Joy Dunlop - It's Joy to the world

Joy Dunlop is marvelling at the musical riches of her native Argyll. Growing up in Connell, near Oban, the Gaelic singer and television presenter became familiar with the songs that were sung at school and at ceilidhs in the village. It was only when she went on to study in Glasgow and especially at the Gaelic college, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye, however, that she realised that these songs were not part of some universally known repertoire and that they are, in fact, particular to her own area. And as she’s discovered, there are many, many more where they came from.

On her latest album, Faileasan (Reflections), Dunlop celebrates Argyll’s Gaelic heritage on eleven songs drawn locally. Had unlimited funds been available, she could have produced a boxed set as the eleven tracks she chose were whittled down from a “short list” of ninety-five.

“People know about the Highlands and Islands being full of music and song,” she says. “But I often feel that Argyll is a forgotten part of that culture and even the people who live there might take what they have for granted. I know I did that. Then, when I went to study at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, I found myself singing songs that I thought everybody in the Gaelic world knew and discovered that they were unique to Argyll. It made me want to find out how much more hidden treasure there was.”

Dunlop isn’t a native Gaelic speaker. She learned the language through music from an early age when a woman in the village who was originally from Islay invited the children from the local primary school round to her house after school on Mondays and taught them phonetically.

“Our school was tiny – there would have been about twenty-four pupils in all at its full strength - but we always competed in the Mod and the year the Mod came to Oban, I was nine,” she says. “That was the year I made my solo singing debut, although I was always singing. I knew all the choruses to the songs people sang at ceilidhs – I’d just make up my own verses.”

At that stage Gaelic didn’t offer the career choices that were to become available through Gaelic media. There was one obvious local Gaelic success story, Capercaillie, but to Dunlop and her pals, these were people they saw around, doing everyday things. They had no idea how internationally famous they were.

“I got a lot of my Gaelic vocabulary from singing,” says Dunlop. “But I decided if I was going to sing these songs, I had to really know the language. So I took an immersion degree at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and from there doors began to open. Opportunities to present radio and television programmes came in and I started to get invited to sing all over.”

Indeed, Dunlop is something of a one-woman Gaelic industry. She worked as Gaelic development officer in Argyll from 2004-2010 and has done similar work in Canada and New Zealand. She’s written newspaper columns, appeared in the popular BBC comedy PC Alasdair Stiubhaird, sung at festivals on both sides of the Atlantic and keeps busy in her spare time with various Gaelic choirs.

In 2010, she won the Gold Medal at the Mod and released her first album, Dusgadh (Awakening). She wasn’t planning to release a second album so quickly but Faileasan (Reflections) grew out of her passion for researching her native culture and enthused by the quality of the songs she discovered through spending time in the School of Scottish Studies’ archive in Edinburgh and through searching the online song resource Tobar An Dualchais, she decided she should share them.

“It was really a kind of pet project to begin with,” she says. “But then I thought it would be good to record some of these songs with musicians from the area because I know there’s a west coast style of playing but there’s also a particular Argyll style and I wanted to capture that and make the recording as authentic as possible.”

The album was also recorded in Argyll, at An Tobar arts centre’s studio on Mull, and while the standard of musicianship is high, with contributions from Capercaillie’s Donald Shaw and Karen Matheson, Lau fiddler Aidan O’Rourke and Brave soundtrack piper Lorne MacDougall, the atmosphere in the studio was, says Dunlop, very informal.

“It was like an old fashioned ceilidh,” she says. “There were singers from some of the choirs I’m involved in on the sessions who had never been in a recording studio before, and it was great to see them getting really involved in the whole experience. The next stage is to take these songs to Celtic Connections, with a smaller ensemble, and I’m really looking forward to letting the audience hear them because although the subjects they deal with are universal, the locations they’re set in and their origins give them a very distinctive Argyll flavour.”

Faileasan (Reflections) is released on Sradag Music.

From The Herald, January 2, 2013.

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