edinburgh), which cement relationships between GME centres and communities, in urban contexts.

The National:

Arthur Cormack

The Fèisean have become a vital part of young people’s lives in the Islands, with classes and concerts organised throughout the Western Isles. The Inner Isles are included too, with Fèisean running in Islay, Tiree, Coll and Eigg, where the chance to hone a musical craft brings families together, too.

“As I saw with my own family, and with the young people who attend the Fèisean, opportunities in music and sport are represent key ways of strengthening their relationships with Gaelic, and keeping them speaking,” added Arthur, summing up the aims and benefits of the Fèisean, “All of that is essential for young people’s confidence, mental health and wellbeing. Sometimes I wonder what is on the horizon for them, but I firmly believe that it is possible to create a better and more supportive environment for them, in this country, and to give them more opportunities.”

This is the very best we can hope for our young people, and Fèis Blas certainly evidences that outcome of all those this year – those of the youngsters, tutors and Fèisean nan Gàidheal’s team, alike.

This year, Highlands and Islands audiences have had the opportunity to get better acquainted with the likes of Màiri Callan – a singer, harpist and Royal Conservatoire student – at the Dunvegan Community Hall, as well as Déirdre Graham, from the Isle of Skye, who has just released a second series of traditional music podcasts on Spotify. Cause indeed to be proud, seeing those who grew up attending the Fèisean return, to demonstrate to audiences just how important these initiatives are, through their own personal and creative development.

Arthur’s own children have also benefitted from the Fèisean, too, with an Mòd Gold Medal each for son Ruairidh and daughter Eilidh, who is now part of Gaelic singing group Sian – another successful Fèisean nan Gàidheal project.

On September 4, in Portree, audiences were also treated to performances from Donaidh and Peigi Barker, alongside another brother-sister duo from Ireland – Séamus is Caoimhe Uí Fhlatharta. Donaidh an Peigi are the children of Eilidh MacKenzie, who alongside Arthur, was part of the band Mac-Talla, and who now leads on Fèisean nan Gàidheal’s Fèis-sgoil offer – bringing Gaelic education into primary schools, via Curriculum for Excellence.

“Our children were brought up with plenty of Gaelic at home and we were incredibly fortunate that Gaelic was spoken by our neighbours, too,” continued Arthur, making clear how important communities are in normalising Gaelic as an everyday language.

He also counted himself fortunate to have “a little Gaelic community gathered around”, to which they could belong. It is at community level that Fèisean nan Gàidheal is doing its most powerful work, especially in urban settings, where it is even more challenging to build community and where Gaelic is just one community language of many.

“Despite everything in our favour, it was still challenging raising a family with the language. As important as being able to access Gaelic-medium education was, the opportunities they received outside school at the Fèisean, at Mòdan, school debates and other aspects were all a great support in strengthening the bond with the Gaelic language.”

Fèisean nan Gàidheal has been one organisation within a network of others which have extended Gaelic opportunities through the 80s, 90s and after the second millennium.

However, despite all that has been achieved in the name of Gaelic, over the years, Arthur has still had to use his own, finely-tuned debating skills, combatting anti-Gaelic prejudice in a series of exact and exacting letters to the press. “I return to that now and again, but I think perhaps that things aren’t as bad as they were.”

It’s true that successive attitude surveys demonstrate, despite the ignorance and malice that remains, particularly on social media, that the majority of people in Scotland show support for Gaelic – something that Arthur is in praise of. The Fèisean have raised up a new generation that are brimming with confidence in their language, and happy to put that centre-stage, such as Binneas – a choral ensemble all under thirty years of age, led by Barraman John Joe MacNeill and Emma MacLeod from Scalpay. Also on the bill were two of those shortlisted for the Scots Trad Gaelic Singer of the Year gong, this year – Uist’s own Ruairidh Gray and Skye native Anne Martin.

There have also been chances for adults to pick up a thing or two, besides, with online workshops – mouth music with Mary Ann Kennedy and idiom with Alec Valtos. Whilst Fèis Blas came to final crescendo on 9th September, those who couldn’t be there in person can still enjoy the live streams, recorded online. Included there, is a brand new commission awarded to Ewan Henderson, the opening concert with Binneas, the Barkers and Jenna Cumming and the closing concert, Ceòl nam Fèis.

“As far as debates around the Gaelic language go, in general I’d like to see more consensus, regarding a way forward,” say Arthur in closing.

“More support is and will be needed, that will allow us to strengthen the place of Gaelic in communities of all kinds, though especially in the Islands.”

Whilst singing heals much, it cannot heal all, but the Blas Festival and the ongoing work of Fèisean nan Gàidheal demonstrates that the right support can go to the people who might benefit from it, and make a difference to their lives, if brought within the network.

While there could be improvement on open LGBTQ representation and celebrating the intersectionality of Gaels with other protected characteristics, with Fèisean nan Gàidheal’s support behind it, Fèis Blas is set to continue its success into 2024.