Emily Edwards has been working on Islay for two years on Seanchas Ã¬le, an oral history project, collecting and recording stories, proverbs and recollections from Gaelic speakers. A selection of the interviews in the original Gaelic with english translations have now been published in a book which is available from Argyll Publishing. Emily will shortly be leaving Islay to take up a new post in Inverness. Ileach editor Carl Reavey spoke to her at Port Mor.
CR - How did you become interested in Gaelic?
EE - I became aware of Gaelic through music, through playing the fiddle - I come from Tain on the North East Coast, and there are only a very few pockets of Gaelic speakers left up there. There are lots of Gaelic tunes for the fiddle though and I started to really learn the language while at Edinburgh University where I read Celtic and Scottish Studies and I also spent a year at Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye.
CR - So you see a very strong connection between Gaelic and music?
EE - Very much so - but two years ago when I first arrived on Islay I was very surprised at the lack of traditional music being played here as I had been used to lots of trad at home and at University. There were very few young people playing trad because it was not taught in schools.
CR - I do remember a lot of musical activity in schools in the 12 years I have been here - but I guess it has been mostly through orchestral instruments - trombones, clarinets, violins and so on. There was very little traditional music played. It was very high quality but closer to a big band or an orchestra or even music hall styles.
EE - Yes - and there is a strong brass tradition here too which is great - but there is definitely also a place for traditional music. I am teaching twelve people the fiddle right now - mostly childen but also a couple of adults. A big help for me when I first arrived was knowing Fraser Shaw the piper. He has also started teaching kids pipes in the schools which is great too. We have also had tremendous support from Grahame at the Port Charlotte Hotel who has really encouraged us to play. We have been able to hold regular trad sessions there with our friends and often with visiting musicians which has been brilliant. It is great to know that you have somewhere where you are welcome to play.
CR - How big an influence has the Gaelic College in Bowmore been in pushing a Gaelic agenda?
EE - It is really a Gaelic community Centre which is how we want people to think of it because it is technically not a college. We want people to think of it as a place for everyone and not just students. It is the ideal facility to enable the Gaelic connection with music to be taken forward - music is very much on the agenda at ICCI.
CR - You have been a very positive influence in making people think about the importance of Gaelic again. How easy has it been to work with the Gaelic community?
EE - A lot of older folk found it strange talking to a young person in Gaelic. They couldnt get their head arounsd the fact that I wanted to speak Gaelic - and that I was young! That was just at the beginning becauseï¿½now folk feel more comfortable speaking to me - and a really good result of the Seanchas Ã¬le project is that more people come into the Centre now. It has become more of a social Centre and I hope we can keep that momentum and connection going.
CR - It is unfortunate that the Gaelic language is now very largely restricted as a means of communication to the elderly which invitably means that much of Gaelic culture looks backwards - it is historical. How can the language break out of that and become a language of today?
EE - I know what you mean - but the Centre is a modern working environment and we are surrounded by computers and the technology that governs modern life. The first language of the Centre is Gaelic so I hope that ICCI has made people realise that Gaelic can be used in the modern world. I am aware of course that Gaelic is mostly associated with crofting and traditional things but ICCI has made people realise that it can be taken out of that and used in a modern working environment. Attitudes are changing - but it is going to be a long haul. Things won't change overnight. The Centre is really good for the Gaelic medium kids because they see Gaelic being used in a real environment. If we can help them understand that there is more to Gaelic than just school - that it is possible to carry on speaking it outside school then that will be a huge step.
CR - If you could wave a magic wand for the Gaelic language, what would be your wish?
EE - There is no point pretending that language development is anything other than fiendishly complicated and it differs from community to community. Young people are the future - I would wish that young people would use it more - and be interested - they have lost their connection with the language. It will require lots of little things and a great deal of work. Your wee straplines in the Ileach are great. They at least show people that Gaelic still exists. It was brilliant to see Libby Morris taking the Gaelic medium kids to the cattle sale last week too.
CR - Maybe they could tell us about the poor prices the farmers got in Gaelic. That is real news.
EE (laughing) - Yes these things are important.
CR - Should the Ileach provide translations from Gaelic into English?
EE - This is another difficult question because you have to remember that Gaelic is really an oral tradition and many Gaelic speakers cannot read Gaelic - or find reading it very difficult. A summary would helpï¿½- or maybe the title. The whole thing does not need to be translated.
CR - What of the future?
EE - It is such a fragile situation - many people do not realise just how fragile the language is - I have helped start a process - but now I am leaving because these posts are only ever funded for short periods. I am aware that just one or two people can make a big difference and I do hope that we can find a way to keep it going.
CR - What's next for you Emily?
EE - I have a new job in Inverness - similar to what I do here but more musically based. I will be co-ordinating the gathering of songs and tunes and stories from Gaelic communities. Young people from the Feis movement will be doing the collecting. Its going to be challenging working with teenagers! I am going to be very sad to leave Islay because it has been a great experience - the two years have gone so quickly.
CR - Thank you very much - and good luck in Inverness!
This story was published with kind permission from The Ileach - Community Newspaper of the year.