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On the west side of South Uist the beaches stretch from south to north for miles. Looking east the wild flowers spread over the machair towards the hills. And at the foot of the hills lies Daliburgh, home to the Gaelic music and language summer school, Ceòlas.
Ceòlas is held in Daliburgh School for a full week early in July every year. Students come from around the world to play a part in the rich musical and cultural life of this small community in the Western Isles.
The school has been running for over ten years now, and many students have attended regularly over that time, forming lasting friendships. The dining area is a busy place during breaks between classes as students exchange greetings and news in both English and Gaelic.
New faces are also made welcome. Ruairidh MacIlleathain, attending for the first time as a student, is a well-known Gaelic broadcaster based in Inverness.
Dale Cummings has come from much further away, Seattle in the USA. He first came 8 years ago, and has come back every year since.
The school has a strong relationship with the community. Mary Macinnes chairs the local committee that organises and runs the school every year.
After the break the students must return to their classes. Gaelic language is a very important part of the daily teaching. In addition students choose two musical disciplines. These include the fiddle, with a strong Cape Breton influence, as well as keyboard. Many students choose to do Gaelic song. And no music school in Uist would be complete without pipers. Dance is also taught, with a particular focus on the old stepdancing tradition that is still very much alive in Cape Breton.
Learning can be hard work, which can make you thirsty. When classes finish in the school some students are keen to carry on practising in the nearest hotel. But Ceòlas is an important event for the whole community, with a series of evening events throughout the week. Buses are provided at the end of each day to take students to the next event, whether it’s a house party, a concert, or a walk across the machair. And even the pipers need to take a rest eventually.
On Wednesday night the evening dance is held on the neighbouring island of Eriskay. This can now be reached by causeway, so there’s no excuse for not attending.
The local band is already playing when the students begin to arrive. For those new to the dances a caller gives instructions as the music plays.
As the evening draws on the music changes, and tutors and students get a chance to demonstrate their stepdancing skills. Bringing back an almost lost style of Scottish music and dance to a living Gaelic community is probably the most important feature of Ceòlas.
It generates enormous excitement amongst those lucky enough to witness it. But as the sun sets slowly in the west, only half-way through the week, everyone knows there’s still a lot more to learn.
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