Adam Robertson spoke with Gaelic singer and Outlander's language consultant Gillebrìde MacMillan on the 10 things that changed his life. 

1. The Gaelic language

It’s the language I spoke growing up. I had no English going to school and its given me so many opportunities in life. Sometimes you hear people say that a minority language or a minoritized language would keep you back but for me and for so many people it’s the exact opposite.

It widens your world, it gives you an appreciation of other cultures from all over the world. You get to read beautiful poetry and hear beautiful songs.

2. Ceòlas​ music festival in South Uist

South Uist (below) is where I come from but along with this there’s Ceòlas which is a music festival there. It’s been going for over 25 years. I was there as a student growing up and now for the last number of years, I’ve been a tutor of Gaelic song and language at the festival.

The National:

It makes links between Uist and the wider Hebrides and Cape Breton (Canada), so especially links with the diaspora and making sure people in Cape Breton know of the link and people of Scotland know of the link.  

So many of the songs, the music were maintained in Cape Breton and some things that we maintain here were lost there so getting those two things back together is fantastic.

It’s great to get so many people coming to South Uist in the summer. They’ve got a fantastic new building which is now an arts community centre so it’s an economic driver as well.

3. University of Glasgow

I came to the University of Glasgow in 1996 as a very quiet, shy student. I studied Gaelic and geography so that’s my degree. Then in 2010 I came back and got a job at the University of Glasgow part-time but I’ve actually been working there ever since.

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It’s a fantastic place, it’s doing incredible things for the Gaelic language at the moment with new courses and an increase in students. It’s a very vibrant place and it’s doing a lot in terms of bridging the gap between urban communities and rural communities with a new course where you can learn Gaelic in Glasgow full-time and then spend time in South Uist spending time in a lived Gaelic community.

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For me, I work there, I was a student there and it’s made a huge difference in my life.

4. Redundancy

After leaving university, I got a job with Grampian TV and I was reading the news but shortly after I joined it was announced that the programme was coming to an end. I had my first job as a journalist but that was axed within six weeks and was told I’d be out of a job at Christmas.

It was obviously quite a traumatic time but it has changed the course of my life completely and made me think of the possibilities. If it hadn’t been axed, my life would have been on a completely different course.

I’d probably still be doing it to a degree but because I was made redundant I then got another job which changed my life.

5. Galicia (Spain)

Because I was made redundant I got a job with the British Council and they sent me to Galicia to teach English for six months. I ended up living there for eight years but I’d never have gone there if I hadn’t been made redundant.

I’ve walked the Camino de Santiago, learned Galician, learnt Spanish, fell in love with the music and my wife is Galician. My children are half-Galician, half-Scottish. It’s incredible what one negative thing like redundancy can have on your life.

I had studied the Spanish Civil War for history at school and I thought walking would be a great way to learn more would be to walk not really realising there was a walk like the Camino de Santiago through Spain.

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It was through history at school though that I fell in love with Spain so then I studied Spanish at university as well but then went for fluency after that. A six-month filler post turned into eight years.

6. The Mòd

I used to sing as a child at the Mòd so I’ve won all the main competitions as a child then got the gold medal as an adult but not ever feeling very comfortable as a singer when I was young. It was just something I was expected to do because we had the local Mòds back home as well.

But now I’ve been adjudicating at the Mòd and I’ve just finished editing a book of the Crowned Bards which will be released next week. It’s about all the prize-winning poets over the last 100 years so 1923-2023 and I was lucky enough to be asked to edit that.

There are many facets of the Mòd itself. It’s very good for giving a focus for the Gaelic language for a whole week but also giving you the chance to go to towns throughout Scotland you wouldn’t go to unless you’re going to a Mòd.

I remember going to Paisley, Thurso, Wick, Perth and so on.

7. Erasmus

It’s a shame this is no longer available. I was very lucky as a student to go to Galway and also to San Sebastian in the Basque country. They were both fantastic experiences.

Galway in many ways again changed the course of my life in terms of singing. I was often asked to sing at music sessions or singing sessions and they’d say, ‘oh you’re Scottish, sing us a song’ and then the next week they’d ask for another one.

I really fell in love with singing again in Galway and San Sebastian is just the most beautiful city that I’ve ever been to and it’s wonderful. I learned a bit of Basque when I was there. I had so many opportunities and a shame that so many don’t have that now.

8. Outlander

It’s had a huge impact on my life. I had a chance to be in it in 2014 as Gwyllyn the Bard (below) in season one. I was on the soundtrack so that had a huge impact and it’s taken me all over the world. I’ve had a chance to sing to so many people, got to know Diana Gabaldon quite well.

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It meant I was then in Men In Kilts. Outlander was one of the first times I was on screen but for the last season I was the Gaelic language coach and wrote a song which featured in the show. It’s been an incredible 10 years of meeting lots of fans, travelling far and wide and it’s incredible what one TV show, or one song even can do for someone’s career in the sense of exposing people all over the world to their music.

It just feels like a blur, it’s incredible to think it’s been 10 years and you see these posts on social media telling you to look back and I realise it’s flown by. So many people still look back on those episodes from a decade ago, they still watch and comment on them.

For me it’s really important that people feel a connection to you because of the way you sang a particular song. It’s what you want as a musician or a singer.

9. Nòs-ùr singing competition 

This was around 2008 or 2009 I think. It was basically a Eurovision-style contest but for Celtic languages. So there was Gaelic, Welsh and so on. It was arranged by Brian O’ h-Eadhra, who is a musician based in Inverness but originally from Ireland.

They got funding and had a night in Eden Court in Inverness with Welsh singers, Scots singers, Irish singers and Gaelic singers. I had never written a song before that but I saw the callout and wrote one that got selected.

It didn’t win but it did well and from that moment on the songs have never stopped. I’ve carried on writing and got two albums of my own now, I’m often asked to commission stuff as well.

That was the catalyst for writing songs and it’s so important to renew the tradition. One of the reviews of my latest album which I loved used the phrase ‘traditional songs of the future’.

That’s what we’re always striving for – to renew the tradition within the tradition. Writing and composing new songs is so important.

10. Fergus Scottish Festival

It’s a Scottish festival in Fergus, Ontario. It’s a beautiful town about two hours west of Toronto. I’ve been going there since 2015 and came on the back of the whole Outlander thing, which is huge in Canada.

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I was over at an Outlander festival in Quebec and was asked around the same time to go to Fergus so I took a train there and made wonderful friends there. People who are from Canada with Scottish roots or the US with Scottish roots. I’ve been going for 10 years and been the host there with 10,000 people.

I’ve done it every year since 2016 and it’s really just one week of every year where that part of Canada becomes Scottish again. They’ve been incredible hosts, I’ve made many friends and it’s making those links between Scotland and the diaspora.

It shows the love that people out there have for Scotland, Scottish culture and Gaelic culture.