The Living Tradition : Sgoil Chiùil Na Gàidhealtachd

Sgoil Chiùil Na Gàidhealtachd logo

Sgoil Chiùil Na Gàidhealtachd, also known as The National Centre of Excellence and Plockton Music School, was established in 2000 with funding from the Scottish Executive’s Excellence Fund. Since then, it has become renowned as a place where talented young traditional musicians can develop their skills. It is a residential project open to secondary school students in the Scottish education system, based at Plockton High School in the West Highlands.

Entry is by audition, and pupils can enrol at any stage in their secondary school career. They learn playing and singing (both live and in the studio), composing and arranging, the history and context of traditional music, stagecraft, music technology, and all the other diverse skills which go to make up a modern professional musician. There is a busy performing schedule, and the Centre releases a commercial CD every year. The production of the CD is well established as an acoustic yearbook and its production is the focal point of the whole school year. Tuition is provided by experienced professional musicians, and the overall ethos is vocational, aiming to equip students for further study or a career in music if that is what they choose.

It is important to note, however, that the Centre is not merely a hothouse for professional musicians. Many of its leavers have followed other career paths, but take their music with them wherever they go in life. One of the Aims of the Centre is “To give our students an awareness of the concept of tradition and of their place within it.” The young people who gain entry to the Centre are proficient in their own discipline, but it is not uncommon for them to lack awareness of musical traditions other than their own. The fact that the Centre recruits from all over Scotland gives it a unique opportunity to raise awareness amongst its students of each other’s musical backgrounds and traditions, and consequently to spread that awareness when the students leave and forge their own musical paths.

The Centre sees itself as having an equal responsibility towards all of Scotland’s many fine musical traditions, but its location, and the inevitable fact that many of its students are drawn from the Highlands, mean that Gaelic music maintains a strong presence. In addition to its cultural importance, much Gaelic music is an ideal vehicle for teaching many of the musical concepts on which the Centre focuses. Solo performance is key to the Gaelic tradition, but the Centre also places strong emphasis on ensemble work and on contemporary developments in traditional music performance.

The rhythms and melodies of port-a-beul and waulking songs in particular are very appropriate in these settings, and give instrumentalists an ideal opportunity to enhance their song accompaniment skills. The Gaelic instrumental tradition is huge and varied, particularly in terms of the pipe and fiddle repertoires, and this is a very rich source of tunes for both soloists and groups.

The audio clips featured on this page are intended to demonstrate the Centre’s approaches to Gaelic song. All of the songs are traditional, but they have been given arrangements which are first and foremost appropriate to the song’s content and meaning, but also give a contemporary feel which helps to keep the songs current and interesting to the general audience.

School Director Dougie Pincock says: “Keeping our students aware of their place in the long lines of Scotland’s musical traditions is one of our most important duties, but it is also a great pleasure to see how much they love finding out about and playing this marvellous music which we in Scotland are privileged to call our own.”

The following are taken from the sleeve notes written for each song on the CD on which it appears:

  1. Tobair Tobair Siollaidh (from “First Class”, SCGCD001, released 2001)
    This song was taught to us by Mary Anne Kennedy, and is a charm sung when pulling water from a well. In its original form, it’s a four-line fragment, but we arranged it to make it much longer with improvised instrumental sections.
  2. Smeòrach Chlann Dòmhnaill (from “Duck!”, SCGCD005, released 2005)
    These are some selected verses from a poem composed by John MacCodrum, bard to Sir James MacDonald, 8th Baronet of Sleat in Skye. MacCodrum was a native of North Uist, where the MacDonalds of Sleat owned a considerable estate. The poem develops into a eulogy on the Clan Donald, and the arrangement develops into a bit of a free-for-all!
  3. Macreach An Each Dubh A Sassain (from “The Right Path”, SCGCD016, released 2016)
    This song is about a horse, whose rider, Ronald MacDougal from Uist, receives gold from the king for putting golden horseshoes onto the horse. Robert MacInnes, the lead singer, first heard the song on Rachel Walker’s album “Air Chall”, and subsequently learned the song in his lessons with Rachel, who is the Gaelic Song tutor at the Centre.
  4. Buain A’ Choirce (from “Brick By Brick”, SCGCD017, released 2017)
    This is a traditional working song that we heard on the album “Glen Lyon: A Family Song Cycle” by Margaret and Martyn Bennett. The song is about a woman who sits down after cutting her knee reaping oats, and is looking for anyone who resembles the man that she loves.

Tobair Tobair Siollaidh


Smeòrach Chlann Dòmhnaill


Macreach An Each Dubh A Sassain


Buain A’ Choirce (from “Brick By Brick”, SCGCD017, released 2017).