And although she has lived on the mainland of Scotland for longer than she lived on ‘the edge of the world’, it took until she had her own children for her to feel settled in her present home on the outskirts of Inverness. With the birth of her daughters, new roots are being put down. But perhaps it took the composition of a piece of music based on the skyline she could see from her new home to help her create a song-like connection to the place where she now lives.
Julie climbed the hill behind her house with her camera and took panoramic photographs of the hills of Ross-shire and The Black Isle. She placed them end to end and traced the skyline, then laid the shape of the hills onto a blank sheet of manuscript. The resultant melody became the base for a piece of music. To turn the melody into a song she added lines from a long-forgotten piece of poetry about the Inverness area. That song, broadcast on Radio 4 during summer 2014, finally gave her the feeling that Inverness-shire was home. The process also sparked an interest in researching songs about her new home, which she hopes soon to add to her repertoire of songs from the islands.
Growing up in the islands she was unbelievably lucky, she says, to have learned Gaelic singing and piping from some of the best tradition bearers of their generation.
‘Songs, culture and stories were all passed on orally through close-knit communities, through friends and family, and with respect for elders and tradition.’
‘I know, it all sounds so romantic’, she says, ‘but it’s not really. It’s just a more personal way of passing on the music.’
‘That’s what I’d like to carry on doing,’ she says, ‘I’d like to make it the norm for my kids and their classmates and friends to learn music and songs from the landscape where they are growing up; songs which are ancient, rediscovered, or even brand new, so that it becomes their ‘norm’, much as it was my norm growing up on North Uist.’
Singing the soundtrack to Disney Pixar’s 2012 film ‘Brave’ brought Julie’s voice to an audience of millions, and sparked an interest in Gaelic and traditional Scottish singing for, almost literally, a whole new world. And while that Disney role was a game-changer in terms of Julie’s career, it hasn’t distracted her from her goal of spreading the tradition of Gaelic song.
‘It’s a bit like good whisky really. You can tell when a song is ‘small batch’ and has been passed down through the generations through personal contact, the same way as you can tell whether a good whisky has been made with a personal touch,’ says Julie.
‘And in the same way as I have learned, shared and created music from my landscapes, Benromach create their whisky from the local spring water and the barley from all over Scotland.’
She tilts and swirls the glass of Benromach in her hands, and smiles when she sees another parallel.
‘What I try to do with my music is to take something that has always been done, and reinterpret it for a modern audience. And I suppose that’s what Benromach do too. I learned to pipe and sing in the old Gaelic way, and am blending and adapting those skills, and working in collaboration with James Taylor, Aled Jones or Nicola Benedetti, to appeal to new audiences across the world. The Benromach distillers use traditional methods that rely on their heritage, skill and senses, and create new expressions of whisky to appeal to different palates and markets.’
Julie is right – and it’s a parallel I hadn’t recognised before. There is a place for all of them – an infinite variety of songs with new interpretations, and an infinite variety of whiskies. And as long as both are created – and enjoyed - with integrity and passion, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t continue to be enjoyed hand in hand.
Follow Julie Fowlis: