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Inverness musician Liza Mulholland's trip to the islands gets her thinking about the art of adapting


By Liza Mulholland

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Liza Mulholland.
Liza Mulholland.

This last week I have been out in the Western Isles, and it has got me pondering a couple of things; firstly, that some things never change and, secondly, when things do have to change, folk have a great capacity to adapt and make the absolute best of it.

I started my trip over in Barra, a beautiful island with wonderful people I have come to love greatly from countless visits since I was a teenager. This time it was to attend the marriage of my friend’s daughter and although Covid restrictions had eased sufficiently to allow a hall full of guests, there could be no dancing.

Now, if anyone knows how to party and have a great ceilidh, it’s Barra folk, and they are terrific dancers, so not being allowed to get the Eightsome Reels and Strip the Willows going could potentially pour much cold water on proceedings.

It’s poignant to think of those young immigrants ... who took their language and culture with them across the Atlantic

However, they also have a great sense of humour and devised the funniest, most inventive quiz instead. Each table comprised a team and everyone threw themselves with gusto into the spirit of the challenges. It was truly hilarious, and the evening was not just superbly sociable but hugely entertaining. My next stop was the Isle of Lewis to research family history on my mother’s side, and in particular the experiences of my grandparents when they emigrated to Canada, and then the USA, in the 1920s.

Ensconced in Stornoway’s archives, reading through the Lewis Society of Detroit Minute Books, I was intrigued to find, in the founding Constitution and by-Laws, the stipulation that there should be a Society piper to ‘enliven meetings’.

Liza discovers a piper was a priority for American immigrants. Here The Red Hot Chilli Pipers' Dougie McCance is shown during Speyfest 2017. Picture: Daniel Forsyth
Liza discovers a piper was a priority for American immigrants. Here The Red Hot Chilli Pipers' Dougie McCance is shown during Speyfest 2017. Picture: Daniel Forsyth

Yes, they clearly knew back then that meetings can indeed go on… and on, but as well as all-too-familiar issues of finding suitable premises, organising functions and delegating tasks, the Lewis folk too loved to dance and one of the first things the committee bought was, you’ve guessed it, an accordion.

Monthly dances and ‘entertainments’ featured throughout their social calendar for decades, to the extent that just a few years after this initial purchase they had to buy another new accordion, this time costing $15. Entries in the accounts book for musicians’ and singers’ fees reflect the fact they hired in artistes from beyond Detroit on occasion, as well as talent from within the Society regularly paying for dancing and singing ‘old songs from home’. It’s extremely poignant to think of those young immigrants, my grandparents included, who took their language and culture with them across the Atlantic, finding fun as well as solace in their beloved music and Gaelic song. Every one of them would have felt sharp, and often severe, homesickness in that distant city, but they too made the best of it by socialising together and sharing in the communal fun of music and dance.

In today’s world of endless online meetings, I can’t help thinking a piper would be a great addition to an agenda.


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