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Pulling strings

One man has inspired pupils of the Western Isles to play the fiddle, says Nick Morrison

Encouraging children to play a musical instrument can be difficult, but such is the enthusiasm at one school that almost a fifth of all the pupils have formed their own string orchestra.

For children living on Barra in the Western Isles, the choice of instrument was limited until the arrival of a Royal Opera House veteran. As well as the more traditional bagpipes, chanter and accordion, pupils can now learn the fiddle, and are seizing the opportunity with gusto.

David Bowman, headteacher of Sgoil Bhagh a'Chaisteil, a school for 3 to 18 year-olds in the island's main town, Castlebay, says: "The way it has taken off has been fantastic. There are something like 40 fiddles playing in the group, and for a school of around 200 pupils, that is amazing. It has come from nowhere, but the fiddle is going to be a strong point in the future."

Tutor Duncan Johnstone came to Barra three years ago after a back problem forced him to quit the London Orchestra where he had played viola for 10 years. Although he is originally from Glasgow, strong family links drew him to the Western Isles.

"I was going to have to find a different career anyway, and there was no way I was going to stay in London. I always wanted to teach and I can't think of anywhere better than here."

Duncan worked at the Royal Opera House after spells with the Scottish National Orchestra and a string quartet in San Francisco. When he arrived on the island, he began working within the education department, teaching in schools, but now teaches privately and has around 100 pupils across the three islands of Barra, South Uist and Benbecula.

Every Thursday he catches the ferry to South Uist, spending the weekend teaching before returning on the Sunday, although the vagaries of the weather often delay his return.

"There's a tradition of piping and singing here, but there isn't really a lot of choice. The kids are keen, they turn up for every lesson and don't mess about, and they're coming along quickly," he says.

The 40-strong Barra string group, made up of children from eight to 12, has already given its first concert. "When I ask if they would like to stand up and play solo, they all volunteer," Duncan says. "When I was teaching in schools in Glasgow, I had to drag them on stage, but here they all want to do it."

Duncan adds: "I really enjoyed playing opera and ballet, but there's nothing that can compare to the satisfaction of seeing kids learn.

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