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Local customs move with the times

Traditional Scottish arts are enjoying a revival so much so that the first teaching academy is soon to open, writes Emma Seith

AN ACADEMY of Scottish traditional music, drama and dance will be ready for its first cohort of students in 2009.

The Feis Academy is the brainchild of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, UHI Millennium Institute, Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the national Gaelic centre, and Feisean nan Gaidheal, the umbrella body for 43 community-based Feisean. The academy takes its name from the latter: the extremely successful Feis movement that attracts thousands of young people each year to tuition festivals of traditional arts held all over Scotland.

This movement and folk bands like Capercaillie and Battlefield Band are credited with sparking a traditional arts revival that makes an academy a viable option. They demonstrated, say enthusiasts, that Scottish music can be exciting.

This increasing interest has had an impact on the RSAMD. Applications for its degree course in Scottish music are rising exponentially, according to the head of traditional music, Brian McNeill. They receive three applications for every place, he says, and could double their intake without compromising the quality of entrant. Last year, the Funding Council allocated additional money to help create a further 40 places over the next three years.

Mr McNeill, a former member of Battlefield Band, says: "In 1995, at the fiddle festival in Edinburgh, there were 200 youngsters; 10 years later there were 2,000 and most of them were under 16. Traditional music used to be something for the geeks in the corner but now it's the coolest thing you can do."

It is uncertain what the Feis Academy will look like. However, the organisations involved have formed a steering group and hope to come up with a model within the next three months, so that they can announce their plans before the end of the year, the Highland Year of Culture.

Most likely, it will make courses available up to degree level through established colleges. And only later will it have an actual physical presence in Scotland, says Bryan Beattie, the director of Creative Services Scotland who sits on the steering group. "One idea is that the academy would act as an umbrella body for a number of smaller initiatives happening in colleges already. But it would also plug the gaps where courses don't exist, within the curriculum and geographically," he continues.

Currently, there is no such thing as a course in traditional Scottish dance; the Feis Academy would hope to remedy that. Other courses might include traditional fiddle playing, taking in the distinctive styles found across the country.

"Classical music is pretty much catered for, but for people interested in traditional music, informal classes are pretty much the extent of it," says Mr Beattie. "We want to redress the balance and increase the spectrum of opportunity."

Mr McNeill hopes the Feis Academy will help take forward his department's stated aim of eventually having "a dedicated teacher of traditional music in every primary and secondary in Scotland".

"This revival is one of the most voracious and tenacious things on the planet," he says.

The Feis movement

"Feis" is Gaelic for festival or feast.

The first Feis Feis Bharraigh was held on the Isle of Barra in 1981 after a group of parents and other individuals became concerned that local traditions were dying out.

Inspired by the success of this first Feis, many other communities established similar events. Today, there are more than 40 Feisean in Scotland and more than 3,500 young people participate.

A Feis can run for days or weeks and involves individuals usually youngsters developing skills in the Gaelic arts: song, dance and drama and traditional music on a wide range of instruments, including fiddle, accordion and harp.

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