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Tradition makes a comeback

Glasgow's annual cultural festival is helping ever more children to appreciate Scotland's musical heritage. John Cairney reports

It's oor culture, it's your culture, it's awbody's culture. If the organisers of the annual Celtic Connections traditional arts festival in Glasgow ever decide to adopt a slogan, they could do worse than use this adaptation of the description of the impish dungaree-clad mophead who appears in the Sunday Post's popular comic strip.

Nancy Nicolson, the education officer of Celtic Connections and the person who plagiarised Oor Wullie's punchline, has an unequalled commitment to the traditional arts in Scotland but also recognises the universality of the music which the festival offers and the importance of presenting music which is "warm, welcoming and inclusive" to as many people as possible but especially the young.

Now in the third year of her appointment as the seven-year-old festival's only full-time employee, she has seen its educational aspect grow to the point where this year more than 6,000 schoolchildren will be involved in some way, ranging from large set-piece public performances to more intimate workshops. It is not only school pupils who are reaping the benefits of Ms Nicolson's work. Students from Strathclyde University and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama are involved in both administration and performance projects associated with the educational programme.

The programme was given a high profile launch on the second day of the festival, which opened last week, when Evelyn Glennie, the virtuoso Scottish percussionist, gave a masterclass to more than 700 children in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

Ms Glennie, fresh from her success the previous evening when she took part in the opening event, a premier of Ceilidh, written by traditional musician Phil Cunningham, is in no doubt what she wants for her audience. "I want the youngsters to experience the music in their own way and experience a range of emotions," she says. "I want them to open themselves up. Whether it is in a private way or in a concert hall, it doesn't matter."

Celtic Connections has been criticised in some quarters for including atists who are not strictly, or even at all, associated with the ScotsIrishWelshCornishBreton roots of Celtic music, and Evelyn Glennie could be said to be in this category. Ms Nicolson, like the main festival's organisers, has no problem on this score.

"We want to share our music in a social and sociable context, using artists of the highest calibre, and we include anything that is warm, welcoming and inclusive. Evelyn Glennie is all of these," she says.

In addition to seven concerts in the Royal Concert Hall for school and community groups, professional folk artists will present performances and workshops in venues throughout the city, ranging from primary schoolrooms to a Roman Catholic church, where the show is "tucked in between morning and evening mass".

The positive response from all sections of the community has been, to use a favoured phrase of Ms Nicolson, "a huge delight" to the organisers. "In primary schools we have had a huge willingness to accommodate our contribution because it is seen how much this does for a growing intellect, for an awareness of culture, self and country," she says.

"In the secondary sector, though we have found some very enthusiastic schools, we have also found some disappointed ones who wanted to join in but because of exam schedules and exam stresses put on them, were unable to take up the opportunity."

A highlight this year is a series of secondary school visits featuring fiddler Brian McNeil in a performance of Back o' the North Wind about famous Scots who emigrated to North America.

The success of the education programme could have national repercussions, says Ms Nicolson. "The more we work with schools and communities, the more feedback we get that what we offer is not only enjoyable, it is also very important and substantially beneficial in the school realm.

"We can't even supply what is needed and desired in Glasgow, far less in the rest of the country.

"We now have the opportunity to make things happen nationwide because of the Scottish Executive's stated recognition that Scottish culture within Scottish education is critically important."

I'm sure Oor Wullie would agree.

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