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Tuning in to Celtic culture

The annual Celtic Connections festival is building on its aim to bring traditional music and tales to young people, writes John Cairney

In the seven years since Glasgow's Celtic Connections festival started, it has become one of the United Kingdom's premier folk music events and one of the largest indoor festivals in the world.

A notable feature of the festival for the past two years has been a major educational programme supported by the Scottish Arts Council's Lottery fund. The programme aims to "take the heritage and culture of Scotland into the schools and communities of Glasgow", and Nancy Nicolson, the Celtic Connections education officer, says there is "proof positive" that it is delivering in terms of participation, learning and enjoyment.

"The essence of the programme is enjoyment and fulfilment," she says, "but in the real world it has to be about numbers too, and we have the numbers. Between September and Christmas more than 1,000 primary and special school pupils will be involved in workshops and during the 2001 festival in January, 1,200 primary pupils will have the chance to sing, play Celtic instruments, dance and hear stories, all with Celtic Connections artists.

"One thousand secondary school music students will see Scottish music related to their Standard grade studies, and 500 secondary students of English, history and music will be 'transported' to America in the company of Flora MacDonald and Andrew Carnegie, with musician Brian McNeill's new show, The Back o' the North Wind."

Performers at the Royal Concert Hall will include Evelyn Glennie and Phil Cunningham in the world premiere of Ceilidh with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Eddi Reader, Alan Stivell, The Battlefield Band, The Incredible String Band, Ralph McTell and Janis Ian.

A key feature of the education programme is sustainability in the form of residencies, during which singers and musicians visit primary and special schools and work wit the same class for four weeks. Mainstream schools will concentrate on singing while special school pupils will be introduced to instruments such as the bodhran and tin whistle.

"This is a brilliant opportunity to take working musicians into the classroom. During the residencies we stress that traditional Scottish music is everyone's music and is owned by the commonalty." Stage performances are a by-product, not a main focus, Ms Nicolson says.

Teachers respond to the residencies with energy and enthusiasm. Liz Urquhart, a teacher at Anderston Primary, Glasgow, described as "inspirational" her class's experience of working with traditional singer Anne Neilson this year. "She drew work from the children I would not have thought possible and helped us to develop a pride and raised awareness of our Scottishness. For my multiracial children, she provided an experience of Scottish culture they never had," Ms Urquhart said.

Ashcraig special school went to the children's concert held in the Royal Concert Hall during Celtic Connections 2000. "All the pupils were very enthusiastic, especially those doing Standard grade," said Kirsteen Gray, principal teacher of creative and aesthetic subjects. "They particularly enjoyed seeing and hearing the clarsach."

In a survey, 97 per cent of teachers agreed that the residencies had been beneficial in broad educational terms and said they were "stimulated", "enthused" or "inspired" at a personal level. A similar percentage felt that Scottish culture should be part of the curriculum and that professional artists should be involved in promoting it.

Not surprisingly, Ms Nicolson concurs. "All the work that we do on the Celtic visits can be related to 5-14 and can deliver both content and skills in a very comfortable and accessible way," she says.

Celtic Connections 2001, January 10-28. Education programme details from Jane Donald, tel 0141 353 8016, fax 0141 353 8001, e-mail

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