FOR THE past 24 years Kirsteen Graham’s “day job” has been Gaelic singing tutor for Gaelic Medium units in schools on Skye, but her influence has reached much further in permeating the area’s cultural activities. Not only has she imbued her pupils with a love of their native song, but outside school hours she has thrown herself into running and managing Fèis an Earraich, nurturing young singers and musicians throughout Skye and Lochalsh.
As Arthur Cormack, chief executive of Fèisean nan Gàidheal, points out, there are simply not enough hours in the school day to encompass the scope of Kirsteen’s work: “She has spent years preparing children for the local and national Mòds and for Christmas and end-of-term concerts, and she has also, over many years, written original material for drama competitions and schools performances.”
Kirsteen was raised in Edinburgh by parents with Skye and Lewis backgrounds. While growing up she sang in choirs, ceilidhs, Mòds and church from an early age in Edinburgh as well as with a dance band on Skye in her teens and early twenties.
“We were one of these hybrid Heilan’ families,” she recalls, “always going back to Skye or to granny and grandpa in Argyll.”
Eventually, she just didn’t go back to Edinburgh. After early occupations ranging from hotel work to roadworks site clerk, she married and settled in Lower Breakish, at the south end of Skye, and when her own children were still very young, she was asked by the school at nearby Broadford if she’d help prepare young singers for Mòds.
She recalls her first Fèis experience being a visit to Barra in 1988, by which time she had a family of her own: “There were three mums and seven assorted children, plus I was expecting our fourth.”
Two years later the job of Gaelic singing tutor for Skye’s five Gaelic-medium primaries came up and she applied. It was six months before she heard that she’d got the job and she has been travelling round the island teaching ever since, though she says she’s now thinking of retiring. “I’ve been fortunate in finding a job that I have enjoyed for so long. Also drama has become a large part of my school work, writing and directing plays, pantomimes and action songs.”
In the meantime, Fèis an Earraich had been established by the local community education office with strings tutor Christine Martin. Kirsteen soon joined the committee and has been involved ever since, as the number of participants rose from 50 in the early years to some 130 every year. Over and above that, Kirsteen is involved in running other weekly classes as well as organising Ceilear, the Fèis Cèlidh Trail band and generally helping with the Trail.
She emphasises than in all these activities she is assisted by many other indispensable volunteers, and like others involved in the Fèis movement, she compares it to a big family: “All of our children grew up with the Fèis as one of the highlights of the year, and they went on to tutor for Fèis an Earraich and other Fèisean throughout Scotland. Our youngest son, Ruairidh, is now chairman of Fèis an Earraich – my boss!”
“As well as our own family carrying on traditional music, it’s lovely to see so many young people that were part of Fèis an Earraich, or were local school pupils, doing so well in traditional music and keep Gaelic alive.”
She stresses that she’s never trained as a singing teacher – “I don’t do technique; I’m a song tutor.” And, one suspects, a motivator and instiller of enthusiasm.
Arthur Cormack pays tribute to her work over the years: “She has run the Fèis an Earraich, alternating between Portree and Plockton, for around 18 years on a completely voluntary basis, including the week-long Easter Fèis as well as a range of classes all year round.
“She has organised visits to Germany for young Skye musicians, and established and maintained a regular exchange with the Armagh Pipers’ Club, who have visited Skye on a number of occasions, while our young people have reciprocated with trips to Ireland.
“Kirsteen has also always been willing to organise Fèis an Earraich’s involvement in national showcases organised by Fèisean nan Gàidheal, giving the young people of Skye the opportunity to perform on a stage with their peers in a high-quality performance environment.”
By running the annual Cèilidh Trail, Cormack adds, Kirsteen gives local youngsters the chance to train in performance and promotion skills and put them into practice, touring round Skye and Lochalsh and earning money through summer employment.
“There are many events, concerts and cèilidhs, where young people have performed, which will have had Kirsteen in the background, preparing them,” says Cormack. “Skye’s cultural activities would be much worse off without her input.”