The Ullapool Fèis: a lesson for us all

A Fèis is a Gaelic tradition where musicians of different levels of experience gather together, some to teach and some to learn, and then after the day’s teaching and learning play together. (This is the Scottish version, the Irish version is a dance competition.) I’d never heard of a Fèis until we came across one in Ullapool in the North West of Scotland, but it struck me as a marvellous model for all sorts of teaching and learning.


The woman in the hotel told us that this was the weekend of the Fèis and that musicians would be performing in the town.

“Where will they be playing?” we asked.

“It could be anywhere. They just gather and away they go.”

As we ate a good meal in the Ferry Boat Inn we heard music starting up in the bar next door. “It’s heaving in there,” said the waiter, “you’ll struggle to get in.”

But we did, and about 20 musicians aged from perhaps 15 to 80 and of both sexes were seated in a circle. Most were playing pipes, not full scale bagpipes but smaller ones, while some played fiddles, guitars, flutes, whistles, and hand drums.

A man in the bar explained: “This is the pipes gathering. The fiddlers and the accordionists are somewhere else, but some other musicians come here to add to the music. I only learnt this myself a few minutes ago: I’m from Manchester.”

The music had that wonderful mixture of joy and melancholy that is distinctly Gaelic. Nobody was conducting or leading, and it wasn’t clear how pieces began or ended. But the music had a rhythmic and melodic togetherness that seemed organic, growing out of mutual affection and respect. I could see that some were much more advanced than others. A bearded man in his 40s seemed to provide a base, while a youth of about 18, clearly the star pupil, played a fast and exciting solo over the solid beat of the 20. Some, the beginners, played little but were still part of a rich sound. At the end of each piece the 50 or so non-musicians in the pub clapped loudly and appreciatively, but the musicians were largely unaware of the audience. They were playing and communing together, continuing their day of learning and teaching, and the pleasure for the audience was a side effect not an aim.

As we came closer to midnight musicians began to fade away, packing up their instruments and leaving the pub. Were they heading for bed or going to play somewhere else? I think the latter as when we checked into the hotel two musicians who must have been playing at the Fèis had said with exactness that surprised us that they would be out until 2 am.

We left the pub, both mildly drunk after carousing with “two judges,” around 12.30, and the music was still going.

Could others learn in this way? Music, dancing, and the performing arts lend themselves to people at all levels coming together after a day’s teaching and learning to doing something together, but surely it could be adapted to philosophy, science, crafts, poetry, and every kind of learning. I must try it.


One thought on “The Ullapool Fèis: a lesson for us all

  1. Pingback: A brief tour of North Scotland | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

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