JESSIE Newton was born and raised in Achiltibuie, Wester Ross, but settled in Edinburgh in 1970 after graduating from teacher training college. Her daughter, Rachel – now a well-known harpist – attended the Gaelic Medium School when it was based at Tollcross Primary, and it was in the mid-Nineties, when Rachel took advantage of the opportunity to attend Fèis Rois in Ullapool, that Jessie first became acquainted with the Fèis movement.
She was impressed by the opportunities these organisations were bringing to youngsters in the Highlands and islands, creating an enjoyable learning environment that naturally combined Gaelic music, language and culture. “The Fèis,” she says, “seemed an ideal way for young people in the Edinburgh area to partake of traditional Gaelic cultural activities, learning from experienced performers and artists.”
Jessie had been brought up by Gaelic-speaking parents who, like many others of that generation, didn’t speak the language to their children as they felt they needed English “to get on”. “I’m the oldest so I knew more Gaelic than the others,” she recalls, “because I wanted to find out what my folks were saying – they’d speak to each other in Gaelic if they didn’t want us to know what they were saying. So when Rachel went to the Gaelic medium school I did Higher Gaelic. I’m not a fluent speaker but I can understand it.”
Returning to Ross-shire on family holidays, Rachel started to attend Fèis Ross with her cousins, and the movement had quite an impact on her mother. “I thought it was great how everyone was involved and I felt sure that this was something we could be doing in Edinburgh, because we had the Gaelic school there and that was teaching the language, but we needed wider activities as well and music seemed to be a good vehicle for that.”
Her idea of starting a Fèis in Edinburgh was greeted enthusiastically by the city’s Gaelic community and by local musicians, and with support from the umbrella body, Fèisean nan Gàidheal, the Edinburgh organisation got underway in 1996. Nineteen years on, Jessie remains the organisation’s voluntary organiser and chairperson of its committee.
Numbers, she says, have stayed fairly even during that time: “I don’t think we wanted it to grow too much in size, otherwise we’d lose some of the atmosphere. You want the classes to be big enough for the kids to have a challenge, but not so there’s too many and it becomes just another class.
“Fèis Dhùn Èideann was, and is, highly successful,” comments Arthur Cormack, chief executive of Fèisean nan Gàidheal. “It’s different in character to the Fèisean in rural areas. Jessie ensured that the best of what she had experienced in her native Ross-shire was transplanted to Edinburgh, but also made sure that what Fèis Dhùn Èideann offered was relevant to the city.
“Working with young people with additional support needs during the day, she ensured that nobody was excluded from taking part in the Fèis and that it has one of the most effective, year-round programmes of classes.”
Jessie, adds Cormack, has always been willing to involve the local body with national showcase opportunities such as the Ceòl nam Fèis, giving young Edinburgh musicians the chance to meet and perform alongside their peers from across the country.
Having remained involved in the Edinburgh Fèis long beyond her own interest as the parent of a young musician, Jessie has also served in a voluntary capacity on the boards of Fèisean nan Gàidheal and Voluntary Arts Scotland. And she stresses that Fèis Dhun Eideann is run by volunteers: “It simply would not happen if people did not give up their time.”
She finds that one of the most rewarding aspects of her work is following the trajectories of former participants – not least her daughter, Rachel – who have gone on to make traditional music their career, having been influenced by their experience of the Fèis and the opportunities it offered them.
“One of the satisfying aspects is welcoming back former participants to teach at our classes and workshops,” says Jessie, “and I feel proud that a lot of our kids are now themselves teaching and passing on the tradition. It’s great the way the whole Fèis movement provides the opportunity for young musicians to play and teach – it’s like a big family.”
Traditional music, she feels, “is accessible to everyone: people can find it enjoyable even if they don’t know a lot about it, and I think it’s definitely been a lead into the Gaelic language for some.
“It’s a pleasure to be part of such a vibrant organisation and to share in the enthusiasm of participants, tutors and volunteers.”