A family trip to Barra in 1981 set in motion a series of events that have resulted in Fèis Rois becoming a hub for traditional music learning that benefits hundreds of students every year, has a reach that extends nationally and internationally and produces an annual turnover of more than £1 million.
Barra in 1981 was the scene of the first fèis, which originally translated from Scottish Gaelic as festival or feast but has now come to mean a tuition festival, mostly for young people, celebrating the music and song culture connected with the Gaelic language. Today more than forty fèisean flourish throughout Scotland.
When Christine Martin, who was then working as a strings instructor in Tain, took her children to Barra, their experience was such that she thought Ross-shire should have something similar. Together with local Community Education Worker Kate Martin, she gathered support from Jock Watt and Neil McKechnie at Ross & Cromarty District Council and Jean Urquhart at the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool, where the first Fèis Rois took place in 1986.
From an initial fifty primary five and primary six-aged participants, the numbers quickly grew and in 1990 it was decided to hold separate events for primary and secondary pupils. Local Authority Arts Officers Bryan Beattie and Jim Gaitens superseded Kate and Christine and then, serving as Manager from 1991 to 2008, Rita Hunter was the driving force behind much of the organisation’s initial development. Rita’s creativity and vision ensured that Fèis Rois became recognised nationally as a significant and excellent provider of traditional arts education, a reputation that current manager Fiona Dalgetty and her small full-time team continue to develop and expand.
To the original fèis model of annual residential courses, Fèis Rois has added weekly classes across Ross-shire for both primary and secondary school age ranges to offer continued and sustained learning. It also runs a residential course for matriculated students and a successful adult programme, providing weekly classes (a feature unique to Fèis Rois) and a three-day residential course with access to fringe events including concerts, recitals, talks, sessions, and pub gigs.
In 2000, Fèis Rois initiated its Ceilidh Trail, a programme designed to give students training as professional musicians. Again, having expanded from the original model, each year fifteen students now form three bands, one to tour Ross-shire, the other two to tour nationally, focusing on the Gaelic and Scots traditions respectively.
The Ceilidh Trail is now an integral part of the Fèis Rois learning cycle that sees youngsters becoming involved from primary four age, progressing through weekly classes and residential courses to become performing musicians, and returning to train as tutors. Award-winning accordionist-composer Mairearad Green and harper Freya Thomsen are just two of the professional musicians who have come full circle.
From its Dingwall base Fèis Rois now provides learning programmes in Dumfries & Galloway, North Lanarkshire and Aberdeenshire. It has commissioned new music using traditional forms from James Ross, John Somerville and Lauren MacColl, expanded into working with children with special needs and operates an exchange programme with Australia’s leading Celtic music festival, the National Celtic Festival in Port Arlington as well as facilitating high profile performances at Celtic Connections as part of its continuing plan to educate and inspire.