There was a time in the mid-19th Century when fiddles on Skye were thrown on the bonfire and the playing of music went out of favour with the rise of a particularly strict style of Presbyterian Church. Only the singing voice was left. This flourished in the Church's psalm singing, but also quietly maintained a hold in the domestic culture of Gaelic song, passed from mouth to ear down the generations.
With the recent re-emergence of instrument playing, the area has become a cultural hotspot for traditional singers, award-winning fiddlers, pipers and accordion-players, and the home of several bands who are now well known on the national and international scene.
The accordion, that core instrument in any ceilidh dance band, was the first to re-establish itself, largely because of the growing number of touring bands on the weekly Friday-night village hall dance circuit of the 1950s. The west-coast style of fiddle had virtually died out but there remained one or two players. The fiddle is now again very common.
The Clarsach, or Celtic harp, was perhaps the first to be fully reinstated over the last 30 years, through music teaching at schools, a generous scheme of harp provision and teaching through the Clan Donald Lands Trust in south Skye, and more widely through the work of the Fèisean movement. These teaching festivals have grown throughout Scotland from their start in Barra 30 years ago. Each year communities organise week-long course for youngsters to come together, not only to learn how to play a variety of instruments, but how to play together, to work together and to immerse themselves in the wider Gaelic culture.
At an adult level, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Scotland's Gaelic College in Sleat, created their programme of music Summer Schools around 20 years ago, through which Alasdair Fraser, the Scots-born fiddler living in California, re-introduced the Skye fiddle style that had moved to Cape-Breton in eastern Canada with 19th Century emigrants. Alongside this came the re-emergence of Step-dance, which has now regained nation-wide interest.
Public festivals, such as the Skye Festival or Fèis an Eilein, in the summer, bring together all this new musical talent. Youngsters from the Fèisean movement are given the stage alongside many local and visiting musicians. In pubs, halls and hotels across the islands music is heard in formal and informal sessions.
Traditional music is a major influence on youngsters throughout their schooldays. Some children study music at the renowned National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music at Plockton. Some go on to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow and other colleges. Those young adults that do not then become professional musicians, at least have music as a major part of their lives.
Highland music is not all bagpipes and Highland dancing, and certainly not all in the competitive spirit seen at Highland Games. Search out opportunities to hear the rich and developing cultural traditions of the area and be surprised and delighted with what you hear.